First Fish

Since a focus of my trip is, after all, fish, I thought it was worth backtracking to describe my first fish encounter—not at swim, but on a plate. Which is pretty fitting, since mealtime is how I imagine most people associate with fish. Eating is the last link in the chain that truly connects fish, people, and the ocean or rivers.  For better or worse.

On my second day in Saigon, my cousin took me to get some Vietnamese comfort food. Rice, sautéed greens, pickled onions, pork and egg cooked in a clay pot—and salty cooked fish. It was all delicious, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of fish I was eating, and where and how it was caught. The little guys had more identifying characteristics than your typical fish fillet, but the salient features I remember were the crunchy skin and the sharp tiny bones. Hopefully my fish ID will improve when I hit the field…more observing, less eating.

A first for me was drinking starfruit juice. It’s so sour, you get a little jar of sugar water to mix in to taste. Quite puckerlicious. And I enjoy the concept of drinking through a reed!

I’ve had a few other gastronomic encounters with fish since then, including at my family’s house. My mom’s cousin put it exactly as I have imagined: “Vietnam has such a long coastline that the people here are used to eating many different types of fish.”

Fish in the river, fish in the sea.  And so much for me to learn.

The “before” shot—straight from the market.

And “after”—cooked with herbs.

Claypot fish—one of my favorite dishes, but this one was only so-so. My grandma’s is better!

A pomfret, or butterfly fish–known as “ca chim” or “bird fish” in Vietnamese for its long pectoral fins (missing here). A special dinner with researchers from Can Tho University. Photo by BảoQuân Nguyễn.

Hot Pot Alley

If you google “Can Tho,” the city I’m currently visiting, you will find a Wiki Travel page that tells you about “Hot Pot Alley.” Despite the catchy name that smacks of a tourist trap, this place is apparently a well-kept secret.  It really is an alley lined with a half dozen places that all specialize in hot pot dishes.  The entrance is actually right across the street from our hotel, but you’d never know it – the sign just says “Alley 142.”

My cousin and I have visited twice now, sampling two different versions of the local specialty: hot pot with duck.  The staff plunks down your own personal burner and a pot of broth full of hunks of duck, mushrooms, sweet potato, and uh, duck blood (I passed on the latter). Wait for the water to boil and add heaps of tofu, noodles and greens to your liking.

The heat of the weather did make me question the sanity of sitting with my face close to a boiling pot of water and an open flame. But it’s sort of a cleansing sweat, like going to a sauna.

Maybe it’s the off-season, but these back alley restaurants have a decidedly hole-in-the-wall feel, full of locals with not another tourist in sight. I’m not really helping to keep it a secret since I’ve been telling every other tourist I meet about it.  I guess it feels good to think you’ve got the inside scoop on something and fun to share it with others.

I’ve learned that “dô” (pronounced “yo”) is slang for “cheers.”  Definitely a must-learn vocab word for travel to any country!

Dô! Photo by BảoQuân Nguyễn.