Food feels almost political among expats in Vietnam. Eat too much Western fare and you’re not truly cultured. Opt only for foods even the Vietnamese won’t eat and you fast become that guy. I’ve never been or wanted to be that guy—the one who enjoys trứng vịt lộn, fried bọ cạp, or sầu riêng not for its taste but as a conversation piece. I also don’t eat three Western meals per day; it’s simply cost prohibitive in a place like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
My eating habits in Vietnam are most impacted by four factors. The first is that I’m single and live alone in a studio-sized bed and breakfast room; I do no cooking for myself here. The second is that my stomach has very little tolerance for ill-preserved food, something that’s found more often than not at Vietnamese food stands, especially towards the end of the day. The third factor is that I’m on the move a lot; my location often determines what I eat. And the last is that I simply miss the United States sometimes, in particular not only its flavor-laden fatty foods but also its high quality organic offerings.
For breakfast this morning I ate phở, but only because Hanoi is still very much in post-Tết hangover mode. My usual morning plate of xôi xéo with a side of seasonal fruit hasn’t been available for several days now and I’m fast becoming a bit sick and tired of noodle soup.
There’s a Vietnamese idiom that goes, “Ngán cơm thèm phở.” Literally translated it means that one is tired of rice so he craves phở. As most Vietnamese funny-isms go, though, the humor in the statement is derived from its second meaning, wives being viewed as rice, —always there for the taking and a bit boring—and mistresses being viewed as phở (in a word, desired). I often joke with my Vietnamese friends that I’m “ngán phở thèm xôi”. Phở is fine, but I can at most take a bowl per week. It just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
I should probably take a step back and talk about a fifth factor: money. Normally I spend anywhere from $250 to $400 USD per month on food, depending on where I’m at and whether or not I’m staying with friends or family.
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