How has Vietnamese food changed after the fall of Saigon in 1975?

This question constantly comes up whenever I think of Vietnamese food. I've always believed that in order to excel in something you need to dig deep into that subject's roots; in order to understand what conditions caused it evolved into what it is now.

Born in Seattle, 10 years after the war ended, I grew up eating Vietnamese food with a hint of Seattle. During my trip to Vietnam last summer, I discovered a version of Vietnamese food that I had never tasted before. What now? What's going on? Was the Vietnamese food I was familiar with not "authentic"? Curious as to what was happening I was provoked and determined to figure out how things came to be.

Common sense…in order to survive we must eat. How well we eat depends on such variables as food availability, the economy, and our desire or goal for eating. There are those of us who live to eat and then there are those who eat to live. Where am I going with this?

Prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975, South Vietnam which was free from Communist rule; was one of the most advanced nations of Southeast Asia if not the world. There is a Vietnamese saying “Ăn no mặc ấm”, literally translated, Eat to be full, wear clothes to be warm. This describes the most basic requirements of mankind for survival. There is similar saying, “Ăn ngon mặc đẹp” (literally translated, eat delicious food, wear beautiful clothes), which describes how the basic requirements are transformed via luxury. Frankly, with a small amount of money in one’s pockets, one’s goal or desire for eating would probably be for energy to survive. Eating to make you full does not mean the food needs to taste good, likewise eating good food doesn’t exactly mean it has to make you full.

After the fall of Saigon, the nearly half of the citizens of South Vietnam left to flee communist rule. In the remaining half, a majority were either sent to “reeducation camps” or kicked out of there house and sent to kinh tế mới or “new economy”. The nation’s food supply dwindled. Instead of eating rice, people were forced to eat a mix of rice and barley or mung beans, simply because there wasn’t enough rice/food to go around and people needed to eat what they can to survive. As for the economy, everyone had to exchange their money. By exchange, every family had to put their money in the bank and the bank gave them a flat amount of $200 regardless of how much they put in. With only $200 dollars, and a family to feed, cloth, and shelter in a new unstable communist economy, eating delicious food is most likely out of the picture. Piggybacking on that, hundreds of thousands left Vietnam in the years to follow either by foot or boat. These people were usually wealthy, since they had to pay a hefty amount to escape. Thus, those who ate delicious food and wore beautiful clothes took the food culture of a prosperous nation with them.

With that said, after the fall of Saigon a new food culture began to sprout. However, under the harsh conditions at the time, food needed to be good and cheap and filling. So how do you do that? Well….let’s take Pho for an example, instead of making a good broth with 2kg of bones for 10 bowls of Pho, the way it used to be. Now only 200g is used to make 20 bowls of Pho, with the help of MSG…costumers won’t know the difference. To make it filling and cheap dầu cháo quẩy is added. And there you have it, MSG Pho with Dầu Cháo Quẩy << st="on">Vietnam are actually eating, if you don’t believe me take a trip there and see for yourself!

The flavor profile has also changed. For example bo kho and curry, while I tasted these two dishes during my visit I noticed that they tasted alike and I could hardly tell the difference. Bo Kho originated in China and was brought into Vietnam via Chinese colonization. Curry was introduced to Vietnam from India via trade merchants. With the new food culture in Vietnam Bo kho the old fashion way is pretty much nonexistent in Vietnam, because… in order to survive it needs to survive economically. Bo kho made the way it was prior to 1975 is just not marketable. On the other hand, in Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam (or at least in Seattle), the concoction of bo kho and curry just won’t sell. these two dishes are merged into one; gaining one at the expense of two.

If you’re thinking Vietnamese food culture prior to 1975 is only available in Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam…you’re only ¾ right. The thing is during the early years of Vietnamese refugee settlement foreign countries, Vietnamese food ingredients were just not available as it is today. Thus, people had to improvise and do the best with what they had. For example, in states like WA where ngo gai is expensive, it is simply omitted from Pho…it was just a condiment anyways not harm done. Instead of making bánh bò with cơm rượu (fermented rice) it is made with yeast. Although there are a few changes, these changes are small and they have little effect on the overall flavor, and integrity of the dish. Hence, Vietnamese food prior to 1975 is still very much apparent Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. As for what’s considered authentic and what’s not? I’ll let you be the judge. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…or should I say Deliciousness is in the tongue of the taster.

