I first stumbled across Kim Fay’s culinary travelogue, Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, when browsing a list of recommended reads for tours to Vietnam (oh, if only I were actually going on one). I’m not sure why but at the time I thought that Fay was either Asian herself, or of Asian heritage. Nope, she’s as American as blueberry pie with blond hair to boot. I say this since I still find it utterly amazing that Fay not only lived in Vietnam by herself (she worked as an English teacher during the day, worked on her novel at other times), but that she was there long before the country was the cosmopolitan tourist destination it is today. Ages before tourists visited the cities of Hanoi and Saigon in droves, before tourism was a profitable industry there, before it had really opened up itself to the Western world. A time when the Vietnamese people could still vividly remember the many horrific food shortages that plagued the country in the 1970s and 80s. Yes, a white American woman lived in Saigon then.
The Dalat Palace hotel where Fay and her sister stay at. A hotel from another time indeed.
Fay wants to return to Vietnam in order to truly learn about its culinary scene since she feels that during the four years she lived there previously, she was neither very adventuresome nor cared to really understand the intricate world of Vietnamese cuisine (like many expats, she had her Western food favorites that she coveted). However, older and wiser, she decides to embark on a journey that will take her from the far reaches of the North (beginning in the Old World French city of Hanoi), traversing her way through the entire length of the country with numerous stops along the way (Hue, Da Nang, Dalat), and finally terminating in Saigon, her former Vietnamese home. It’s an ambitious journey for sure but one that Fay was intent on carrying out, along with her sister who acted as her book’s official photographer (beautiful glossy color pictures are included throughout the book, both of dishes and of Vietnam), and an old friend from her Saigon days who acted as the de facto translator. (Kim picked up very little Vietnamese; I don’t blame her though, as Vietnamese seems like an extremely tonal language which equates to extreme difficulty for a Westerner to learn).
In each of the cities and towns Fay and her “entourage” visit, she focuses on a dish that is unique to that specific place (just like cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia and gumbo is to the state of Louisiana). By focusing on just that one dish, she really gets to know and understand the city she’s visiting.
Fay became obsessed with Cơm Hến (clam rice), a popular dish in Hue
In addition to Fay’s beautiful descriptions of the food and of course the country, I also truly loved reading about the Vietnamese people. So many that she encountered, complete strangers, sounded absolutely delightful and utterly kind. Although I’m sure that to many of them, a blond Westerner seeking out authentic food, not “those” spots just for tourists, also touched their hearts (Fay and her group often get mildly annoyed when they ask for recommendations to authentic dining spots, they’re referred to “clean” establishments serving large numbers of Western tourists). And the fact that the last chapter ends in Saigon, where she is given a cooking lesson by her former Vietnamese mother (while living there she was “adopted” by a local family, even though only the children spoke English, the mother none). It just goes to show you that food really can transcend borders and languages.
One of her main reasons in wanting to go back was to share with her readers that there is more to Vietnamese food than just the ubiquitous Phở or Vietnamese spring rolls. It really is true that many Americans will be most familiar with these two items. While I had heard of some of the other dishes that Fay discusses in her work, the majority I had not. And sadly, after reading it, I went online to peruse some of the menus of Vietnamese restaurants in the Pittsburgh area. None had the more unique Vietnamese dishes, although I’m sure in larger cities with sizable Vietnamese populations, I’d probably have better luck.
I’m not sure why but Vietnam is a country I have always wanted to visit. Believe me when I say that Communion is probably the best primer to prepare for an upcoming trip there-food, tourist destinations, the people-it’s all here. And if you’re like me and have no trips planned to Vietnam on the horizon, then just enjoy it in the meantime…until you do.