We spent our first night in the Mekong Delta in a rural home stay near Vinh Long. These are a popular part of the more adventure oriented tourist experience and I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, it can feel a bit anthropological, with our hosts as exhibits of native ways. Tours tend to bust out the folk dancing or traditional music, and it’s kind of uncomfortable to feel forced into the position of white observer of primitive spectacle. On the other hand, home stays are more or less small B&Bs, which put one’s tourist dollars back into the local economy. And, after all, I did come here to learn about and engage local cultures, especially culinary ones. Going to markets is one way to achieve this goal but staying in someone’s house and cooking with them must surely be another. Yes, it is brokered by a travel company, but sadly I don’t have any friends in Vietnam who would invite me to stay, so this is my next best thing. This home stay was a lot more low key than the one in Northern Thailand, and we spent most of our time cooking taro spring rolls.
After arriving in a beautiful traditional style, high-ceilinged wooden house, we were set to work filling spring rolls. The filling was julienne strips of raw taro, along with some carrot, flavoured with pepper, fish sauce (or salt) and sugar. The taro made the texture squishy yet starchy enough to stick together and shape.
While we were working, a torrential late afternoon rain began to come down. It’s not actually monsoon season, so my title is a bit of a liberty, but it certainly felt like monsoon rains. The roof is covered with bamboo and, in some places metal, which are perfectly waterproof but noisy as hell. We couldn’t hear ourselves speak in the kitchen, so worked in companionable silence, our linguistic barrier overridden for now by the meteorological one. Outside, the garden began to look like a small lake. You could have actually sailed a raft over to the hammock terrace. These would be flood waters back home but here, just a little afternoon rain shower.
Meanwhile, our next task in the kitchen was to deep fry the spring rolls in a wok. For this task, we had cooking sized chopsticks, which I was first introduced to by filmmaker and cook-extraordinaire Ms K. Luckily I am a dab hand with them now and when Mr Lemur and the dour Frenchman who was also staying that night retreated in alarm, I cheerfully added and turned taro rolls with our host. She even complimented my on my chopstick skillz, which it’s lame to feel proud of but there you have it. There’s something really nice about cooking with someone else, and even though we couldn’t really talk to each other, our ability to cook the spring rolls together, turning them to keep them colouring evenly, moving them to prevent sticking, and generally navigating the frying process felt like its own language, another mode of connection.
I learned some useful things too. The taro filling is easy to make and another great vegetarian food idea I’ve got from this trip. Plus, the lattice effect rice rolls come into their own in the frying process as the uneven surface makes for a super crispy exterior. They look really pretty too.
We scoffed them with a steamed elephant ear fish and some amazing stuffed bitter melon soup. Luke Nguyen has a recipe for it in one of this books and I need to track it down and make it when I get home, as it is to die for. I will also be making these taro rolls again, as the next day I bought some of the lattice rolls at the market, to add to my increasing stack of food booty to smuggle home. (I kid, Mr Customs Officer. Dry stuff is ok, right? Right?) The next morning, it was off on another bike ride around the Vinh Long islands to work off some of the feast. This area is beautiful in a way that rather resists photography. There are no dramatic mountainous vistas, but the lush greenery (nourished by all that rain), plentiful fruits, and friendly villages produce someplace interesting at every turn. And everywhere are the waters of the delta, which one way or another provide sustenance for everyone who lives here. Despite my misgivings, it was amazing to stay with a delta village and experience a little of what life is like here.