If you’re going to Vietnam for an educational tour, or simply to get some nature into your city-stricken body, then the best way to truly dig into the culture is to dig into your plate. This is one of the most culture-rich countries in Asia, and you will practically taste the diversity in their native dishes.
It’s interesting to note that almost every aspect of the Vietnamese native’s life revolves around food—from the cultivation of crops to the preparation of the dishes and finally, to the communal pleasure of sharing something that warms the tummy. Even the country’s commercial side is dominated by food. If you’re traveling to Vietnam with fresh eyes, you’ll realize that the economy of this Asian country depends on food.
Vietnam’s markets are rich with fresh produce, and you’ll never go hungry here because, on every curb of the street, you’ll find one of their best chefs churning out something good for hungry locals and foreign travelers. Below is a comprehensive food guide you should use if you’re traveling to Vietnam for the first time. You haven’t actually experienced the country unless you’ve tasted their best dishes.
Your first stop should be in Hanoi if you want the warmest of dishes. While the gray skies of the region might turn off Londoners who are trying to escape the wetness of their own homeland, more open travelers might find Hanoi’s rainy days pretty easy to love. This is especially once you’ve tasted their pho bo. This is Vietnam’s national dish, and you can choose to eat this for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Some even have them for snacks.
Pho bo is a noodle soup dish, the base soup made from beef broth. You’ll also get hints of ginger, garlic gloves and star anise while you’re sipping the soup. The rice noodles are accompanied by beef strips or corned beef, depending on the cooking tradition of the noodle house you’re dining in.
One of the most renowned restaurants in Hanoi is Pho Gia Truyen. You can find this at the region’s older quarters on Ban Dat Street. While the fixtures of the restaurant are less than grand—two fans, a clock, naked light bulbs, and communal tables—your mouths will be watering once you set sight on its brisket slabs all conveniently hanging from the ceiling of the main counter. You will also be welcomed by the steam coming out of the restaurant’s giant cauldron, keeping the base soup of the noodle dish warm.
Just to show you how successful this restaurant is, to say that the place is crowded during lunchtime is an understatement. Practically half of Hanoi’s population line up just to buy a bowl of the restaurant’s pho bo for lunch or dinner. Some even come by motorbikes, park, purchase a bowl, and dine while perching on their bikes despite the chilly weather.
Should you be in another region and you’re missing Hanoi’s pho bo, all you have to do is look for a street vendor. Hopefully, s/he is from Hanoi, and makes this noodle dish just like they do in the old country.
Are you in the mood for street food? You can stop circling the region for the best street food in town. Just go to the Quan An Ngon. If you can’t remember the name, just say “Ngon” and the locals will know where to lead you.
The group of street food vendors who are now cooking for the restaurant was hand selected by the owner, and he claims that they’re “all-star”. With the menus and the table service, you won’t even remember that you’re eating street food at all. It’s pretty difficult to get seats at night, though. Make sure that you come by before dinnertime to avoid the long queues of hungry locals.
Because there’s no strict line about what you should have for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you can even order the best dishes in the morning if you really want the best of Vietnam cuisine. The most recommended full dish for breakfast is the bun cha.
This is basically marinated pork (in rice vermicelli and fish sauce) grilled to utter perfection. Pair this with a banh da ca with is a fish noodle soup with a tang, and you’ll have one of the best mornings in your life.
Probably not the place to visit for those who are looking to find a fast paced city lifestyle, Hue is the haven, however, of people who are looking for a slow burn. This town used to be Vietnam’s imperial city and is certainly not lacking in beautiful buildings if you’re looking for some architectural eye candies. It is more than a village than a city, though, and might even seem sleepy for some people.
Should you be the cultural buff, though, who signed up for some off-city, old-Vietnam tour, you’ll probably be taken here for its pagodas, tombs, and Hue’s magnificent Citadel. The richness of Hue’s old culture can be hard for the first time traveler to decipher. Perhaps the best way to get to know the city is through your stomach.
While Hanoi can give you the simpler gastronomic pleasures of Vietnam, Hue gives you the more elaborate side. According to legend, the kings of ancient Vietnam refused to eat the same dish more than once within the year. Their cooks were forced to come up with hundreds of dishes to please the kings’ palates.
Contemporary cooks in Hue purportedly inherited these dishes, so now you can probably stay in the town for a year and fill up a thick cookbook. That is, if these cooks are willing to part with the family recipe. There’s no space for all 365 dishes from Hue, so we’ll just feature the local favorite, which is the Banh beo. This is a native cake, usually eaten with another favorite, the dainty, steamed or fried flower-shaped dumplings. The banh beo has a thin dough skin, filled with very sweet bean paste. It’s probably an adaptation of the Chinese mooncake, and the flakier been paste cakes in Japan.
Generally, while most Asian visitors enjoy the banh beo, some European and American travelers find the filling too gooey or too sweet. It’s worth a try, though. As in the pho bo in Hanoi, the banh beo is sold widely throughout Vietnam. For the best ones, though, look for bakeries in Hue which specialize in these cakes. You’re bound to find quite a lot of them.
