Happy year of the horse to you all, it’s good to see you again after such a long absence. I’m just about feeling normal again after returning from Vietnam with Luke a couple of months ago. And I can tell you, coming back from here to London after spending the Autumn in 28 C monsooning Vietnam was a brutal shock.
By the end of our travels, we were spending much of the daytime sitting on the pavement making notes and taking snaps whilst drinking fresh soy milk or tropical juice (my favourite was watermelon) and Vietnamese style coffee (an expresso shot mixed with lots of condensed milk and poured over lots ice). As my friend Giang told me in Hanoi, ‘in Vietnam, everything happens in the street’. Cooking, eating, socialising, selling, gambling, chess playing – it all takes place outside in the sun.
After this, imagine our sensory confusion at entering Costa Coffee at 6am one rainy November morning in Gatwick airport. We had been thrust back into this dark, cold, indoors city, wearing only sandals and multicoloured monsoon macs.
Apart from the weather, one of the biggest differences between the UK and Vietnam was the abundance of strictly vegan (chay) restaurants. They proved to be plentiful in every Vietnamese town we went, mostly run by the local Buddhist pagodas as a way of raising extra money.
Veganism was much more widespread there than it is in the UK. Most Vietnamese go vegan at least one day a month on special days in the Buddhist calendar. Eating vegan (an chay) in Vietnam also means avoiding garlic and onions so as not to inflame the senses. It’s all seen as a way of collecting good karma, and so as full-time vegetarians we were given a very warm welcome and were admired for what was seen as our holy and disciplined characters…
In these ‘chay’ restaurants we ate many special vegan dishes that I collected in my travelling journal. We had salads made from shredded banana blossoms, fresh coconut and kohlrabi, green mango; tofu that was caramelised, deep fried, curried, and marinated; mock meats made from flour spiced and crisped to taste like pork or chicken and then simmered in lemongrass and chopped tomatoes.
Occasionally the simplicity of the Buddhist food made it difficult for our palettes, accustomed as they are to the strongly flavoured food vegetarians tend to eat here in the UK. I confess that once or twice we ate pizza and missed hummus…
Even so, through contacts and friends I’d been able to make through The Vietnamese Embassy in the UK and organisations Vietpro and Longdan, we met up with many different home-cooks and chefs throughout Vietnam who were generously showed us into their kitchens of their homes, pagodas, training schools and restaurants.
One of the most special cookery lessons from Ms Anh Tuyet, a lady in the ancient Imperial capital of Hue who specialises in teaching vegan cuisine. Over half a day she taught me 7 local dishes, influenced by Hue’s unique regional vegetables (things like bitter figs and young jackfruit) and its tradition of complex, royal gastronomy.
The day after, we were shown around the organic gardens of Duc Son, a local pagoda and children’s orphanage, where the monks and nuns grow all their produce, including fresh green tea, mushrooms, aubergines and chillies.
Cooking, especially home cooking, is generally the domain of women in Vietnam. As we found when staying with my friend Lily’s family in Hanoi, many Vietnamese wives and mothers will wake up at around 5 or 6 am to make it to the local market and buy fresh ingredients for the day. They will then go to work full time, only to return home in the evening to cook again and care for their families. Lily’s mother was a devout Buddhist as well, which meant that aside from making wholesome vegan food every day, any spare hours were spent praying in her shrine on the balcony at the top of the house. Twice a week she would leave the neighbourhood, riding out fast on her moped to her favourite pagoda near Hanoi’s West Lake.
Spending so much time with female cooks illuminated my mother’s upbringing for me. Although my mother was born and raised in France and does not really speak Vietnamese, her parents were from Vietnam. When I applied for the Yan Kit So grant, it was because food was one of my most tangible ways that connected me to my mother’s heritage, and meeting so many Vietnamese women through cooking presented a new context for me to understand my mother’s own character and struggles, one that I hope to explore further as I write up my notes for the trip.