When American Soldiers Met Vietnamese Cuisine

Photo
When American Soldiers Met Vietnamese Cuisine
A family eating in a Vietnamese village in 1969. Credit Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

When I returned to Vietnam in 2015 — my first visit since serving there with the Army in 1967 and ’68 — I was a bit nervous about how my wartime experiences would match up with today’s realities. One of my biggest worries was how I would react to the food.

I’ve traveled the world over the past 50 years, so I wasn’t afraid that the food served in Vietnam today would be too exotic or unpalatable to my Western tastes. But I was also coming with a conviction to do something I had carefully avoided in the ’60s: eating it.

Modern Americans, who have lived with Vietnamese cuisine for decades, might find my youthful fear of the local cuisine a bit strange. But America in the 1960s wasn’t just a less cosmopolitan place, with a less adventurous palate; the food I encountered — and avoided — in the field was a far cry from the Americanized pho and bahn mi dishes that we think of as “Vietnamese” food today.

Those people I encountered in the field, far away from Saigon, led an elemental, communal lifestyle that Thoreau would have celebrated. Most of the population in the rice-growing region existed in pre-modern isolation on thousands of tiny islets that dotted the paddies.

They had no electricity, as each islet was completely separated from its neighbors, the highway and the rest of Vietnam by an endless sea of rice fields that were typically flooded for much of the year. There was no indoor plumbing, or sanitation facilities of any kind. The people drew their water by hand from shallow wells usually located in a common, packed-dirt courtyard. I never saw anything more mechanical than a single bicycle, which had been converted to use as a man-powered paddle wheel that moved water from one paddy to another during the dry season.

Continue reading the main story

I don’t mean to be offensive, but in my eyes the “cuisine” enjoyed by the people of those villages was equally primitive. The term “farm to table” hadn’t been imagined yet, but whatever the people grew or raised or caught out there in their splendid isolation went straight into the pot. And because the people were literally dirt poor, the same pot was often used for everything from cooking their rice to watering their buffaloes.

One day when I was on patrol, a little girl stopped me and indicated, by sign language, that she needed my help (she spoke no English, and I understood almost no Vietnamese). She wanted me to lift a heavy, solid-wood object that looked like a large plug or bottle stopper. When I did, she pointed to a wooden box on legs filled with a wet, pulpy mass. As I placed the plug into the box, the girl slid an aluminum pan below it and, as the heavy plug pressed down on the pulp, rice noodles extruded from the bottom of the box! Simple, yet effective.

I had no urge to sample this or any of the other food prepared by the Vietnamese. After all, I was from another world, where food was U.S.D.A. approved and, more often than not, served in spotless dishes on clean tables. Sure, in the field we ate C-rations from cans, but those cans were sealed to prevent contamination. And inside, they contained meals like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken noodle soup and fruit cocktail — not delicious, but at least familiar. We were also warned by our superiors to avoid drinking water from the wells and eating local food at all costs, as dysentery and other intestinal maladies were a real threat to us.

Perhaps the most extreme example of a local delicacy that was just too foreign for American palates was nuoc mam — the pungent fish-based sauce used as a condiment on Vietnamese food. These days, nuoc mam can be found in many well-stocked food stores and restaurants here in the United States. But the sauce used so liberally by Vietnamese when we were deployed there — especially the powerful, homegrown version made by those villagers living out in the paddies — bears little relation to the stuff bottled and sold today. Just ask any American soldier who served in Vietnam at that time; it was raw white lightning compared with a fine vintage wine.

Here’s how those villagers concocted their nuoc mam: During the dry season, scarce water is diverted from one parched rice paddy to another, starting with the paddies at higher elevations where streams trickled down from the inland mountains. As soon as the new rice plants established themselves in one paddy, the farmers would create an opening in the field’s surrounding dike, or berm, and allow the water to run into the next paddy. The farmers never let any resource go to waste, so they also made small bamboo traps that they placed in these openings to catch the tiny fish that came with the water. (I never did figure out where the fish came from, as some appeared only after a rainstorm.)

The silvery fish were placed in open pans atop the thatched roofs of the villagers’ homes, where daytime temperatures in the dry, hot season typically reached well into the triple digits. It didn’t take long before the fish melted into a putrid goo that was blended with various ingredients (different villages used different recipes, but they might add hot peppers, lime, vinegar, sugar or water) to make the local nuoc mam. Even in its final form, nuoc mam was potent: Think of the smell of rotten fish, but several orders of magnitude more concentrated and foul. I once had some splashed on my clothes while on R & R in Vung Tao (another story) and hours later was denied admission to the enlisted men’s club because of the odor that clung to me.

Tastes change, and mine have certainly matured from when I was a 19-year-old soldier on my first trip to an exotic land far from the familiar customs and foods I grew up with. And nuoc mam is more refined as well, I suspect in part to make it more universally palatable — or at least commercially viable — to the international set. I recently read an online post that described how nuoc mam is commercially produced for modern diners, using anchovies caught in the coastal waters off Vietnam. It is still pungent, but it’s definitely not the foul-smelling, tear-inducing nuoc mam I remember from “back in the day.” I dared to try it during my 2015 visit and discovered, to my everlasting surprise, that it is tasty and inoffensive.

But travelers who now flock to Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia seeking an “authentic” dining experience need to get out into the more remote countryside beyond their guided tours, and sample the local cuisine doused with nuoc mam the way the locals like it — pungent, powerful and, in so many ways, unforgettable.

Continue reading the main story