Bun Rieu Photo © Ed Lee.
When I go to a Vietnamese restaurant in the US, I always look for a wall calendar, the kind showing an idyllic landscape with a bamboo raft meandering down a calm river, or a pretty girl in a silk dress and long white gloves bicycling through a fruit market. It’s the place I’m hoping to find as the plane descends upon the verdant island of Phu Quoc on the southern tip of Vietnam. But wait, I’m also having flashbacks of Apocalypse Now and Robin Williams yelling, “Goooooood morning, Vietnam!” I try to focus on bahn mi sandwiches and Vietnamese crêpes.
This is my first visit to a country that is so foreign to me and yet so deeply ingrained in my consciousness through history, museums, film, TV and, most recently, through its cuisine. I’m here with Stuart Brioza, from San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions; Bryan Caswell, of Reef in Houston; and Top Chef: Texas winner Paul Qui from Austin—all chefs who have a working familiarity with Southeast Asian cuisine. We’re here with the good folks from Red Boat Fish Sauce to tour their factory and get a firsthand look at the food culture of Vietnam.
On the first day of our weeklong stay, we shopped at the wet markets of Phu Quoc, through a maze of crabs, clams, snappers, cobias, cuttlefish and lots of unidentifiable conch. Chickens and ducks are sold live; pork is laid out on wooden carving boards in the hot sun; and little old ladies poke you to buy lottery tickets. Fresh coconut water was the only thing that prevented me from passing out in the hot sun in front of a dusty table of clucking chickens. At night, we joined an overnight fishing expedition, drinking rum and beer as we pulled in nets full of anchovies that would make their way into the fermentation barrels to become fish sauce after a year. It was a long night, but an appropriate start to a trip where our meals would be perfumed in various ways by this omnipresent ingredient.