“Smell” is a terrible word, isn’t it? When we say that something “smells”, we don’t usually mean it in a nice way. So, I struggled with the title of this post. I don’t want to indicate that Vietnam is a smelly place. Quite the contrary, actually.
Cooking. That’s the first thing you smell when you step out of your hotel and onto the streets in Vietnam. The smell of rice paper rolls being fried, of garlic being sautéed in oil and of fragrant soup stocks simmering. Each house or street-side stall that you pass will emit its own unique cooking smells… here you’ll smell meat being grilled, there you’ll smell ginger being chopped. The aromatic food of Vietnam perfumes the entire country.
Mingled in with the cooking smells, you’ll also get wafts of motorbike petrol, of fish from the markets and of banh mi rolls baking. A breeze can bring the smell of the river, vaguely wet-dog like. And everywhere, there’s the background note of damp.
Our hotel has a rooftop terrace with two small family shrines and a plastic table and chairs. In the evenings Andy and I like to take a bottle of wine up to the roof where we watch the sunset. The breeze blows from across the city, bringing us the scents of chickens being boiled for dinner, of fresh flowers from the shrines, of the trash lady’s odiferous cart making its slow nightly trip down the lane. We smell acrid smoke from the ancestor offerings being burned in the gutters, the clean laundry being dried on a line next door and, from 8 miles away, the scent of the sea. It’s a bouquet better than that of our wine to be sure.