#003: Fruit Juices, Smoothies & Can’t Miss Classics in VietnamTak's dispatch released on 4 November 2014

Red Dragon Fruit Juice Smoothie

What better way to kick off the third edition then by going wild with fruit juices in Vietnam, along with fruit smoothies and whatever else is all the rage these days. Whereas these cost a firstborn child, two bags of gold coins and an arm in Manhattan, they cost about 15,000-30,000VND (.75USD-$1.50USD) per hit here in the downtown sector of Saigon. While soul-sucking juice-bar chains are pushing up rents in Brooklyn, there are a number of juice joints here in Saigon, Vietnam that are gritty, full of unique character and blend perfectly with the city’s vibe.

Showcased here are the various fruit juices (and similar) and fruit smoothies you are drinking in Vietnam, along with your thoughts. (This post will be updated with various juice and smoothie combinations from Vietnam as time goes on, so check back until we leave Vietnam)

Fruit Juices and Similar Drinks in Vietnam

Nước mía (Nuoc Mia) – Sugarcane Juice

Nước mía (Nuoc Mia) - Sugarcane Juice - Vietnam
Crushed Sugar Cane - Vietnam

You keep stumbling into the worn sign that reads “Nước mía”. The dealers in the more touristy areas want 15,000VND (.75USD) for it, but your reliable juice ladies away from the tourist clutter charge 5,000VND (.25USD) for this crushed sugar cane delight.

Upon ordering, a handful of sugar cane stalks are gathered and sent through a mechanical press several times to squeeze every last bit of juice possible. The juice is extracted and sent to a reservoir down below and then poured poured over ice. A little citrus juice is squeezed in (either in between the stalks in the press or otherwise) to provide balance and prevent oxidation.

Despite what you may have reasonably assumed, sugar cane juice is suitable for diabetics due to its low glycemic index, and it contains trace minerals, amino acids and antioxidants. Impressively, you might also note that there have been many studies linking fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice to the prevention of cavities including a recent University of Sydney study that noted

the results of this study support the hypothesis that the chewing of sugarcane is associated with reduced dental caries (decay)

In any case, health matters aside, you have found that sugar cane juice is a delightfully refreshing and economical beverage here in Vietnam. Unlike sugar-water, sugar cane juice (nuoc mia) has much more body, a vegetal presence and a smooth, silky texture. As a tip for most beverages served in Vietnam, if you drink it right away, it is quite concentrated. However, if you let the ice melt in the Vietnamese heat, you have a very well balanced beverage.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

Cam Vắt (Cam Vat) – Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice

Cam Vat (Orange Juice)
You ordered a cam vat, or you attempted to utter something that you hope sounds close to the Vietnamese sing-song code of intonation-heavy pronunciations. What you got back after perhaps ten minutes of work by the sweet, old lady was this orange drink; it is silky smooth, and sweet—perhaps too much so for an orange juice. Perhaps the lady at the juice cart was a speakeasy mixologist under cover. Whatever happened, the drink was excellent, it just seems like this one wasn’t 100% squeezed orange juice.

The next morning, you seek out a different vendor with the bright intentions of getting another cam vat going. This time, you are sure, there is no possibility for confusion in what you ordered. Several minutes elapse and you are handed the cold beverage, tiny globules of condensation hugging every ridged ripple of the clear plastic cup—reflecting back the morning light. This one has coarse sugar in the bottom, rather than the sugar cane juice; the flavour, more simple than the one previous.

Cam Vat (Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice) is what you might more precisely describe as an orange drink, albeit a very high quality and fresh variant. It lacks the acidity of a Florida orange juice—your base standard—and is looser in the viscosity, with a relatively higher percentage of water giving it a notable translucence. The added sugar, in the face of the low-acid orange, only pushes it closer towards the orange drink categorization. However, when one says orange drink back in the US, they typically are denoting a low-quality, inexpensive Sunny-Delight type monstrosity. This one, however, while perhaps different than what you expected, is very nice, and certainly far-away from the US-type “orange drink”.

So, is it a typical Florida-style orange juice? No. Is it a cut-rate orange drink? No. Rather, it is a very fresh, hand-crafted, light-weighted pop of orange-tinged delight.

Conclusion: Recommended

Rau Má (Rau Ma) – Pennywort Juice

Rau Má (Rau Ma) - Pennywort Juice - Vietnam
You see “Rau Ma” on the sign and wonder what it might be. You gesture to the lady behind the chrome juice cart and gain her attention, point at the faded out line reading “Rau Ma” and nod your head, one finger in the air. She spins into action and a short while later serves you a frothy, green pennywort juice.

