As a malnourished, emaciated Literature student at university, I thought I understood what it meant to be crafty and resourceful – especially when it came to food and drink. Drip tray pints were guzzled down with an unnatural level of enthusiasm, eight pence Tesco noodles were mixed in with unbranded ketchup and a suspiciously-sourced tin of Tuna Flakes. Oil was reused to serve a house of seven people, coffee granules were eaten dry with a spoon when the water got cut off and a leading UK pizza delivery company was incessantly scammed through a series of fake discount vouchers. It’s a way of life that, nine years later, seems pretty barren; any nutritionist worth a good poop will tell you that a diet of toast, coffee and ethanol for six months straight is a one-way ticket to leaving an especially young, albeit gaunt, corpse.
Little did I know then that I was a rank amateur, a mere pretender unfit for the big leagues, let alone the annals of history. My squalid diet was born out of stupidity, but Vietnam applied a level of ingenuity to their food that I could never muster. Vietnam has made do under far worse conditions for far longer than it takes to fluke your way through an undergraduate degree programme. War, famine, natural disasters and colonisation have slapped Vietnamese cuisine all over the place the way a bouncer subdues a cocky undergrad and yet Vietnam has relentlessly persevered in the face of overwhelming adversity to become an international culinary destination. Nowadays – particularly in urban areas – resources are fairly bountiful and the sight of plastic stools creaking under the weight of foreign tourists, all wide-eyed and eager with rumbling stomachs to try the famed Vietnamese street food, is not uncommon.
It wasn’t always this way though. When Vietnam was still Nam Viet – a southern province of China – rice ruled supreme and under Chinese influence, rice became rice noodle which in turn birthed the medley of noodles that make up our breakfast, lunch and dinner today. But even farming rice from rice paddies is an act so tedious and back-breaking that my former student self would probably have rather opted for death by starvation. Requiring more steps than any Ikea flat-pack furniture, rice farming is all done while the paddy is flooded. Add the discomfort of soggy-socks to the toil and exhaustion of de-weeding the paddy, emptying the paddy, collecting anything alive for further sustenance, digging channels to funnel the water to yet more rice paddies, ploughing the paddy with a buffalo or two, levelling out the paddy by hand to ensure maximum moisture retention, then – and only then – can you even plant the rice. Harvesting it is equally as un-fun and requires just about as many steps, but more importantly it requires an inhuman level of grit and resilience to endure season after season, year after year.
While rice is ubiquitous throughout Asia, Vietnam has, until relatively recently, been one of the more impoverished Asian nations and so modern technology and methodologies haven’t been available here as long as than most nations.
Something else that has forced Vietnam’s hand in terms of developing such regionally diverse dishes is the sheer variation in environment and climate across the country. Northern cuisine, with all its balanced and subtle flavours comes from the inability to grow many spices and herbs, the north shares a similar problem with the central region in that their mountainous landscapes rendered rearing livestock a challenge due to space. Hence the popularity of freshwater fish and molluscs in the north, meanwhile the famed Southern sweet-tooth was born out of the availability of coconuts, tropical fruits and fertile lands for vegetables and livestock. Each regional variation in cuisine has been shaped by necessity – eat whatever you find and be glad it was there.
These geographical variations and their impact on food increase exponentially the further you get from the cities. Some 34 million people, around 35% of the population of Vietnam, live in urban areas – or at least according to data compiled by the UN in 2018, so that leaves the other 65% (approximately 63 million people) kicking back in the tranquillity of the Vietnamese countryside. Although there’s limited time to relax out there – survival becomes a full-time job as rates of agriculture and food production soar as you leave the urban areas. Things may have improved, but life in rural Vietnam has never been easy. Writing for the New York Times, Michael Morris recounted his experiences as a GI stationed in Vietnam back in 1967 and recalls marvelling at the ability of the locals in rural areas to source sustenance despite their sheer isolation in such a harsh environment.
Describing his experience as a witness to the production of nuoc mam – Vietnamese fish sauce – he explains how tiny silver fish were caught from the rice paddies when they were flooded and then collected into a metal pan. This pan of little fishies was then placed on top of the thatched roof of a house, where the sun took care of a pungent process known as putrefaction. Morris went on to detail the overpowering stank of the fish as they were melted into a rank paste which was then liberally applied to every meal eaten – although more often than not, these meals consisted of little more than rice and a few vegetables. The efforts taken to liven up such a humble meal with nuoc mam – which was often mixed with vinegar, sugar, lime, peppers or whatever was to hand – is another example of how far the Vietnamese are willing to go to bring their food to life.
Under Chinese occupation, they incorporated noodles into their diet and went on much the same way as they always had done, by the time the French arrived in 1887 – the Vietnamese once more were forced to adapt their diet to suit their new colonial overlords and the growing number of Chinese workers. It was around here that pho was born in the North of Vietnam, although the true origins of how pho came about are contested – it was a dish born out of necessity that went on to be an internationally acclaimed meal available worldwide.
Under France, Vietnam endured one of the worst famines it had ever experienced and yet the culinary palette continued to expand to include any scant resources that could be edible. When many Northern Vietnamese people fled to the South and the subsequent American military presence became undeniable, yet more inventive means of cooking and eating were honed and refined so as to work around the situation. Vietnam has proven itself nothing, if not resourceful when it comes to food – even to this day, local ingredients are preferred where possible in everything from coffee to cocktails.