Eating Viet NamDispatches from a Blue Plastic Table

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A feast for the senses, funny, charming, and always delicious, Eating Viet Nam will inspire armchair travelers, curious palates, and everyone itching for a taste of adventure.A journalist and blogger takes us on a colorful and spicy gastronomic tour through Viet Nam in this entertaining, offbeat travel memoir, with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain.

Growing up in a small town in northern England, Graham Holliday wasn’t keen on travel. But in his early twenties, a picture of Hanoi sparked a curiosity that propelled him halfway across the globe. Graham didn’t want to be a tourist in an alien land, though; he was determined to live it. An ordinary guy who liked trying interesting food, he moved to the capital city and embarked on a quest to find real Vietnamese food. In Eating Viet Nam, he chronicles his odyssey in this strange, enticing land infused with sublime smells and tastes.

Traveling through the back alleys and across the boulevards of Hanoi—where home cooks set up grills and stripped-down stands serving sumptuous fare on blue plastic furniture—he risked dysentery, giardia, and diarrhea to discover a culinary treasure-load that was truly foreign and unique. Holliday shares every bite of the extraordinary fresh dishes, pungent and bursting with flavor, which he came to love in Hanoi, Saigon, and the countryside. Here, too, are the remarkable people who became a part of his new life, including his wife, Sophie.

Graham Holliday grew up in Rugby, England, and moved to Iksan, South Korea, in 1996 to teach English. He relocated to Việt Nam the following year. He started work as a journalist in Sài Gòn in 2001. He is the author of the blog noodlepie, about street food in Sài Gòn. He has written for the Guardian (UK), the New York Times Magazine, the South China Morning Post, Time, BBC, CNN, and many other media outlets. He went on to become a foreign correspondent for Reuters news agency in Rwanda, and now works as a journalism trainer for the BBC and other organizations. He is currently based in Dakar, Senegal, and is writing a novel.

Eating Việt Nam tell the story of Graham Holliday’s quest to discover the tastes and flavors of  Vietnam. Not content to do this in for the confines of a well appointed restaurants the author ventures out on to the streets to experience the countries unique street food first hand. Graham Holliday recently answered a few of our questions about his adventures.

It seems your introduction to street food in Vietnam did not go too well?

That was in 1997. I wasn’t expecting pig’s uterus and intestines to be my entry point into Vietnamese food. At first, the street food in Hanoi seemed pretty intimidating, rough and certainly not ‘westerner friendly’. In all fairness to Vietnam, I arrived fairly blind. I didn’t know a lot about the food, or the culture, but I was keen to explore. I was fairly disappointed upon my arrival, it’s true. But, that was more down to my innocence and ignorance of what Vietnam had to offer. It took time to learn.

What was your ‘epiphany’ with Vietnamese food?

It didn’t take too long for me to realise that with so many people eating on the street, and despite appearances, that the food on the streets can’t be bad for you. Bun Cha, which is a pork barbeque, fresh noodles, fish sauce and fresh herbs dish, is sold all over Hanoi at lunchtime. It was the first thing I ate in the country that blew me away. It’s still one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. And, it’s the first thing I went to eat as soon as I arrived back in Vietnam in 2013 to complete my research for the book.

Why does a country like Vietnam have such a unique and vibrant street food scene?

South-East Asia as a whole has a very vibrant street food scene. Vietnam’s is very regional. Some dishes are more difficult to find in the north than in the south and vice versa. Also, the approach to the food and the ingredients used are quite different between north and south. However, what makes it so vibrant is that street food, and small front of house restaurants, are everywhere in Vietnam. You’re never more than a couple of steps away from a good, tasty, cheap, interesting meal.

What do you say to someone hesitant about indulging in this food because of health concerns?

I lived in Vietnam for almost ten years. I ate street food almost every day. I only ever got very sick once. And that was at a fancy French restaurant. I was off work for quite a while after that. There are risks everywhere you eat, but street food in Vietnam is fresh. It has to be, otherwise no-one would eat it. The Vietnamese, both cooks and customers, have too much respect for food to do otherwise. The Vietnamese also have something few westerners really have which is taste. True taste. They wouldn’t eat on the street if there was no taste.

Any advice for the hungry first timer newly arrived in Vietnam?

Do some research before you go so that you at least know what some of the different dishes are. I tend to avoid guidebooks and the like. And I wouldn’t recommend using my own book as a guide. My book, if anything, is about going out and exploring and experimenting, so that’s what I’d recommend. Go for a walk, food’s everywhere, see what you stumble into, pull up a pew and try what’s on offer. Also, take recommendations from hotel staff and the like with a pinch of salt. They normally recommend what they think you will like, not where they themselves would ever dream of going.

Any changes or updates to your ‘Ten Commandments of Street Food’?

Nope.

You have expressed concerns that street food is in danger of declining is that still the case?

It is decling in the centres of Saigon and Hanoi. That’s a fact. In July 2008, street vendors and sidewalk traders were banned from operating in sixty-two streets in Hanoi and forty-eight public areas. Saigon began requiring a license to operate on the sidewalk, and banned street food traders from fifteen downtown streets in 2009. There’s a very definite push from higher up to clear the streets. Vietnam wants to look like what it thinks a developed country should look like. It’s unclear how street food can fit into that vision.

What’s next?/Do you have a new project in the works?

I am in South Korea at the moment researching my next book which is more of a traditional travelogue, but focused very much on Korean regional food. Korean food is becoming increasingly popular in the west, but few people know that food in Korea is very regional. Even Koreans in Korea don’t always know where different dishes come from and why. I lived in Korea before I lived in Vietnam and I’ve always loved the food. The book will be a taste fo Korea from all the different regions with plenty of other stories throw in. I am also writing a novel which I hope to finish this year.