The Idyllic Mai Chau Valley. Standing here is like being in the middle of a postcard of rice fields. A slightly cooler part of the country, it is the perfect location to enjoy beef noodle soup or pho bo as it is called in Vietnamese), the national dish of Vietnam. Fabulous, Asian-style beef stock, chock full of rice noodles, herbs and pickles, this dish is a meal in itself. Read on about our surprising village visit that ended up being the social highlight of our trip to Vietnam.
Long-time readers would appreciate we are keen hikers. But hiking in the tropics can be a problem in terms of heat and humidity. But here in the Mai Chau Valley, we had elevation, less humidity and less heat. Our excellent hotel the Sol Bungalows organized a guided, morning hike through the hills and rice fields with a late morning visit to a village household. Little did we know this would turn into a riotously funny, all-day affair.
Mai Chau Valley Rice Fields
Our guided hike started normally enough walking through some remote villages outside the town of Mai Chau but at the end of our hike we visited a local house for a late morning cup of tea and to observe life in a typical village house.
Our hosts were a retired, Vietnamese army officer and his wife, who was busy on her sewing machine. Also present were one other couple, (guests on the hiking tour) our guide and our driver.
After our tea, our host offered us some “water” from his water dispensing machine, the type you see in many offices around the world. He carefully poured the water into a plastic water bottle and offered us each a small glass. Well what you can probably guess is that it wasn’t really water, it was rice whiskey! Being the perfect host our small glasses were replenished but alas the wattle bottle was drained and our tour was surely at an end.
Oh no this continued for some time! The plastic water bottle was replenished and another round ensued. By this time the conversation was really warming up and our hostess stopped sewing and also joined in the fun.
We couldn’t speak Vietnamese and they couldn’t speak English but there was a lot of communication going on there and much laughter. Eight water bottles later and at about 3pm we rolled down to our vehicle, whereupon our driver (who had abstained) safely drove us back to the hotel in Mai Chau. Needless to say we had a nap when we arrived back at the hotel!
This may have been our favorite day in Vietnam. Lovely people. Here was a retired (North) Vietnamese military man hosting an American, Australian, French and German guests. Despite the fact our countrymen fought against this man’s people in their own country, this man couldn’t have cared less. Which just goes to show the real people (not the politicians) just want to get on and enjoy life. We had a great discussion with the help of our guide and translator about children, education, work, food and life in general.
It was just one of those days that grew out of nothing and was such a positive experience we will never forget.
French Influence in Vietnamese Cuisine
In addition to hiking in the area around Mai Chau we also took the opportunity to cycle through the rice fields. It was very interesting to note the fields are all tended manually, no equipment here, everything done by hand. It is back breaking work.
Rice is the staple crop throughout all of Asia, eaten in a variety of forms, rice noodles being one of the more popular forms. But as we have learned, the French brought some of their own techniques and applied them to the local ingredients.
There is little doubt that the French have had a wonderfully positive influence on Vietnamese cuisine (as well as neighboring Cambodia, Laos and to a lesser extent Thailand). The French introduced cattle (specifically bred for beef) to Vietnam as well as a range of vegetables and fruits including tomatoes, carrots, cucumber and more. Baguettes and pate are also key ingredients in Banh Mi, another classic Vietnamese dish.
Beef Noodle Soup or Pho Bo
The base of beef noodle soup or pho bo is a rich beef stock, cooked for many hours. It is a classic beef consommé, albeit flavored with Asian herbs and spices. Luke Nguyen, a popular, young Australian chef of Vietnamese descent has just completed a television series tracing the French influence on Vietnamese cooking. It was fascinating. He claims beef noodle soup or pho bo is based on the French dish “Pot au Feu”. You can read an article here about the French influence on pho.
Beef Noodle Soup or Pho Bo, is becoming increasingly popular all over the world. And why not? When we first glimpsed the picturesque valley of Mai Chau with its stunning rice fields, totally surrounded by mountains, we knew this was the place to feature this great dish. True, beef noodle soup or pho bo is eaten all over the country, but up here with its slightly cooler climate, it seemed like this was the place where you would most enjoy this lovely beef noodle soup.
So after hearing about the great hospitality and cycling through those wonderful rice fields please enjoy beef noodle soup or pho bo, the national dish of Vietnam. It is eaten here at any time, breakfast, lunch or dinner. And yes and it goes very well with rice whiskey!
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