Food for thought

The Guide spoke to Tom Divers about living the Vietnamese way, which ultimately is a great deal about food and his independent travel blog ‘Vietnam Coracle’.

By Duong Nguyen. Photos: Tom Divers on January 19,2016 08:45 AM

Food for thought

Freshly graduated from a London university, Tom Divers decided the next chapter in his life would be in a foreign country. With a degree in Classical Civilisations, he was tempted to head for Alexandria, Egypt. However, a swift change of mind happened within the space of 24 hours and somehow he found himself amid the charms and chaos of HCMC, where he has been living for the last decade and will probably continue to do so for many more years.

As an intrepid traveller Tom has been to many places but now, whenever he has the opportunity travel somewhere, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders, where he finds everything one usually looks for in a travel destination: landscape, food, people, history, culture, adventure, and romance.

On the Western Ho Chi Minh Trail

On the Western Ho Chi Minh Trail

What brought you to Vietnam?

It’s a good question and the answer changes every year. The longer I am here the more I realise why I am here or why I choose to live in this place.

When I came to Vietnam ten years ago I spent a month travelling around the country, cycling from Hoi An down to Mui Ne. I didn’t have any language skills at that time so when things went wrong, for example having a flat tyre or being completely fatigued, I opened up to the kindness of complete strangers. I realised that I really loved the country and wanted to stay here and make my living here.

I started first as an English teacher then the idea of writing a travel blog came along five years ago and ‘Vietnam Coracle’ was born.

It must be challenging working as a blogger?

Writing is a lonely profession but I am quite used to being on my own as an only child and often travelling by myself. Luckily, part of my writing involves going to places and talking to people. At the moment I spend Monday to Friday working on my blog. The whole reason behind doing this is because I love it. If I write something and I am happy with it, that’s fulfilling. If I post it on my blog or social media and receive a lot of comments and shares that is even more rewarding. In the future I wish to live on my blog but of course not compromise on the quality of the content.

Your readership is mostly expats and Vietnamese, right?

Half of my readership is in Vietnam and the rest in the UK, the US, Australia and a few other countries. Comments and emails I have are from both expats and travellers, Vietnamese and foreigners, and that’s exactly how I would like it to be. I want someone who just steps into Vietnam to have the experience I have and also someone who has been living in the country for a while to enjoy it as well.

Living and blogging in HCMC, you must have seen the city change a lot in the last ten years?

It is part of the fun to witness the changes in the city but it is a bit scary as well. Maybe the change is happening too fast. HCMC must be the most energetic city in the entire world. I have been to loads of places but I have never seen a city with such a sense of hyper activities. Tokyo is busy with a lot of pedestrians but it is because all the traffic lights there are synchronised. While in HCMC, things never stop. I have never been to a city that has such a throb.

I think the motorbikes make a big difference?

Yes, you are right. Partly it is because of the motorbikes, partly because of people being outside all the time, and this is not a by-product of the warm weather. Singapore is warm too but people stay indoors all the time in an air conditioned environment, which is depressing. I love HCMC just the way it is.

One of the things I like is there are kids everywhere, literally. In the alleyways where I live are kids at all times of the day and that gives you a ‘kids’ energy. In general, it is good that in Vietnam you are often surrounded by people of all ages: babies, teenagers, adults, old people. There are interactions between generations, which I don’t see much in the UK.

Some foreigners come to Vietnam and are horrified by eccentric food like foetal duck eggs. Do you think they are missing something?

Yeah, absolutely!

I am from England and we eat steak and kidney pie there, which is very weird for my American friends. So things just depend on how you look at it. All the organs that many Western people think are gross are actually delicious, full of flavour and texture and very nutritious.

One thing I have realised is that the stranger the food is the more delicious it is. The foetal duck eggs, for example, are eaten by Vietnamese people of all ages. Kids especially love it. For European people, that is really weird. But the longer you are here and you see ‘normal’ people eat it, there must be something about it.

You eat the egg first and you probably don’t like it but as long as you keep trying, eventually it starts to make sense. Of course it does. Ninety million Vietnamese people eat foetal duck eggs every day or at least at certain times, so of course there is a reason behind it.

Are you determined to constantly try new food?

Yes, it is a conscious effort, it just didn’t happen. For example, I ate com binh dan every day for few months and after a while, when it comes to lunchtime, my body is like ‘I’ve got to have that’.

The same with Vietnamese soups. Some of them are really easy to get into. Mi Quang, for example. Most foreigners would like it immediately, while bun mam is more difficult to get into. But it is always the case - the more complicated it is to get into the more rewarding it is. With something exciting like bun mam you can spend the whole meal listing all the flavours you get. It’s brilliant.

All I can say is that it takes a while to get used to the Vietnamese appetite. I hope my blog and especially shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Unknown Parts will play a massive role in helping people open up their palate.

Vietnam Coracle is an independent guide to off the beaten track travel in Vietnam, at­­­

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