Friday, 30 September 2011

Being a vegetarian in Vietnam

A version of this post was first published in Dan Tri International.

The first time I ate meat after having been vegetarian for over ten years was at the Vietnamese Embassy in Canberra when we volunteers were taken there for a visit before being sent to Hanoi.

We had just eaten an enormous lunch, and the afternoon embassy visit was supposed to be a courtesy call, where we’d shake hands with the Ambassador and maybe drink some tea. Instead we were led to a large dining table in a room dominated by a display of the embassy’s ping pong trophies, where a many, many course meal was immediately laid on us by His Excellency’s private chef.

As I chowed down on those pork spring rolls and beef pho, I remember thinking to myself “Hmm, I wonder if this might be a taste of my Vietnam experience to come”.


It was.
Not suitable for vegetarians.

While it might be easy to be vegetarian at a Vietnamese restaurant in Australia, it is not easy being vegetarian in Vietnam. Most guidebooks to Vietnam make reference to the country’s “great tradition of vegetarianism”, and well may that be the case, but if you’re a vegetarian, and you’re coming to Vietnam, you will experience the great tradition of eating omelette and morning glory for dinner.

I have met one Vietnamese vegetarian. She was dining at the table next to us at a vegetarian restaurant. You might assume that most diners at a vegetarian restaurant would be vegetarians, but you know what they say about assumptions (that’s right, that assumptions actually contain pork). The “great tradition of vegetarianism” for most people in Vietnam is to abstain from real meat in favour of glutinous fake meat on only two days of each lunar month. They’re part-time vegetarians.

These are some of the appetizing take-home items you can pick up from a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant.

Vietnamese people are firm believers in the strength-giving qualities of meat. Having spent most of my life answering the question “Why are you vegetarian?” I was surprised to find that it’s not the first question on the meat-chomping lips of the Vietnamese. Instead, since arriving here, the question has been “Aren’t you hungry?” Then there is a one-beat pause as they size me up. And then the inevitable follow-up question: “But how can you be vegetarian and be so fat?”

Even the beer is fake at the Buddhist-run restaurants. A can of 0.0% Bavaria goes nicely with your vegan gizzards.

In Vietnam, meat is the source of most of the population’s nutritional needs. So, the thinking goes, if you take out the meat then… what?  A friend told us the story of a six-foot-something, strapping, English, vegetarian man who was repeatedly told by his Vietnamese colleagues that it was dangerous for him to ride his motorbike. Not because he was liable to get run over by a bus, no. But because, being vegetarian, he would be so enfeebled and malnourished that he could topple right over at any time. They probably kept a wide berth from him in the office too, just in case he keeled over and trapped them against the photocopier.

Even though the sign says some of these steamed buns are "vegetarian", what they mean to say is they're filled with nothing. That's right. Vegetarian steamed buns are just buns. Don't fall for it.

When we went to visit a friend’s family over the Tet holiday, she pre-warned her relatives that this crazy Tay would prefer not to eat meat. Very kindly, they prepared an omelette for me. And then her Aunt added pork to it.

“But the crazy Tay is eating the omelette because she doesn’t want to eat the meat”, our friend explained.
“I know”, her Aunt said. “But without the pork she will be too hungry!”

Almost every Friday lunch time, I meet friends for this vegetarian bun cha. It's been a tradition for two years now. None of us has starved to death during that time, that I know of.

And so we’re back to where we began: the omelette. The omelette is to the vegetarian in Vietnam what the mushroom risotto is to the vegetarian in Australia. When Nathan and I did a four-day Mekong Delta cycling trip with all food included, Nathan ate all kinds of pork and fish-shaped things in the meal breaks between the long rides. I ate omelette. At every single meal. For four days.

On that trip, this is how they served the rice at one place, so they were forgiven.

The omelettes would have been made with fish sauce anyway. Everything is. A friend of ours who visited a coffee-roasting business reported that they even add fish sauce to the coffee beans. So if you don’t want to eat fish sauce, then you’ll have to eat only at the aforementioned Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurants (where they have fake, vegetarian fish sauce), or at Western restaurants.

For those vegetarians like me who have found their rock-solid ethics have crumbled in the face of fish sauceversity, and who’d like to know what Vietnamese street food in Hanoi is kind of the most vegetarian friendly, I've tried to come up with some suggestions based on my own experience. This is pretty much the most useful thing I think I've ever done - and probably ever will do - with this blog, so it merits being in its very own separate post:

Vegetarian-friendly street food in Hanoi

The reason this post is not called "Vegetarian street food in Hanoi", is because such a thing pretty much doesn't exist. And I know it's not very "friendly" to eat the fishies fermenting in your fish sauce, but you're hard pressed to get any fish sauce-free Vietnamese food, and it's damn near impossible if you want to try street food in particular.