Pennywort, also called coinwort and gotu kola, is a perennial plant that prefers moist conditions, and thus thrives near marshes and other wetlands. Many different health benefits are attributed to the plant, as noted

In the Ayurvedic tradition, it is recommended for treatment of mental disorders, immune system deficiencies, circulatory problems, skin conditions, liver ailments, epilepsy, asthma and bronchitis, hair loss, tetanus, inflammation, rheumatism, and intestinal complaints. In Chinese medicine, gotu kola is regarded as the primary herb for promoting longevity. Its use is traced to LiChing Yun, a legendary healer who is said to have lived 256 years as a result of drinking gotu kola tea.

In Western medicine, gotu kola is acknowledged to have value in strengthening the blood vessels and thereby improving circulation, in combating stress/depression/fatigue, in decreasing inflammation, in healing wounds and burns, and in treating rheumatism and intestinal and urinary disorders. It is regarded as particularly valuable in promoting circulation, healing, and positive attitude in the bedridden. In India, gotu kola is considered “the herb of enlightenment” and is sometimes burned in incense prior to meditation. It is thought to have great value in supporting spiritual practices by improving meditation, promoting clear dreams, and enhancing past life recall. It is regarded as useful in developing the crown chakra and in balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

Your pennywort juice (rau ma) consists of pennywort leaves, some ice and some fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice. The flavour notes are vegetal and yeasty with a hint of vanilla. If you were doing wheatgrass shakes back home and need a fix, the rau ma is your substitute in Vietnam.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended to Try, Healthy & Interesting Flavour

Nước Chánh (Nuoc Chanh) – Limeade (Limes are called Lemons)
Vietnamese Limeade Lemonade

Maybe ten years back, you were visiting Thailand and you became extremely captivated by the limeade you experienced. It seemed simple enough, some squeezed limes, some sugar, perhaps a pinch of salt and some ice. You headed home and desperately tried to recreate it to no avail. So here you are in Vietnam and you see “Lemon Juice” as an option on the menu. You order it, and lo and behold, out comes the elusive and almighty limeade. Is it a special varietal lime that holds the magic? Is it the novelty of being halfway around the world? Is it because someone else made it? Is it the sweetener? Whatever it is, it is great, and you order another.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

Trà Chanh (Tra Chanh) – Iced Tea with Citrus

Trà Chanh (Tra Chanh) - Iced Tea with Citrus
By now, you are familiar with the word chánh (chanh) as being one of the words in your limeade (nước chánh), and you are familiar with trà da, which is iced tea (often served complimentary at restaurants). So when you see trà chanh, you roll the dice (with high odds that you are getting iced tea with lime) by proceeding through your now familiar non-verbal ordering mechanism of pointing, nodding and signaling.

Sometimes, watching things be made in Vietnam is like watching a master card trick at hand. Pitchers of liquids cross with unknown fruits, whirring blenders, hot liquids, strainers, a pinch of something thrown in and a splash of something else.

Trà Chanh, as it turned out today is iced tea with citrus. Most say it is iced tea with lemon (with lemon being the word used locally for lime), but in this instance, you are treated to something a little different, calamondin (perhaps cây tắc in Vietnamese)

Calamondin (aka calamansi) is a citrus fruit that is believed to have derived from a kumquat, but whereas a kumquat is sweet, calamondin’s fruit is quite acidic. Both, of course, have a great flavour. In any case, added to the tannic tea, which was very similar to, if not, an oolong, and the sweet sugarcane juice, a very nice counterbalance was achieved.

The tra chanh started sour (invariably from the calamondin), progressed to sweet (sugar cane juice) and ended with a nice tannic finish (oolong-like tea). This well-crafted specialty made for a nice change from the much more modest, albeit refreshing, tra da.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

Nước ép dưa hấu (Nuoc ep dua hau) – Watermelon Juice
Watermelon Juice

This is what is left of a refreshing watermelon juice (nước ép dưa hấu). Not much to say really here—watermelon juice tastes like watermelon. It is also a fine choice for refreshment in the hot Saigon heat.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended for watermelon fiends, Recommended for mere mortals

Fruit Smoothie (Sinh Tố) Combinations in Vietnam

The smoothies you’ve been having here in Vietnam—according to your best guess based on flavour, texture and observation—are made with fresh fruit (much of which is in good abundance) and a combination of ice, condensed milk and as needed, a splash or two of sugar.

