Vietnam made such an impression on me that I wanted to devote adequate time and space to discussing my experiences, both with the food and otherwise. The previous post focused on Hanoi and Hue, which were also the first two stops along our trip. The next major stops were Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, the feature cities of this post.
We made the trip from Hue to Hoi An by bus, through the winding roads in the montains of central Vietnam. Closer to Hue we saw lush, flat rice fields dotted with water buffalo, but the scenery changed one we got on the Hai Van pass, one of two main routes between Hue and Hoi An. The pass is known for both its breathtaking scenic beauty, and also it’s breathtaking (or nauseating…) switch back turns.
After several hours in the bus, we finally disembarked at Hoi An in time for lunch at Bale Well restaurant. Bale Well’s specialty is banh xeo, a kind of thin Vietnamese pancake which seems to be a distant cousin to the French crepe. However in place of wheat flour, the batter for banh xeo is made with rice flour. Tumeric is also added, giving the pancake its distinct yellow color.
To make banh xeo, the thin batter is swirled around in a hot and generously oiled frying pan. While the batter cooks, bean sprouts and often shrimp are added. The banh xeo is then removed from the stove, but not yet complete. It serves as the base for a DIY vietnamese crepe, and is stuffed with grilled pork, cucumber, other fresh vegetables and herbs, then dipped in the ubiqitous nuoc cham sauce.
Bale Well is as well known for its banh xeo as for its outgoing and motherly owner, who makes a point of greeting her customers and seeing to it that they’re fed well. If she thinks her customers are not eating enough, she won’t hesitate to stop by your table to make up the banh xeo rolls for you, and line them up across your plate.
Hoi An seems to me the Vietnamese equivalent Venice. Like Venice, Hoi An is a coastal city and came to prominence through its position along major trade routes. And its well-maintained and stuccoed facades are not entirely different from those in Venice. But also like Venice, Hoi An is a city inhabited mostly by two groups of people – older locals and tourists. It is the type of place that an outsider imagines Vietnam to be – a quaint town with street lanterns hanging in the street, women riding bicycles in A0 dais and hats, and vendors hawking their wares. But it often bore little resemblance to other Vietnamese cities that were so full of people and activity they seemed on the verge of bursting.
Typically when I travel I try to “go local” as much as possible, avoiding places with menus in English and overly cold air conditioning. In Hoi An doing this can be difficult because of the number of tourists, but also unnecessary. One of my favorite restaurants, Morning Glory, was one that obviously catered to Western attitudes and wallets, but still maintained an authentic and exciting menu. The most memorable dish at Morning Glory was their cao lau, which is the most typical Hoi An-ese dish and can be difficult to found outside of the central region of Vietnam.
In a land of rice noodles, what makes cao lau a unique dish is taste and texture of its noodle. Local lore claims this is because the noodles are made, and can only be made right, with water than comes from a particular well. Aside from the noodle, other ingredients in cao lau can vary significantly depending on where it is made. But Morning Glory made the best rendition I had in Vietnam. The noodles are addictively chewy and served in a tangy, fragrant broth and layered with different textures from the juicy pork, crushed peanuts, crisp herbs, and crunchy rice crackers.
Now midway through the tour of Vietnam, we had yet to try the dish perhaps most frequently associated with it – banh mi. This deceptively complex sandwich is as ubiquitous in Vietnam as hamburgers are in the US. Since I had tried many times before, I wanted to find a banh mi that none of my previous experiences could compete with. I decided to try the place declared by Anthony Bordain to have Vietnam’s best banh mi – Banh Mi Phuong.
Unable to decide which of the nine banh mi to order, I ordered the one with the most meat. Anthony Bordain, though I have a limited tolerance for his foul-mouthed, snarky food commentary, did not disappoint. This was truly an exceptional banh mi, a a combination of ridiculously complex ingredients, each playing its part in creating the perfect sandwich symphony.
In addition to three different sauces/spreads and probably close to six different vegetables and herbs, the sandwich came with pate, grilled pork, and something that resembled ham cold cuts. This perfection of the fillings could have been lost if served within airy and toothless baguettes that are so often used for inferior banh mi’s. The baguettes used by Phuong’s, however, had the perfect balance of crunchy, crackling crust and tender interior.
If Hoi An is the quaint embodiment of old Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City captures everything that modern Vietnam is, or is trying to become. There is a palpable hunger for development, modernity, and change. Everyone is hustling for something, but still makes time for games of chess on patios and several coffee breaks during the day.
