By Toni Neubauer
Traveling to Vietnam entails that your trip will be filled with trying new and different food that you may not be familiar with. Vietnamese food is a unique and aromatic amalgamation of the cuisine of its neighbors and invading countries. Vietnamese food has been inspired by other Asian cultures, countries typically bounce food ideas off of each other, putting their own style on what may be a classic dish in another country. The Mongols and Chinese introduced beef and stir-frying. The Cambodian and Thai contributed noodles, chili and coconut milk. The French contributed the baguette and custard. And Americans brought ice cream.
Rice, as in most Asian countries, is the mainstay of Vietnamese cuisine, and is served at every meal. But the Vietnamese have taken rice beyond the classic steamed and sticky versions to make everything from wine and noodles in all diameters to edible paper for wrapping spring rolls.
Try Classic Vietnamese Food
Here are a few must-try, traditional dishes to sample when traveling to Vietnam. Most of these will be as near to you as the street outside your hotel. In fact, street food in Vietnam is a culinary win-win, the ultimate in fresh and flavorful fast food.
Phô (pronounced “fuh” not “foe”) It means rice noodles, but now the whole dish–noodles in a chicken or beef broth seasoned with basil, mint, cilantro and the ubiquitous fish sauce–is called pho. If you tire of pho–which can happen after eating it seven days in a row–switch to canh chua, a sweet and sour soup.
Bánh Mì A baguette filled with a number of ingredients, most often pork belly or fish cakes, pickled carrots, and hot chilies. We’re looking forward to the day it appears on our local Subway menu.
Bánh Xèo A crispy pancake of rice flour and coconut milk turned yellow with turmeric and a mix of ingredients, including shrimp or pork and, of course, heaps of bean sprouts. The pancake is finished with a sprinkling of fragrant fresh herbs.
Rau Muong Water spinach, aka morning glory, is one of the country’s most popular vegetables. Vietnamese eat it almost every day sautéed in garlic, chopped and added to salad or combined with noodles.
Bun Tom Nuong Xa You can have your “bun” with grilled ingredients throughout Vietnam. This particular one combines the ubiquitous white rice noodles with barbecue shrimp and vegetables (carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts, and shallots). Top it off with a drizzle of nuoc cham, which is a common dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, and the chef’s choice ingredient.
Where To Eat Vietnamese Food
Now that your appetite is sufficiently whetted, here are some favorite spots of our Vietnamese operator, Tran Thi Van Anh.
Sen 60 Ly Thai Yes, it’s a chain of buffet restaurants, but a chain like no other. It’s always full of Vietnamese (a good sign) as well as tourists on a Vietnam adventure tour. If you have little time to spare in Hanoi, dining here allows you to sample a variety of seafood in one stop. There are several branches of the restaurant throughout the city, but this one in the French quarter has the most charm. Address: 60 Ly Thai To Street.
1915 Indochine Don’t go home without trying the signature dish, “Royal fish rolls.” Thin slices of fish are wrapped around bits of beef and bacon and submerged in a spicy seafood sauce. The menu is a fusion of Western and Eastern techniques and flavors and the decor is pure neoclassical French. Address: 33 Ba Trieu
Cha Ca La Vong The restaurant’s name is also it’s signature dish, a fish mix that seems to combine all things Vietnamese–shrimp paste, noodles, fish sauce, and turmeric. You do-it-yourself–or most of it–on your personal tabletop grill. Though small and crowded, this 100-year-old restaurant is an essential stop for American chefs visiting Vietnam. Address: 14 Pho Cha Ca.
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
Buffet Ganh Although it’s in the downtown business district, here is where you’ll have an opportunity to taste classic Vietnamese dishes from the countryside. Since it’s a buffet, you have the opportunity to sample dishes from all regions of Vietnam a one sitting. Always wanted to try half-hatched duck eggs? You can get them here along with other dishes of the Mekong Delta–noodles, pancakes, and sweet soups. Address: Buffet Ganh Restaurant – 5th floor: Palace Saigon Hotel 56-66 Nguyen Hue Str , Dist 1
Vy’s Market, Restaurant and Cooking School Trinh Diem Vy, a third generation cook, has a passion for the food of her home country. She serves local dishes, which you can learn to prepare from local Vietnamese at the cooking school. At The Market, you can sample many street food specialties, too. These range from fried treats (prawn wantons topped with crab meat and sugar cane wrapped with shrimp mousse) to sweet ones (banana, coconut fritter pudding cake and taro with sticky rice and coconut cream are favorites) Address: 3 Nguyen Hoang Street.
Ba Le Well One of the most authentic restaurants in Hoi An’s old town, Bale Well is a favorite of resident Vietnamese guides. Skewered pork barbeque, prepared while you wait, bánh Xèo (see above), shrimp rolls…as long as you’re perched on your stool, the food will keep coming. It’s noisy, tiny, and a great value. Address: 45/51 Ba Le Well Lane