Food & Travel in China & Vietnam

September 1997

Food and culture are inseparable in Asia. An appreciation of good food is an unmistakable sign of culture.

So it wasn't just greed and appetite which has taken me back to Asia twice this year but the search for 'culture'.

And it's in evidence everywhere, particularly in China. People are always eating. Travelling there on our own, with neither language nor guide sent the other three senses - sight, smell and taste, into overdrive. In restaurants I walked round the tables looking at what appealed on the plates and, where possible, went into the kitchens to see what other ingredients might be available. The results caused some amusement from the staff, some fantastic tastes and some rather strange ones.

Walking the streets and markets was the most interesting. The range and quality of produce was amazing, considering we were there in winter. We'd been given dire warnings of having to subsist on a diet of cabbage and were delighted to find young peas, broad beans, lots of different spinach types, amazing fungi and loads of fruits.

The markets of Kunming (southern China, capital of Yunan Province) and of Chengdu (middle China, capital of Szechuan Province) were very good although everything pales into insignificance (as do the prices) compared with Hong Kong's markets. The quality, presentation and extraordinary freshness of produce there ( the fish leap off the merchant's cleaning board out into the aisles) are amongst the reasons why Hong Kong is one of the world's great culinary Mecca's. Big business and its spending power is another.

Vietnam is much poorer and whilst there are good markets in the cities, the poverty in the provinces is disturbing. But on the streets everywhere the mass of people are moving, usually on bikes, but rarely seen eating.

But in Hanoi there are street cafes which serve good coffee and you can buy crusty baguettes, all part of the strong vestiges of French culture. We travelled north of Hanoi to SaPa which had been cultivated by the French as a hill station in the 1930's. After heavy fighting in 1979 only ten of the original French buildings remain intact.

What took us there and is attracting tourists to travel over the very rough roads (350 kilometres in 10 hours) is the weekend markets when the minority tribes come to town to sell clothes and jewellery.

We also travelled south to the beautiful coastal village of Hoian, once famous as a port with Japanese and Portuguese traders. It is uniquely and wonderfully preserved, the same families have lived in the same houses for eight generations. The women of Hoian do everything. The visual image is of their conical hat. The market is by the water next to the wharves. They sell the produce in the market and they determine the price of the day's catch at the fish market. The men take the big boats out to deep waters, the women paddle out to transfer the catch then clean and gut the fish and sell it. The owner of the best restaurant in town, the eccentric but charming, Cafe des Amis, goes to inspect the fish but then sends his wife to do the transaction. The women are too tough for him to deal with .