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New Vietnamese Cuisine : Good Morning, Vietnam : Food: A new political openness in Vietnam has led to a renaissance in cooking.

July 28, 1994|NINA SIMONDS

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — Lately the area around Cho Ben Thanh Market has been booming. Sidewalk vendors are hawking luscious fruits, luring pedestrians by holding up picture-perfect samples: plump mangoes, star fruit, custard apples, sweet longans, smelly durian. Crowds gather around freshly picked vegetables, heaped in mountainous piles, still glistening from the fields. Freshly baked baguettes, meticulously arranged in pyramids, sell at a brisk pace.

The rest of Ho Chi Minh City is thriving too. All over town, seas of scooters, cyclos (a bicyle version of the pedicab), '60s-era American sedans and the latest Japanese cars form traffic bottlenecks around the numerous construction sites where hotels, office buildings, restaurants and high-rise structures are being erected. The rate of progress is daunting.

Not long ago, of course, life was not so upbeat. After the Communist takeover in 1975, Saigon retreated into a bleak, gray existence. The entire country limped along as government officials attempted to reinstate a ravaged economy.

One still sees reminders of this period throughout the country, and Hanoi is several paces behind Ho Chi Minh City. Market shelves nationwide were rather barren until 1986, when the Sixth Party Congress adopted sweeping economic reforms that encouraged small-scale private enterprise and foreign investment and loosened agricultural policies on individual farming practices. Almost overnight, market stalls, food stands, shops, small restaurants and hotels sprang up.

Binh Duong, chef-owner of Truc Orient Express restaurant in Hartford, Conn., and co-author of "The Simple Art of Vietnamese Cuisine" (Prentice Hall: 1991), has returned five times since he left in 1975 and has monitored the changes carefully. "The first time I returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 1988," he says, "I was a little disappointed in the food. All the good ingredients were exported. We ate some decent things in small places near the markets, but the rest was grim.

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"On my next trip 10 months later, things were unbelievably different. The whole city was changing."

Today, Vietnam is like China after the Cultural Revolution. Ho Chi Minh City is a new Asian boom-town. The lifting of the U.S. trade embargo last February merely heightened the trend, and all aspects of the Vietnamese culture are beginning to feel the benefits--especially in the area of food.

For the first time in many years, restaurants (and not just street stalls) are besieged with customers. Fabulous ingredients are now in plentiful supply and residents are reporting that cuisine is finally returning to the level of refinement it enjoyed before 1975.

There are also new restaurants, many of which are the offspring of returning Vietnamese. A few, in addition to reproducing classic Vietnamese dishes, are introducing a repertory of innovative dishes, combining culinary influences from several cultures. Some might christen it the birth of the new Vietnamese cuisine.

At the Merlion restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamese, Chinese and Singaporean elements converge on a menu that offers grilled prawn paste on sugar cane, spring rolls, simmered prawns in coconut juice, chile crab and steamed black chicken with Chinese herbs.

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At Le Mekong, a converted villa several streets away, haute French reigns, but there is a hint of Vietnamese influence in dishes like fresh prawns sauteed with lime and garlic butter and chicken with lime sauce.

This growing interest in innovative Vietnamese cooking is not exclusive to Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, the movement is far more advanced abroad.

Last year, Clayton Parker, who is director of operations for Elite Concepts, a restaurant development firm in Hong Kong, oversaw the creation and opening of the sophisticated Hong Kong Vietnamese restaurant, Indochine 1929.

The restaurant, Parker says, came about as a result of the current fascination with all things Vietnamese. Parker, his head chef, Lai Kam Yuen, and manager Aline Ho made several tasting trips to Vietnam to research the new venture.

They found a cuisine in transition--a new sophistication is in evidence, but there are still signs of the post-war past.

"Right now generally in Vietnam, things are still coming from an environment of survival and scarcity," Parker says. "They've been busy just trying to make things right again with the basics sold in food stalls."

At first, the menu at Indochine 1929 emphasized classic Vietnamese cuisine, but that quickly changed. Parker and his head chef have been developing "new" cross-cultural dishes. They especially want the menu to be product-inspired since they import an extensive selection of ingredients directly from Vietnam twice a week.

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