Before travelling to Vietnam, I was largely ignorant of its serene natural beauty, bustling and quickly transforming cities, and incredible food culture. Vietnam in my mind was primarily associated with the Vietnam War (known as the American War to the Vietnamese), which I suspect is the case for many other Americans.
Though I was in Vietnam for only two weeks, I saw a country that was culturally rich and diverse, relentlessly devoted to modernization, and unbelievably welcoming to visitors. It seems to have all but left behind the shadow of the Vietnam war. There is too much to say about Vietnam to fit in a blog post, or even a book, and I am not an expert on any part of it. So I will focus on the activity I partook in at least three times a day, and which never ceased to give me great pleasure – eating.
Vietnam cuisine can be loosely categorized into three main styles – northern, central, and southern. The variety between from region to region is mind blowing, but each also shares ingredients and characteristics that clearly mark the dishes as Vietnamese. For starters, there is no meal without rice in some form or another. It may appear as paper thin sheets used like a tortilla to make delicate burrito-like wraps, or in gelatinous cakes topped with shrimp. Rice is also used to make endless varieties of noodles, without which your bun cha, pho, and cao lau would be woefully incomplete.
Another defining characteristic of Vietnamese food (but often underplayed in western approximations) is the use of fresh vegetables and herbs. Many different soups, meat dishes, spring rolls, etc., call for heaping quantities of herbs, often raw. Large plates of herbs and leafy vegetables, collectively known as rau thom, often accompanied the meals. Many herbs, like basil, cilantro, and mint, were recognizable, while others completely new to me.
As I traveled from city to city, I tried to approach the food like a very hungry anthropologist might. I wanted to try all the regional dishes (impossible), learn how the food was made, and where it came from. This meant going to some places I suspect many Western tourists would not go. But as is often the case when traveling, any risk taken was always well rewarded.
The first stop in my nearly two week trip was Hanoi, the political capital of Vietnam. It is often the starting point for backpackers and tourists visiting Vietnam, who are drawn in by the old world charm of the French colonial architecture, the misty Hoan Kiem Lake, and serene Temple of Literature. I, however, commenced my trip not by visiting a significant historical sight, but with an early morning visit to Quan An Ngon.
Quan An Ngon is a full service restaurant, but the food is prepared by dozens of different top-notch street food vendors. There are multiple locations in Hanoi, and even two in Ho Chi Minh. The variety on each restaurant’s menu is daunting (we estimated more than 300 items on one menu), and are almost entirely different between restaurants.
While overwhelming, the extensiveness of the menus also presents the opportunity to try many different local specialties in the same place.The food was so impressive that we actually ate here three times in two days! Because of the variety, it tasted like we were at a different restaurant every time.
Favorites included a pyramid shaped rice dumpling stuffed with pork (banh cuon nhan tom), and a lemongrass cockle stew that was at once spicy, sweet, and savory. We also ordered che thap cam, a typical dessert with sweetened coconut milk poured over ice, accompanied my several interesting and unidentifiable ingredients, no less than five times while in Vietnam. Our favorite was at Quan an Ngoc, which seemed to be the most generous with the crazy colored, oddly textured accompaniments.
For our first real Vietnamese street food experience we wandered into a little place not far from the Old Town. Calling it a “restaurant” may be a bit of a stretch by western definitions, but was very typical for casual Vietnamese dining. Seating was mostly outside on the sidewalk, where colorful, tiny plastic chairs were lined up for patrons. There was no menu, and prices were not listed.
Many restaurants also lack names, and instead advertise themselves with large signs that indicates the dishes served. You might see signs that say “PHO BO, SOT VANG” or a banh mi cart with a list of the different banh mi sandwiches available. These signs may also double as the menu, and prices may or may not be listed.
This street restaurant did not have a name and did not have prices. We pointed to what we wanted (a braised beef stew) and gladly paid what the woman who served us asked (40,000 dong, or roughly 2 USD). Our banh mi sot vang was rich and flavorful, and a bit of a departure from many other dishes in that there was no rice, and the stew was very thick, where many other broths are clear.
The dish of Hanoi whose flavors and aromas will remain the most vividly imprinted in my memory is cha ca la vong, one of the stars of Hanoian cuisine. One of the best versions of this dish is found at an iconic, more than 100 year old restaurant, which also goes by the name of its signature dish. Cha Ca La Vong serves only cha ca la vong.
