When you salivate involuntarily looking at photos of food, you know its going to be good. That’s what Vietnamese Food does to me. It invokes memories of aromas, of tastes of good times and of a serious foodie love affair with the country.
I remember drooling when wboue looked at what we’d be eating in Vietnam – and reinforcing that by taking the family for Vietnamese in Colchester of all places! (it’s highly recommended if you need a Vietnamese fix!) The reality of Vietnamese food, is however, is much better than the thought.
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The cuisines of Vietnam differs from south to north – and we still have the deep south of the Mekong Delta to visit (and we’ll be back in October to do that), but it has been a delicious and interesting trip around the kitchens of Vietnam. We’ve eaten in what I’d call nice restaurants (ok, so one), we’ve cooked our own food in a kitchen right on the beach and we’ve eaten street food more times than we can remember. We’ve got used to paying sometimes 15,000 VND (around 70 US cents, or 40 UK pence) for an amazing bowl of noodles, we’ve drunk Bia Hoi (fresh beer) for 3,000 VND (14 cents, or 8 pence), so it will be a shock heading back into China!
We cooked at the Mui Ne Cooking School, this is one of the best things to do in Mui Ne!
We’ve been searching for the most amazing Banh Mi since we had our first, of all places, in Pacifica, California and decided that it was everything that a sandwich should be. Crisp french baguette, crunchy salad, soft tender pork, fragrant herbs, the tang of a rice vinegar and a little heat from chilis. We’ve tracked Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, the Rough Guide, the Wall Street Journal and every blog in between in search of the best Banh Mi in Vietnam. We met the Austrian in Hoi An, who’s eaten so many of them that he’s put on 6 kilos in 4 months eating Banh Mi and drinking Vietnamese Coffee.
We still think that elusive Banh Mi is out there, it’s not Madam’s Khanh’s, neither is it the one from Phuong Banh Mi declared the best by Anthony Bourdain. It might just be the one from the street vendor in Saigon, but maybe not and it’s certainly not the numerous ones that we ate along the way. We’ll continue the search in October when we return.
We ate a lot at small stalls, street food, local restaurants and I have a theory, that their is a direct correlation between the price of food and the height of the stool, so go low, go low. We ate a lot at markets too and that’s where we discovered Mi Quang and Cao Lau, at the food court area of Hoi An Market, where there’s a fixed pricing in place, where your food costs you 20k VND (US$1) and your fruit smoothie another 20 VND.
When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Vietnam and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!
The dish is made with rice noodles tinted yellow with the use of turmeric. The protein is pork. The broth is made by simmering the pork in water seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallot and garlic. Added to this are crushed peanuts, chili pepper or chilli sauce, fresh vegetables including: water mint (rau hung lui), basil, Ipomoea aquatica, Vietnamese coriander, and lettuce, and pieces of toasted sesame rice crackers called banh trang me. It’s a single bowl of spicy, fragrant, nutty, pork goodness that you will slurp and dribble and smack your lips around.
Cao lầu is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is only found in the town of Hội An, central Vietnam. Its unique taste and texture is achieved by using water from an undisclosed ancient Cham well, just outside of the town. The noodles are served with very little broth. The broth is seasoned with cilantro, basil, and mint; sometimes chili peppers and a lime are provided on the side. It is served with salad greens and bean sprouts, and thinly-sliced pork slices and deep-fried croûtons are sprinkled on top to complete the dish. I can’t decide which I like best, Mi Quang or Cao Lau, so I kept eating them both.
We’ve eaten fried up instant noodles in an alley in Saigon, flat rice noodles, yellow noodles, we’ve even made our own noodles in Hoi An, and then eaten them. More of a staple between Saigon and Hanoi, north of Hanoi we had mainly rice. But I think I’ve eaten so many noodles that I might look like a noodle.
In NhaTrang, at Au Lac, we’ve paid 15k VND for a bowl of the most fragrant noodle broth with vegetarian bits and pieces on top – added our lettuce, herbs and squeeze of lemon (although it looks like lime) and we’ve returned less than 12 hours later because it’s good good.
We have eaten probably our body weight in Tofu while we’ve been in Vietnam – we’ve cooked with it and tried it in all different ways, including a baked stuffed tofu in Hoi An, which was interesting, but not worth what we paid for it. The best tofu, though remains the Tofu with Lemongrass and Chili that I ate three nights in a row in Mui Ne at the scruffy, right on the beach, frequented by locals Lam Tong.
The quest for Pho (a spicy fragrant beef noodle soup) started at the Viet Kitchen in Colchester, and Nige says they’re still winning the race for the best Pho. We ate a mixed Pho down a back alley in Saigon, that included all parts of the cow, and was interesting, but more interesting than tasty. We had tasty, good, but not great Pho at Pho 10 in Hanoi, but it remains that we’re still looking for a great Pho for when we head back in October.
Yes, Mum we’ve been good, there have been lots of vegetables along the way, delicious morning glory, spinach, all with lashings and lashings of garlic. Mmm.
Vietnamese Food – Breakfast
I should have tested my cholesterol before coming into the country and again on the way out. I think I’ve had eggs every day. Breakfast in Vietnam is easy. There’s always a selection that includes omelets of various sorts, perhaps a pancake (and we’ve had good and bad), bread is a staple, and it’s usually the mini French baguette style. What I’m not sure I can manage without now, is the lashing of Chili sauce that I heap onto my omelet each morning.
