Noodles, soups and pancakes: get hungry for Vietnamese food

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.

com ga

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.

banh mi

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.

pho

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banh xeo vietnam

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.

vietnamese white roseWhite rose dumplings

vietnamese food banh xeoBánh xèo at a Hoi An market counter

vietnamese foodBanh beo dumplings

vietnam street foodBánh 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.

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vietnamese food spring roll

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.

tamarind drink vietnamNước đá me by St Joseph’s Cathedral

vietnamese food

vietnamese mango rollSpicy mango rolls on the streets of Nha Trang

egg coffee vietnam

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.

bun cha hanoi

So… Who’s getting on a plane to Vietnam with an empty stomach?

Snapshots from Halong Bay

I finished my Vietnam trip with three days spent on a cruise in Halong Bay. It’s truly a paradise – as well as being, like many of my favourite spots, a Unesco World Heritage site. What makes the bay unique is the thousands of big-and-small islands that dot it, all covered in thick green rainforest. From jumping off the boat’s bow straight into the water, to skinny-dipping at midnight on our lil’ private island… It was an indulgent end to an otherwise quite cheap trip and the photos are making me want to go back!

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Walking with the H’mong in Sapa

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

The word winding was invented for the roads that surround Sapa. This is a thought that comes to me as I make my way along those roads, in the pouring rain, the asphalt broken up in most places, potholes filled with muddy water that splash as our tiring motorbike makes it way up and down slopes, carrying my drenched self together with all of my possessions. Looking over the edge, I catch the last glimpses of the dark green terraced rice fields through the thick fog that’s covering the valley. Then my glasses are just too wet and I just don’t see anything.

I’m on my way back to Sapa after two days in the village of Ta Van, and while this apocalyptic journey isn’t an accurate representation of the county or the time I spent there, it really is a good illustration of the differences between Sapa and the rest of Vietnam. Sapa, the largest town in the Lao Cai province, is situated in north western Vietnam, where the country meets with China. It’s also the highest part of Vietnam; its peak, Mount Fansipan, is the country’s tallest mountain. This high altitude means Sapa and the neighbouring villages have a very particular landscape and weather. High altitude means cooler, wetter weather, and so the region is covered in terraced rice fields that are the picture-perfect image of north Vietnam that most know and seek Sapa for.

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa wasn’t on my hit list, actually. But every traveller I met on the road had endless praise about Sapa, its inhabitants and the time they’d spent there, so I set three days aside to make the trip. After an ecstatic 14-hour bus journey from Hue (jokez), I arrived bright and early in Hanoi at 6:30am to get on the 7am bus to Sapa. Around five hours later, I made it to Sapa town, which I left quickly – it was busy, filled with buses and tourists, while I wanted quiet and countryside. I walked along the lake to get to the bus station where I hired a motorbike taxi to take me to Ta Van Village.

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Lao Cai province – that’s usually what people refer to when they talk about Sapa – is a popular destination because of its cultural diversity. The mountains are home to people of nine different ethnic minorities, all with their different traditions, garments, and mostly, different languages. Nearly three-quarters of the population are Black H’mong and Dao people, and almost all are from a farming background. Tourism has changed things quite a lot, though, as I realised while walking with Mimi and her daughters around Ta Van.

Here’s how it goes when you take a walk in one of the ethnic villages near Sapa: you’ll go about one minute until you run into a group of women waiting for travellers to sell their goods to. You’ll say you want none. They’ll ask again. You’ll say no thank you and move on. And inevitably, one or two will start following you asking if you’re off trekking. To be fair, I was happy for Mimi’s company. I walked with her after a day spent inside my homestay and chatting to her helped my cabin fever.

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Mimi is 34 and has three children, two girls and a boy. Her husband is a farmer; they live high up in the mountain, about an hour’s walk from Ta Van, where they cultivate rice. She helps him. She plants the rice and helps with picking, but also cooks, and sews to make clothes for the family and goods to sell. As she explains how long it takes to make a traditional jacket – an intricate combination of appliqué pieces with panels of hemp fabric – I notice the tip of her fingers is blue from the indigo dye. Everyone in the family gets a whole new outfit at New Year. She says it’s one of the busiest times.

