Your friend just came back from an expensive trip to Hanoi, Vietnam’s historic capital, and is going on about the cultural experience. You jealously imagine the narrow, temple-lined streets filled with vendors and exotic delicacies, and that night you start saving up. You need to get away from your daily grind after all, and there just isn’t anything new or exciting to do in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Wait a moment. Before you exchange thousands of dollars for a flight and a hotel, consider a night on your own unexplored streets. If Vietnam is your flavor, you are in luck. Vietnamese is the third most spoken language in Nebraska, with a growing population in Lincoln, especially in the 27th Street corridor. Authentic cuisines border the streets in locally owned markets and restaurants, such as Phò Nguyen on North 27th and the Việt Hảo Market on West O.
My first experience with Lincoln’s Vietnamese scene was at Việt Hảo, a small, unadorned building with a quaint, grocery-store interior. Tùng Nguyen, my Vietnamese friend and tour guide, led me down the short aisles, pointing out noodles and vegetables I had never seen before. I selected petite star macaroni, artichoke tea, and rau muông, (a tall, leafy vegetable). He took them from me and checked out in his native tongue. As I listened to his quick, chopped requests, I noticed the smell of many unknown spices and herbs mixed in with a raw fish stench, and I was transported. I completely forgot I was in Lincoln. When I opened the ringing door and returned to familiar streets, I realized a new appreciation for my native city, which had contained this unknown world all along.
From the market, we made our way inside a little cubby of a restaurant on 26th street, tucked under the Mopac Trail Bridge. The place was called Phò Factory, named after the popular noodle soup dish known as phò (pronounced fuh). Of course, I had to see what the hype was all about, so I ordered their largest bowl. When it came out, steaming, it was larger than my head! I struggled eagerly with my chopsticks for a while, trying to heap endless ropes of noodle onto my ladle, but soon I gave up. Using a fork, I finally worked a pile out from the broth, and I began happily slurping away.
My palate was woken up by the fresh cilantro, bean sprouts, ginger, and star anise. It was a light, earthy flavor, which I could taste more as a warmth in my throat than as a heaviness in my stomach. The gustatory experience was a thousand miles away from the heavy, fried American food I was used to. As I sat in my dark corner booth, I felt that I had really traveled all those miles across the Pacific Ocean to Hanoi. That night was enchanted with the spontaneity of a trip far from home, though I never left the city of my birth.
After my unexpectedly eye-opening trip to Phò Factory and the Việt Hảo Market, I am excited to return. I highly recommend both to anyone looking for a local tourist destination. Like me, you may be hesitant to waltz into an unfamiliar culture alone. Bring a friend! You may also have doubts whether Lincoln’s culture is worth investigating. In that 27th street mecca alone, Vietnamese businesses are kitty-cornered by authentic Ethiopian, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Mediterranean, and African cuisines, and that’s only considering food! There is so much opportunity hiding just down the street if you are willing to open up your schedule and look around.
Unlike a vacation timeline, you have your life to explore what interests you in Lincoln. No rush. No time crunch. Maybe you are feeling hungry one night and artsy the next. Another night, you may choose both a dinner and a show. When you nix the cost of travel accommodations, your budget can allow for a great variety of things. The next time your friend goes on about her latest, most expensive trip, you can smile without jealousy. When you have become a tourist in your own hometown, you will always have a story to share in return.