Comments (14)

On 5:49 PM , Anonymous said...

Let's get the fact straight
-Firstly, the "Vietnamese Food" you mention in this article account for Southern Vietnamese food only
-Secondly, MSG was considered an expensive item until circa 1990 and therefore, before 1990, not 1975, Vietnamese rarely use MSG with their food.
-Thirdly, I have visited Vietnam quite often and I have never seen anyone eating Dau Chao Quay with Pho, and I can always tell the the differences between Bokho and curry in Vietnam. Vietnamese curry is similar to Thai's and definitely distinct from Bokho because Bokho doesn't have coconut and Vietnamese never put beef into their curry.

Also this is a very good article (and comments) about "authentic cuisine"
http://vietworldkitchen.typepad.com/blog/2008/04/what-is-authent.html

Food is changing from time to time and we will never have a clear definition of "authentic Vietnamese cuisine". One good example is "Canh Ga Chien Nuoc Mam" which was created in the 90s. Before 1975, this dish simply does not exist. However, no one dare to say that "Canh Ga Chien Nuoc Mam" is not an "authentic" Vietnamese dish.

 
On 10:25 PM , hoangtam/tt said...

I need to get my facts straight?

Northern VN fell into the hands of communism (1954) before Southern VN, and approx. 1 million northerners migrated south in search of freedom. They brought with them traditional Northern Vietnamese flavors. Those still left in the north lived under communist rule and what do you think happened? Their food culture changed the same way it did after the fall of Saigon fell in 1975. Thus, when I'm the "Vietnamese food" in this article, refers to the food of Vietnam as a whole. The food culture that had evolved before harsh communist conditions.

By "MSG was considered an expensive item until circa 1990 and therefore, before 1990, not 1975", are you trying to say that MSG was expensive before the 1990's and thus it was rarely used? Are you sure? I have cookbooks from Vietnam printed in the 60's and MSG is often a listed ingredient. Used the way it was intended, in small amounts to enhance the natural flavors, not to create a flavor like it is used now in VN. Need proof? Even if MSG was expensive, is it more expensive then...let's say beef bones? Are beef bones even available in large amounts at the time? If the demand for a product is low (because people just can't afford something due to communist rule) then what sense would it make make to have a large supply...that you can't sell? Beef bones like other foods don't keep well, especially in VN's hot and humid environment.

Dau Chao Quay (DCQ) has to be ordered "on the side" it's not actually part of the Pho package when you order a bowl of Pho. Have you visited Pho Hoa Pasture, or Pho Le in Saigon's 3rd district, and Pho carts on the streets and markets?

Just because something has coconut milk in it doesn't mean it's curry! what makes curry, curry? It's the spices. The spices used for bo kho and curry in VN today are very similar if not the same! Need proof?

Are you the creator if Canh Ga Chien Nuoc Mam? If not then how do you know it was not "invented" until the 90's? But I'll take your word for it. If it was invented in the 90's then it was invented after "đổi mới", which didn't happen until 11 years after the fall of Saigon. By that time, given 10 years to grow a new food culture had already started to take root in VN.

BTW, my article never said anything about the definition of 'authentic Vietnamese food'. I never claimed the food of Vietnam prior to the fall of Saigon to be authentic, nor did I claim Vietnamese food after the fall of Saigon to not be authentic. I'm just comparing Vietnamese food before and after the fall of Saigon while at the same time, bringing to light how such factors as politics, and the economy can affect how and what we eat.

 
On 1:21 AM , AussieG said...

I'm from Australia and nearly all Vietnamese restaurants here use a lot of MSG. I know that because I'm sensitive to MSG. It is ridiculous to blame the communists for the [heavy] use of MSG.

