Announcing a hand-drawn typographic map of Vietnam and its food

Vietnam map (c) Ella Sanders

I came to Vietnam on a whim, a last minute choice to forgo visiting my friend Jana in the Gambia and head to the one Southeast Asian county I hadn’t eaten my way through, despite years in the region. I planned to spend just a few weeks here, perhaps a month.

It was over five months later that I left the country, having extended my visa several times from within Vietnam. At the exit immigration control, the officer flipped through my passport in confusion.

“You have multiple entry visa. Why you no leave Vietnam?”

And ever so seriously I responded, “I came to eat soup, but when I got here I realized there are many more soups than I ever knew about in Canada. So I had to stay, to keep eating them.”

He looked at me and cocked his head to the side contemplatively. He looked down at my passport, a mess of visas from Southeast Asia and the Middle East and elsewhere. And then he leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered “You know, we have many more soups in Vietnam. Maybe you should come back?”

We both smiled.

“I will, don’t worry. I will definitely be back.”

The return

It took me 8 months but I did make it back, taking a crazy series of flights from Costa Rica to Saigon, and then returning again after the Christmas holiday. What draws me here, and continues to keep me engaged and excited, is the culture of food. I’ve mentioned prior that in Vietnamese one doesn’t say “oh, he has a good soul” — instead, the expression translates to “he has a good stomach.” Food, and specifically all the small and continuously calibrating tastes and herbs and spices that balance each dish, are discussed everywhere.

A perfect stranger at a street stall will ask not just “do you like this food” but why — what draws me to this soup, in that moment, at that loud and chaotic intersection where we are both sitting at a tiny table and appreciating a meal? If I merely say that it is delicious, I am prompted to elaborate. Do you like the meat? Do you like the broth? Why are you eating fermented shrimp paste when you are a foreigner — is it because you are Vietnamese-sized?

Food rules the roost in Vietnam, both in Saigon and on my trips elsewhere in the country, and transcends language and cultural gaps.

Bun rieu soup from my favourite roving street vendor.

That’s great Jodi, but what about this map of which you speak?

Right. The map. I’ve long been enamoured with typography, poring over open font licenses (mmm….licenses) and bookmarking the League of Moveable Type and other font sites to drool over designs. Before I left last April I started thinking about a map of Vietnam made with the names of the foods. I envisioned the country shaped by all the foods and words, roughly placed in their area of geographic origin. But I couldn’t find one that I liked anywhere.

Being artistically challenged, I could not do it alone. But Ella, the talent behind Maptia’s beautiful scripted manifestos and delicate header, agreed to work with me — despite my threats to lick my computer screen if the map was as delicious as it sounded.

I sent her hundreds of food names and their relative place on the map, and links to what each of them meant. (For a good primer, Wandering Chopsticks has this handy 100 foods to try in Vietnam post.) We built what I think is a gorgeous hand-drawn typographic map of the country, made entirely from names of street foods.



Vietnam typographic map

I will be launching  an online store later this season, with white on black versions as well as the t-shirt above. And Ella and I had so much fun with this one that we’re already brainstorming for the next country. This will be a series. What country is most delicious after Vietnam? Thailand? India? Mexico? So many options.

There are also posters:

Vietnam typographic map
This is the version I will be selling in my online store, as both t-shirt and poster sized.

That’s all lovely, but where can I buy this t-shirt of yours?

Fine, fine. You can pick one up for men here and for women here. Available in men’s or women’s sizes, and hopefully as beautiful in person as it is in print. Can’t wait to see them in the wild!



39 thoughts on “Announcing a hand-drawn typographic map of Vietnam and its food”

  1. As a lover of food and fonts, I love the design and the concept. I’m already visualizing one for Japan, with the foods written in characters of course. It may be a challenge, but it would look amazing, I think.

    Oh, and that question is classic! “Why are you eating fermented shrimp paste when you are a foreigner — is it because you are Vietnamese-sized?”

  2. Malcolm Jenkins

    This is awesome! I tend to shy away from the typical flashy shirts available all over SE Asia but this one is just incognito enough for me. India would be great for the next round.

  3. Love it! Could you use authentic Tieng Viet characters? I also don’t see some of my favs like pho ga or cha ca la vong, banh mi, or bun bo hue. They should be located near their regional “home”. Any chance of an updated design including these ideas?

    1. Hi Doug, Bun Bo Hue and Banh Mi are already on the map. I opted not to include pho ga since it is a variation of pho and pho bo is there. I wanted to save the room for alternative dishes. The dishes are reasonably placed “near” their area of origin (e.g. canh chua in south, bun bo hue near center) but that’s the best we could do. No, a version with Tieng Viet characters will not be available. Glad you liked the map!

  4. Gorgeous! Such a neat idea! I recently stumbled upon a scratch off map of Europe that was similar to this, once you ate the ‘it’ food from a certain country you were able to scratch that section off and it was colored underneath. Make Thailand your next shirt and I am all in!

  5. Thank you for sharing the anecdote and the design, Jodi! I have been in Vietnam for just over a week now (of a just under 1-month visit) and boy did I not expect how hard I’d fall for it! Less than a day into arriving in Hanoi, I was ready to move here! (It took me only a few more days after that to convince my husband, but wasn’t too tough!) And the food here, oh the food! Never ever did I imagine while living in California (where they say the largest population of Vietnamese expats in the world resides) that there would be both the variety and levels of deliciousness that we’ve already discovered in our short time here! Hurray!

