I prefer, however, unpretentious bistros like the Long Hoa and the Hoang Lan. The two family-run establishments serve such local specialties as chao gia, or spring rolls; prawns skewered on sugar cane; steamed grouper with ginger and scallions, caramelized pork and lemon grass chicken with garlic—all doused in nuoc mam, the sauce made from fermented fish that flavors virtually every Vietnamese dish. Tiny curbside stalls beckon, too, serving bowls of pho, the national soup, a mixture of beef or chicken, spring onions and rice noodles, in a broth seasoned with ginger, cloves, coriander—and most important, star anise. The mixture is then topped with soybean sprouts, basil, chilies, lime and mint. I squinted into one restaurant where the menu featured grilled bear paws, sautéed snake in sorghum liquor and porcupine stewed in a concoction labeled "chinese medicine," but I was too squeamish to sample the exotic fare.
(Continued from page 3)