There is something interesting about Vietnamese cuisine - they have multiple layers of flavours that are in complete harmony and they are a beauty to look at. While we were traveling in Vietnam we had the opportunity to try various Vietnamese food both from street-side vendors and fancy restaurants. In this blog we capture our food journey through Vietnam and our most recommended foods.
Every culture has one food that is so versatile that it can be had for any meal, during any time of the day, yet falls right into place. The Vietnamese pho is one such food that falls in this category.
During our 12-day travels through northern and southern Vietnam we have had pho for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, in fancy restaurants, resort buffets and roadside establishments.
Pho is a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat (usually beef, but sometimes chicken). The broth is what makes or breaks a pho. The broth is made by boiling beef bones with spices for minimum 5-6 hours, and the best ones are boiled for over 12 hours.
The noodles of the pho differs in thickness and sweetness between north and south. The region also defines the herbs - north usually serves pho with leafy greens while south usually serves it with sprouts.
Coming to the meat; while a good pho will have a generous quantity of meat pre-cooked until rare or medium, the best pho (at least the one served at Pho 10) has the chef blanching the raw meat in the broth to the request of the dinner. Some restaurants, especially those in resorts serving pho as part of the morning breakfast use Vietnamese sausages instead of raw meat.
When in Vietnam, you will find pho shops on every road, street and lane. And, if you see people waiting in queue outside a shop selling pho you know you have hit a gold mine and should just walk straight in. That is what we did and the experiences were drool-worthy.
2. Banh Mi
Banh mi is one of the most famous Vietnamese street food that has got popularity world over. The word banh mi does not denote the entire snack, it only translates to bread in Vietnamese, but over time the snack itself has got the name of banh mi. The banh mi is a type of baguette, which is split into half lengthwise, keeping one of the sides intact, and filled with liver patty, various types of meats, cucumber, carrots, onions and herbs. The more the filling, the better the banh mi.
While in Hanoi we had banh mi at the most popular joint among tourists - Banh Mi 25. And, while we were in Saigon we had banh mi at the joint that is the favourite among locals and bakes their own banh mi breads - Banh Mi Hong Hoa. We also had a little different banh mi in Tam Coc at Family Restaurant, where the filling mostly consisted the meat and some herbs and gave the veggies a miss.
3. Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese Iced Coffee)
Ca phe sua da or Vietnamese iced coffee is one drink that you will see selling all across the country. Walk for a minute or two in Hanoi or Saigon and you will find roadside establishments selling ca phe sua da and people sitting on small colourful stools enjoying them, slowly letting the ice melt for minutes until there is no ice left - and, this is a scene that can be witnessed at all times of the day and night.
Ca phe sua da is rich, flavourful and sweet - a perfect drink to give you the necessary boost early in the morning or any other time of the day. Ca phe sua da is made by adding medium to coarse ground dark roast coffee grown in Vietnam and hot water in a small metal Vietnamese drip filter (phin ca phe). The drip filter releases drops of hot coffee slowly into a cup which has sweetened condensed milk sitting at the bottom. Once the coffee is done dripping, it is stirred to combine the coffee and condensed milk. The concoction is then poured on a glass full of ice to make the perfect ca phe sua da. If you don't want to have iced coffee, you can just drink the ca phe sua nong that you mixed together before pouring it into the glass full of ice.
We first got to witness a phin ca phe in action during our first breakfast in Vietnam at Tam Coc. And, during our 12-day stay in Vietnam we had ca phe sua da almost every day for breakfast in buffets. But these were not made using the phin ca phe, but Shabbir made it pouring condensed milk and fresh brewed coffee in a glass full of ice.
It was only on the last day of our trip in Saigon that we witnessed how ca phe sua da is made in the road side stalls and we loved having it sitting with the locals in the breakfast hours. According to Shabbir it was even better than the fancy ca phe sua da that he had in one of the best cafes on Nguyen Hue Walking Street.
4. Ca Phe Trung (Vietnamese Egg Coffee)
Vietnamese people love their coffee. Period.
There are more coffee shops here of different shapes and sizes than there are mini marts. Walk for 2 mins and you will either find a fancy cafe filled with people or a road side stall with people comfortably sitting on stools along the road and enjoying their coffee.
We had various types of coffee in Vietnam, but there is one coffee that is my favorite and I miss dearly - ca phe trung (Vietnamese egg coffee). We had ca phe trung in Tam Coc, Hanoi and Saigon and each of them were as different as they were similar.