In any case, you started with one fruit smoothie, added a second and then completely fell off the wagon with a severe addiction. The results of your experimentation are as follows:

Plain Banana Smoothie

Banana Fruit Smoothie - Vietnam
Ahhh, the classic banana. Yes! And when you want to get wild, get it with chocolate.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended as the Gateway Smoothie. Plus, if you are newly on the scene and find you have a newly turgid digestive system, the banana will help clamp things down.

Dragonfruit (Red flesh) and Strawberry Fruit Smoothie

It makes a nice photograph (at top) when paired with strawberry, and it seems like an exotic treat, but it does not make great sense to you, after drinking this smoothie, as a good combination as the dragonfruit’s flavour profile is very soft and delicate and washes out easily. If the strawberry carries robust flavour, it masks the dragonfruit. If the strawberry has a mild flavour, then neither the dragonfruit or strawberry carries the drink, it just tastes like a dude. In any case,  dragonfruit and strawberry makes for a dull flavour combination.

Conclusion: Recommended in Theory, Not Recommended in Reality

Passion Fruit Smoothie
Passionfruit Smoothie

First you start with one fruit—in this instance, passion fruit. Rather than playing mad scientist, you really prefer to know how each flavour lives when alone and exposed. Passion fruit has a robust flavour profile alongside a snap of acidity. The acidity in passion fruit (which overall is an acidic fruit) comes mostly from citric acid. However, approximately 15% of the edible section is comprised of sugars, which helps temper things nicely.

The black flecks are seeds, with can be removed before making the smoothie. However, the seeds do deliver a healthy does of fiber, as well as magnesium and antioxidants. If you don’t want seeds, write “không hạt” (aka “no seeds”) and if they look at you with a confused look, blame my poor Vietnamese and use hand gestures.

So passion fruit as a smoothie on its own is a nice treat but perhaps a little too punchy for your liking. You want to tone it down or balance it out a little bit (unless you really like passion fruit in which case, drink it just like this).

Conclusion: Recommended with Reservations

Mango + Passion Fruit Smoothie
Mango Passion Fruit Smoothie

Your first passion fruit combination is with mango. The aroma and intense-flavour of the passion fruit (which you are now already familiar with) marries very well with the rich, sweet, full-bodied and smooth-textured mango (which is typically slightly acidic). Any shortfall in the sugar-acid balance is rectified with the sweetened condensed milk (and additional sugar if need be). An excellent choice.

Banana + Passion Fruit Smoothie

Banana Passion Fruit Smoothie
Just as mango is slightly-acidic, so is the banana. Further, the flesh of the banana is soft and creamy like that of the mango. As such, you try banana-passion and find that it, as well, is a great combination.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

Lemon Guava Fruit Smoothie
Lemon Guava Smoothie

After sucking down a few too many limeades, you are on a lime kick, and want to explore further. You order a straight lime smoothie and before you can take a photo, it is gone. It was much like an Italian lemon-ice, and is definitely a good choice. You order a straight guava fruit smoothie, and again, no photo. The straight guava had lower than usual acidity for a guava, and was a bit too soft in flavour.

Then you decide to combine lime and guava together, somewhat at the urging of the juiceman. The results are somewhat expected, a washed out drink. The softness of the guava in conjunction with the sugar and milk blank out the lime. You taste the guava flesh alone and note it is nearly tasteless. Perhaps with better guava, this would be a winner. You mark it down for another day.

This combination has some promise, the idea seems attractive, but with a low-acidity guava variant, and one that is lacking flavour, it makes a mess.

Conclusion: Not Recommended but Potential Exists

Strawberry Soursop Fruit Smoothie
Strawberry Soursop

The straight soursop was delicate, refreshing and interesting. Soursop has a creamy mouthfeel with little acidic notes popping up. It’s complexity is such that pure soursop seems like a mixture of flavours as it is. The straight strawberry smoothie was also quite nice. Unfortunately, combining the strawberry with the soursop blew both out, and rendered it too mild. It could have been out of proportion balances, but you have to throw in the cards on this one.

This is becoming a pattern or a theme, in that it seems a lot of the fruit in Vietnam has lower acidity and lacks flavour. Mixing anything delicate with the smoothie ingredients seem to often lead to washout. You move along.

