Americans have a lot of baggage when it comes to Vietnam. I’m often asked if the Vietnamese like Americans. My response is usually, “Vietnamese people are practical. During wartime, they had issues with the US government, not its people. Visitors, even overseas Vietnamese like me, are walking dollar signs. It’s a poor country and our money goes a long way.”
Travel writer Kim Fay captures some of those nuances in Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam (Things Asian Press, 2010). It is a work that details her food experiences from north to south Vietnam. She’s accompanied by her photographer sister Julie and Vietnam-native Nguyen Thi Lan Huong.
Despite the book’s name, it is not religious. Perusing the work, I tried to figure out with what and whom Fay was communing. The chapters break down into cities and then vignettes of the women’s experiences in each locale.
Their culinary journey involves many cooking classes but there are few actual recipes or explanations of techniques. This is largely a travel memoir and the subtitle is not fulfilled in the culinary arena.
That said, what is valuable are her interactions with and reflections on people that she meets. As an American expat, she leads off with stories of experiences with fellow expats, Hanoi chefs Didier Corlou and Bobby Chinn. Both are well known abroad and offer the outsider’s passionate perspectives on Vietnamese food culture. Foreign visitors to Vietnam are often initially drawn to other foreigners.
In subsequent chapters, Fay includes interesting interviews with Vietnamese chefs. Many of them are women and they reveal their resilience, strength, and determination. They charm with their low-key affect and wit. But those human characteristics are sometimes lost in Fay’s tangential and overly descriptive prose.
She tries to define culinary concepts such as umami and fusion cooking but her discussions distract from her compelling subject – the people and foodways of Vietnam. Tighter editing would have produced crisper narrative and more impactful storytelling.
At the end of the book, it dawned upon me that Fay is communing with her personal history, the people she meets in Vietnam, and her travel companions. There are a lot of loose ends in Communion, but that is what travel is all about.