So these suggestions come from my "best efforts" approach to being vegetarian in Hanoi, and will hopefully prove useful to any fellow vegetarians who don't want to be permanently relegated to the city's (still excellent) vegetarian Buddhist restaurants.

Handy hint: Much more successful than trying to say you’re “ăn chay” (vegetarian) is the phrase “không thịt” which means “no meat”. If you can’t pronounce it, then write it on a piece of paper and flash it around with wild abandon.

Another important piece of veggie vocab is “xì dầu” which is “soy sauce”, which you can ask for as an alternative to the ubiquitous fish dipping sauce. Many places don’t have it though, so if you’re super dedicated you could always carry in your bag a few of those little plastic soy sauce fish you get with sushi. You can try asking for no fish sauce (“không nước mắm”) in the cooking, but good luck with the results!

Phở không thịt: Pho noodle soup with no meat

Without the meat, Hanoian pho is just a bowl of broth with noodles, and the broth is – of course – made almost entirely from chicken or beef stock. But if your ethics aren't as strong as your desire to eat phở in Hanoi, then ordering "phở không thịt" at any phở stand won’t raise any eyebrows. At some places you can get an egg (“trứng”) thrown in too.
Where: Practically everywhere at breakfast time. 49 Bat Dan has a well-earned reputation.

Phở xào không thịt: Fried pho noodles with no meat

At any place which has an enormous blackened wok out the front you can get phở noodles stir-fried with morning glory and sometimes a few tomatoes (and margarine and cheap oil and MSG and sugar). Just ask for "phở xào không thịt".
Where: Look for a flaming wok, or try Nui Truc street, near Giang Vo.

Phở cuốn trứng: Noodle rolls with egg

"Phở cuốn" are rolls made from sheets of phở noodles. They usually contain beef, but you can also get them with fried egg, and some lettuce and herbs inside. At the phở cuốn joints you can also get “phở chiên phồng không thịt”, which is deep fried pillows of phở noodle squares, served with fried greens. And also, as featured in this photo, fried corn ("ngô chiên"), which counts towards your daily vegetable quota, right?
Where: Anywhere on Ngu Xa street, or around the corner at 7 Mac Dinh Chi.

Bánh mỳ trứng: Fried egg sandwich

It’s kind of strange living in Vietnam and fantasising about the Vietnamese salad rolls I used to get from the bakery next to Newtown station, but I do. You can’t get those here, but you can get "bánh mỳ trứng", which is egg fried with MSG and served in a roll with cucumber and spring onion and drizzled with fish sauce or soy sauce. It’s amazingly delicious.
Where: Any stall with bread rolls on display and a little frying pan on a charcoal burner. There’s usually a lady at lunchtime standing on the corner of Ly Quoc Su and Ngo Huyen streets.

Bún bò Nam Bộ không thịt: Noodle salad in broth with no meat

A southern dish usually served with beef, without the meat it’s still a tasty and satisfying lunch of rice vermicelli noodles, herbs and broth topped with bean sprouts and peanuts. Pretty sure the broth is made with some kind of meat stock or fish sauce though.
Where: 67 Hang Dieu street or 49 Xuan Dieu street

Bún đậu: Tofu with herbs and noodles

Fried tofu cubes served with squares of cold rice vermicelli noodles and herbs. It’s usually sold with fermented shrimp paste as a dipping sauce, so if you don’t want this you can ask for “nước mắm” (fish sauce), or “xì dầu” (soy sauce) if they have it, or you can forego dipping sauces all together (which would be a bit crap, since it's a dish designed around dipping).
Where: Anywhere you see someone deep-frying tofu cubes. There’s a regular lunchtime stall near the Chau Long market, on Nguyen Truong To on the corner with Tran Vu.

Nộm đu đủ không thịt: Papaya salad with no meat

Image from Bếp Rùa 
This is papaya salad, drenched in a sweet, spicy fish sauce and served with crushed peanuts. It usually comes with dried pork on top, so you need to specify “không thịt”.
Where: Hoan Kiem Street, often unmarked on maps, which runs between Cau Go and Dinh Tien Hoang, near the Water Puppets.