 
On 1:33 AM , Anonymous said...

Some of your information is inaccurate. South Vietnam was not an "advanced" country, by any standard. An also, not "nearly half" of South Vietnamese fled the country. Need proof? Simple calculation: the population of South Vietnamese at that time is around 17 millions, and the population of overseas Vietnamese now is around 3 millions (half of them are in the States).

 
On 5:32 PM , hoangtam/tt said...

AussieG,

if you think the amount of MSG in Viet restaurants overseas is a lot, the amount used under the communist government is way way more.

Anonymous,

what proof do you have that South Vietnam was not advanced at that time? It was the communist take over that held back the country's development.

Your "simple calculation" that you presented as proof, that it was not nearly half of South Vietnamese population that fled the country is WRONG. Just because there are 3 million living overseas, doesn't mean it was 3 million that fled the country. It was...nearly half, many of them ended up dieing in the middle of the ocean, in the jungles, refugee camps before they could reach freedom.

 
On 5:32 PM , John said...

An interesting take on the subject of Viet food. Very insightful.

Due to the massive exodus abroad after the fall of Saigon, the Viets have become a very diverse people. This diversity has been reflected in their culture, language and cooking.

Viet food in Melbourne would taste different to Viet food in California I'm sure. Likewise, when compared to food in Hanoi.

The same scenario would be repeated if you were to compare dishes for different regions of Vietnam. Every region adds their own flavours.

I see it as the evolution of Viet foods.

There is one obvious common denominator in all of this however: Vietnamese food is considered the world over as being healthy, tasty and cheap to boot! Have you noticed everyone loves phở? ;)

 
On 3:09 PM , Pat said...

Hi! TT,
Just like to add a few words to your comments regarding the food in Saigon after 33 year.
I came to California from Saigon in 1978 at my late teen.
Therefore, the following are my experience regarding why some people would order Dau Chao Quay with Pho and the use of MSG in Vietnam before and after 1975.
Dau Chao Quay with Pho:
For many years and till now, since the time I arrived in America, I have often seen customer in Vietnamese restaurants, (in Southern, California’s), order Dau Chao Quay along with coffee and pho,or noodle soup, but I am not sure if they eat the Dau Chao quary dipping in to the pho bow or not.
However, I am very sure that many Chinese people in Saigon; do eat Dau Chao Quay as a snack along with their morning or afternoon coffee, (before and after 1975). I remember, my Dad and uncles, use to take me out for coffee snack in Saigon (before 1975), in my memories the Dau chao quays, were available at many Chinese Wonton noodle and dim sum, Pho, other type noodle soup shops, people would order the fried snack, the noodle soup and coffee at the same time, but it’s more likely that fried snack are eat with the coffee, either before or after they eat the noodle soup.( Like the way Canadian eat soup and sandwiches, with doughnut and coffee as a meal)
MSG:
MSG was not expensive before 1975, but a good cook would not use it at all or use very little in some receipts.
However, MSG was expensive in Vietnam between 1975 till the time when the country reopen for free market. It’s very cheap now, because it’s made in Vietnam. Prior to the time when Taiwanese and Japanese investments enter Vietnam and setup food processing plants there, food chemical like MSG, active dry yeast, baking powder, and many other baking essential were not made in Vietnam, therefore, all imported products between 1975 and 1990’s were expense due to very limit supply, back there.
In the early 80’s many overseas Vietnamese have to sent parcels to Vietnam to help their relative back home, packages of MSG were included along with other foreign made essential goods, which can be sold in Vietnam for a good sum of money.
Many Vietnamese Restaurants in California use lots of MSG too, just as much as there is in Vietnam now a day; I am very sensitivity to MSG so I can tell.
Whenever, my family travel to Vietnam we don’t eat at the big name restaurants much, unless we knewn they are really good. We like to eat food from the local street market shops where we use to eat before we leave VN in 70’s, many of the food we try in Saigon, recently are just as good as they use to be before 1975.

Thank you so much for sharing your good receipts, you are very young and yet very knowledgeable, what a gifted young man you are.

