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