Vietnam had been way down on my travel priority list because I believed the cuisine there rested on fish and seafood and the unmissable fish sauce. And once the notion takes shape, all the travel shows that you see somehow seem to tell you the same things too – everything has a smattering of prawns, or is fish or beef with a fish sauce to dip into. For a traveler most comfortable with vegetarian options, and a bit of chicken thrown in, SouthEast Asia feels daunting, doesn’t it?
This post is a humble admission of discovery and clearing misconceptions. Since it existed in my head, I’m hoping I can help a few others like me.
I started off my explorations with the cà phê at the Ho Chi Minh airport while on transit and the strong heady brew which I had with hot milk made me curious about the iced version which is had with condensed milk. And as luck would have it, I also got to do a tiny class in how to make an authentic cà phê at the resort we stayed in Hoi An too. If you’d like to see how its made, check out the video of the class on my travel instagram page @travelkathas! The condensed milk version can be an occasional treat with about half a dozen ice cubes added to soften the sugar hit – if you like me- are not a fan of sugary coffee. However, the regular version with hot milk is one to savour too.
Interestingly at a Trung Nguyen cafe in Ho Chi Minh city, I also tried a lemon tea with ginger and honey in it, which had the most interesting ingredient ever – cured preserved lemon pieces apart from a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice! Across Vietnam, you’ll find that infused water is quite popular. I am such a big fan now that I usually have a jug of various infusions by my table – makes drinking your 2 litres a day much more fun!
The flavour riot that is Vietnamese cuisine: Thanks to international tourists from all parts of the world, chicken is now available on the menu in several restaurants but if you’d like authentic flavours, the meat is either beef or pork. Since the red-meatiness of beef is a flavour-block for me, I gravitated towards trying the pork options. I had to stay away from the prawn-based dishes , since it was an open invitation for an allergy attack. I steered clear of the dipping sauce in most cases too, but replaced it with soy sauce where I felt that could work too – especially with their fresh and fragrant rice paper rolls.
Pho – Let’s begin with the predictable – you can not travel through Vietnam without savouring a bowl of Pho. Since its now an international dish, you can easily get a bowl of Pho with chicken in it. But I didn’t savour the broth that N gulped down too – he had a beef Pho and well, I was happy with the complexity of the broth in mine. And unlike most foreigners, who hardly touch the plate of sprouts and aromatics served alongside, I picked the leaves and the sprouts and the generous squeeze of lemon before slurping it all down. A bowlful of goodness and the lightest way to breakfast, lunch or dinner your way while in Vietnam!
Bánh mì – The quintessential Vietnamese sandwich that is a fusion of a crisp French baguette with local ingredients and Vietnamese greens. The flavours pack such a punch that you will end up going back for more! Vietnamese cuisine uses an array of greens to elevate the flavour profile of their meats and dishes – I loved this primer the greens here. In Hoi An, check out Ms.Vy’s Market Restaurant for an authentic taste of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s pretty popular with the tourists and is always alive and bustling.
Rice paper rolls with dipping sauce – The Vietnamese make the most delicate rice paper rolls and stuff it with meat and greens and some daikons to give your taste buds a riot of flavours – don’t miss it. I skipped the fish sauce and went for the peanut sauce and soy sauce accompaniments. Just politely telling them that you don’t want fish sauce often helps. But on certain days, I also did throw caution to the winds and went for those deep-fried spring rolls too – itsy-bitsy, flaky pastry enveloping some really flavorful pork and ginger filling! There are several versions to try – Bánh Cuôń and the Banh Lau were two that I tried.
While in Hoi An, do try the White Rose too! It’s a Hoi An specialty and every restaurant seems to have a version. I tried the pork version and the crispy fried garlic that its topped with made it a delight! The streets of Hoi An are bustling too – from crisy baked rice rolls to fat banana pan cakes to desserts made out of mung beans – try a few! They are delicately flavoured and fun!
When in Ho Chi Minh City: We had some fun fusion food in Ho Chi Minh city too – apart from multiple rounds of Pho and Banh Mi. A couple that I’d recommend – a meal at the Propoganda Cafe, Pizza 4Ps and Hum restaurant.
Don’t miss out on the Street Food Market at the Benh Thanh Market as well. It’s great fun to sample and savour some interesting local fare or settle for a hot dog or a kebap. But remember, apart from draft beer, cocktails are expensive, upwards of VND150,000 which is upwards of $7! The spring rolls and the lotus stem chips that they serve at the Hum restaurant (they have 3 across HCMC) are worth a mention too! Easily the best vegetarian spring rolls that I have ever had!
But if you’d like a break from eating strictly Vietnamese food, try Pizza 4Ps. While they source all their ingredients, including their yummy cheeses for the pizza from across Vietnam, they do some fabulous combos! We tried a Japanese ginger pork pizza done half-half with a beautiful mozzarella and pepporoni pizza. Ciao Bella in District 1 does some decent Italian fare too – but more than the meal itself what really had me in splits was the plaques that you see tacked on the brick walls of this eatery!
Several friends told me that Vietnam is a cheap holiday – well, it’s cheaper than travelling through Europe for sure, but it isn’t as cheap as many would believe it to be. I found travelling through Myanmar far cheaper – especially while dining at cafes and restaurants that are a couple of rungs above street-side eateries. While a draft beer, say a Saigon is cheap, there is a vibrant craft-beer culture that we discovered in HCMC. And that is definitely not the cheapest that you’d get to try! Propoganda Cafe has some good ones on their menu, if you love them!
I’m eagerly looking forward to sampling some more North Vietnamese specialities when we make our next trip – Hanoi, I’m sure you have some hidden gems to make my love for Vietnamese cuisine even deeper.
For now, Cảm ơn (thank you) Vietnam for changing misconceptions and giving me a peek into the versatility of your cuisine!