Pho, Banh Cuon & Com Lam at Tam Dao Mountain

There’s a small phở shack high in the Tam Đảo mountains.  Seventy kilometres away from Hanoi, two hours by car, maybe more by motorbike, nondescript in every way, and perfect.  My first impression might have been coloured by the fact that it was midnight and I was drunk, and I know that there’s superlative soup in the city, too… but it didn’t stop me from ranting about poesy while the marbled beef melted away in my mouth, and the noodles responded to the simple action of my chopsticks as if inhabited by their own spirit.  This woman, whoever she was, could cook.

(Yes, I came back the next morning for more.  Wouldn’t you?)

Maybe it’s the nature of remote places in countries with long culinary traditions.  Not much to do when surrounded by pristine mountain air except perfect a craft, and forget that modernity (ie: corner-cutting) exists, right?  Morning after, I stumbled out of our hotel to mists thick enough to hide a hangover in, walked a few metres to the shack-of-delights, and ordered a stack of bánh cuốn – paper-thin rolls of fresh steamed rice crepes flecked with bits of pork and wood-ear mushrooms and topped with fried onion.  Flaky flat bundles, and gossamer-tender – this is the bánh cuốn I’ve been wanting to try and hadn’t found in Hanoi.  Matched by a few perfectly charred pork-batons floating in a subtle sweet broth, the warm plate was soon touched at the edges with cold mountain air, and I hurried to gobble it up with a few slender sprigs of cilantro, before jumping back into bed with my BF in our ancient darkwood hotel room and sleeping in until noon.  Bliss!

We eventually emerged to a sunny day, and played silly tourist trying to capture the languid beauty of the town.  It was originally built by the French in 1907, evidenced by a giant stone church (over-run with amateur wedding photography sessions) and lots of villas, but these days it’s a getaway for Vietnamese to escape from the heat and motorbike stench of the city and take in the slow, cool air perfumed by rocks, mist, and lush fields of susu greens (aka chayote, usually fried simply with garlic and chili).

We never did get around to trying the susu, but we did eat our fill of another specialty common in the mountains of north and central Vietnam.  Bypassing the shops selling cơm and noodles, and the many empty restaurants built to accommodate crowds of families on vacation, we zero’d in right away on the alluring puffs of black smoke coming from the grillers on the street.

It’s so delightfully, perfectly simple.  Just point, and communicate the number of items you’d like (this is a good time to break out any minor knowledge of the Vietnamese numbering system), and a few minutes later you’re given piping hot and smoky treats to munch on over beer.  The standards seemed to be the toothsome and less-sweet white corn that is really starting to grow on me, tiny eggs dipped in crushed peanuts & MSG, fatty skewers of pork, and the coolest thing – sticky rice steamed in young bamboo, called cơm lam here and khao lam in Thailand.  It’s simple, but deceptively more-ish, and fun to eat no matter how you do it (just watch out for splinters!).

For more photos, check out the Flickr gallery.

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