 
On 6:50 PM , Pat said...

Hi tt,
It's me Pat again,

I like to read your blog.
therefore,forgive me for talk too much just this time, normally I do not like to comment.

I was born Saigon in the 1960’s and live there until 1978.
Here are some of the facts: regarding some of your information about South Vietnam before and after 1975.
Prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975, South Vietnam was not one of the most advanced nation of Southeast Asia, because of war and a very Corruption government, (the South Vietnam government could not survivor very long after the US withdrawn from south VN in 1973.
Yes, in the years after 1975 many people were forced to eat rice mix with barley or sweet potato (khoai mi, Khoai lan) not mung beans (mung beans were in shortage at that time too), almost everything were in shortage in the years after 1975, that was one of the reasons the wealthy people in the south who got gold bars flee the communist rule.
Maybe nearly all of the wealthy citizens in Saigon or the South left Vietnam in the late 1970’s and eventually apply to sponsor their relative and family to join them overseas.
I don’t think half the citizens of South Vietnam have left, while some South Vietnamese were very rich but there were far more poor people in the country than the rich. You have to pay the communist a large amount of gold for a permit to leave (something like 15-20 oz of gold a person = 10 to 15 Vietnamese gold bar). I’ve seen a lot of poor family in South Vietnam before 1975, therefore, don’t think half the citizens in South Vietnam got 20oz of gold each to pay for the boat trip. Even those who took the train to North Vietnam and walk cross to china then flee to HK would cost as much as 5 or 10oz of gold per person. 10oz of gold outside Vietnam were not much but that amount of gold back in VN at the time could support a large family for many years.



Sincerely,

 
On 2:35 AM , hoangtam/tt said...

Hi Pat!

Thanks for writing. A few things to ponder...

Re: Dau Chao Quay and Pho
As you probably already know…better then me. Pho is from Northern Vietnam. Dau Chao Quay is of Chinese origin. The group of Northern Vietnamese refugees (that left in 1954) settled mostly in Bien Hoa, Dong Nai (North of Saigon), Ong Ta. While most Chinese settlers settled in Cho Lon (Saigon’s Chinatown), or Mien Tay (Mekong Delta). So the marriage of Dau Chao Quay and Pho was… in a way, geographically restricted. Yes, Dau Chao Quay was often sold in with Chao, Hu Tieu, and as a snack but keep in mind that Chao and Hu Tieu all have Chinese roots.

Re: Vietnam being one of the most advanced countries in Southeast Asia
How should I put this? I don’t want to mention/compare other southeast asian countries with Vietnam. But, if do a little research (look into the history of countries neighboring VN) you would discover that most of them they did not gain independence and thus did not begin to blossom until the 1960’s. Although there was a war in VN, when the French left they left behind an abundance of knowledge (from medical –thuoc tay to fashion – ao dai tay raglan), and architecture. The Americans further advanced the nation through ideas of democracy and freedom, music, etc…

Re: Eating rice w/mung beans
During the shortage of mung beans, was the cost of mung beans higher then rice? Rice takes 6 months to grow, while mung beans take 3-4 months.

Re: the # Refugees that left VN after the fall of Saigon
It’s hard to come up with a number of refugees just base on the amount of money/gold it cost to flee the country. To my understanding, it was only people with Chinese ancestry that could pay the govn’t a certain amount of money (gold) to legally leave the country. Others left illegally, many by foot, and by small fishing boats which they owned (if they didn’t own it, the cost was only around as 3oz/bars of gold). Many people had family who had already made it to freedom that sent them money so they could flee the country. Others hitched a ride with neighbors. Let’s say we’re neighbors and I had a boat which I planned to use as my vessel to freedom. I’ll give you a ride if you provide the food, our other neighbor also got a “free” ride because they agreed to provide gas, etc… There were also some people who partially paid what they can and paid the remaining cost when they reached freedom.

Re: MSG, Let’s do some math...

Let’s say we need: 5g of MSG

We can either buy MSG or extract it ‘naturally’ from food (meat, veggies, etc..).

