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.

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Dear Readers,

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While we're on the subject of comments....you've probably noticed that I usually ignore comments that are left by 'anonymous' posters. Reason being, I don't see why I should spend my time answering someone who doesn't even care enough to leave me their name! Why should I? I don't owe them anything...some people need to learn some manners.

Play with your food!
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