Food is always the thing I’m the most excited about when travelling. It’s just my favourite thing. I’d take Dalat pizza over the Crazy House and pad thai over a waterfall any day. Oddly, though, I wasn’t expecting much about Vietnam – I think because I haven’t had the chance to have Vietnamese food often back home.
Vietnamese food blew me away.
My first dish in Ho Chi Minh City was a plate of simple cơm tấm. Broken rice, a grilled pork chop and a fried egg. It doesn’t look like much, but eaten on a small stool on the side of the road, at night with rain trickling and the loud crackle of Saigon’s thousands of motorbikes, it felt like being a local. Rich and crispy pork with rice dribbling with egg yolk… Add to that a spoonful of the sweet rice vinegar that’s always on the table, and a little soy sauce, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Like Thailand, Vietnam’s got a big street food culture, with vendors everywhere up and down the streets, hailing locals and tourists alike. You’ve got your banh mi, obviously – the star of Vietnamese food. No two banh mis are created equal, though. The bread must be right, the filling generous, with meat that actually tastes like meat, plenty of salad and crunchy cucumber, and the perfect amount of dressing to get everything going. A sheet of brown paper to wrap it in, a tight elastic band and off you go. The best by far is from Huynh Hoa (26 Lê Thi Riêng). Also known as the ‘banh mi ladies’, the women from this shop make one hell of a generous banh mi.
Same goes with pho. It’s not all about standing next to a big pot and dropping some meat and noodles in there. There are lots of different phos, depending on the meat, the thickness of the noodles, the level of spice, the toppings… I don’t think I quite found my pho, actually. I only tried it from off-looking stalls, and ended up with a handful of chicken feet at one point (not as traumatising as it may sound, but still startling). I did love the first bowl of hủ tiếu I had, though – a big, fuming bowl of glass noodles in pork broth.
Vietnam’s also a big market trade, with huge fruit and vegetable markets in every town. Hoi An’s was my favourite. I came back again and again to sit on those little metal benches, facing glass panels displaying all of the day’s goods, waiting for a plate of something delicious. White rose (or banh vac) are steamed clear ravioli filled with shrimps. Their name makes sense when the plate is put before you: delicate, a pinkish-orange hue, with droplets of chili oil creating a plate worthy of a modern British restaurant back home. You’ve also got cao lau, the local noodle dish that’s got thick, special noodles you can find nowhere else, braised pork, but no soup; and the wonderful banh xeo. One of my favourite dishes in Vietnam, it’s a small, shallow-fried pancake with pork and shrimps, folded and stuffed with fresh leaves, then eaten rolled into rice paper and dipped in nuoc mam. It’s the stuff of dreams.
White rose dumplings
Bánh xèo at a Hoi An market counter
Banh beo dumplings
Bánh cuốn rolls
At dawn the market welcomes the street vendors coming to pick up their bitter lemons and cucumbers; later it’s the groups of cooking students that criss-cross the alleyways. I joined the Bay Mau Eco Cooking Tour with my friend Reema, learning to place prawns properly along the rice paper to make Hollywood-level spring rolls (gỏi cuốn), and discovering Vietnam’s fascination for peanut everything – cold noodles in thick, creamy, sweet-and-salty peanut sauce as delicious as it sounds wrong. Trust me.
Other standout dishes, in no particular order: a wonderful platter of bánh bèo, small steamed rice cakes topped with dried fish that hail from the imperial city of Hue; spring rolls packed full with dried mango, peanuts and greens and dipped in sweet peanut sauce, eaten on the night bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An; small, round fried dumplings stuffed with sweet bean paste; glass after glass of sweet, tangy, wonderful nước đá me, or tamarind juice; thick, creamy, sweet tiramisu-like egg coffee on a balcony overlooking Hanoi’s Hồ Hoàn Kiếm lake.
Nước đá me by St Joseph’s Cathedral
Spicy mango rolls on the streets of Nha Trang
But if there could only be one… it would be bún chả. A Hanoi speciality, it’s a dish of fatty grilled pork served with white rice noodles, a deliciously sweet and vinegary dipping sauce and lots of foraged greens. It’s rich, sweet, savoury, crispy then mellow; it’s hearty and fun; it’s a bit of a mess. It’s Vietnamese food.
So… Who’s getting on a plane to Vietnam with an empty stomach?