This year’s two trips to Vietnam have changed our perspective in more ways than I thought possible. For one, very rarely do we experiment with salad dressings these days. We prefer just one. The Vietnamese mixed fish sauce that we use for just about everything. For seasoning food. As dipping sauce. As salad dressing…
Alex and I were talking about it the other night. The effect of Vietnam has been even more profound for her. She grew up adoring Italian food. When we first discovered Vietnamese food many years ago, she complained whenever we chose a Vietnamese restaurant when eating out. And yet, in Saigon, I haven’t seen anyone with such a huge appetite for banh mi. The amount of fresh vegetables she consumed on the side with every meal was unbelievable. She said it herself. In Vietnam, for the first time, she developed true appreciation for Asian food.
For the rest of the family, the most lasting effects of the Vietnam trip can be seen in three ways.
We’re rarely without Vietnamese mixed fish sauce
Since the trip to Saigon, we’ve never really made an effort to consider what dressing goes best with each salad we have made at home. It just seems the most natural thing to reach inside the fridge for the jar of Vietnamese mixed fish sauce that’s replenished as often as possible. That’s Alex’s job. And as much as she loathes squeezing juice from the tiny kalamansi, she does it anyway. Because it’s unthinkable to be without Vietnamese mixed fish sauce.
Trà sen, lotus green tea, has become an integral part of our diet
But it isn’t just Vietnamese flavor that has touched us in such a deep way. In the past, every symptom of indigestion was answered with a tablet or two of sodium bicarbonate. After Saigon, it’s lotus green tea. In fact, we don’t even wait for the first sign of indigestion. After every meal, if we feel we ate more than we should, we make a pot of lotus green tea and we never have to worry about experiencing discomfort brought about by indigestion.
Thien Thao, a Vietnamese balm, has become our answer to every pain and ache
It was something that Sam discovered in Hanoi.
Well, to be more precise, Alex and I were first introduced to Thien Thao at a souvenir shop at the Museum of Vietnamese History in Saigon. We saw the jars and checked them out of curiosity. The lady at the souvenir shop said that Thien Thao was the best. Better than its counterparts from Malaysia and China that she was also selling.
But, you know, she’s a sales lady and a Vietnamese. The presumption that she was biased and pushing for a sale was in my head. Plus, in Asia, there are so many balms and we know for a fact that most are just placebos. We didn’t buy any. What we did buy were slippers.
Then, in Hanoi, Sam was combing through every shop in the vicinity of St. Joseph Cathedral, and she discovered the same balm that Alex and I saw in Saigon. Thien Thao. Sam wanted to try it — it was cheap anyway, she said — so we bought a couple of jars.
Throughout the Hanoi trip, I had a bad cold. When we got back to the apartment that day and Sam saw how I was coughing and sneezing, she said I should try the Vietnamese balm. Okay, why not? I rubbed some on my neck and nose and, some ten minutes later… Lo and behold! The stuffiness cleared, and the sneezing and coughing subsided sufficiently to allow me a good night’s sleep.
After we got back home, we discovered more uses for Thien Thao. It soothes skin rashes and muscle pain too. Got a headache? Rub a little on your temple. If you’re unfortunate enough to find the beginnings of a boil or pimple growing in your flesh, rub a little Thien Thao on it twice or thrice a day, and the boil or pimple will shrink into oblivion. Seriously.
When the contents of the jars starting running low, Alex discovered that we could order Thien Thao online. Great! If there’s some kind of sorcery involved in the making of the Vietnamese balm, it’s damn good and effective sorcery, and we want to be forever part of the magic.
But what’s in Thien Thao, really?
Oh, I hope you’re reading this from a computer screen or a tablet because I doubt you’ll be able to make out the text on the jar from a phone. Some of the ingredients are understable to English speakers but what are the rest?
Thien Thao is sold on Amazon and the description says the ingredients are menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil, methyl salicylate, cinnamon oil, clove oil and basil oil.
Menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil and methyl salicylate are staples of just about every Asian balm. So, I’m guessing that it’s the addition of cinnamon oil, clove oil and basil oil — in the correct amounts — that makes all the difference.
Oh, goodness, Thien Thao is good. If you’re my age (I turned 56 a week ago) and you grew up with Vicks Vaporub, Thien Thao is a dozen times more effective for clearing up stuffy nose and, the best part, it ISN’T GREASY at all. The skin absorbs it.
So, dear Vietnam, thank you for the mixed fish sauce, trà sen and Thien Thao. My family is eternally grateful.