Vietnam In Food

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My trip to Vietnam has long been over, but I’ve clearly been behind on my blogs about the trip. A lot’s happened in the meantime: I managed to finish and file my dissertation and I am now officially a PhD (the process was grueling, and I’ll try to write a post that specifically addresses that horrendous process); I’ve relocated to LA for a postdoc at UCLA; and I’m now on the job market once again.

That said, this will be my conclusion to the Vietnam posts, which has been a long time coming. I’ve had this post among my “drafts” for months now, and am forcing myself to finally finish and publish it. In particular, this is a reflection on one of my favorite parts about the trip (or any trip, really): FOOD!

I confess that one of my main motivations to travel anywhere is the enticement of the local fare. It will probably be unsurprising to many of you then that food, specifically street food, has an enormous presence in the final chapter of my dissertation. That chapter, “Visit: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City,” looks at the bodily experiences of temporariness in this Southeast Asian metropolis. Here, the risk and pleasure of eating street food is examined, and the media and voices that imagine the women who make and sell that food.

Excerpted from my dissertation:

One of the major selling points of Vietnam travel is undoubtedly its food. In cultural representations of Saigon/HCMC, the city’s street food has  grown to almost legendary proportions, extolled by authors, journalists, guidebook writers, independent travelers, and foodies alike. All of these platforms speak to the power of the female entrepreneurs that are the driving force behind Saigon/HCMC’s culinary culture. One site goes so far as to boast, “Vietnamese food is the best in the world. And the best Vietnamese food is available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.” These introductory lines of the “About” page of the Saigon Street Eats tour, run by Aussie-Vietnamese couple Barbara and Vu, reflects the growing reputation of Vietnamese cuisine internationally, and of Saigon/HCMC street food in particular. And yet others, like food blogger and author Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads fame, confess that the a taste of the food is enough to lure one to Saigon/HCMC: “I’ve long loved Vietnamese eats, pouring over the Wikipedia entry for the country’s cuisine well before I set foot in the country. It’s one thing to long for food from afar, but another to eat it in-country.” Ettenberg draws an important relationship here between mobility and food, her own movement revealing a mobility that is available to certain global elites whose nationality and economic means give them the advantage of moving at will in search of food, a new microscopic and temporary mode of food migration. Such cosmopolitan mobility is not at the disposal of the Vietnamese who provide the meals; but the situated body of the food vendor eternally on the streets is precisely the attraction for the food blogger craving the direct contact of local food from local vendors. The contact and exchange desired in such interactions reflects a form of communication, or code. As Mary Douglas, theorist of cultural risk, writes, “If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries” (38). Food, as Douglas argues, is an encoded form of communication with multiple signifiers and layers of meaning: the form and quality of food; how it is prepared, offered, and exchanged; who is able to partake; where it is shared. These all have hold significant meaning about the parties involved. The interaction between elite foreign food blogger with the local food seller thus provides one instance that exemplifies the politics that inadvertently exist between the foreign visitor and local visited. Given such cosmopolitan yearnings on the one hand, and soaring rents for storefronts and commercial real estate and a steady influx of migrants into Saigon/HMCC on the other, we can witness an intense food migration: a stream of food tourists and growing ranks of enterprising (mostly) women food vendors who use their skills and their bodies to sell their culinary delicacies.

More iconic than the food trucks of Los Angeles, the mobile food vendors of urban Vietnam indicate an important historical shift in the country directly linked to its growing, albeit clandestine, market economy. Journalist Bill Hayton dates the “street-food revolution” to the late 1980s, a significant moment in the trajectory of the recovering nation:

Petty trading both allowed households to survive beyond the state and freed the state from the obligation to provide for households. The houses and livelihoods were illegal, but if the state had enforced the law the result would have been mass destitution and instability. Instead, households and state reached a compromise, which was pragmatic and tasty. In 1989, as state-owned enterprises and the military laid off a million and a half people, the streets were ‘opened’ and Vietnam’s street-food revolution began. Women led the way. They took control of the means of production: a charcoal burner, a large pot and a few wooden (later plastic) stools, and began to support themselves and their families by selling […] homemade delights for which Vietnamese food has now become justly famous. Previously petty trading like this would have been quickly, and literally, stamped out. Now, a change in police behavior made it obvious that they’d been told to leave the women alone. (51)

