Nothing to do and nowhere to go, we’ve been yearning to say that for a few days now as this sleep in time has no finish time we can determine. There is one thing that must happen today of course and that’s to top up on our junkie fix with another bowl of Cao Lau, but the scratching fit and shivers haven’t set in yet leaving our world encased in plush bedding and cool air. Minute by minute the requirements of this day queue up one by one with coffee knocking on the door demanding attention. Let the day begin.
In Buon Ma Thuot, the coffee capital of Vietnam, we were treated to a taste sensation at Trung Nguyen and it’s no great surprise that seeing as there’s a Trung Nguyen here we’re on our way. The heat builds like a tide earlier in the morning than we’d like in sleepy streets that look every year of their historical age. The base of every wall bares scars of flooding which lead to only slightly less tarnished facades above, the old town of Hoi An is from another time and ages with the grace of a vintage star of the stage, never intending to mask what it is. Just as people have done here for as long as these buildings have been writing their stories, we veer into a phó restaurant more akin to a shop with an open front and no fittings beyond the customary stainless steel tables and kids plastic chairs; red of course.Barely do we sit before noodles are blanched in enormous pots of steaming broth and lumped into bowls from mesh and bamboo baskets that also deny the year on the newspapers front page peddled along the footpath as it always has been. Slices of rare pork replace the usual beef and the stock, stock that so succinctly encompasses everything that slow food enthusiasts crave is poured over decadently, wickedly. Slow food is a novel idea in our country, the antithesis of fast food where food should take time to grow, to harvest, to prepare and most importantly take time to eat and share. In Vietnam slow food oddly arrives quickly, not a novelty here, just the way it is. It’s not just us, so much of our country can be swept away by the romantic ideal of food in a traditional sense, such an intrinsic part of every persons life has so systematically been destroyed by convenience, ignorance and apathy. In this bowl of phó is everything we want in a breakfast but it’s what’s outside the bowl that defines the romantic ideal of a world that often feels further from grasp than it really is.
We walk slower to coffee, the way we always say we should but rarely do. This place is from a time gone by as well, more polish than patina which also demands an abandonment of pace. And time we take, a small coffee and a juice flows over a space of time we can’t put to a clock face, it’s the space of time it took to enjoy, appreciate and share. It’s a natural evolution really, if we afford the slow food principle to our food we inevitably borrow the idea for ourselves. It’s impossible to overstate the simple, elegant intelligence of Vietnamese food but equally important is the authentic life that your food has before it hits your plate, cup or bowl. After all, you are what you eat; slow down.All this slow pace makes me hungry and the market is at least ten minutes away. We waited till the evening for Cao Lau yesterday but no such mistake will be made today, a feisty stroll through the market delivers us to a stall with Cao Lau and Bánh Cuôn Lón. The Cao Lau has the typically silky firm noodles in the forest of green herbs and leaves, a textural wonderland when accompanied by the crispy shards of pork crackling. There is a potential disaster though, Cao Lau might not be the best dish in Hoi An. Bánh Cuôn Lón comes also on a mountain of fresh greens with the firmness of Cao Lau replaced with smooth sheets of steamed rice paper embedded with flavour bursts of garlic, onion and some sort of dried seafood. In nearly three weeks in this herb loving nation we haven’t seen a single wilted or sad leaf, nothing green takes more than a few hours from ground to plate, the humid heat of Vietnam would take sharp care of a green left out for too long as freshness rules the day. We have time, a rice pancake and a spring roll sample simply cannot be passed up; there’s nothing more important to do.
Still time eludes us, this food, this lifestyle that begins with food takes as long as it takes and not a second less, or more. It seems so laughable now how we donate so much energy and time to work in order to get enough money to buy back the health and time we so easily volunteer away instead of spending it on the ideals we work so hard for in the first place. In the cyclic food chain of our own well being just a simple change can cascade through the whole scope of our worlds; more expensive, less nourishing tasteless food replaces the tastier, healthier simple option in search of a simpler option that’s not so simple at all. Is learning to cook a primary building block to not only a healthy life but a cheaper, happier one too?In the time it’s taken to walk from the market to the shoe shop, slowly of course, it all seems so simple, so laughably absurd and idiotic that we could ever think of food any other way. But we do. Charlie’s shoes look like they’ve been made to my footprint but mine are spot on, an obvious mistake but miraculously we’re asked back in five hours time for the remake. Five hours. It baffles me that such a slow life happens so quickly, or are we just so used to distraction?
And slowly the day goes, we taste doughnuts firm and chewy, rice balls gelatinous and soft, potato cakes pastey and dense along with Cao Lau of course. Still the time seems irrelevant in this rapid world of slow food that as it passes our lips never seems all that far away from where it came from. Much of the reason for this trip was to fight off lives that threatened to swallow us, that for a time did swallow us. In our striving for success we ate up everything that was fed to us by a world intent on distracting us from the broth, the herbs, the noodles and the slow world that brings it all to us. It’s an ethic we hold dear and sometimes touch, in Hoi An it’s not spirituality we need to reach a sense of enlightenment, just what’s in the bowl showing us all that’s outside of it.