Price: 5 000 vnd – 15 000 vnd/food item (in short, it will cost you less than 5 bucks to fill your belly)
If you find yourself in a situation where you are cold and hungry in the Northwestern mountain town of Sapa in Vietnam, head to the intersection where Sapa church and the town square meets and be greeted by the fragrant wafts from sticks of roasted meat and barbecue bamboo rice. No matter how apprehensive you are about the dubious-looking slain animal parts and cooking utensils, coupled with a thousand voices ringing in the head telling you to keep your first-world-country-trained (aka. weak) stomach away from street food, you would still find yourself being drawn to it.
It is just a matter of time where you would find yourself sitting on a little plastic stool placed precariously close to the barbeque pit, pointing randomly at the menu and stopping short at a dish called “small bird” at which point both you and your travelling partner will go “eh???”
The ensuing conversation would probably go like this:
1: “eh..small bird? wth is small bird”
2: “er..do they mean..chicken…”
1: “no what..they already have chicken on the menu!”
2: “eee…so is it like those small black birds we see in trees and shi** everywhere”
1: “yew….is that even edible?”
2: -shrugs- “if there is small bird…there should be big bird right”
1+2:- peers down the menu-
tada… BIG BIRD!
So, that was the general flow of conversation between W and I one cold foggy morning at Sapa town last December. The anti-climatic part of this story is that, we did not manage to find out what exactly “small bird” and “big bird” are. haha. (can sense this is a -__- moment)
Out of all the food items we tried, i would say the pork, sticky bamboo rice, chicken wings and bbq eggs were absolutely delicious! The pork and poultry were very well marinated and interestingly reddish in color – very much like our Char Siews.
The sticky bamboo rice was unlike anything I have tasted before. We were deceived by the plain-looking rice and did not think much of it except for the fact that it reminded us of those brownie/scout days where we learnt to cook steam rice in bamboo (so fun!). However, after the tube of rice vanished within a minute of being served, I remembered going through another 2 (or was it 3?) more orders of it before we were completely satisfied (and not to mention, awfully bloated). Halfway through our first tube of rice, the owner of the stall took out a tin can (which looked like it has been through the Vietnam War) and started giving us each a tablespoon full of its contents on our little plates before hand-gesturing to us that it was to be eaten with the rice. The powder-like substance turned out to be a concoction of salt + grounded peanuts and some other spices (couldn’t figure out what it was. not so powerful yet). Whatever it is, it tasted heavenly with the steaming hot stick of rice.
The bbq eggs tasted just like a smoke-flavored hard-boiled egg. It was kind of interesting to consume it straight from a bbq pit though.
The simple fare was great, no doubt about that. However, to me, the essence of a Sapa Barbeque meal was the experience of crouching on those small little stools, gnawing off pieces of meat from a stick and observing the mountain dwellers get about their daily lives. You see people walking in and out of the stone church (did you know Vietnam has the 2nd highest percentage of Catholics in SEA?! because i didn’t!), merchants carrying piles of fake North Face jackets to their stalls, tourists zipping gingerly around the town square on rented scooters, minority tribes with fresh vegetables in their ratten baskets and young children in toll and of course, the BBQ ladies (there were like 20 stalls in a row all selling the same food at the same price!) vying for customers “hello Mam.. hello sir…you want try barbeque? very nice. come come”.
And of course, with Sapa’s cold and foggy winters, you would definitely gravitate towards the warmth radiating out from the row of colorful tents at D Ham Rong. Because i ASSURE you, that the spot right in front of the bbq pit, could well be the toastiest place in the whole of Sapa (because heated rooms are kind of a rarity there for budget travelers).
More on Vietnam’s Queen of the Mountains in a later post..