Quẩy: Fried bread sticks
Image from VCTV

These are nothing more than deep fried sticks of dough, served with a sweet fish dipping sauce. A delicious and unhealthy snack. You can also order quẩy when you get phở for dipping in the broth.
Where: In the evenings on Hang Bong street, near corner of Phu Doan

Bánh chuối, bánh khoai and bánh ngô: Fritters

Image from Saigon Toserco

Deep fried banana (chuối), sweet potato (khoai) or corn (ngô) fritters that are sold more commonly in winter, it seems. These sound more delicious than they are, in my opinion, tasting mostly like deep-friedness and not much else.
Where: Pho Yen Phu, near the turn off for the Intercontinental Hotel

Xôi: Sticky rice

Xôi is served with a few different meaty type things, but you can also get it just with peanuts, mung bean paste or egg. You can even get it with ice-cream ("kem xôi"). It seems too good to be true that this could be a truly vegetarian dish, so I suspect the rice is probably made with lard.
Where: Xôi Yến at 35B Nguyen Huu Huan, where you can conveniently point to the toppings you want

Cơm Bình Dân: Vietnam’s smorgasbord
Image from Cappu's

Cơm Bình Dân stalls are cheap workers’ lunchtime spots with a glass display cases of several types of food (usually gone cold after sitting there for a while) served with rice. You’ll always be guaranteed a vegetable side dish of some description at these places, and cabbage pickles, and sometimes a tofu or egg dish. Just check the tofu isn’t hiding little parcels of pork. Sneaky buggers.
Where: All over the joint at lunchtime. The food is always displayed out the front, like in a food court display.

Kem caramen: Crème caramel

Thankfully vegetarians can go gangbusters at dessert-time and eat all the same sweet street food as everyone else. To celebrate, you should eat as many street-side crème caramels as possible.
Where: 29 Hang Than street

Sưã chua nếp cẩm: Fermented sticky rice

Available from the same place as the crème caramel, "sưã chua nếp cẩm" is fermented black sticky rice served in a cup with yoghurt. Tastes kind of like someone spilled a glass of red wine in your rice pudding. Delicious.
Where: 29 Hang Than street

Hoa quả dầm: Fruit cup
Image from Người Hà Nội

A summer time favourite, this is simply diced fruit served with condensed milk and crushed ice in a glass.
Where: All along To Tich street

Chè: Sweet bean drink

Pick ‘n’ mix desserts of sweet beans and strange gelatinous things and coconut milk. I would eat this every day if it wasn’t guaranteed to cause diabetes. In winter, you should also try “bánh trôi tàu nong”, which is black sesame-filled dumplings in a hot ginger broth and “chè chuối nướng” which is grilled banana with tapioca in hot coconut milk.
Where: 72-76 Hang Dieu street

Friday, 23 September 2011

On being a dog-lover in Vietnam

Before I came to Vietnam, I thought that when people said the Vietnamese eat dogs, it was an awful racial slur. It sounded to me like a schoolyard taunt - “They eat dogs, you know” – and a horrible thing to say about anyone. The very worst, actually.

It came as quite a shock then when I realised it was true. I went though a period of denial where I decided that surely – surely – even if you could eat dog here, most people wouldn’t want to, right?

But this delusion was hard to maintain when my colleagues went out for much-enjoyed dog-meat lunches every month.

I then decided that the dogs raised for dog meat must be some very different kind of dog to what I’m used to. Totally unlike any dog I’ve known or loved, right?

They’re not. They’re exactly like the dogs I’ve known and loved. And saying they’re wholesomely “raised” hides the absolute, unspeakable horror of the dog meat trade (that many pet dogs get dog-napped off the street was another thing which I lamely tried to believe was an urban myth for quite some time).

And dog meat doesn’t look like a steak, or a lamb chop. It looks likes a dog. I can quite honestly say it’s the most gruesome thing I have ever seen. When I am taking guests around Hanoi, I always warn them if there’s dog meat up ahead, and give them the option of covering their eyes. Because I sure wish I had never seen it, and didn’t have to see it, over and over again.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to eat dogs, or that it’s hypocritical to eat other animals and not dogs, or that the Vietnamese shouldn’t eat dogs etc. These are all conversations that any foreigner who has lived in Vietnam longer than three weeks gets pretty sick of having. What I’m saying is: I really, really love dogs.

Nothing makes my heart sing like the sight of a big ol’ fluffy dog. Nothing! If you said to me “Puppies or babies?” I’d say “PUPPIEEEEEEES!!” without a moment’s hesitation. 

Other than family dogs, I’ve never actually owned a dog of my own. This is because I love dogs too much. I know that if I got one, it would ruin my life. I wouldn’t be able to leave the house. I would live out my days and nights staring adoringly into its eyes and letting it eat all my socks.