While in Hanoi we searched for and had ca phe trung at Cafe Giang - the cafe that originally came up with this amazing concoction. We spoke to the owner and found that the egg yolk is beaten with sweetened condensed milk for about 10-12 minutes until it makes an airy, creamy, meringue-like fluff. This eggy mixture is then poured on top of hot espresso and served on top of a hot water bath. After we finished off their ca phe trung we ordered another version of the eggy drink - egg chocolate, which was more like a dessert than a drink and had a much thicker consistency.
In Tam Coc, the ca phe trung by Seven Cafe and Restaurant was served on top of a burning coal and in Saigon we were served the ca phe trung like a cappuccino with a cookie by Lamant Cafe. For obvious reasons the ca phe trung by Cafe Giang was much better than these two places and if given a chance we would travel back to Hanoi just to have their egg coffee.
5. An Oc (Snail Eating)
From the time we started planning our Vietnam trip there was one thing that Shabbir wanted to do, but with some doubts - An Oc (snail eating). Eating snails is a pass time in Vietnam, especially on weekends, and you will find scores of people sitting at a Quan Oc (snail eatery) with their friends and having a gala time over snails and beer.
We were staying in the heart of the Hanoi Old Quarter on a Saturday night - a perfect environment to find a good Quan Oc. We stepped out of our hotel late in the night to find some local desserts and snails.
We did cross a restaurant selling only snails, with over 20 people sitting inside the little joint and more than 50 people sitting on the roadside with their bowl full of snails. All of these people were locals and Shabbir backed out.
After having desserts we were returning back to our hotel and crossed this joint again. Shabbir didn't want to lose this opportunity and gained some courage and stood in front of the shop. With everything written in Vietnamese we were lost, even the servers ignored us.
A few of the locals understood our predicament and came to our rescue. One of them asked us in broken English if we wanted to order snails. We said yes. They asked how many bowls we wanted. We said one. He asked if we would eat here or wanted packed. Shabbir wanted it packed; his justification - if he didn't like it he will not be able to be disrespectful and has to finish the entire thing.
We came back to our hotel and Shabbir sat with his packet full of snails and finished it off. And, according to him, it was delicious. Even I had one and it was not that bad; the lemon grass flavour really complements the rich ocean flavours.
6. Bia (Beer)
Vietnamese people are communal. If they are not drinking coffee together sitting in road side stalls, they would be drinking beer in similar road side stalls sitting together - it is a sight to behold and enjoy.
Beer in Vietnam is the favourite drink among locals and tourists. And, Vietnamese lagers are amazing, served chilled. If your beer is not served chilled, the server would serve it with a nice big chunk of ice that slowly melts and dilutes the beer.
With us living in the Old Quarter of Hanoi very close to the Beer Street, it was an amazing experience sitting on the street with locals on a Saturday night, shouting 'mot, hai, ba, vo!' (one, two, three, cheers!) and chugging down glasses of Bia Ha Noi.
While Bia Hanoi was good, and we also tried a few others lagers, Bia Saigon was our favorite drink and we drank that almost every day, sometimes as a replacement for water, during the 12 days that we were traveling through northern and southern Vietnam.
7. Egg Beer
While egg coffee and egg chocolate were something we had planned on trying way before we even landed in Vietnam, Shabbir had planned to have one more eggy drink - egg beer.
Once again invented by the owner of Cafe Giang, egg beer mixes beer to the frothy egg concoction that they prepare for their coffees. This cocktail surprisingly tastes amazing.
As our first stop in Vietnam was Tam Coc and not Hanoi, Shabbir was craving this eggy drink so much that he even had it at Seven Cafe Restaurant where I had my egg coffee.
8. Goi Cuon and Cha Gio (Fresh and Deep-fried Spring Rolls)
Goi Cuon and Cha Gio are fresh rice paper rolls and deep fried rice paper rolls, respectively. This Vietnamese speciality can be found across Southeast Asia in the name of spring rolls.
What makes the Vietnamese spring rolls standout are the thin translucent rice papers that are used to bind the filling together. While both the fresh and deep fried variants have similar fillings of one primary non-veg with cucumber, carrots and leafy greens the goi cuon is obviously an healthier choice over cha gio.
We had goi cuon as part of the buffet in most of our breakfasts and we even ordered them in plenty for other meals during the earlier half of our trip when we were still open to experimenting with local cuisine. Cha gio was something we kept having all through the trip. The filling has ranged from seafood to chicken and from beef to sea snails.
