The waistline at all-round Vietnam House

The author and fresh spring rolls

Vietnam Heritage, July-August 2011, Advertorial -- There can be nothing more infinite than Vietnamese cuisine. This sentence may seem nonsensical but I have been living here for fourteen years and I am still coming across new dishes and even new methods of preparing and presenting them. This is all due to the tropical bio-diversity of the country and to its geography, which provides ample salt and fresh water and divides the subject into often-overlapping north, central and south geographical zones. The cuisine has also been enhanced by history, which has brought such diverse influences as Chinese, French, Thai, Cambodian and latterly American. Perhaps I should not write ‘latterly’, because one essential ingredient of Vietnamese food, the chilli pepper, introduced by the Portuguese hundreds of years ago, is of South American origin. Very few Asians I know are aware of this.
There still exists on the fashionable shopping street of Dong Khoi a lovely French colonial mansion with its terracotta-tiled roof and green-slatted shutters left open on all three floors. Since 1992 this has been a restaurant called ‘Vietnam House’ and it is a showcase for Vietnamese dining and culture. It can introduce to you to over a hundred dishes and covers the whole range of tastes indicated above. As part of an integrated business which includes hotels and another famous restaurant, ‘Lemongrass’, it has been hosting foreign and domestic guests for nearly two decades. All this time it has maintained consistency with the same executive chef, Mrs Lam Thi Tu. Not only does it serve all things Vietnamese but it also caters for all folks. There is a vegetarian section on the menu for example and with a little advance notice they can provide Halal meals, thus earning popularity among Indonesian, Arab and Malaysian customers.
So I sat down to lunch at Vietnam House. The special promotion was the ‘curry of the month’. I forgot to mention Vietnam cuisine also includes curries, which is a word actually of English rather than Indian origin and indicating any sauce of mixed spices. Do not expect fire – rather a smooth but also delicious liquid blend. I passed this over and asked to be served dishes of the south of Vietnam. This is because at home I am habitually served central Vietnamese food and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to expose my palate more to the region in which I actually reside. There is of course an extensive a la carte list, but, not really knowing how to choose, I accepted the restaurant’s suggestion of a set menu at the quite reasonable price, considering this is the heart of the country’s business capital, of VND340,000. This is the equivalent of $17. There now follows a description of what I munched my way through.

Clockwise from top left: The fried spring rolls in their rustic setting; the lemongrass chicken;Thiên lý with mixed seafood; coconut rice. Photos: Ba Han

First came the fresh spring rolls, and quite a generous portion of stuffed, creamy rice pastry there was. There followed the fried version of the same and how wonderfully presented they came – on a tray with a small version of the two baskets held together with a bamboo pole so typical of rural parts of the country. In one basket came the familiar rolls themselves and in the other a beautifully carved rose of carrot shavings and lettuce leaves in which to roll them. To the side of the tray were saucers of sweet fish sauce and satay (peanut sauce) in which to dip them. Scrumptious!
On to two dishes that formed the main part of the meal. There was the thiên lý with mixed seafood. This is a flowering plant which is fried or in this case boiled, in Vietnamese cuisine. This, as its English name of ‘Tonkin Jasmine’ implies, is not particularly a southern vegetable. Indeed it was quite common in the central province of Quang Binh, where I first started in Vietnam. It is quite crunchy and not particularly to my taste, but it went down well with the shrimp, squid and clams. Aside from this came boneless chicken pieces cooked in citronella (lemongrass), which was another fine dish.
Of course no Vietnamese meal comes without rice. Instead of the plain white rice on offer I requested coconut rice. This was in order to keep to the aim of eating in the southern way. A marvel of presentation soon arrived at the table. The rice was served in a decapitated coconut the scalp or lid of which was used to scoop it out into a bowl. It came ‘chow mien’-style, fried with chopped spam and vegetables.
I washed all this down with a couple of flagons of fresh pomelo juice at VND44,000 a go. Apart from juices, cocktails, mocktails and soft drinks there is a full wine and beer list as well as local rice wine; both normal and sticky. but being lunchtime and with half a working day ahead I kept clear of the alcohol. There was, furthermore, a selection of teas and coffee served the local or international ways.
Then I started to get into trouble. The waiter asked to bring on the dessert. This is not usually part of a Vietnamese meal and I was going to ask for just fruit. I usually do not eat sweet things as my waistline is too bulging already. However, I was curious to see if there would be another beautiful presentation. One scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream with a banana fritter was placed on the table. The latter did not attract me but temptation overcame me and I spooned off a piece of the ice cream. Then, horror of horrors! Just as it was going into my mouth the photographer snapped away. Oh no! I thought, this is going to be splashed all over the magazine. Caught ‘in flagrante delicto’ committing the deadly sin of gluttony! How on earth was I going to explain this to my wife? How would the priest advise me that sunday at confession? I hastily prepared an envelop and slipped it to the photographer begging him to delete the frame. To no avail! The man does not have a corrupt bone in his body.
At Vietnam House you dine in very pleasing surroundings. The atmosphere of the home that it once was is maintained but now with local characteristics. The walls are adorned with artefacts of Vietnamese culture and the waitresses are dressed in the traditional garbs of the North. On the ground floor there is a piano taking centre stage and this is used nightly when a young lady serenades you with local and internationally known tunes. Upstairs on the second level you can choose to be entertained by local musicians playing classical Vietnamese music.
In sum, whilst it certainly does serve great food, Vietnam House is more than a restaurant. It also nourishes the brain and the spirit. Whether you are at beginner, intermediate or advanced level you will come away from here not just with a happy stomach but with a feeling you have furthered your appreciation and knowledge of the culture of Vietnam. Next year I will be welcoming first time visitors to Vietnam. This will be one stop on their orientation programme.

By Ritch Pickens
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