Let’s use tomatoes as an example (since they’re naturally high in MSG) and set their cost at $1.50/500g. Since MSG is expensive due to its limited supply, let’s set its price at $15.00/500g (10 times the cost of the tomatoes).

For every 100g of tomatoes there’s 140mg of natural MSG (according to wikepedia).

1000mg = 1g. So, to extract 5g of MSG you will need 3571g of tomatoes. At $1.50/500g, 3571g of tomatoes will cost you $10.71

If 500g of MSG costs 15.00, 5g will cost you .15 cents.

Let’s say MSG cost 100x more then tomatoes. $1.5 (cost of tomatoes) x 100 = $150.00
At the price of $150.00 for 500g of MSG, 5g will only cost you $1.50, still cheaper then using tomatoes!

So, even if the price of MSG was 100x higher, it’s still the better investment! As a matter of fact, MSG would have to cost about 700x more then tomatoes in order to break even. Did MSG ever cost 700x more then tomatoes? I doubt it.

Note that, tomatoes are high in MSG, beef (…back to Pho again) only has 33mg of MSG per 100g. You would need about 4x more beef then tomatoes to extract 5g of MSG. If that was the case, then the cost of MSG would have to be more then 2800x the cost of beef in order to make using beef the better/cheaper decision. It seems unrealistic to me that MSG would cost 2800x more then beef.

If the cost of ingredients is high then the price of a bowl of Pho would also have to be hiked up. When prices are too high in a depressed economy it means…no or little sale! Furthermore, MSG is colorless, odorless, and keeps well and is easy to use (just add it in). On the other hand, fresh fruits, veggies, and meats do not store well, and requires a bit of ‘effort’ when using (wash, cut, cook, strain, etc...). So...MSG or not...you be the judge.

Cheers! :)

 
On 10:50 AM , Anonymous said...

after I had read your information from MSG you are correct.
due to communist everything is limit it made people had to used
MSG to substitute.
most of the People that I knew came after 75 they used alot of MSG in everything they cook.
before 75 we only use about 1/2tsp the most in our soup.
thank you for your information
some people whose do not understand the communist or live with them they dont know what they are talking about. Until they live with them then they do know how communist run the country it is a corruption.

 
On 3:31 AM , Anonymous said...

