Restaurants

With the exception of Sapa, with its range of international and Vietnamese options, dining in the Northwest is often more of a necessity than a delight. The mountains provide little gratification for gourmands. Life has traditionally been extremely difficult up in these high passes, and culinary flair has rarely been at the top of the agenda. Consequently, most of the restaurants in the area purvey very similar, basic fare. Expect plenty of boiled chicken and grilled meat (mostly pork) accompanied by rice and vegetables such as corn, cassava, and greens. Don’t expect much in the way of fragrant herbs or delicious marinades. Here, the staple flavoring agent is pungent fish sauce, often augmented with a boiled egg, which is mashed up and stirred into the salty condiment. Atmosphere and aesthetics are also low on the list of priorities, so you're likely to dine around stainless steel tables under unforgiving strip lighting.

One "pleasure" that you most likely will be unable to avoid while traveling through the highlands is rice wine, or ruou (pronounced zee-oo). Distilled locally, ruou is everywhere and is used as a welcoming drink. It is also drunk at lunch; before, during, and after dinner; while gathering with friends; when meeting with officials; at small and large celebrations; and as a good-luck send-off. Refusing it outright is difficult, stopping once you've started is nearly impossible, and getting sick from drinking too much is easy.

A communal twist on the ruou standard is ruou can (straw-rice wine), which is consumed by up to a dozen people at the same time through bamboo straws stuck into an earthenware jar. First half-filled with manioc and rice husks, the jar is sealed tight and left to ferment for 17 days. On the day of consumption, a water-sugar mixture is added. The sweet, slightly fetid alcohol is downed at weddings and other major celebrations—such as a couple of foreigners stepping into a remote village. It's beneficial that ruou can is more diluted than its bottled brother, which can be anywhere from 60 to 110 proof.

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