My trip to Vietnam has long been over, but I’ve clearly been behind on my blogs about the trip. A lot’s happened in the meantime: I managed to finish and file my dissertation and I am now officially a PhD (the process was grueling, and I’ll try to write a post that specifically addresses that horrendous process); I’ve relocated to LA for a postdoc at UCLA; and I’m now on the job market once again.
That said, this will be my conclusion to the Vietnam posts, which has been a long time coming. I’ve had this post among my “drafts” for months now, and am forcing myself to finally finish and publish it. In particular, this is a reflection on one of my favorite parts about the trip (or any trip, really): FOOD!
I confess that one of my main motivations to travel anywhere is the enticement of the local fare. It will probably be unsurprising to many of you then that food, specifically street food, has an enormous presence in the final chapter of my dissertation. That chapter, “Visit: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City,” looks at the bodily experiences of temporariness in this Southeast Asian metropolis. Here, the risk and pleasure of eating street food is examined, and the media and voices that imagine the women who make and sell that food.
Excerpted from my dissertation:
One of the major selling points of Vietnam travel is undoubtedly its food. In cultural representations of Saigon/HCMC, the city’s street food has grown to almost legendary proportions, extolled by authors, journalists, guidebook writers, independent travelers, and foodies alike. All of these platforms speak to the power of the female entrepreneurs that are the driving force behind Saigon/HCMC’s culinary culture. One site goes so far as to boast, “Vietnamese food is the best in the world. And the best Vietnamese food is available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.” These introductory lines of the “About” page of the Saigon Street Eats tour, run by Aussie-Vietnamese couple Barbara and Vu, reflects the growing reputation of Vietnamese cuisine internationally, and of Saigon/HCMC street food in particular. And yet others, like food blogger and author Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads fame, confess that the a taste of the food is enough to lure one to Saigon/HCMC: “I’ve long loved Vietnamese eats, pouring over the Wikipedia entry for the country’s cuisine well before I set foot in the country. It’s one thing to long for food from afar, but another to eat it in-country.” Ettenberg draws an important relationship here between mobility and food, her own movement revealing a mobility that is available to certain global elites whose nationality and economic means give them the advantage of moving at will in search of food, a new microscopic and temporary mode of food migration. Such cosmopolitan mobility is not at the disposal of the Vietnamese who provide the meals; but the situated body of the food vendor eternally on the streets is precisely the attraction for the food blogger craving the direct contact of local food from local vendors. The contact and exchange desired in such interactions reflects a form of communication, or code. As Mary Douglas, theorist of cultural risk, writes, “If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries” (38). Food, as Douglas argues, is an encoded form of communication with multiple signifiers and layers of meaning: the form and quality of food; how it is prepared, offered, and exchanged; who is able to partake; where it is shared. These all have hold significant meaning about the parties involved. The interaction between elite foreign food blogger with the local food seller thus provides one instance that exemplifies the politics that inadvertently exist between the foreign visitor and local visited. Given such cosmopolitan yearnings on the one hand, and soaring rents for storefronts and commercial real estate and a steady influx of migrants into Saigon/HMCC on the other, we can witness an intense food migration: a stream of food tourists and growing ranks of enterprising (mostly) women food vendors who use their skills and their bodies to sell their culinary delicacies.
More iconic than the food trucks of Los Angeles, the mobile food vendors of urban Vietnam indicate an important historical shift in the country directly linked to its growing, albeit clandestine, market economy. Journalist Bill Hayton dates the “street-food revolution” to the late 1980s, a significant moment in the trajectory of the recovering nation:
Petty trading both allowed households to survive beyond the state and freed the state from the obligation to provide for households. The houses and livelihoods were illegal, but if the state had enforced the law the result would have been mass destitution and instability. Instead, households and state reached a compromise, which was pragmatic and tasty. In 1989, as state-owned enterprises and the military laid off a million and a half people, the streets were ‘opened’ and Vietnam’s street-food revolution began. Women led the way. They took control of the means of production: a charcoal burner, a large pot and a few wooden (later plastic) stools, and began to support themselves and their families by selling […] homemade delights for which Vietnamese food has now become justly famous. Previously petty trading like this would have been quickly, and literally, stamped out. Now, a change in police behavior made it obvious that they’d been told to leave the women alone. (51)
Hayton importantly locates the coming climate of political change in the stereotypically gendered labor of cooking and caring for the family. This labor is characterized as “petty enterprise” or “petty capitalism,” a weakened form of capitalism but nevertheless an entrepreneurial threat to a socialist country. The seemingly insignificant task of selling “homemade delights” in makeshift and temporary locations is revolutionary, in retrospect, for as the “pioneers of petty capitalism,” these women paved the way for a host of “informal enterprises” from produce sellers to bicycle repairmen (51). Setting a precedent, they effectively intervened in the reach of the state over its population’s productivity; circumventing the law, they further jolted the disciplinary regime of a socialist autocracy struggling to regulate populational mobility. As we shall see, the temporariness of the work, the unregistered earnings, and the mobility of the female entrepreneurs disrupted the mechanisms of state control that would steadily decline with Vietnam’s capitulation to a neoliberal economy.
The chapter continues, with readings of passages from Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala (1999), Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Mean (2001), and other texts. My cultural reading of street food in Vietnam, which emphasizes the importance of female enterprise and ingenuity alongside the desire of visitors to consume adventure and experience in the act of eating, is of course limited and does little to reflect upon my own experiences with street food from my time Vietnam. It’s difficult to put them into words now… But I do remember certain sensations…
The nervousness that struck us on one of our first nights in Hanoi, as we sat on little plastic stools at a tiny plastic table at a pop-up restaurant that sprung up on the sidewalk outside of a closed business. Our glasses of iced beer, recently washed in buckets of water bobbing with used straws and half-spheres of squeezed limes, and our bowls of chicken ramen tasting delicious, but inspiring fear in our untested gastrointestinal systems.
Eating fresh tofu with sweet ginger syrup on the beach in Phan Thiết with my half-sister, aunt, and nephews. My sister crouched on the ground, giggling as she told me I couldn’t find tofu like this in Saigon.
My aunts taking me and my cousins to the City of Food and Drink in Saigon, where we hopped from one mini store-front eatery to the next, eating a single dish at each… banh xeo, bo la lot, bun mam, banh canh…
More than the street food, the dinners that my relatives planned for me (I visit so seldom, after all): elaborate Thai seafood hot pot dinners with tables that took up a whole neighborhood street; the fresh seafood flown in from Da Nang; snails cooked in coconut sauce (you have to suck it!)… All made specially for me because my relatives were afraid the street food would make me ill, speaks to perceived dangers that do not exclusively belong to the foreign visitor encountering a new and exciting food, and themselves become a reflection of larger cultural phenomena. I still need trying to work through the fact that most of the family members who had these fears for me tended to hail from higher social strata. The ones who took me gallivanting through the streets in search of food… were either young, or not wealthy. Purely subjective personal experience, but I think there’s more to this. And so, I shall keep working on this.