So dog-watching has long been one of my favourite pastimes. This hobby hasn’t been hugely rewarding in Hanoi. There are a lot of dogs in cages, a lot of chained dogs, a lot of dirty dogs (well, it’s hard not to be in Hanoi) and most dogs either look like this:
Or like this:
These aren’t my favourite kinds of dogs, but there have been some winning moments:
 Every time I look at these photos, I yawn.

There’s also an increasing trend for imported dog breeds as a kind of luxury status symbol:
Some of the dogs here are pets, some are guard dogs, some are to be eaten, and some are all three. For example, I watched the neighbours over the road lovingly rear a puppy and then one day when it was fully grown, sell it to a man on a motorbike with a cage crammed full of his furry friends (presumably all about to be killed for meat). That wasn’t a particularly happy day for me.

From my dog watching, it seemed to me that the general attitude towards dogs here was one of indifference. And the dogs seemed to know their place too. They never ask for pats or beg for food or scavenge off street-side tables. Good luck trying to have a picnic in the park in Newtown in the face of sandwich-stealing spaniels, but here in Hanoi, where meat is barbecued right at dog eye-level, no dog would even dare to sniff it.

The only sign I could see of affection towards dogs, and indeed the only sign I could see that Vietnamese people think of dogs as having feelings at all, was in the winter-time, when dogs start appearing in jumpers. Human jumpers:
And then came Tiger:
Tiger is our friend Alnea’s shih-tzu. In her seven years she’s lived in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and now Hanoi. She likes cats (from a distance) and eating carrots. Also, as I mentioned in last week’s post, mooncakes.

When I first met Alnea, the conversation went like this: 

Alnea: “Hi, nice to meet you.”

See, I love dogs too much.

I terrified Alnea so much that she went on a holiday almost immediately, leaving Tiger in my clutches.

I did check with our landlord first, actually. His name is – I kid you not – Mr Chien. If you have forgotten your highschool French, I will remind you at this point that “Mr Chien” is French for “Mr Dog”.

Mr Chien is a cheery fellow with a big hairy, lucky mole so he said Tiger’s tenancy was fine so long as she was, in his words, “a little fluff dog”.

I can’t describe how it felt to have that little fluff dog running up and down our hall, cuddling up to us on the couch, and bounding up our stairs after her walk. 
For ten days my heart was a little melted puddle.

No surprises there. But here’s the real surprise: the neighbourhood freaking adored her.

As we walked Tiger around our island, old men would rush from their houses, their faces expressing nothing short of rapture as they crouched down to see her in all her cross-eyed under-bitten glory; mothers would bring their children over and force them to stroke her coat; teenage boys would coo over her, and take her photo with their phones.
Everywhere we went we heard cries of beautiful! pretty! cute! clean! and, if we were carrying her, baby! The smiles were infectious: walking her was like one big love fest.

When I took her to the market (holding her in my arms so she didn’t dirty her little paws on the offal juice), the crowd went wild. The hardened, sour faces of the butcher ladies transformed into delight at the mere sight of her. Chi Xuan, our favourite market lady, went what can only be described as ape-shit, as she rubbed her face all over Tiger’s fur, and then suggested I sit Tiger down right on top of all her fruit and vegetables for a better view.

On the way out of the market, I decided to walk past the dog meat section, which I usually carefully avoid. And, yes, the dog meat sellers went gaga for Tiger too, just like everyone else.

What does this mean? I don’t know! Is Vietnam gearing up to be a dog-loving nation, but only towards little fluff dogs? Are Tiger’s charms just simply irresistible?

I recently read in AsiaLIFE magazine an interview with a Vietnamese vet, Dr Nguyen Van Nghia, who had this to say about the Vietnamese attitude to animals:

"When I went to France and England or read books from America, I saw how to love animals. I would see people feed the birds in nature. If an owlet fell from a tree, they – just normal people – would take it to a hospital. I don’t see that here. Even if people love animals they don’t know how to love animals."

First of all: owlet is my new favourite word. Second of all: I think you're right Dr Nghia. People can see that Tiger is obviously such an adored dog that they can't help but adore her too. If an animal (for example, an OWLET!) is shown love, it generates love. I think that most dogs in Vietnam just don't get that chance.

Tiger has been cruelly taken from us now, leaving an adorable little Tiger-shaped hole in our lives. We try to find ways to fill that hole:
But then one night we just really felt like pumpkin soup.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Mid Autumn Festival madness

The Mid Autumn Festival in Vietnam is rad. It's like a combination of Christmas, Halloween and the Royal Easter Show. And the legend behind it involves a woman accidentally weeing on a sacred banyan tree. What more could you want?

