Food Tour - Ha Tien, Vietnam

After landing at the Saigon airport, my family and I were pleasantly greeted by our family members. It was interesting because I think I was the first one to spot them frantically waving amidst the crowd of eager Vietnamese people looking for other relatives/friends leaving the terminal. My aunt and uncle had rented a driver (you pay for the whole shebang altogether) to take us to Châu Đốc first which is where my dad grew up. That drive went on through the night but after we had done our thing there (my dad wanted to pay his respects to his mother’s grave first), we drove to Ha Thien where my mom’s side of the family lived.

Ha Thien is interesting as it is a port town. The town thrives on the business of fishermen from what I saw. It’s fairly close to the Cambodian border (we even had plans to go to Cambodia briefly but the red tape for traveling over there as U.S. citizens with single-visit visas was too complicated), and my grandparents’ house was just overlooking a bridge. You could see the fish and meat markets from the doorway and all the floors; the house was 5 stories tall as most houses are built upwards. The city itself isn’t actually famous for any particular dish, just cheap seafood and fruits everywhere. I certainly had my fill of purple mangosteens, rambutans, and the like. I thought it was neat that everything was so organic and fresh; they even had banana bunches straight from the tree to be chopped down when you picked one! The markets were interesting to walk through and look at but “browsing” is not looked upon favorably. 

My mother was quite paranoid that everything we ate would get us sick (though she was the only one who got food poisoning). She didn’t trust street vendors (despite the fact that they always had the best foods) but it was pretty normal to get food from them so our breakfasts were usually delivered by street vendor runners. I thought it was pretty neat that the food would be brought by bicycle by someone from the food cart without the expectation of tip; the food would also come on plates that had to be returned so the person would come back for payment and dirty dishes. One of my favorite foods to have was bánh ướt which we got pretty frequently. The other huge hitter, particularly for my brothers, was cơm tấm. Believe me – it’s been quite a change to revert to having cold and small breakfasts rather than entire hot meal plates (and for only $1 too, on the pricey side!). 

Not related to food but somewhat to nutrition, a lot of the people around walked, biked, or rode motorbikes. Cars weren’t that prevalent unless they were taxis. I think that it’s great that so many walk and bike because it seems healthier. However, it also makes traffic a bit frightening. I biked with my brothers and cousin to the beach (it felt so far!) one of the evenings and biked back; the morning after resulted in a sore behind but a good feeling of being active. It was also fun to learn how to drive one of the motorbikes and while I did drive in traffic sometimes, it wasn’t preferred due to the chaotic way that people drive. Imagine riding in a town without traffic rules...yeah.

Despite the exercise and walking that we did, I’m pretty sure I gained a few pounds because my grandmother reveled in the fact that there were people home to feed (see where my mom and I get it from?). Most of my food was homemade (but from local ingredients of course), which was something to be grateful for considering the unsanitary conditions of most of the establishments. I even got to help make dinner one night when I wrapped what seemed to be a million wontons. 

In terms of interesting food, I think the different kinds of seafood were intriguing. I tried a few that I hadn’t tried before. Though I’m not a huge fan of shellfish, there were certain clams that I enjoyed having. I don’t know what they’re called but in Vietnamese, they were referred to as “one finger clams.” I also ate some Melo Melo sea snail which had a crunchy exterior, weird pattern, and slight spiciness as an after-thought. We also ate this weird shrimp/praying mantis-looking crustacean frequently but I was not too partial to it.

All in all, the best food on the trip was from Ha Thien for several reasons – I had a lot of homemade food, the food was cleaner than other places we visited, the prices were cheaper overall, everything was fresh and authentic (almost humble, really), and service was fair and respectful. I also managed to stock up on a lot of bar and kitchen equipment for cheap so hopefully I can move forward with expanding my knowledge of food and drink!