There are two generations of Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray, Melbourne. The first emulates the tile-and-mirror-walled, cheap metal table joints of the streets of Saigon. The architecture sends a message that hosing down the walls could be a priority, the hall of mirrors effect suggests that the appearance of being busy is as important as really being busy. The second generation is identical to upmarket phở chain, Phở 24 with dark timber panelling, dark timber seats, white plates, the appearance that they’re one frappucino short of a Starbucks.
In Footscray, both tend to serve the same menu; interior design is not a handy marker of a great or terrible meal.
Sapa Hills opened in November 2009 and falls into the second generation with the added bonus of shots of the actual terraced hills of Sapa on the wall. The menu isn’t from northern Vietnam – it’s much the same as every other Melbourne pho joint – but there is the occasional plate from the north, like the above bo la lot: fatty and peppery beef mince wrapped in a betel nut leaf (although here, vine leaves substitute(?)), topped with peanuts.
The argot of Northern Vietnamese food is meat and the above is bun cha at it’s blunt meaty best. Grilled thin slices of pork and well charred meatballs with a thin vinegary, green papaya-topped stock. Greens are varied and bun noodle serve are generous.
Location: 112 Hopkins St, Footscray VIC 3011
My worthless superpower is the ability to step into any city in the world and find a joint that serves barbecued pork ribs. Sapa in Northern Vietnam is not a street food mecca but ribs were there to be unearthed, alongside the usual assortment of chicken parts and other innards prepped for the grill on the street just north of Sapa’s central market. The ribs had the heavy charcoal flavour that comes from a long period of rest in a sugar-packed marinade followed by a short and brutal blast over the coals.
One of the barbecue innovations that you see around Vietnam is superheating the charcoal barbecue with an electric fan. I never saw this in Cambodia (possibly as a result of extortionate electricity prices), but it seems to be more common in Thailand as well, especially as a technique for heating a charcoal-fuelled wok burner.
Each Sunday in Bac Ha in mountainous Sapa, Vietnam, subsistence farmers from the surrounding hills descend on the normally sleepy market to watch tourists perform feats of amateur ethnography and find new ways to trivialise their culture.
Local hilltribes get into their Sunday best to hit the market mostly for mod-cons and consumer durables: new lightbulbs, fabric printed in Flower Hmong patterns imported from Hanoi, kitchen implements, traditional musical instruments (above). At the entrance of the market is my favourite moment of staged authenticity: a photo booth where tourists can pose for a shot with their selection of garishly-dressed local women and children against an equally garishly printed waterfall backdrop. Travellers are then shuttled off into the nearest village so that they can capture the smiling local kids for posterity in their more authentic setting.
Because I feel uneasy treating subsistence farmers as a tourist attraction by virtue of their silly hats, I hit up the (mostly) ethnically Vietnamese vendors for food.
The weekend meat of choice seems to be slabs of incredibly fatty local pork. I don’t think that I’ve ever visited a market so pig-centric, with a long line of pork-only butchers displaying their cuts on a row of wooden trestles.
This little pig went to market. Belly seems to be the popular cut and butchers cut each slab into more manageable slices to order.
On the ready-to-eat front, I found a vendor selling these small disks of orange rice flour batter, deep fried until crispy on the outside but still chewy. The whole batter is infused with a mandarine/citrus flavour, giving them a slightly tart and sour edge as well as (I assume) their lurid orange color.
The market also does good business in live buffalo, the going rate reported to be around $600 per beast. There is much quiet discussion and consideration of each animal and very little hustle to indicate that a sale is actually taking place.
Location: Bac Ha Market runs on Sundays in Bac Ha, North of Lao Cai in Vietnam.