Hayton importantly locates the coming climate of political change in the stereotypically gendered labor of cooking and caring for the family. This labor is characterized as “petty enterprise” or “petty capitalism,” a weakened form of capitalism but nevertheless an entrepreneurial threat to a socialist country. The seemingly insignificant task of selling “homemade delights” in makeshift and temporary locations is revolutionary, in retrospect, for as the “pioneers of petty capitalism,” these women paved the way for a host of “informal enterprises” from produce sellers to bicycle repairmen (51). Setting a precedent, they effectively intervened in the reach of the state over its population’s productivity; circumventing the law, they further jolted the disciplinary regime of a socialist autocracy struggling to regulate populational mobility. As we shall see, the temporariness of the work, the unregistered earnings, and the mobility of the female entrepreneurs disrupted the mechanisms of state control that would steadily decline with Vietnam’s capitulation to a neoliberal economy.

The chapter continues, with readings of passages from Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala (1999), Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Mean (2001), and other texts. My cultural reading of street food in Vietnam, which emphasizes the importance of female enterprise and ingenuity alongside the desire of visitors to consume adventure and experience in the act of eating, is of course limited and does little to reflect upon my own experiences with street food from my time Vietnam. It’s difficult to put them into words now… But I do remember certain sensations…

The nervousness that struck us on one of our first nights in Hanoi, as we sat on little plastic stools at a tiny plastic table at a pop-up restaurant that sprung up on the sidewalk outside of a closed business. Our glasses of iced beer, recently washed in buckets of water bobbing with used straws and half-spheres of squeezed limes, and our bowls of chicken ramen tasting delicious, but inspiring fear in our untested gastrointestinal systems.

Eating fresh tofu with sweet ginger syrup on the beach in Phan Thiết with my half-sister, aunt, and nephews. My sister crouched on the ground, giggling as she told me I couldn’t find tofu like this in Saigon.

My aunts taking me and my cousins to the City of Food and Drink in Saigon, where we hopped from one mini store-front eatery to the next, eating a single dish at each… banh xeo, bo la lot, bun mam, banh canh…

More than the street food, the dinners that my relatives planned for me (I visit so seldom, after all): elaborate Thai seafood hot pot dinners with tables that took up a whole neighborhood street; the fresh seafood flown in from Da Nang; snails cooked in coconut sauce (you have to suck it!)… All made specially for me because my relatives were afraid the street food would make me ill, speaks to perceived dangers that do not exclusively belong to the foreign visitor encountering a new and exciting food, and themselves become a reflection of larger cultural phenomena. I still need trying to work through the fact that most of the family members who had these fears for me tended to hail from higher social strata. The ones who took me gallivanting through the streets in search of food… were either young, or not wealthy. Purely subjective personal experience, but I think there’s more to this. And so, I shall keep working on this.

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3 thoughts on “Vietnam In Food

  1. Hi Anne, appreciate you excerpting from my post. While I’m the first to acknowledge privilege in being able to build a life that takes me to far-flung places, my desire to eat on the street isn’t propelled by a code or desire for inclusion, but rather by the fact that I have found food an excellent tool to learn about a place. It is quite the opposite of a “craving” for direct contact — it is more out of necessity, that learning about food is tough without inviting oneself into a home, but street food provides a window into eating in ways that hidden kitchens do not.