For your reference TT,
DAU CHAO QUAY & PHO: HU TIEU & P, both have rice noodle (banh pho) but different broths. Chinese people sell HT with pork broth & HU TIEU BO KHO at Mekong Delta. They put DCQ & BANH TIEU on the table, if you take some then those are counted in your bill later. They also sell HU TIEU BO VIEN with pork broth & beef balls at Saigon & nearby regions & of course DCQ & BT for people as side orders. Beef broth is for P BO. Chicken broth is for P GA. By the way, the "NOSTALGIA P" was shy with its full clear broth (maked up with a whole green onion) just like the light yellow silk long dress (plus a leaf hat) that cover all generously to keep your heart warm until the last bite! Nowadays, the "OVERSEAS P" is so sexy, showing off all the "meat" stuff!
VNCH being one of the most advanced countries in Southeast Asia: The U.S. & allied troops spent their money in South VN in the same way nowadays overseas Vietnamese people send & spend their money back in VN that boost the country's economy. Allies had not only their troops in combat but also in support activities. They brought volunteers to teach English. They gave jeeps & books to government offices (one Korean book was about "God is dead" that made Vietnamese senior high students wondered: Ginseng Root! Could write a book like that huh?), books & pianos to high schools, & offered foreign exchange student programs. They broke down mountains for materials to repair roads & build bridges consequently open jobs to Vietnamese people. They built TV stations to entertain their soldiers & then the South people had them as well. Moreover, the South government had a chance to go along to have supply materials for their hospitals (American doctors once agreed that the South doctors did so well in surgery because of experience in helping people injured by the war) & vocational training centers. Those South people had a chance to have automobiles, shopping centers (TAM DA, TAX), supermarkets & got familiar to some brands: Canon, Colgate, Jergens, Longines, Max Factor, Ray-Ban, Revlon, Tide . . . There were some of the innocent north soldiers crying out when they stepped in SaiGon: People here are so wealthy! Why we have to liberate them?
Eating rice w/mung bean: People from the Middle often eat mung bean rice soup, especially HUE people (Chinese people prefer red bean). After the massacre at HUE during the TET OFFENSIVE many HUE people had to abandon their hometown. They've brought with them the habit eating mung bean rice soup just like the northern people brought with them the habit eating water spinach. And people would eat mung bean rice soup rather than barley that they said: Even horses don't want it! Still there were people who worked for the South government that were stuck with the fall of Saigon so they had to go to new cities to avoid of being chased down. They had to open up some new lands to help their families survive as well as support their relatives in reeducation camps. The North government also brought their people to some new lands in the South, those people were so happy to have lands to work to produce agricultural products. As a result, mung bean wasn't expensive nor shortage that's why SaiGon students could have a small hot bow of sweet whole mung bean soup at midnight after wandering in sorrow about their lost city for just 2 Vietnamese dollars at the time!
The # Refugees that left VN after the fall of Saigon: People have their own experience according to their environment that they live in. If you attended Saigon Law School then you probably knew the fate of South VN was decided since 72, 73 Agreements. If you majored in history & geography at Letters or Pedagogy School then you knew there were foreign ships hanging about the open sea of the overturned nation & you'd rush to VUNG TAU to flee on the black April 75. KHANH HOI people had experience from the evacuation 54 so they rushed to the Saigon river trying on board the last VNCH navy ship. People from countryside once were tortured & forced out of their lands by communist guerrillas that had better jobs & better life in seaside cities then they knew they had to run as far as they could from the north invasion. They rushed to PHU QUOC island & then went on board the U. S. 7th fleet at the open sea. People that missed the chance to run for their lives often joked: Even the electric posts wanna leave if they had legs! Later on, people that once consoled themselves with the thought "poor but peace" had to let their boys go overseas at risk because they didn't want to contribute to the Cambodia invasion!
MSG: Besides MSG Vietnamese food sellers in VN also use "DUONG HOA HOC" (that causes the weird sweet taste) without label carrying doses & expired date (even some wet & dirty stuff in an aluminum bow) that's why we never know what it is for sure consequently we couldn't use English to name it! By the way, my greatma natural MSG was young coconut. She used to put its juice & its soft jelly like meat in her duck rice soup. Have you ever tried it? SYK

 
On 7:08 AM , Kathy said...

Dầu Cháo Quẩy is only served in Hanôi, not in HCM City, and MSG is used like crazy also in Hanoi. However, cannot blame using MSG for communist, because i have traveled and most of the Asian country use MSG. By the way, the quality of food now is terrible, you dont know what you are chewing in your mouth. And thanks to China, the population of the world will reduce very soon!

 
On 9:44 PM , Anonymous said...

Wow, such heated debate over MSG and DCQ... I'd like to put in my 2 cents... TT is not off base when she connects the greater usage of MSG with govt. controlled shortage. In the US during WWI bc of the shortage and rationing of dairy products (used to make butter) people used margarine as a substitute (this continues today). With the end of the War in 1975, new govt., and being cut off with global trade, VN had shortages in meat products, thus forcing people to use artificial substitutes such as MSG. Many older VN ladies are used to using MSG bc that's what they had to deal with for so many years. Many younger cooks such as us, don't use it at all.

Keep up your good work TT.

 
On 7:55 AM , Anonymous said...

I hate MSG. Greed is number one cause in restaurant business. I would rather pay a bowl of Pho* $7, $8 with all natural ingredients rather than cheap soup with plenty of MSG. You can say that a little bit of MSG brings out the flavor but too much will give us all kind of side effects (thirsty, dizzy, headache, etc...) By the way, due to seval complaints that drove some restaurants out of business, most of the Pho* restaurants are now use less MSG. Hoorrayyyy!!!!
Keep up the good work Hoangtam. I admire you....