Conclusion: Not Recommended

Strawberry Melon Fruit Smoothie

Strawberry Melon
Sticking on the strawberry topic, the juiceman suggests strawberry-melon. It seems an odd pairing, but the term “melon” is quite generic. Hard to know if the melon is like a honeydew, a cantaloupe or a hundred other things, so you roll the dice on this one.

Unfortunately, it is a bit of a miss. Once again, washed out flavour. A plain strawberry is a much better choice.

Conclusion: Not Recommended

Durian Fruit Smoothie

Durian Smoothie
You have arrived in southeast Asia and want to do it in style, so you saunter up to the open-air smoothie operation on the street corner and order up a durian smoothie. If fruit were politics, then durian would be the firebrand politician that people either love or hate. To some, it is a vile fruit. To others, it is a beautiful thing. To you? It has a custard-like texture and between the sweetened condensed milk and the rest of it, it reminds you of ice cream in a strange way. Would it be your daily choice? Probably not. But would you advise ordering it as a way to take in your surroundings, if not only as a method for trying durian? Absolutely.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended for the experience. Recommended for the refreshing enjoyment.

Avocado Smoothie (Sinh Tố Bơ)

Avocado Smoothie - Sinh Tố Bơ (Sinh To Bo)
The avocado kicks into gear as a drink here in Vietnam, given its popularity as a perfect thing to pair with condensed milk. The avocado was introduced by the French but it has never really been a popular crop.

In any case, the texture of the avocado smoothie is rich and silky. The condensed milk pairs well, highlighting the avocado’s flavour in a very pronounced manner. As the drink warms, the notes become more vegetal and less refreshing. But as long as it is cold, it is quite a nice drink for the avocado loving population. Even more interesting however is that you strongly feel that it will pair very well with other ingredients, and thus is a fine slate on which to explore.

Conclusion: Recommended as it is refreshing and healthy, but even more interesting to use as a combination.

Strawberry-Avocado Smoothie

Strawberry Avocado Smoothie
The avocado provides a great smooth body and those characteristic unmistakeable basenotes. You then add some strawberry, which depending on the varietal and ripeness, will boost the sugars and add a touch of citric acid. In order to do this right, you realize you need a higher percentage of strawberry in the mix, perhaps 2:1.

Conclusion: Recommended due to potential

Finding a Dealer: How to Find a Juice Bar

What is the best juice bar in Saigon? You will note that some juice joints have their craft down to a science, and others, well, not so much. Too much ice, it gets watered down; too much sugar and the acids are blown away; too much milk and the fruit flavours are muted; not blended right and you end up with a textural (or straw-sucking) mess. So really, the first thing you need to do is find a place that gets their ratios right consistently.

Generally, you look for a couple things. First, you tend to stay away from places with slick graphics, neat uniforms and a big, bright menu-board in English. While prices might (or might not) look the same from place to place, you inquire how big the cup is and you ask if they give you fresh fruit on top of the smoothie. In addition, some might have a better selection of fruit than others, and some fruit might be fresher than others. If a place uses rockgut fruit, you get a rockgut smoothie, so checking out the fruit beforehand isn’t a bad idea.

Usually the banana smoothie is going to be your base standard, with which you can compare pricing. In the tourist districts as of late-2014, you are looking at approximately 15,000VND (.75USD) for a banana smoothie, and approximately 25,000 for a non-exotic two-fruit blend.

Cheaper still, and just as rewarding (if not moreso), are the juice carts away from the tourist district and tourist markets. There, you can get fresh squeezed orange juice, sugar cane juice and pennywort for something in the 4,000 to 10,000 range. You might find that these are much more satisfying than the glossy-logo’d tourist haunts.

And with that, you sip the last of your chocolate-coffee-sapodilla smoothie in the alleyway, get up from the small plastic stool and venture out into the electric streets, on your way for a classic Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk (cà phê sữa đá / ca phe sua da) and another hour of watching the world go by.

Cà phê sữa đá (Ca phe sua da) - Vietnamese Iced Coffee

In last week’s edition, you noted how interesting the Vietnamese performances held live in the park here in Saigon were. Well, lucky for all, two of these fine snippets (which were blasting throughout the downtown sector) can now make it half-way around the world to your ears.

First, we have a traditional Vietnamese…”song”…I guess we will call it

Second, we have a beautiful rendition of Katy Perry’s “Roar”. This might even be better than the original (yes, it’s one of those special numbers) as it sounds like the performer is so jacked up with energy that they run out of gas

Enjoy dear friends!

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