The main components of cha ca la vong are white freshwater fish marinated in tumeric and shrimp paste, and incredible quantities of dill, and vermicelli rice noodles. In keeping with these Vietnamese obsession with freshness in their food, the dish was prepared at our table. First a quick sautee of herbs, including dill, then the addition of the fish and sliced red peppers, followed by more dill. Finally, the fish and herbs were served on top of vermicelli, and finished with peanuts and fresh green onions. A heavenly dish now ready to be devoured.
Hue wears its history as the former imperial capital on its sleeve. The layout of the city is dominated by the sprawling imperial complex, and the preferences of the Nguyen dynasty has influenced everything from common names representing valued personality traits, to clothing styles, which were at one point defined for all citizens of Hue. Similarly, Hue cuisine still shows the influence of the royal kitchen, and is distinguished by its complexity, formality, and emphasis on presentation.
But before getting too fancy we first stopped at Huyen An, located a bit outside of city center down an alley off of a quiet street. The only other tourist we encountered was an Australian coupled who’d been carried to the restaurant by their motorbike drivers who wanted a to take their mid-day break at their regular spot. Once again, the menu was small. We had exactly two options to choose from, and of course we ordered both (actually a few of both) the banh uot thit nuong and the bun thit nuong.
As the names indicate, the ingredients are similar – pork, thinly sliced vegetables, and fresh herbs. In one iteration these ingredients are rolled into delicate ravioli style dumpling, and in another are served in broth with crunchy lettuce and beansprouts These delicate ravioli-like rice wraps are stuffed with pork, thinly sliced vegetables, and fresh herbs.
If Hyuen An was at one end of the simplicity spectrum, the restaurant we visited for dinner, Khong Gian Xua, was certainly at the other. There were at least 12 different set menus alone to chose from, and pages upon pages of other dishes to leaf through. My favorites of the tiny selection of dishes we managed to try were the frog legs with lemongrass and banh beo. Banh beo are small, sticky rice cakes topped with shrimp and pork cracklings, and a dish closely associated with Hue cuisine.
Another signature dish of Hue is bun bo Hue. We hunted far and wide for the restaurant with the best bun bo Hue, and many sources pointed to Quan Cam. Though we left our hotel at 7:30 that morning, Quan Cam was already full of people getting their first meal of the day. Bun bo Hue is hearty soup made from beef bones and served with sliced beef, though many variations with different ingredients can be found.
Quan Cam had an array of meats and meat-based ingredients prepared to be added to the stew. Along with the beef, our bun bo Hue was served with crab and pork meatballs and congealed pig’s blood (which has a much milder taste than one would expect). This dish is typically eaten in the morning, a shock perhaps to those accustomed to toast or eggs for breakfast.
The women preparing the food at Quan Cam seemed surprised to have obviously foreign patrons willing to try pig’s blood (they initially left it out of the soup until I gently insisted by smiling and repeatedly pointing to the bowl of quivering, deep red cubes). Out of both amusement and genuine hospitality, they offered tastes of a many of the ingredients they’d prepared, and suggested their homemade yogurt, which proved to be the perfect counterbalance to the hot, offal filled soup.
Even though Hue was only the second city on our itinerary, I was already convinced that I was eating some of the best food of my life. The flavors of Vietnamese cuisine are complex, each ingredient forming another layer to the dish. A “simple” banh mi sandwich may have ten different components (to be addressed in more detail in Part 2), each playing a role in elevating the humble street food beyond the best pastrami.
Despite its apparent complexity, Vietnamese food always felt entirely accessible. And for this I give credit to the wonderful people of Vietnam, who were endlessly excited to share their food and culture, and also always patient as visitors stumbled through in awe.
Quan An Ngon – multiple locations, preferred restaurant was at 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi. +84 4 3942 8162
For banh mi sot vang – 252 Hang Bong, Hanoi. No phone
Cha Ca La Vong – 14 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi. +84 4 3825 3929
Huyen An – 9 Kiệt, 52 Kim Long, Hue. +84 54 3525 655
Khong Gian Xua – 205 Dien Bien Phu, Hue +84 54 3525 655
Quan Cam – 38 Tran Cao Van, Hue. . +84 54 3831 671