With limited time in Hue, we headed to the Dong Ba market and the food stalls that you’ll find right in the middle. There you can try for the tiniest amount of money (some dishes are 5k VND, some 10k and some 15k) all the Hue specialities. And there’s always a smoothie or cane sugar drink stall nearby willing to deliver you a drink too. We feasted on all the local favorites for 90k including a cane sugar drink. There’s more on what to eat in Hue in our guide to Hue here.
Bun Bo Hue
The most famous local dish is bún bò Huế, a noodle soup served with slices of beef and lashings of chili oil.
Nem Lui is a dish of sweet, minced pork around bamboo sticks grilled over hot coals.
Banh Khoai is a “pancake” filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork.
Bun Thit Nuong
Bun Thit Nuong is delicious barbecued pork served with vegetables and noodles.
We have loved the food of Vietnam, especially when we ate local and hot and spicy – turns out we loved the drinks too – and not necessarily in the way that you think!
I’ve always reacted badly to iced coffee, I never understood why anyone would want to wreck a decent coffee by putting ice in it. The same went for milk, what a ridiculous waste of coffee dumping all that cow juice in it. My hands are in the air and I’m admitting surrender as I say that I’ve fallen head over heels for Vietnamese coffee. Cold, tall, with condensed milk. Moorish. Sweet. Wonderful. Even black iced Vietnamese coffee, although that means I need to heap teaspoon after teaspoon of the not very sweet Vietnamese sugar in to make it drinkable. Saigon style to make it a taller drink. Yes, by the look on my face now, you can safely say that I’m hooked.
We even sought out some specialties, and believe me, they’re well worth seeking out. In the small, hidden coffee shops of Hanoi, we went on the hunt for Iced Yoghurt Coffee. OH MY GOD. Yes seriously, this is a drink that you’re going to love. All that caffeine goodness with the sharp tang of yoghurt. Over ice.
Not enough? Ok, try the Iced Yoghurt Coffee with cocoa. That’ll put your mocchachino to shame. Then take a step outside the normal and get yourself an Egg White Iced Coffee – invented apparently when there was a shortage of milk, its worth considering giving up milky coffee for. Almost.
One of the other great unique things to do in Hanoi is take in the Water Puppets show – its not far from these great coffee shops and its great fun!
We also found squeezed lemon juice and water a great alternative to fizzy drinks.
I’m not generally a fruit smoothie person, but if you make it to Hoi An market, then you HAVE to blow the 20k VND on some fruit smoothies. Try the Avocado, which the Vietnamese view as a fruit – added to yoghurt and ice, its moorish and so distinctly avocado, yet not, that you’ll just have to taste it to understand. The strawberry hit that you’ll get from the smoothie of the same name is surreal.
Cane Sugar Drink
Deep inside the Ham Tien market near Mui Ne there’s a little Cane Sugar drinks machine that dispenses the coldest, sweetest cane sugar. It’s squeezed right in front of you, the lemon is added and there you have a cup of sunshine. I’d never tried it before and enjoyed every single drop.
From the first bottle of Saigon Green we drank, sitting on the small red plastic stools on BIEN THIEN in Saigon, to bottles of Hanoi and Lao Cai, beer is something that Vietnam is very good at.
Oh it’s not your special microbrew taste, and it’s all very light tasting and easy drinking. It’s also pretty darned cheap. From 10k VND (US $0.50, 30p) for the Saigon Green bottles in Saigon right down to 3k VND for a glass of Bia Hoi in Hoi An, yes you can certainly say it’s cheap. (I’m in China when I’m writing this aching at the idea that we paid 10 Yuan for a beer last night (US GBP).
It’s Hanoi that is famous for Bia Hoi – the fresh beer that is delivered or collected in barrels each day and has to be drunk that day, but you can find it in a lot more places, from Sapa in the north, to the furthest place south we found it was Nha Trang.
In Hoi An, they use it to tempt you into the restaurants – Cafe 41’s offer was 3k VND a glass, dropping to 2k if you drank 3. Most other Bia Hoi, or fresh beer places in Hoi An charge 5k VND for the beer – we found Bia Hoi at Lots of places, Cafe 43,, Trip Nguyen and Red Sail all for prices from 3k to 10k.
In Hanoi, it’s much more the culture that you go to the Bia Hoi places to drink beer and perhaps snack. On Bia Hoi Corner, you can sit on small plastic stools, watch the world go by and snack on boiled peanuts in their shells, on chickens feet and on fermented pork wrapped in banana leaves. If the mood takes you, you can also try the cement fried frog….
Bia Hoi Hanoi is a chain, and you’ll find their small plastic stool fresh beer places throughout the city, snack on tofu, peanuts and enjoy the floor show as the next round of glasses is filled.
Bia Hoi Hanoi – Getting Raided!
Our most fun Bia Hoi experience was sitting on the steps of a closed building. Here we met Jim and Sarah who were on their honeymoon, ate peanuts, drank Bia Hoi and watched, assured that we were safe, as the police raided our “establishment”. We watched as they picked up the barrel, and a few stools, loaded it into their van and drove across the intersection. We watched as one of the staff from this makeshift little place, raced after then, did some form of deal and had his beer and equipment returned.
Shrugging he returned, “it’s just a normal day”, as we paid 60k VND ($US 3) for our 3.5 hours of entertainment, beer and peanuts.
Bia Hoi Hanoi Food
We picked food off menus with pictures, by pointing at other people’s food, by walking into the kitchen and going through containers and even in one instance, where the owner picked some food of someone else’s table and had us taste it to see if we liked it. (we did).
Very Good, Very Cheap, Very, Very Vietnam definitely applies to the food and drink.
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