The festival is entirely for children, with the story going that traditionally during the autumn harvest, children would get neglected. The Mid Autumn Festival is when the adults make it up to them. It's basically kids milking one massive guilt trip. And as any child of divorced parents can tell you, that's the best fun a kid can have.

There are various components to the festival, the first being that mooncake shops start popping up everywhere. This, for example, is a photo processing lab that has decided to temporarily branch into the mooncake game:

Outside the most popular moon cake shops there is absolute traffic pandemonium. Imagine the David Jones Food Hall on Christmas Eve - if it was filled with motorbikes. Nathan and I cycled past one place on Thuỵ Khuê where the police had actually been sent in with blaring sirens to try to clear the road of jonesing mooncake customers. It wasn't working.

The weird thing is that nobody seems to really like mooncakes all that much. As our Vietnamese friend explained, they're not for eating - just for giving.

As per this dictum, our landlord gave us some, and we didn't eat them:
We cut a small piece to try, and didn't need to cut any more. Nathan actually spat his piece out in the sink.  I then went to great pains to conceal the rest of the uneaten mooncake in our bin, so the landlord couldn't happen upon it somehow. 

At the time we were dog-sitting this dog, Tiger:
Who you'll hear more about next week, I promise. While we out that evening, Tiger went through the bin, found the mooncake and ate the entire thing. That's 1000 calories for one small dog.

On the subject of dogs, one of the most awesome aspects of the festival is the pomelo dog:
Turning fruit into animal shapes is part of doin' it for the kids: the food is all supposed to be what kids like the most. Bugger the kids, the pomelo dog is amazing in anyone's books. It's an inside-out grapefruit! And a dog!

The Mid Autumn Festival also involves a lot of dressing up. Princesses and fairies and monkeys start turning up all over the neighbourhood:
There are also traditional papier mache-masked characters, usually played by the adults at the festival parties:
Nathan played the character of Chí Phèo, who is a drunkard and "lovable buffoon", at the WWF office party last year:
It wasn't hard for him to get into character. In fact, he was such an energetic lovable buffoon that his voluminous quantities of sweat actually transformed the inside of that papier mache mask back into glue and wet newspaper.

We were invited back regardless, and at this year's WWF Mid Autumn Festival party, Nathan sweated even more voluminously, as a saola:
The saola is a critically endangered antelope that is so rare that it's known as the "Vietnamese unicorn". Our friend Nicholas, a specialist in endemic Annamite ungulates (aka unicorns), has been in Vietnam for five years studying the saola. He's never seen one. In fact, no scientist has ever seen one in the wild.

Luckily Nicholas was at the party:

I haven't seen Nathan since then. I think he's been flattened between the pages of Nicholas' PhD thesis. 

As well as the costumes, there's a whole load of other paraphernalia. Hàng Mã, the street in the Old Quarter which specialises in festive decorations (you might remember it from the post about Tet) goes mental as adults fight over lions and drums and lanterns and pentagrams. Imagine the showbag hall at the Royal Easter Show - if it was filled with motorbikes:
And no kids' festival would be complete without a whole load of crap plastic toys. Battery-operated plastic lanterns are particularly favoured, but anything that lights up and beeps annoyingly will do:
The wiser parent will take the quieter option of a toy kitchen set:

I know it makes perfect sense, but I was super excited that these toys specifically reflect the Vietnamese kitchen, complete with miniature quay, banh bao, steamers, thermoses, tiffin tins, charcoal burners, and those plastic covers to keep flies off the food. I was disappointed, though, to see the plastic stools hadn't been further miniaturised. I guess that's not really possible.

On the actual night of the Mid Autumn Festival, boisterous brouhaha lions parade the street and all the children come out to watch. Sadly none of the lions vomited up a diamond ring this time. 

The lion dancers on our street are actually the local xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers who usually stand on the corner and shout "Moto! Moto!" as I pass by, even if I'm on a bicycle at the time. I really like this amateur, community involvement. It's like when the school principal plays Santa, and it's simultaneously so much crapper, and so much better than a professional Santa. 

You can see in this photo that the xe om driver/drummer has actually kept his helmet on, just in case a fare comes along mid-performance:
Last year one of the xe om drivers melted his nylon pants with a bit of poorly aimed fire twirling, but there were no such disasters this year:
Just a bunch of kids out late at night in their pjyamas, wielding plastic, flashing toys, and enjoying the one time of the year when everything really does revolve around them.