Vietnamese food draws from its French colonial past — so you’ll find pâtés and baguettes (though softer on the inside while still retaining that crusty exterior that is characteristic of a traditional baguette) in plenty. Certain features, however, are indigenous to Vietnamese cuisine — an abundance of fresh herbs, vegetable-heavy meals, while still retaining a soft spot for various types of meats. The natural disposition of eating local, fresh produce is probably what makes Vietnamese food so appealing to a global audience.
Phú Quốc is a Vietnamese island, just off the coast of Cambodia. It is home to white sand beaches, pristine mountains, dense tropical forests, and a wealth of wildlife. Fishing villages and local markets sell indigenous crafts, fresh produce and plenty of fish. Shawn D'Souza sketches as he eats.
At its simplest, cà phê đá is made using medium-to-coarse grounds of dark roast Vietnamese coffee, and a small metal drip filter (phin cà phê). Hot water is passed through the drip filter and black coffee collects in the mug below. The hot coffee is then quickly transferred into a glass packed with ice to make a traditional Vietnamese iced coffee. The most popular way to drink Vietnamese coffee is cà phê sữa đá, that is, Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk: two or three spoons of condensed milk are poured into the coffee mug prior to the drip filter process. Two mugs of these and your head will spin; don't be surprised if you start hallucinating. I nearly did, half way through my third.
I went out in search of An toi's famous noodle-soup cart, and found myself here instead. I was so hungry I gave up on finding the cart and sat down to look through the menu — understanding nothing at all. It was written in Vietnamese with a few vague and confusing translations. Several failed attempts later, a kid came to my rescue, suggesting a dish. Xao Sa Ot or stir-fried goat with lemongrass and chilli pepper, brilliant on flavour, with lots of spring onion, lentils and red chilli. After eating a full plate, I get up to leave, and less than 50 metres away, I spot the noodle cart I'd been looking for. I couldn't not eat. It was delicious, and cost me less than 60 Indian rupees.
Ham Ninh Village is a fishing village on Phú Quốc Island with delicious, fresh seafood. In one corner of the village, a walkway stretches out into the sea, with restaurants on stilts flanking either side. The catch of the day is displayed in low-hanging nets around the restaurant; you pick your choice of seafood, and they pull it out right there and cook it for you. I sampled the sea urchin, squid, and flower crab. The charred sea urchin looks harmless on the outside, but inside, it is a strange combination of slimy and delicious.
(They normally only serve larger groups, but they will accommodate smaller portions on request.)
The herring salad takes a bit of work: a plate of fish with sweet, fried onions, peanuts, and fresh herbs, is served with a side of lettuce, mint leaves, peanut sauce, and white, circular paper-thin sheets. Puzzled, I picked up my chopsticks, prepared to dig into it like a salad, until a sweet waiter stopped to show me how to eat it (to a background chorus of giggling). It turns out, the herring salad is meant to be eaten as a roll: Place the white sheet on your plate, moisten with water, and pile in the greens, and roll. I still felt a bit snacky, so I had some fish with rice and vegetable soup, in addition to the rolls.
Close to the Mariott hotel, we stepped out to sample the street fare: fresh seafood, clams, fried chicken feet (it can look a bit off-putting, but I turned it over and ate it backward, and it was unexpectedly delicious). I washed this down with plenty of Saigon beer. Don't be surprised if the beer is warm, and served with a large chunk of ice — it’s how the locals prefer it.
Shawn D'souza is a textile designer who moonlights as an illustrator. He draws as a way to understand his surroundings better. As he sees, he paints. You can find more of his work here.
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