  6. hi Jody. just came across your website tonight, love it. I have been living in HCMC for about 18 months and i share your love for the city and Vietnam in general. Also love the idea for your t-shirt and it’s just the kind of shirt i’d buy except that the names of the Vietnamese foods are not written in Vietnamese script. By not using Vietnamese script for Vietnamese words, most of the words on your t-shirt are nonsense (words that don’t exist) or are indeed completely different words from the ones you are intending to convey. In other words, it comes across as touristy and inauthentic, the opposite of what you or your brand are about. Consider adding the tones and other symbols of the Vietnamese language so what’s written on your shirt makes sense. Regards, your new reader and fan, Alex.

    1. Hi Alex, glad you like the site. It’s Jodi with an “i” – not a “y”.

      As to the shirts, I decided to use the non-script versions because the handwritten typography would have been too fully crowded with them. This way the text is quite open, and it nestles nicely around the outline of the country without being too busy. To be honest, though, it’s also what I’ve found in menus around the world outside Vietnam. (For example, many blogs that write about Vietnamese food do not use the full Vietnamese script, and people are fully aware of the dishes without it) Respectfully disagree that it makes the shirt inauthentic or not functional. The shirt is an ode to dishes in Vietnam, and they are easily read and understood without accents, despite not being the “proper” way to write them.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Being Vietnamese I LOVE that you are doing the first tee with a Vietnam map! As one that appreciates the visual aesthetics, I would have to agree that accents would have cluttered the graphics. I don’t think it detracts from the authenticity at all to not have them as Vietnamese folks frequently communicate in Vietnamese without the accents since not all electronic devices afford the Vietnamese type fonts; we understand each other just fine without the accents.

  8. Happy to say that I purchased the 50th tee-shirt! Campaign is on! Looking to sporting this along with my “I Love Pho” tee. Thanks, Jodi.


  9. Awesome! I usually shy away from the common fancy tops available all over SE Japan but this one is just anonymement enough for me. Indian would be excellent for the next circular. thanks for sharing this nice post.

  10. Love the T-Shirt! And also the story about your experience at the immigration control! I don’t think I’d have the guts to say that to an immigration officer in case they think I’m joking and not taking them seriously!

    1. But I wasn’t joking. That’s why I came to Vietnam :) Yes, I’d likely not say this to an officer entering the USA, but then again coming into Canada I DID tell them “I eat soup for a living” :)

  11. Cool idea – I just got myself back in black as my birthday present from my wife. Good luck with the venture – can’t wait to wear the shirt around ottawa if the snow ever melts.

  12. Pingback: FAQs after 6 years of travel | Legal Nomads

  13. My brother used to live in Vietnam, I’m so sad that I missed the T-shirt campaign by 6 Days! Any chance you will be selling them again, I know someone who would greatly appreciate the shirt!

  14. Hi! I just discovered your blog today through BBC and lemme tell you: A.W.E.S.O.M.E
    Im also from Montreal, moved here from Vietnam as a teenager & I go back to visit often. Your blog will help me a lot in my next adventures. It’s so inspiring to read about you & I do hope one day I get to do the same as you’ve done. I still love my job but one day… :)

  15. Came across your blog from an article on BBC today. Loved that picture of you at the roadside tea shop in Saigon(as most locals still call their city). So real. I enjoyed reading your rationale for leaving the lawyer lifestyle to travel and explore, and not to ‘find yourself.’ I agree that the food in Vietnam is amazing and so diverse as you travel from Hanoi to Saigon. I am always up for the seafood noodle soup Bun Rieu! Can’t wait for the next food destination…Question about the T-shirt: Is there any chance you will bring the black print on white style back? Thank you in advance and best wishes.

    1. Hi Peter, thanks for the note! I’ll be eventually putting both of these into a virtual shoppe (with some postcards with photos that readers have asked for as well). I hope to have this up in the next month or so, and can send your way when it is available. Thanks for the kind words and your support!

  16. I stumbled across your blog and loved the post about Saigon, the city of my teens more than a half century ago and immediately rushed to the teespring site to get the street food shirt only to find that the campaign has closed. The site also mentioned that you’ve sold 10 shirts toward a goal of 10. Does it mean that the shirt will be available again at some future date?

  17. Nice article, but I question it’s veracity. I’ve been going through Vietnamese immigration on a regular basis since 1999. No one has ever even smiled, much less acted in any way welcoming.

    1. Ha, question it all you want, but I assure you it’s true. It also mirrors the many other interactions I’ve had during my time here. The rest of the posts about Vietnam go into them. This is a country that is obsessed with its food; it makes sense that even hardened immigration officers would be enthused, especially when faced with a Vietnamese-sized Canadian with a big smile.

  18. I stumbled across your post and admire your stories. Thanks for the blog. I really like the art piece. I’m going to order both the shirt and the poster.

  19. Love the design! Very big fan of your travels! You are one of our inspirations to start our own blog, so thank! keep it up, we love reading!


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