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New Vietnamese Cuisine : One Last Coffee Before I Go : Transition: After the economic reforms of 1986, but before the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo, one food lover found some of Vietnam's best eating in urban street stalls and tiny cafes.

July 28, 1994|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day I was scheduled to leave Ho Chi Minh City was my birthday. I had spent 11 days in Vietnam, rigidly supervised by the government and prohibited from traveling without watchful guides. That was in 1991. And it was a relief to be in Ho Chi Minh City, where the mood was more friendly and open than in Hanoi.

On this last morning, I walked along tree-shaded Dong Khoi Street to the Continental Hotel. A top-drawer meal in this beautiful hostelry, still imbued with the romance of French colonial life, seemed fitting for a celebration. It had to be breakfast, though, because my flight was set for early afternoon.

Marble floors, elegant columns, crystal chandeliers, intriguing people, an exotic Euro-Asian buffet laid out on starchy white linens: The Continental had it all. And soon I was comfortably filled with croissants and charcuterie , fried noodles, Chinese sausage and succulent sweet fruits including fresh longans, chikus ( sapotes ), pineapple, papaya and the exotic thanh lom. When cut into wedges, this large red-skinned fruit looks like white poppyseed cake with red frosting. I have not seen it elsewhere in Asia.

Wonderful though breakfast was, something was missing, tugging at my heart. It was this: I simply could not leave Vietnam without a last visit to my favorite sidewalk stall, a place of cheerful camaraderie and extraordinary rich, sweet coffee. The clock indicated I should leave for the airport. Instead, I raced over to Nguyen Hue Street, across from the Rex Hotel, for one last coffee before catching my plane.

*

I had become a regular at this place, where customers perched on doll-sized stools much too tiny for the human frame. Usually, I would have a plate of silky rice dough wrappers stuffed with ground meat, topped with bean sprouts, cilantro and other greens and slices of what the Vietnamese call pork pie, a finely textured cold cut.

The coffee-- ca phe sua-- was quite a production. A small coffee filter dripped its strong brew into a glass containing sweetened condensed milk placed in a cup of steaming water. I would sit in the shade of the pepper trees, reading the English-language Vietnam News and sip this marvelous treat. When the coffee was almost gone, the stall's proprietor would bring over a pot of tea. (This custom of coffee with a tea chaser surprised me, but it is not unique to Vietnam. I found it also on the streets of Bangkok.)

*

One morning, I stopped instead at a wooden cart laden with French rolls. In Vietnam the quality of the French bread is astounding. Nowhere in Los Angeles have I found bread that can compare. Racks of it were set out here and there in Ho Chi Minh City. At this cart, I ordered banh mi pate-- a sandwich. The woman vendor split the bun, dabbed on pate, added bits of charcuterie , marinated carrot, jicama strips, cucumber slices, cilantro, a cloud of pepper and thin chile sauce. It was a fantastic bundle of food for 15 cents. The noodle and coffee breakfast, by the way, was 47 cents; the sumptuous breakfast at the Continental came to slightly more than $4.

Back home, my friend Steve was horrified to hear that I had eaten street food--a lot of it. In Vietnam this is extremely risky, he says. And it was miraculous that I had not become ill. Steve should know. He has gone to Vietnam on countless charitable missions and speaks the language fluently.

But there are risks in restaurants too. I'll never forget a quick restroom stop at what looked like a very pleasant cafe in Hanoi. To reach the restroom I had to squeeze past a tethered pig and a hostile dog in a tiny passageway that smelled horribly.

*

The day after I arrived, my government control, Mr. Qynh, packed me off on his Honda bike to a cafe that specialized in Chinese "rolling cakes." These are sliced rolls of rice dough filled with finely shredded pork, fried garlic and that Vietnamese "pork pie" cold cut. They are meant to be eaten with a sauce and fresh herbs, which I bypassed, although they looked temptingly crisp and super-fresh; rule No. 1 for staying healthy while eating in Third World countries is to avoid raw fruits, vegetables and lettuce.

But the Vietnamese custom is to eat fresh greens with food, so by avoiding them I was missing the point of this appealing light cuisine. It took only two more days to give in.

Three of us were eating charcoal-grilled pork and rice noodles in an alleyway lined with tables and those ubiquitous miniature stools. My guide and driver helped themselves liberally from bowls of chopped garlic, red chiles and rau , the generic name for greens. The assortment included lettuce, cilantro, shiso , bean sprouts, mint and a couple of kinds of basil. I did the same, with no unpleasant aftermath.

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