On top of all that, Mimi works in the villages guiding travellers. Her daughters sometimes come along, also selling bracelets and pouches. It’s a strange thing to see girls this young outside of school; and there are actually signs at the entrance of the village to remind travellers of the many ways in which we should discourage this form of behaviour: don’t buy from street sellers, especially kids, and don’t give them candy. 

Mimi and I spoke a lot about relationships. She told me about how people used to marry very young. Her own mother is only 50, having had her aged 16. The marrying age is a little older now; her daughter Zai, who is 15, tells me that she is not planning on getting married anytime soon. She wants to get a job. Mimi explains how weddings work; how the parents plan out the wedding, how the man has to pay a dowry that rarely goes to the girl, how the girl will go live with her husband’s parents; how there aren’t enough women across the border in China, so many girls marry into China. Their parents complain they never see their daughters.

She says things are easier for men. That’s where our lives – very, very distant lines, join back. She says it’s easier for men to find women to marry. She asks me if I’ve tried ‘happy water’ – I have, the previous night, and the loally-made rice wine by far the worst booze I’ve ever had. ‘I don’t like when my husband drinks it, then he does nothing,’ she says. 

Oh, the parallels. 

I ask if she wishes that things were different. She shrugs. ‘It’s the way my culture works.’

Sadly, I don’t have a photo of Mimi. I was planning on taking one when going on a walk with her the next day, but it’s her daughter Zai who meets me instead. She is quieter than her mother, but her English is incredible, especially for someone who’s never been to school, as she explains to me. ‘My dad did not want me to go, I don’t know why, but I said I’m not going to stay home and just help you.’ So she went down to the village and started working full time in a bar at 14. Now she does help with watching the buffaloes, and also treks. 

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Her strength is surprising. She does all of our walk on a ridiculously muddy mountain in flip flops, carrying a plastic bag filled with her wares, holding an umbrella when it starts raining, and my hand so I don’t fall over. (I still do, twice. She says if I lived here I’d be able to do it easily. She does tell me that I walk better that some others. I say that’s because I’m not afraid of falling.)

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north VietnamYou can just about guess the mud that covers all of my bum

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

She’s still a kid though. Just a kid.

As I sat down to think back on my time in Sapa, one thing struck me: I saw women from the various tribes everywhere in traditional clothing, walking, guiding, buying food – but no men. The men I saw, many doing building work for the countless homestays being built, were all wearing jeans and T-shirts. Were the dads and husbands to women like Mimi and Zai back at the farm, in the mountain? Or sleeping off happy water? Either way, for a society that, no doubt, many in the West would still consider primitive, in the hills of Sapa, the women work. And they work hard. Everywhere in Vietnam, actually, they do. It’s women who wave at you to come into their shops. Women who sit by pots, stirring soups and cutting pieces of tofu on sidewalks. Women who carry heavy baskets on both sides of a wooden plank, walking around cities to sell fruits and vegetables. Women, also, whom I saw digging the ground in Sapa, carrying bricks in Nha Trang, collecting garbage in Hanoi. To the risk of being stereotypical (I think I’m already too far gone, anyway), the people I saw on sidewalk stools in Hanoi drinking lemon tea and dragging on cigarettes were only men.

But back to Sapa. There is no fee discussed when trekking with local women; but everyone knows the implied agreement: we’ll buy some of their products at the end, accepting a ridiculous overcharge. So I find myself buying an appliqué bracelet and pouch from Zai at the end of your walk; right away attracting other sellers. ‘You buy one thing from her then one thing from me,’ says an old woman. I smile but say no. Word of advice: never tell ‘maybe later’ to a street seller in Sapa. The women and kids will follow you based on that promise, sometimes wait for you outside shops and restaurants. Out-patienting them is hard.

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Sapa trekking north Vietnam

Before I leave later that afternoon, Tung, whose homestay I’m staying at, requests I sing at least a song. I pick Wild World, which has been stuck in my head since a dare in Dalat. Then he picks for me: Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive, first, then Lean on Me. And as we swirl around the mountain in the rain, headed back to the station, I keep singing. And leaning on. Falling off a motorbike is one form of falling I’m afraid of.

