Sunday, May 29, 2011

STEIGER COUNTER: Exploring the sights, cuisine of Vietnam, Korea

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 5/29/11

TERRE HAUTE — Last month I traveled to Vietnam and Korea on ISU business. We were fortunate that our travel schedule permitted time to explore the environs around our hotels, a chance to experience Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and Seoul, on foot.

Walking in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is not like walking in New York, Chicago, or even Terre Haute. At 6 a.m., Hanoi comes alive. As the train rolled into the nearby station, the scooters begin moving. At times, it seems the entire population is in motion, mostly on scooters. There isn’t much traffic control in Hanoi and the scooter drivers don’t pay attention to it anyway, including driving on the sidewalks. Pedestrians beware! Hanoi is a traffic libertarian’s dream.

A student from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City would find Terre Haute “familiar.” The French influence was once very strong in Vietnam. No more. Despite our difficulty deciphering signs (few were in English), we did quickly figure out that the ornate French buildings were government and Communist party buildings. The Vigo County courthouse, other than its colors, will look familiar to our future Vietnamese students.

Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are on rivers. Ho Chi Minh City had a busy waterfront and the Saigon River is a major transportation artery. We negotiated an hour-long river tour on a rickety, leaky, wheezy engined boat (plus a refreshment) for about $10. On one side of the river was a modern city with one of the most beautiful new skyscrapers I’ve ever seen. The other side of the river was “struggling.” We turned up a creek and it was like transporting back to a “simpler” time. Within sight of a modern city were people living with no plumbing, maybe a generator, and eating what they caught from the river. Sound familiar?

Our first stop in Hanoi was at the U.S. Embassy where embassy officials, among other suggestions, warned us off eating at the street cafes and to avoid fresh, uncooked vegetables, lest we tempt dire gastronomic reactions. When I visit another country, I don’t want to eat where tourists eat. I’d rather eat where the “locals” eat for a more “authentic” cuisine (not made for tourists). So, I ask hotel staff to recommend places for me, but always with a qualifier, “where do you eat?” The assumption being they’d eat their local “authentic” cuisine.

Just around the corner from our hotel, we found this Vietnamese restaurant complete with a bar and a white table cloth dining room, but we chose the outdoor patio dining, complete with child-size plastic chairs and tables. (Somehow I doubt the embassy would have approved.) I’m just over six feet and 200-plus pounds and I could hear some snickers as I sat on my kindergarten-sized chair. No one spoke English, menus were in Vietnamese and without pictures. We pointed to what other patrons were having and enjoyed a nice Vietnamese dinner complete with ice for our beer. We didn’t intend to become “regulars” there, but the other restaurants were Chinese, Indian, or KFC (common in Vietnam). It was even harder to find a Vietnamese restaurant (U.S. embassy approved, anyway) in Ho Chi Minh City. There you can eat in a German bierhaus, Thai, Chinese, Indian, even a place that had cheeseburgers, and KFC.

In graduate school I had several Korean friends who introduced me to many spicy and pungent foods. In Seoul we found Japanese, Chinese, and Indian restaurants, Dunkin Donuts, and Outback Steakhouses. Some colleagues took us to lunch at an upscale Korean buffet complete with spaghetti, broccoli cheese soup, New York cheesecake, sushi, and a Korean cold salad of baby octopus and cucumbers. Our quest for biminbap was achieved when our colleague in Seoul took us to a small second-floor walkup Korean restaurant.

What will Vietnamese students think of Terre Haute’s cuisine? If one asked me for a recommendation of a good restaurant, but one where I eat, presumably for authentic American (Terre Haute) cuisine, do I say La Isla? “American food” is from all over the globe. Sure American food is a big steak and a potato, a hamburger, and chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes. Yet, so is the Chinese buffet, the pizzeria, Pino’s, and The Saratoga. What about the Umi Grill?

I erred in thinking that local Vietnamese and Koreans would show an ethnic allegiance to their cuisine. I don’t. So why should I expect them to.
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