HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Delta Chronicles Part 2/4 - A Moveable Feast

I mentioned in Part 1 that the food on this trip was some of the best I've ever had, so this post is dedicated to the meals we ate. The parade of deliciousness started on the islands off of My Tho. These are geared towards tourists, but luckily they were pretty empty while we were there, and our guide for the day took us to various places where Vietnamese women foisted sample after sample upon us. One stop was known for its honey, and we had some amazing peanut and honey bars, plus honey tea with bee pollen in it that was simply out of this world. I'm not even a big tea fan, but I could've chugged a whole gallon of the stuff. At another place we had this smorgasboard of fruit, as well as more tea. I don't remember what the orange one is, but moving clockwise from there they are: dragonfruit, which I am now addicted to, pineapple, grapefruit, and bananas. Everything was amazingly fresh; they were probably picked that morning from the trees on the island.

After our feast of fruit we moved on to Ben Tre, which is famous for its coconut candy. We got to see a batch being made, and had more samples. It was pretty good. At the next island we watched a man make rice pop corn, if that makes any sense. He threw a bunch of rice into a steaming hot cauldron, and within seconds the rice was snapping, crackling and popping like Rice Krispies. We sampled a few of those, they needed some salt, and then an old woman gave us what were basically home-made rice krispie treats, as well as more tea! The sweets were wonderful, and I was once again starting to feel like Anthony Bourdain, with complete strangers practically throwing delicious food at me.

Now, we come to the piece de resistance of the trip: steamed elephant-ear fish cooked in coconut sauce. Given that I've lived in New Orleans for most of my life, I've had some pretty incredible fish, but this meal blew me away. From the first bite I knew that this one of the best fish I've ever had. Things got even better when one of the employees began rolling the fish, along with some greens, into razor-thin rice paper to make fresh fish spring rolls. The coconut sauce combined with the chili sauce for dipping the rolls created a divine taste. It was possibly the best meal I've had since I've been in Southeast Asia. Before this weekend I had never even heard of this kind of fish, but I will now order one without hesitation whenever I see it on a menu.

The damage done:

For dinner in My Tho that night we followed the recommendation of the Lonely Planet book and went to a hole-in-the-wall that served hu tieu my tho, a local speciality soup made up of vermicelli, pork, vegetables, and a delicious broth. This meal also started a string of record-breaking cheapness: two big bowls of soup and two drinks cost 46,000 dong - just over $2.

On the way to Vinh Long our moto drivers stopped at a random shack where two women fried up some eggs and served us egg banh mi for breakfast, along with some longans, a local fruit. Unsurprisingly, the eggs were fantastic. Once we got to Vinh Long, the culinary treats just kept coming. For lunch we wandered into a local market, where we bought three ridiculously fresh dragonfruits and two apples for $1. After that we basically ate lunch in someone's house. There was a little sign advertising pho, so we asked the boy sitting out front if they were serving it. He said yes, so we sat down at a worn plastic table on worn plastic chairs and watched as the boy's grandma whipped up two delicious bowls of pho right next to the bedroom. The total cost: 30,000. Unbelievable.

Still amazed at how incredible the food of the Delta had been, we waddled down to dinner at the homestay in Vinh Long where we spent Saturday night, only to find an absolute feast awaiting us. I'm not sure why the picture loaded sideways, but all of this food was just for me and Andee - no one else was even staying at the place. We immediately rejoiced when we recognized another elephant-ear fish in the middle; this time it was fried. Not as good as the steamed one, but still pretty damn delicious. In addition to the huge fish, which was once again rolled into rice paper, we had a noodle and vegetable soup, rice, two giant shrimp, fried spring rolls, and a delicious mystery meat, which is centre-left in the picture.

I took all of that food as a license to stuff myself silly, and I did just that. Then there was the breakfast of another egg banh mi, in addition to more fresh fruit, coffee and still more tea. After three days of outrageously flavorful eating we were fully satiated. It was time to go back to Saigon, which can certainly hold its own when it comes to food, but I will never forget all of the amazing, and amazingly cheap, food I had in the Delta. I can't wait to go back for more.

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