You may need more like three days to explore the theme parks in Orlando, Fla., but if you only have a few hours on a layover, you can see a side of the city that feels more like the other side of the world than the other side of town — and take home some tasty (non-Mickey) souvenirs.
First Hour: Grab a cab for the half-hour ride to ViMi, just northeast of downtown. When the English-language signs for realtors and IHOPs give way to Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, and Chinese immigration, acupuncture, and store signs, you've arrived in one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in Florida.
It's pho time. The typical morning meal in Vietnam is a hearty, herb-laden noodle soup that will fortify you for the day. Family-owned Pho 88 serves up an authentic bowl in beef, chicken, or vegetarian versions. Assemble your dish your way with the plate of herbs, sprouts, and limes accompanying the big, steaming bowl of soup and slurp your way to happiness.
Second Hour: Head for Tien Hung Oriental Foods market — they bill themselves as "A Mysterious Wonderland of Unidentifiable Asian Food Products," which is just about right. You know you're in another world inside these walls with the first sniff of aisle after aisle of exotic foodstuffs. It's enough to make you homesick for Saigon, even if you've never been. For the last 25 years this market has supplied the local Asian population with the foods they left back home.
Shoppers come from around Florida to stock up on the likes of durian, pork spleen, pig ear, and fish heads. American-born shoppers typically head for the frozen-foods aisle for egg rolls, the owner says, but you might like to grab a bottle of bot muoi ot — chile salt seasoning for fruit. Or, stop in the back to pick out a bánh mì — the sandwiches ubiquitous to southern Vietnam. You can't go wrong no matter what you select; according to one recent shopper, age 62, the food here is her secret ingredient to staying young.
Third Hour: It's time to eat again. Sample your way through a vast swathe of Asia with a stop at Hawkers. It's all the freshly prepared, glorious street food you can find across Vietnam, Thailand, China, and more, without those pesky worries about sanitation, lack of refrigeration, and mystery ingredients.
Sharing is encouraged, so pick a handful of dishes from the small plates section of the menu — green beans are a crowd favorite (seriously, you'll see!) as is the roti canai, a puffy, warm Malaysian flatbread. Then grab a papaya salad to hit Thailand, roast duck for China, stir-fry udon in the Japanese style, Singaporean curry laksa, and oh, why not some Korean bulgogi beef lettuce wraps? There are still dozens more dishes, so you'll have to plan a return trip. But before you go, don't miss the mango sticky rice and an iced Vietnamese coffee.