Going to Sapa?

  • Bus v train: The train journey to Sapa is a popular one. I think many tourists are seduced by the idea of a night in a train cabin, à la Darjeeling Limited. However, the train journey is eight-hour long and costs $30 to $40 (and isn’t the most comfortable in the world, from what I hear), and the train only drops you in Lao Cai – you then have to take a 45-minute bus to Sapa. Meanwhile the bus journey is only five and a half hours, costs around $15, and drops you in Sapa. The Sapa Express Bus is actually a good compromise, at $17: it’s the most comfortable bus I’ve ever been on, with great staff, and even water and snacks. I’d recommend taking the bus in the daytime (departures at 6:30am or 7am) to make the most of the views going into Sapa.
  • There are many different villages to stay in. If your plan is mostly to trek, start from Sapa and trek to a first village, select a homestay at random, then train to a second the village the next day, etc. If you want a base to trek, I’d recommend booking ahead so you easily know where to get to when you arrive in Sapa. I stayed in Ta Van, which is very popular for its homestays (and therefore, full of westerners), and has a nice short walking route going around the valley. I also hear great things about the village of Cat Ca. Access to the villages is taxed, so take that into account: I had to pay 75,000 dong to get to Ta Van, for example.
  • Prefer a homestay over a hotel. Whether you pick a veritably authentic homestay, or a rather more touristic hostel-style place, Sapa and the province of Lao Cai are known for their welcoming locals and homestays. I think it’d be a shame to make the trip up there and miss on that experience.
  • Trekking tips:
    • Good shoes are a must. Don’t tell yourself you can do it like a local and go hiking in flip flops. You can’t. Waterproof shoes are preferable as you will most certainly encounter a spring or a waterfall.
    • Take a good waterproof. Showers happen unpredictably.
    • Don’t wear anything you care about. If it starts raining, it’s likely you’ll end up on the ground, covered in mud.
    • Go with a guide. Many of the local tribe women make a living out of selling their goods to the people they take on treks. Be prepared to buy something from your guide at the end and to be overcharged for what it is; but you’re basically paying a guide fee and getting a physical memory of your stay.

Snapshots: Hue, Vietnam’s imperial city

From Hue (or Huế, as it’s written in Vietnamese) reigned the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty in Vietnam. The city was also the capital of the country until 1945. These two facts together make for a glorious city, with its citadel and forbidden Purple City a beautiful physical incarnation of the country’s history. Huế’s surroundings are dotted with tombs of past emperors, all elaborate monuments built early into their reigns. Huế’s a good spot for history buffs and photographers into colours and lines (that’s me).

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Hue imperial city VIetnam

Three days in Hoi An

Friendships are both at once the best and worst part of travelling (second only to food).

Everyone told me about how amazing it would be to meet so many people on the road. It’s true that not a day went by without meeting a new face, and occasionally, those new faces would turn into travel mates whom I shared a bit of the road with.

The thing about the road is that it’s overwhelming. It heightens all your senses. Everything is bigger and brighter, every landscape is a little more colourful, the flavours are more potent, and the friendships, more intense. Mere hours separate meeting someone from being the closest thing to family they’ve seen in days. And a few days, or weeks later, the firework’s exploded, the smoke’s dissipated, and you’re alone on the road again.

Until, at random, you meet again. That’s the beauty of the road. We all take the same route.

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam Hoi An Vietnam

I met Jane on the night bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An; we were two white chicks waiting for a bus with large backpacks and a dishevelled look – the best situation to strike up a conversation. Then I arrived in Hoi An to find that my friend Reema, whom I’d met on a minivan in Laos about a month earlier, was also in town. The three of us rented bicycles and headed for a ride through the countryside surrounding the town.

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

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Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An VietnamReema & Jane

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

On my first night in Hoi An, I joined a street food tour organised by my hostel. I met people from Lithuania, the Netherlands, Argentina, Germany – we shared anecdotes about our trips so far, words of Spanish and German, made plans to meet up in Valparaiso.

