April 5, 2011 at 2:40 PM ET
By Matthew Moll
When travelling to the other side of the world, the one thing you don’t want to stress about is food. After all, you’re on vacation and eating is just inherently enjoyable.
So when my partner and I recently went on a 16-day vacation to Vietnam, we needed a plan of action for how to find the best food, while expending the least amount of energy. The plan needed to be flexible, easy to maintain, affordable and lead to deliciousness.
We decided that the path to the most authentic fare was to eat where there was a wait.
We had no intention of being pretentious food snobs, but we didn’t want to follow a food tour or guidebook, as we didn’t want to end up at typical tourist haunts. By letting the crowds decide where we ate (and sometimes what we ate), we embarked on an adventure that turned out to be incredibly simple and satisfying. When we were hungry, we just looked for a line of locals.
There were a few challenges to this philosophy and its simplicity, but we were able to address them and found we could eat anywhere that had a wait.
1. If the staff and the customers can’t speak English (or more accurately, if you can’t speak their language), just smile and point.
Not being able to use words is intimidating and relying on nonverbal cues to communicate can be both uncomfortable and awkward. The potential payoff is worth the additional hazards, but to get there we needed to accept being outsiders. Our eating credo led us to taking on the informal street stalls that dot the sidewalk landscape of Hanoi and to an alley near the Don Xuan market in Old Quarter.
The stall we chose was crammed with locals who appeared to be regulars and was ruled by a stern matriarch who presided over the vast assortment of grilled and fried meats. The diners lucky enough to have seats ate happily while I stared hungrily at the barbecued pork. Our gratification would have to be delayed (one of the pitfalls of eating where there’s a wait). After about a 15-minute wait, during which we occupied ourselves at a nearby stall and indulged in pho with escargot, we were able to snag a mini stool at the highly trafficked six-top. When I pointed to the barbecued pork, our hostess said, “Chop, chop” and proceeded to dice the barbecued goodness with her trusty scissors. I pointed again, and our hostess laughed. I kept pointing, and by the end, I destroyed two orders of barbecued pork, one order of fried fish, one order of barbequed chicken, and an egg and scallion pancake. I wanted more, but my American gluttony was attracting looks of concern.
The meal was not only satisfying to the stomach, but also to our sense of adventure. We only had this experience because we decided to follow a small crowd and embrace another form of communication.
2. Do not be afraid to follow (and join) the locals.
We looked out of place at New Day Restaurant in Hanoi. Tourists dined there before, travel agencies and tuk-tuk caravans surrounded it. Though we felt that we stuck out, we went unnoticed. The staff didn’t blink and the local patrons were too busy enjoying Vietnamese gastronomic delights to care about us. After a short wait, we joined the feeding. The food was displayed cafeteria-style, but there were just too many options.
I couldn’t handle the intense pressure attached to choosing, so we let the table next to us make all the decisions. We went “Harry Met Sally” and had what they were having. The result was a combination of fried duck, spring rolls, pan fried spinach, pork ribs and sausage wrapped in a mysterious leaf, which we dismantled in record time.
3. It’s rare that this many restaurant patrons die at once, so throw caution to the wind
Self-protection is inherent to any eating experience -- nothing should exit your body prematurely. None of these defense mechanisms were triggered when we chose a street stall where the décor consisted of socks, luggage, and travel ponchos and the bathroom was a gutter in an alley. We put our worries aside simply because of the volume of people. The likelihood was slim we were all eating bad food. The stall was slammed and rather than lose our business, the staff set up a new table under some jackets, this is most likely the VIP area. The result was one of the tastiest bowls of pho we had in Vietnam.
Of course, the results of eating where there is a wait were not always filled with game changing culinary bliss. The signature meal at a traditional Cambodian restaurant in Ankor Wat tasted as if it were made with a heat lamp and one pho stop on the shores of Mui Ne helped me kick my new soup addiction.
Our food philosophy did lead us to some establishments that didn’t have properly functioning ventilation and a loose definition of a toilet, but it gave us a chance to experience the local fare in a way that was exciting and effortless.
How do you like to eat when you travel? Share your experiences and tips!