A celebration of Vietnamese street food, with some offerings that will make readers squirm as much as the author initially did.
This is the adventure-travel version of a food memoir, one that puts Vietnamese food in fresh perspective yet ultimately proves more repetitive than exotic. What began as a blog while Holliday was teaching English in Southeast Asia—living in Korea as well as Hanoi and Saigon—still retains some elements of that form, with a penchant for lists and a tendency to revisit the same themes and make the same points. Small restaurants and food stalls that serve only one dish tend to prepare it very well, and there’s often an inverse correlation between the cleanliness of the preparation and the quality of the food. Ask a native Vietnamese for a recommendation, and he’ll often tell you where tourists like to go, or what places are really popular, rather than divulging where he thinks the food is best. Eat and run is the expectation for uncomfortable street diners, since lingering hurts profits. Yet most of the cooks and proprietors, operating at the margins of legality, proved cooperative and helpful to Holliday, though almost uniformly, they had little idea how many bowls of pho they serve in a day. They know that they’ve made money when they’ve sold out and generally lost money when they have food left over. Though he initially shocks the reader with “boiled uterus” and “ pig’s intestine,” he quickly explains this as “the unlikely beginning of a long-running affair with Viet Nam and Vietnamese food. It was just unfortunate that I’d gotten started at both the wrong end of the menu and the animal.” Ultimately, he writes, “[s]treet food is a bit like smoking. It can seem somewhat disgusting at first, it takes a little time to get into it, but before too long, you’re addicted.”
Readers are likely to run out of patience before the author has run out of pages.