    While I might be a food blogger (elite I wouldn’t use, however!), my interactions are to taste and watch and learn, not to pat myself on the back for eating street food. To be honest, it’s the street food that keeps me healthy — almost every time I’ve gotten sick has been from a restaurant. And though I ate only street eats or stalls in Vietnam (with the exception of a night or two) I did not once fall ill. Yay street food! That’s why I always find it funny that in countries with a thriving street food scene, locals I meet seem appalled that I’m eating it. “You’re going to get sick!” or “There’s better food!” I suppose in cultures where it’s trendy to eat Western foods (e.g. Krispy Kreme’s lineups in Bangkok or people taking dates to McDonald’s as a place to be seen in Marrakesh), it would appear weird that westerners would want such street eats. But we do.

    I found your site via a random Google alert for my blog, but I’m looking forward to exploring it further. For what it’s worth, my trip to Vietnam was fairly ad hoc; I found a sale on Emirates and booked a ticket instead of heading to Africa (which was my plan). I’m thrilled I made it, but whether it’s Vietnam or elsewhere, the food draws me in as a way to learn about history and anthropology more than anything else.

    • Hi Jodi, Thanks so much for commenting! I remember our unsuccessful attempts at trying to meet-up while we were both in Saigon, so it’s great to run into here. I’d love to continue this dialogue, further (maybe even do an interview in the future?).

      I must say, it was so hard to excerpt a tiny bit of my dissertation (written rather hurriedly in a final push to meet the filing deadline, no less) while still doing justice to your writing or the larger project, which I know still needs a lot of work. I am a huge fan of the blog, and really must commend you for your conscientious writing and and your sensitivity, so I hope you didn’t take any of this as personal criticism! I really meant to use bits to gesture towards larger trends around Vietnamese tourism. Food, as you say, has a way of making diverse cultures (maybe even unknowable for the foreign stranger?) accessible. My own travels to the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere are very much the same. I feel that I can enter most national borders (depending on time and place) with relative ease because of my US Passport, but it is after the border crossing that the real journey begins, that we often find ourselves barred from certain things, so we seek experiences where they are available to us, and food is one of those things… I think I need to work through the Douglass quote above more (or possible find additional voices to speak to the topic), because the politics of inclusion as regard to food change dramatically under capitalism, when food and the experience of it is commodity. Should speak to my food scholar friends…

      Also trying to figure out how to read narratives like Anthony Bourdain’s, who finds himself invited in Vietnamese homes (homes all over really) because his social/economic capital, further increased with the legitimacy and economic power gained by having a US TV station and their crews behind you… He’s also pretty sensitive to his own privilege, but there’s a lot going on there…

      (And a quick note on my use of “elite”: in the larger project I look at different classes of workers in relation to each other in global cities so there’s a nominally “subaltern,” those who are generally the migrant laboring classes whose precarity and mobility–among other things–are affected by (lack of) nationality, language, income, etc. By comparison, you and I can be seen as elite by virtue of our nationality, ease in gaining travel documents, access to institutional protections, capital, etc…Hope that helps.)

  2. My experiences were actually super similar to Jodi’s.

    I had amazing, affordable street food that didn’t toy with my bowels in the least, and when I ran into trouble I was left wondering if it was my hydration/dehydration issues (it’s hot in Saigon/HCMC!) or the result of a questionable restaurant.

    I can safely say my worst meal was at the largest, most ‘Western’ style restaurant (it was SO bad, nigh unbelievably bad).

    Although my first experience with street food was harrowing — seeing glasses hastily rinsed in a bucket full of old limes and straws was certainly unsettling — the outcomes (both gastronomic and gastrointestinal) were only favorable, and definitely influenced my culinary choices thereafter.

    Eating abroad was interesting to me because as a tourist (or a traveler if you don’t want to use the dirty T-word), I never knew what aspects of service and hospitality (street-side, restaurant, or in homes) were ‘normal’ and which ones were being performed for my benefit. I am not someone who believes in (or particularly cares about) ‘the authentic’ but it was disorienting to see how much my status as a visible outsider affected the way I was treated. (Also, talk about making one conscious of privilege!).

    Productive, interesting comments and discussion to the kind of blog post (a dissertation excerpt/nod) that often gets overlooked.

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