While the sun is busy scorching shadows onto the streets of Vietnam, it’s probably not the best time to be wolfing down a piping hot bowl of Pho. At a time when your whole body is desperately converting anything remotely fluid into sweat in a desperate bid to utilise the famed human homeostasis process to stay cool, just what the fuck does your stomach crave? Even though my kidneys are basically the internal organ equivalent of Boxer from Orwell’s Animal Farm, in this heat I’ve been forced to trade out whiskey for rum because even my new god – the AC unit in my room – can’t save me this summer.
Thank fuck for Vietnam’s food scene where anyone can turn USD$4 into a marvellous munchies marathon, so before we all melt into shrieking, congealed human puddles, here’s my short-list for the best chilled eats. Stay cool folks.
Mul-Naengmyeon (물냉면) – Korean Ice Noodles
Having endured the sauna-like conditions of Korean summer, this noodle dish has saved my pasty white sweat-soaked ass more times than I care to mention, but Hanoi’s swampy summer is practically thermonuclear by contrast to its Korean comrade. Nevertheless – despite it being hotter than a Korean sauna up in this humpty-bumpty, the ice noodles are a savoury saviour in these sticky times. Basically ice noodles are exactly what you’d imagine – a bowl of soft, yet chewy noodles, usually served with an assortment of vegetables and sometimes seafood, in a sweet, tangy iced broth. It might look like someone poured a slush puppie into a perfectly good noodle dish, but if this ice-cold bad boy can’t cool you down, you should probably seek medical attention. Obviously many of the Korean restaurants in My Dinh will serve up this national summertime staple, but also the famous North Korean eatery, Pyongyang Restaurant, whips up a meal Northern variation of the dish.
Bun Thit Nuong – Grilled Pork Noodles
Even aboard the dank sinking prison isle of the UK, summer means barbecue everything, except back in England the perpetual grey skies and drizzle kill the vibe somewhat. Not an issue that Vietnam faces – both substantially hotter and wetter than anything the UK could conjure up, the Vietnamese know how to do a proper barbecue.
Popular in the Central and Southern regions of Vietnam, bun thịt nuong is a nice chilled noodle dish and while not going as far as the Koreans with their addition of ice, bun thit nuong is very simply grilled meat with cold vermicelli noodles. Comparable to the north’s bun cha, but lighter, cooler and spanning across more variations, including vegetarian and seafood versions, but easier to eat when the sun swallows the sky and eggs can cook on the streets. Traditional bun thit nuong usually consists of marinated, seasoned pork that’s grilled in some sort of hand-held griddle contraption that resembles a square tennis racket crossbred with a George Foreman grill. Thrown into a nice cool bowl of noodles, raw vegetables, fresh herbs and – of course – a more than generous helping of fish sauce, the dish makes for an easy lunch and doesn’t leave you feeling like someone threw an anchor into the pit of your stomach.
Che – Vietnam’s Sweet Dessert Soup
There are those among us who firmly believe that the word soup should never follow the word dessert so closely, but then again, there are people who believe the Earth is flat, that the Queen of England is a reptile and Scientology might save us all. Cheap, chilled and almost universally available across Vietnam, che comes in more forms than I have space here to detail, but whatever your palette, there’s probably a che for you – unless you’re one of those mutated sewer-dwelling freaks who thinks mayonnaise belongs on a fruit salad, *cough – Korea – cough*.
Anyway, che usually consists of a marvellous mix of coconut cream, fruit, jelly and even an assortment of beans, ranging from mung, kidney or black-eyed peas. Despite that combination sounding more at home in a Dr. Seuss cookery book, it is a nutritious, viable alternative to sweating to death over a steaming bowl of food.
Bingsu (빙수) – Korea’s Finest Dessert
Not quite ice cream, nor is it quite ice sculpting, but somewhere between the two Bingsu happens and it’s a delight to behold. The world hasn’t had a gift this cool since Frank Sinatra, well maybe – maybe the heat is just melting what’s left of my mind, but regardless giant bowls of shaved ice imbued with creamy milk and adorned with almost any fruit and sweet treat humanly imaginable – including coffee – is probably cooler than the Rat Pack. Given the recent cravings for Korean food that Vietnam seems to be undergoing, finding Bingsu in Hanoi is easier than spotting elephant pants in the Old Quarter so keep your eyes peeled, we have many heinous more months of summer to endure yet.
Despite my own incongruous distaste for coconut water and my sneaking suspicion of creeping health-freak yuppies, it is both good for cooling down and remarkably easy to acquire on the streets of Hanoi at almost any given time of day. For that, it gets an honourable mention, personally ca phe sua da is a far easier start to the day, but the last time I went for a run I nearly died, so probably shouldn’t be shitting on all things health and wellbeing – besides I’ll try anything to escape this heat.