The people you meet on the road are all different from you, and all open and keen to share. Don’t travel if you’re not ready to share some of your most intimate thoughts with people you barely know. I’m learning to fully do it and appreciate it – travelling is the perfect no-consequence soundboard to test out viewpoints and personalities.

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An Vietnam

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Hoi An was the first Chinese-looking town I visited in Vietnam. Its buildings are a faded yellow with paper lanterns hanging over the streets that light up at night, bright reds and blues against the pitch-black Asian night sky. You’ve got to pay what’s a relatively hefty fee to visit the old city, but it gives you tickets for five of the town’s historical spots. I took a peek at the Japanese bridge and popped into the Vietnamese folk museum, which I’d both recommend.

The best part of Hoi An, though, was its food – but more about that when I manage to sit down and write about Vietnamese food…

Dalat by motorbike

The town of Dalat, in south Vietnam, is brilliantly chilly. It’s breezy and a little grey, and was such a welcome respite from the baking heat of the rest of south-east Asia. I loved it the instant I arrived – in spite of the fact I got there at 6am, with a mean cold I’d gotten on the night bus, with a day on a motorbike ahead of me. A two-hour kip sorted me out just about right. Travelling is no relaxing activity…

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat is famous with backpackers for its easy rider tours. What that means is that you’ll get on the back of a motorbike and be driven around the area by a guide – or you can choose to drive your own motorbike and simply follow the guide. Not one for me… While I’ve definitely been adventurous on this trip so far and have done things I normally wouldn’t, I’m still struggling to walk without falling over myself, so I feel like motorbikes are one to avoid.

My first stop was Tuyền Lâm lake, a stunning man-made lake flanked by Voi mountain, where I found Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery. There was a lot of tourists around, but still the place felt quiet, especially once a little rain started falling.

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

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Dalat Vietnam

I’ve been instagramming a lot on this trip and it’s made me, or helped me realise how sensitive to colours I am. Colours are what I look for when shooting (along with straight lines – I do love a good geometric snap) and Dalat really delivered on that level. The dark green of the pine forests against the pale grey of the sky, the rusty red of the basaltic soils, the blueish anthracite of the asphalt, the stark white of the road markings… yes please.

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

Dalat Vietnam

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The region of Dalat is known for its flower- and coffee-growing. I took a peek at some coffee plants – I’d never seen any before and it took even this coffee snob a while to understand what those little green grains were. One coffee speciality of the region is weasel coffee. Weasels are fed coffee grains, which, once digested, are collected back from the animals’ poo. I was told the digestive acids give the coffee a special flavour, and naturally couldn’t resist trying it… and it’s true! Weasel coffee’s very smooth, sweet and chocolatey. And goes for around £50 a cup, I hear. Not in Vietnam…

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20161012-img_1402Not a dry eye at the Elephant Waterfall (ha)

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As for Dalat itself, aside from the many coffee shops and a few delicious Dalat pizza spots (a grilled rice paper roll topped with pizza-like ingredients), the main attraction is the Crazy House. Hằng Nga Guesthouse, as it’s actually called, is a hotel-cum-artwork created by architect Đặng Việt Nga. Imagine a mix of Alice in Wonderland, Gaudí, Hobbiton and Disney castle and you’ve got yourself a close picture of what the Crazy House looks like.

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A guide explained to me that this project took many years to get off the ground. Nga had to fight hard to convince both the local and national authorities to allow her design, and the early building was stopped and destroyed several times. Private funding helped to get it properly going, but Nga, now in her late years, still lives onsite to continue overseeing building work, as the property’s still unfinished, 26 years after it first opened.

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Going to Dalat?

  • Stay at Dalat Sky Hostel. It’s the most comfortable hostel bed I’ve stayed in in my time in Asia, and the family dinner is a must-do – huge amounts of delicious food for a reasonable price.
  • Eat Dalat pizza at Cafe 34 on Bùi Thi Xuân. The locals told me it was the best.
  • Go for a drink at 100 Roofs Café. Built in the same vein as the Crazy House, it’s a little bit mad (and fun!)