I haven’t yet devoted enough words to the amazing coffee culture of Vietnam. Coffee plants were introduced to Vietnam by the French in the 19th century. Though the climate in much of Southeast Asia is conducive to growing this crop, it only really caught on Vietnam, which is the world’s second largest coffee producer.
Vietnamese coffee is thick, with almost a syrupy consistency, and very, very dark. It’s most often consumed without milk or sugar, but I found it in many forms in various cafes – dressed up with whipped cream, served cold with jellies, and made cloyingly sweet. I often stuck to ca phe sua da, meaning coffee with milk (sua), iced (da). Sua means almost universally condensed milk when talking about coffee, and therefore makes the coffee quite sweet. Ca phe sua da is often seen on menus in the US as simply “Vietnamese iced coffee.” However, if you wanted to drink it in the traditional manner, thick, hot, and black, order a ca phe den.
The coffee in Vietnam is almost universally delicious, regardless of in what city or what kind of restaurant/café/cart it is being ordered from. One of my favorite coffees, a ginger infused milky espresso, was from a well-known local chain in Ho Chi Minh City – Café Trung Nguyen. Espresso is not the traditional form Vietnamese coffee takes, but the sweet intensity of the ginger paired unexpectedly well with the creamy espresso. The more typical method of preparation is to pour hot water over fine, compact grounds in a chamber that sits atop cup or mug, which captures the thick, dark coffee.
Since many meals on this trip often came to less than $5USD per person, I wanted to splurge in arguably the most cosmopolitan city in Vietnam. One night I had dinner at SH Garden with a good Vietnamese friend I know from when I lived in Texas, who amazingly happened to be visiting the same time I was. He ordered what seemed like dozens of dishes for us.
I gravitated toward the jackfruit salad with pork and shrimp and a tangy fish and pineapple stew (canh chua). Young jackfruit is an oddly fleshy fruit, which can sometimes seem like a softer version of shredded chicken. It is an excellent base for stronger flavors and is often used in cold salads. Though the food was enjoyable, it was the view of the beautiful and lively French colonial square that I would return for. From above it was easy to see why Saigon was once known as the “Paris of the Orient.”
Our last dinner in Vietnam was another splurge. By the way, a “splurge” at a nice restaurant in a major Vietnamese city will cost about $25-40 for two, including drinks and multiple courses. Cuc Gach Quan is a beautifully designed restaurant in a reiminaged French-colonial mansion. The menu is lengthy, with several pages each for vegetable, fish, chicken, beef, and pork dishes. Not feeling up to the daunting task of wading through the menu, I relied mostly on the waiter’s recommendations. I had one of my favorite vegetable dishes from the trip – a blend of morning glory and pumpkin flowers cooked in a surprisingly savory light sauce.
We also tried the favorite of the restaurant – stewed pork belly with hard boiled eggs (thit kho hot vit). This is an “everyday” dish popular in South Vietnam. Though intensely flavorful, smoky, tangy, and sweet all at once, I was hoping the meat would have ended up more tender.
Of course I couldn’t leave Vietnam without another of the delicately sweet and perfectly creamy yogurts, served in a petite glass container. In Vietnamese, this yogurt is referred to as da ua (pronounced like “yah u-ah”), a word clearly borrowed from the French yaourt. Once again we see the French colonial influence on local cuisine.
There is much more to say about Vietnam than could be captured even in a hundred books, let alone these two blog posts. For more insight into the modern history of Vietnam, I recommend Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton, which I read in bits and spurts throughout the trip to better understand the economic, political, and cultural environment of the county.
I also found the travel writings and restaurant recommendations of Peter Jon Lindberg, who writes for Travel & Leisure, to be endlessly helpful, and always spot on. I must also thank my friend Kiet Nhan for his helpful advice and suggestions for the trip, for showing me around Saigon, and for his willingness to review this post and correct any inaccuracies (I found out just how terrible my Vietnamese spelling is!!).
And finally, I’m ever grateful to the Vietnamese people for their hospitality, warmth, and dedication to good food.
Bale Well – 51 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoi An. +84 510 386 4443
Morning Glory – 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An. +84 510 224 1555
Banh Mi Phuong – on Huong Dieu, near Bach Dang, Hoi An. No phone found
Ho Chi Minh:
Cafe Trung Nguyen – 87A Cach Mang Thang Tam, Ho Chi Minh City. No phone found
SH Garden – 98 Nguyen Hue (Top floor), Ho Chi Minh City. +84 8 3821 1001
Cuc Gach Quan – 10 Dang Tat, Tan Dinh Ward, Ho CHi Minh City. +84 8 3848 0144