There are few things I enjoy more than perching on a plastic, Playskool-size stool on a steaming sidewalk, surrounded by clouds of carbon monoxide. Why do I so enjoy impersonating a contortionist and inhaling carcinogens? Because it means I’m somewhere in Southeast Asia, eating street food.
On my first visit to Vietnam, I flew up to Nha Trang, on the South Central Coast. I found a cheap hotel several blocks off the beach, and set about giving myself a crash course in Vietnamese street food. I was familiar with staples such as pho and banh mi (baguette sandwiches with pork pate and a variety of condiments). Yet I was soon overwhelmed by the array of comestibles being hawked from carts and storefronts, despite frequent thumbing through my Vietnamese food guide.
Compounding the issue was the lack of recognizability of many of the ingredients. No one could ever accuse me of being squeamish, but I like to know what I’m eating, if only for curiosity’s sake. The mysterious, meaty hunks stewing in battered, aluminum stockpots, and hanging behind Plexi-glass shields gave no indication as to their origin. Clearly, I needed someone to help me achieve Vietnamese street food cred.
%Gallery-100653%I had already planned to visit the Evason Ana Mandara & Six Senses Spa later in the week, because they had a well-regarded “street market dinner.” Since 2003, a gaggle of local women–all food vendors known for their version of a specific dish–prepare their respective specialties at one of the property’s three restaurants. It’s a fun way to educate less-adventurous guests about traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The bi-weekly dinners provide steady income for the women and their families, which is critical during inclement weather.
The privately-owned Evason-Soneva luxury property group has a core philosophy of green building design and operations, and emphasizes the hiring of local people in order to support the economy. They also make donations of revenue proceeds to community social projects, including education and health care for children.
Much of the produce and botanicals used in the restaurants and spa treatments are from the sustainable gardens at nearby (stunning) sister property, Six Senses Hideaway at Ninh Van Bay. Ana Mandara also offers market tours and cooking classes as a way to introduce guests to regional Vietnamese cuisine and ingredients.
When I finally checked in to Ana Mandara, I asked if they offered personalized food tours through one of the local guides they contract. And that’s how I found myself on the back of a motorbike at sunset, whizzing through the back streets on my very own tasting tour of Nha Trang.
My 29-year old guide, Nguyen Quoc Nam, was born and raised in Nha Trang. He took me to some of the city’s best spots for eating regional dishes–most of them popular street foods. Our first stop was the poetically-named, sidewalk eatery Phúc, which specializes in banh canh, a fish and rice vermicelli soup. The rickety sidewalk tables were crowded with patrons enthusiastically slurping soup and fried mackerel head–the other specialty of the house.
Like most Vietnamese, Nam is obsessed with food. Throughout our three-hour feeding frenzy, he gave me the history, preparation method, and eating technique for every dish we sampled. We ate banh beo, “leaves” of rice noodles topped with succulent grilled pork, herbs, and chile; sinh to, fresh fruit and yogurt shakes; banh xeo, lacy rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric crepes stuffed with grilled squid, shrimp, quail egg, and bean sprouts, and chao tom, grilled, seasoned, ground shrimp on sugar cane skewers.
At lively Quan 52, the sidewalk tables were wreathed in aromatic smoke from an adjacent grill. We were served a plate of still-sizzling strips of pork, which we used to make nem, a kind of DIY spring roll. We soaked crisp rice paper sheets in water, then layered them with the meat, nuoc nam, julienned cucumber and green banana, pickled shallots, rau hung (spearmint), diếp cá (fish mint), and ngo gai (saw leaf herb). I was utterly hopeless at constructing the tidy little packages made by fellow diners; even Nam seemed amazed by my lack of fine motor skills. Fortunately, my appetite compensates in these situations.
Our final stop was Pho Bo 81. Despite being painfully full, I managed to devour their heavenly pho (traditionally a beef noodle soup from Hanoi, it’s a staple throughout Vietnam and can also be made with chicken). The restorative broth was greaseless and fragrant, redolent of lime, chile, and star anise.
The next morning, Nam took me on a motorbike tour of the villages and rice paddies in the surrounding countryside. Rice is more than just the staple of Vietnamese cuisine, although it is eaten at every meal in some form. Rice is also intricately linked to the country’s culture, folklore, festivals, and social mores. Around noon, Nam pulled the bike up to a roadside shack beside the Cau Lung Bridge. There, we ate plate after plate of banh uot, a Nha Trang specialty of steamed rice noodle sheets, garnished with powdered dried shrimp and scallions.
After lunch, we visited Dien Thuy village, where I helped make rice paper at the home of a woman who supplies the local community. She soaked, then milled the rice by hand, Next, she mixed it with water to make a batter, and poured frisbee-sized circles onto a bamboo and cloth steamer fueled by the rice husks. The disks were then set to dry on woven bamboo ladders.
Next, we visited the Vinh family, who operate a small rice noodle factory out of their home. Outside of the major cities, rice paper and noodles are made in similar factories, often by hand (the Vinh’s had just purchased a machine to cut the noodles). It’s repetitive, exhausting, time-consuming work. My two-day motorbike journey took me into the origins of not just my beloved street food, but the very soul of Vietnamese culture.
Ana Mandara’s culinary motorbike tours are approximately $40.00, and are offered only by personal request. Cooking classes and market tours also available.
Click here to learn how to make banh cuon (steamed rice crepes with ground pork and mushrooms).