Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Do I Smell Pho?

Do I Smell Pho? By Ellen Brandell


Food: some people eat too much; others don’t eat enough. Food can be raw, broiled, baked, blackened, buried, boiled, dried, juiced, or pickled. No matter how it is prepared, food is an essential part of every culture. When it comes to food, the Vietnamese have perfected the art of preparation.


Imagine walking into an open restaurant where lanterns are lit, a pond sits near the entrance, and at every table families are enjoying a sit-down meal. EllenCoconutDrink_4546You are led through a maze of tables, up a set of stairs you didn’t know existed and sit down at a long table that accommodates 20. This describes our first group dinner in the country of Vietnam. Ben&ChickenFoot_4842While I sipped on a fresh coconut, the waiter brought us dish upon dish of the house’s finest cuisine (since we trusted his judgment more than our own), and we dove in. All of the dishes are intended to be shared among the diners. The Vietnamese use mealtimes to sit down for hours, catch up, enjoy each other’s company, and yell countdowns for taking shots of rice wine. To my surprise, the dishes aren’t as spicy as I anticipated. The spicy sauces are served as side dishes so everyone can enjoy the food how they desire.

In addition to the delicious plates of rice, fresh fish, noodles with vegetables, savory ”pancakes”, spring rolls, and other restaurant delicacies, street food also plays an important role in Vietnamese culture. FarmerLunchAyLong_4974While exploring the cities of Ho Chi Minh and Can Tho, we discovered that street food options seem limitless. My favorite is called boba, which is a milky tea with tapioca balls, but there is more substantial food as well: waffles, noodles, desserts, sandwiches, and the list goes on. The best part about street food in Vietnam is the killer price – sandwiches sold for 6.000 dong; about 30 cents! Looking for a quick fix of fried or handheld food? Hit the streets.

VegetableVendorsCanThoMarket_957If you prefer to make your own meals, get up in the morning and walk the streets of Can Tho.  FishVendorCanThoMarket_960Our group was in awe of the market vendors’ stands piled high with the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood available. The mangos taste like they were just picked this morning, which they probably were, and the smell of sun-dried shrimp lingers in the air. These markets, however, are not for the faint hearted; be prepared to see a fish’s head sliced off right in front of you!

“So,” you say, “this sounds nice, but where’s the adventure?” Don’t worry! Soup is extremely popular in Vietnam, Brains_4587the most popular being Pho. Pho, pronounced fa, hot pots, and other soups are made with the entire animal because bones and organs give the broth a more robust flavor. So far, our group has discovered, and tasted, chicken feet, liver, unidentifiable organs, and animal fat found in the soups. ChickensMarket_476If your adventure lies with spice, chilies are put on the side and don’t let their size deceive you; they will light your mouth on fire! At our first dinner, an item on the menu was “false dog”, which is perhaps not as exotic as real dog, but still unusual to Americans! Many times, our interpreters order for us, and we pass the food and along a simply try it all. We may have no idea what it is, but it ends up in our tummy and puts a smile on our face; I would say that in itself is an adventure.

FruitBuffet_VictoryHotel_093I hope you understand by now that Vietnam has any cuisine you might be craving, tons of foods that you have never seen before, and an endless list of delicious morsels.  With a long coastline famous for its fishing industry, a background full of different influences, and a tropical climate for agriculture and native crops, it is no wonder that food in Vietnam is so delicious and so diverse.  The moral of this story is to hop on a plane to Vietnam and have an empty stomach when you arrive!

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