Hoi An,Vietnam — After the war and failed flight overseas,after her father’s persecution and the knowledge of hunger,it was the miracle of the crispy pancake that changed things for Trinh Diem Vy.

Hoi An,Vietnam — After the war and failed flight overseas,after her father’s persecution and the knowledge of hunger,it was the miracle of the crispy pancake that changed things for Trinh Diem Vy.

That pancakes save lives is not sufficiently known. That Vy’s family pancake — a savoury rice-flour creation turned a warm yellow by turmeric and stuffed with shrimp,pork,bean sprouts,star fruit,mixed herbs,green banana — can reconcile a war-ravaged nation like Vietnam is a truth this woman has lived.

Hurt still inhabits her eyes. Vy’s father worked with US forces during the war. When America lost,retribution came for him in the form of Communist “re-education.” Unable to put food on the table,he would bang his head against the wall in frustration. Attempts to flee in 1975 and 1978 failed.

“The second time we got as far as a fishing village and there was this woman with blackened teeth,spooky-looking,” Vy tells me. “She offered us clams in a broth with sweet potatoes,and I did not want to eat it but my mother made me. And the comfort of it spread through me. I guess I learned early that when I feel a deep stress,the only place that brings me back is the kitchen.”


It was a quiet morning in Hoi An on the central Vietnamese coast,a scent of lemon basil in the air. Old folk were dusting porches with brooms of bound thatch.

Just down the coast,at Danang,the first American marines landed in 1965,and the war soon escalated. Vy smiles at me: “During the hunger,I understood that food was life. Now I look at all the fresh ingredients and it brings back my energy.”

I’m a big believer in the stress-dissipating,difference-bridging kitchen. Nothing dissolves angst as fast as culinary creation. I look forward to the first Israeli-Palestinian food festival and the inaugural Indian-Pakistani gastronomic fair. Visceral enemies betray themselves in the similarity of their foods. We know from the Bible how blood brothers slay each other.

Vy,now 40,saw all the killing as a child. She knows the millions of dead beneath the shimmering green of the rice paddies. She saw how the collectivisation of the Communist victors could keep rice from tables. Survival,she understood,comes first; then comes the rest.

The rest began with that crisp pancake,the signature dish of the tiny restaurant her family opened in 1980. From the first,it was about balance of taste and texture. For Vy,there are five essential elements of taste — sweet,sour,hot,bitter and salty. But they demand the five elements of texture: crispy,crunchy,chewy,soft and silky. In their marriage lies the harmony that reconciles.

Locals came. They chewed and talked. So did occasional visitors. The yin-yang pancake was deemed good. Former foes agreed on that.

Vy liked the feel in her hands of the mangos blotchy from the sun,the coarse-skinned pomelos,the turmeric root gnarled as ginger,the crinkly rice paper and crisp-stemmed morning glory. She mused on her future — and took a practical romantic step. He was from the North,of “clean background,” and so he opened party-controlled doors. Was it a loveless marriage? “Let’s say we are modern friends.”

So it was that the daughter of a man who fought with the Americans married into a family that fought against the United States: of such compromises has Vietnam’s fast-growing prosperity been built. And so it was that Vy got authorisation to open her own restaurant,“Mermaid,” in 1990,about the time that the Communists were deciding socialism was really whatever made the people happy.

Vy now has four restaurants. She’s a successful entrepreneur in a country where communism is capitalism. She dreams of the quiet life but “is riding the tiger” for now.

Vietnam induces wonder. All the French blood,American blood,Vietnamese blood,the decades of war,has been conjured away. Nations where women are succeeding and compromise is prized are capable of that. Vy has balanced out the past. Women do that a lot better than men.

She worries about the speed of development now,tells me “we are selling the young rice” (a Vietnamese metaphor for being impatient),losing the life of the spirit to globalised material things. Prospective daughters-in-law need no longer prove their worth by preparing a good “pho” — the national broth. “People want shortcuts,but in cooking there are no short cuts,” she says.


With that Vy offers me a wonderful banh mi op la,that marriage of the French baguette,eggs,chili,fresh herbs and spices that in itself seems almost worth a colonial war. The banh mi is an act of balance like Vy’s inspiring life.

The New York Times