This was originally drafted and to be published in late 2014. Life intervened and I never got around to completing it. However, I tweaked the article with edits and finally in 2016, it’s ready to be read by you! I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for over two years and meals were anything but mediocre. Now that I’m back in New York, I don’t have access to all this incredible food but I still need to share the best of Vietnam’s culinary culture.
Go to Vietnam with an empty stomach. You could have a different meal for the rest of your life but you still wouldn’t have covered everything this country has to offer. Everything is fresh, flavorful and filling. Since you’re going to Southeast Asia, I dare you to try foods that might raise eyebrows. Eating is an adventure so be bold and have fun with it!
1. Sau rieng | Durian
Durian is so good. If you don’t believe me, something is wrong with you. There is a reason why it’s the king of fruits. Once you’re hooked, you’ll be addicted for life. I’m a living example. Get a local to help you find the best durian. Go to a street vendor and have them axe it open on the spot. Embrace how good it smells and dig in. It’s a heaty fruit so drink plenty of water to stay cool and hydrated. Don’t drink alcohol while eating durian because it might kill you. Some say it’s a myth and you don’t have to believe them but you should enjoy that pungent fruit on its own anyway. If you can’t bring yourself to like it, don’t worry, Vietnam has plenty of other delicious fruits!
2. Ca phe | Coffee
If you’re a coffee snob like me, you’re in for a treat. Vietnamese coffee is dark and flavorful so you’ll be drinking it like water. Good luck going to sleep every night. The most popular way to drink it is to mix the coffee with condensed milk and ice, creating “ca phe sua da.” Find a coffee shop or a street setup where you can sit back and observe the traffic. It’s really fun to watch people weave through traffic on their motorbikes while you’re enjoying a cup of coffee. Make sure to share the wealth and bring some home for your family and friends. Also, this is a cute Vietnamese song about the pleasure of having a glass of ca phe sua da.
3. Lau hai san | Seafood hot pot
Ho Chi Minh City is always hot and humid but don’t let that tempt you from skipping out on this amazing hot pot. Climate shouldn’t stop you from enjoying great food. I was introduced to Lau Dau Ca Dan Ich in District 5 in Ho Chi Minh City when my colleague and friend, Van, took me here. The seafood hot pot is just to die for. You get shrimp, squid, clams, and different kinds of fish all in one pot. Hot pot is the best when it’s eaten family style so I always took my out of town friends here. You should go with a big group of people. That way, you can order more and enjoy a wider variety of choices.
4. Bun bo Hue | Beef noodle soup from Hue
Bun bo Hue is a phenomenal noodle dish. It comes from Hue in Central Vietnam and it is unlike other noodle dishes because it incorporates sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavors all into one soup. Typically, it is served with thick vermicelli noodles, slices of marinated beef shank and a variety of vegetables. Sometimes you’ll find chunks of oxtail or pig knuckles as well. The best part is the fierce chili oil that brings it all together. If you’re into spicy foods, this dish is definitely the thing for you.
5. Cha ca | Pan fried fish cakes with dill
On my trip to Hanoi, I begged my host to take me to the famous restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong. It’s a charming little set-up that serves only one dish: cha ca. There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how beautifully delicious this dish is. Some say it’s overrated but that’s something you should decide on your own. I have an obsession with mam tom, which is a purple-colored shrimp paste that smells revolting. But it is so good. And it is so good with cha ca. If you aren’t brave enough to have cha ca with mam tom, don’t even try.
6. Banh mi | Baguette sandwich
Devouring an authentic Vietnamese sandwich, or a “banh mi,” is a must. They are made with French style baguettes. Inside, you’ll find pickled vegetables, pâté (pork liver spread), slices of pork, chicken and ham flavored with “tuong ot” hot sauce, pepper and soy sauce. What a mouthful! Eat them for breakfast when the baguettes come right out of the oven. Be careful with the fresh chili because they burn your mouth and water makes it worse. There’s an unwritten rule that the dirtier the vendor, the tastier the sandwich. You might put your stomach at risk but it’s worth it. Seriously, the best sandwiches I’ve had were from the filthiest looking vendors. If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, make sure to go to Banh Mi Huynh Hoa. This is banh mi on beast mode. Thank you, Thanh for the recommendation!
7. Goi cuon | Fresh spring rolls
Go to Hoang Ty. Here, you start with a giant platter of fresh greens and rice paper. Then, you can order any meat and seafood you want in your rolls. Finally, you’ll be given a variety of sauces but most people opt for the fish sauce, also known as nuoc mam. You’ll be making the rolls so half the fun comes from trying to master the technique to get all the ingredients wrapped without having it fall apart. This is one thing you can keep eating without realizing that you’re full. There isn’t ever a wrong combination of ingredients, which makes it easy to keep eating them.
8. Com tam | Grilled pork over broken rice
This is the ultimate Vietnamese breakfast dish. In fact, this was what I ate for my first breakfast in Vietnam. Hien, my program director, and I sat on tiny plastic stools in the Vo Van Tan alley stuffing our faces with com tam with our ca phe sua da on the side. It’s a dish that is as simple as grilled pork, fried eggs and fresh vegetables over broken rice with fish sauce on the side. Broken rice is apparently the go-to choice for breakfast because it’s not heavy but fills you up quickly. If you want something simple, easy and perfect, then go with com tam. You can’t go wrong.
9. Banh xeo | Sizzling savory pancakes
Asian pancakes are gifts from the universe. I’m obsessed with all the different types of pancakes from around the continent and the Vietnamese are on their A game. The most popular savory pancake dish that comes from Southern Vietnam is banh xeo, which you have to try. Banh xeo is huge with diameters of up to fifteen inches. The name comes from the sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured onto the hot skillet. They are filled with sprouts, mushrooms, pork, shrimp, and green onions. You wrap these inside lettuce or mustard leaf and dip it in fish sauce. Can you tell that the Vietnamese can’t get enough of their nuoc mam?
Pho is pure comfort food. Once you have pho in Vietnam, you’ll immediately understand why it is iconic and epitomizes Vietnamese food. Everyone loves this dish because it’s simple. Pho consists of rice noodles, basil, sprouts, lime, slices of semi-cooked beef and a light broth. These ingredients are familiar to everyone from every culture. Pho has no rules. It tastes equally as delicious when you have it for breakfast as when you have it after late-night festivities. Pho from every kitchen in every region tastes very different from one another. Go try as many as you can!
Once you experience Vietnam, you’ll understand why this list doesn’t even come close to summarizing the food culture there. Anyone who loves Vietnamese food will get to the end of the article saying “She didn’t mention bun cha gio!” or “Where is mi quang?” I could easily list fifty more but I’m going to let you embark on that adventure. I dare you to try hot vit lon. Don’t Google it. Go to Vietnam and have a local take you to eat hot vit lon. When you do, please report back to me. Ultimately, eating in Vietnam is a social experience so make a lot of friends and a lot of excuses to eat out. The biggest dilemma is going back for some amazing seconds (or thirds) or trying something new. Either way, you’ll be beyond satisfied.
[photo credits: Kimberley Ng and Lance Nguyen]