For the main dishes, though, you might want to try other Hue specialties like the com hen and the banh khoai. Thecom hen is a mixture of clam and rice which leans on spicy, while the banh khoai is a crepe made from rice flour about the size of a fajita.
A restaurant called the Quan Cam will give you the ultimate Hue breakfast called the bun bo Hue. This is a spicy broth simmered in beef bones mixed with lemon grass and heated with chili. This broth is then topped on paper-thin beef strips and meatballs made with crab and pork meat.
You simply must not leave Hue, though, without visiting the Royal Garden or the Huang Vien. This used to be a French colonial house restored to feed hungry locals and travelers the best of contemporary Hue cuisine. This is reigned over by chef Boi tran, which serves heavenly kaiseki. Literally, this dish is a shrimp dish with “five tastes”. The shrimp meat is spiced up with lemongrass, shallot, ginger, Kaffir lime leaf and chili.
Guests pine over the nem ran rolls as well. These spring rolls are made from mushroom, shrimp, and pork. Served with fried rice and a salad made from rose petals, it spells out modern, Vietnamese perfection. While the garden is quite the visual dazzle most tourists are looking for, chef Boi Tran makes sure that it’s more than just that.
While Hoi an today might be chocked with tour buses, it still transforms into the backpacker haven it once was when the sun sets. This fishing village is generally quiet, and the narrow streets are lined with traditional paper lanterns.
It’s the perfect backdrop for its cuisine, which remained untainted despite the passing years. One of the local favorites is the cao lu. This is a dish made with thick noodles, cooked in water from one of Hoi An’s local wells. Locals will tell you that water from any other wells won’t produce the same taste, and for the sake of keeping in touch with old Vietnam, you might just want to believe that.
Out of your luxury hotel, you’ll see that Hoi An is still primarily a fishing village. Just go though the menus of its restaurants and you’ll see that the bulk of the dishes are made from fresh seafood. Make sure that you visit the Cua Dai Beach. Barbeque restaurants are lined up here and you can dine while kicking your shoes off and enjoying the sand.
Hon, which is run by a family with the same name, serves the best muc nuong or grilled squid. The nghue hap which is a dish made from clams, lemon grass, ginger, and fresh mint, is also ridiculously mouth watering. For more formal dining, drop by the Morning Glory. If you want to sample Hoi An’s prime picks on a silver platter, this is the best place to go to.
The cao lu, which you can probably sample from the market, is ten times better here. The broth is spiked with cilantro, mint, chives, star anise, and soy sauce. Juicy soy-simmered strips of pork called the xa xiu are also mixed into the dish.
The trade mark dish in Hoi An, though, is the banh mi. This is a baguette meat sandwich slathered in mayonnaise, pickled carrots, cucumber, daikon, chili, and cilantro. Certainly one of the world’s best sandwiches, the banh mi isn’t really sold in restaurants. You would want to frequent local bakeries just to taste it.
Ho Chi Minh City (better known as Saigon)
Are you familiar with the musical? Down south, everything just seems to be hotter, and we’re not just talking about the weather. The food is hotter, and so are the woks and the fashion scene. Despite the figure-conscious ladies of Saigon or the Ho Chi Minh City, is still pretty renowned for its spicy-sweet delicacies.
While snooty northerners might turn the other cheek to this “unsophisticated” southern cuisine, travelers still love the Malayan-inspired curry dishes of Saigon and the newly-established Singaporean noodle houses on Saigon’s strips. These Singaporean and Malay fusions are especially popular among Vietnamese teenagers.
Despite the changes in Saigon, oldtimers would love the way Quan Thuy 94, a famous crab restaurant, stayed the same. Aside from the adorable staff, the world’s secret to cooking crab has been passed down to the restaurant’s current kitchen.
You should try the soft-shelled crab dish coated in tamarind sauce. The Cha gio cua or spring rolls filled with crab meat, is also pretty popular. You’ll hear tables and tables in the joint crunching on these delectable rolls. Another dish you simply must not miss out on is the mien xao cua be. This is a glass noodle dish stir fried with mushrooms, chili, and of course, crabmeat. The vermilion crab roe is also a notable addition to this dish.
For those of you who have been to other Asian countries, the Pho Hoa might sound familiar. Certainly the best Vietnamese restaurant to go to when you’re looking for taste noodle dishes, the Pho Hoa specializes in pho tai nam.
This noodle dish is served with rear beef strips and flank, cooked well-done. Similar western dishes include the pastrami. If you want it truly Saigon, sprinkle some bean sprouts, chili sauce, hoisin, and lime for good measure.
You will also want to visit Saigon’s famous lunch lady, Nguyen Thi Thanh. From Mondays through Saturdays, this cook sets up shop along Hoan Sa street. She serves the best hu tieu which is a noodle dish served with roasted pork, peanuts, prawn and quail eggs.
Just to show you how good her cooking is, she has been in the business for more than 13 years. She’s probably still there out of the love for cooking. Among her patrons are school children, office workers and housewives who don’t have enough time to cook their own food. The broth of the noodle dish is smoky, with hints of shallots and squid.
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