Another aspect of this roll that makes it stand out is the fact that whenever you order a non-veg dish alone (like we ordered grilled fish in one occasion and grilled goat in the other) you will be served with rice paper, cucumber, pineapple, carrots and leafy greens to make your own spring rolls and enjoy it with soy or nuoc mam cham (Vietnamese fish sauce).
9. Banh Cuon
Banh cuon are thin sheets of fermented rice batter steamed to perfection. They are usually found in northern Vietnam and served for breakfast with cha lua (Vietnamese sausages), lettuce, cucumber and a sprinkle of crispy fried shallots, and are meant to be had with nuoc mam cham (Vietnamese fish sauce). Banh cuon is cooked by spreading a thin layer of fermented rice batter on a thin piece of cloth that hangs tightly on top of a steaming water-bath. This is covered with a lid until ready. Once done, the cook collects the now sticky sheet of rice using chopsticks and bundles it into bite sizes.
While it is popular in northern Vietnam, and we first had it in Tam Coc, banh cuon's more appropriate fitting in a breakfast menu saw us finding this dish in all the breakfast buffets - what changed were the shapes and sizes of the bundles of stick rice sheets and the sausages. If you are tired of the same old English breakfast, a plate of banh cuon gives the much needed respite during the first meal of the day.
10. Bun Cha
Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish that originated from Hanoi and compromises of grilled pork belly & pork meat balls, rice noodles, fresh herbs and sauce. We had this dish during one of our dinners in Hanoi and was drool-worthy. Take a bite-sized bundle of noodle in a bowl, top it with some meat, put some sauce and your have yourself a multiverse of flavours coming together.
11. Ca Phe Dua (Vietnamese Coconut Coffee)
By now you have already realized how much Vietnamese people love their coffee and how much coffee we had during our 12-day stay in Vietnam.
We had various types of coffee in Vietnam both on the streets and in fancy cafes. But there is one coffee that was not a popular street food yet quiet popular in cafes - ca phe dua (Vietnamese coconut coffee). Vietnamese coffee is very bitter and mixing it with rich coconut milk gives a very nice balance to the drink, making it a hot drinkable dessert.
We had ca phe dua for the first time on our way to Halong Bay from Hanoi. We were so hooked to it we had it again soon after reaching the dock at Halong Bay. During the latter half of our trip in southern Vietnam we stayed in resorts where we didn't find ca phe dua in the menu. It was only after we reached Saigon we once again had the pleasure of indulging in some rich ca phe dua.
12. Tiec Nuong Ngoai Troi (Barbecue)
Barbecue or tiec nuong ngoai troi is a famous cooking style in Vietnam like in many of the other Southeast Asian countries.
What stood out or exceeded our expectations are:
1. Some locations are famous for certain meats - in Tam Coc goat meat is popular and we had plenty of barbecued goat meat there
2. There are meat specific utensils to serve guests - ask for a steak and you will be served in a cast iron utensil shaped like a cow
3. Some restaurants serve some nice exotic meat - when we were in Phan Thiet we tried barbecued crocodile and barracuda
4. Barbecued seafood are a plenty in southern Vietnam - while in southern Vietnam we had quite a bit of fresh barbecued seafood
5. Vietnamese people love red meat - we had some great barbecued ribs and skewers during our stay in Ninh Thuan
6. Vietnamese fine dining restaurants are at par with global standards - on our Halong Bay cruise we were served some of the best beef and fish steaks that we have had until now, and not just in Vietnam
13. Che (Dessert Soup) and Banh Cam (Sesame Balls)
Desserts are love. Irrespective of the part of the world we are having it at or the ingredients they are made of. Before traveling to Vietnam we did extensive research on the desserts available in the country and two of them stood out, which we dearly wanted to try - che (dessert soup) and banh cam (sesame balls). In Hanoi we were living in the heart of the Old Quarter, minutes away from all the action. We stepped out late on the first night of our stay in Hanoi and found a 33-year old che shop popular among the locals - Che Ngon 93. After talking to the elderly lady who runs Che Ngon 93 we understood that che is a dessert soup made with a base of coconut milk topped with various tropical fruits, beans, sago pearls and jelly.
The shop was so crowded on the Saturday night that we ordered for our desserts in takeaway cups and had it standing outside the shop. While I had a mixed fruit and ice cream che, Shabbir order for durian che.
We were so satisfied with the desserts that after returning from Halong Bay, we once again visited Che Ngon 93 that evening for another round of desserts. This time around we were a little more courageous and I ordered a coconut ice cream and flavoured sticky rice dessert and Shabbir picked a special che which included a banh flan (caramel pudding) and cheese-filled jelly along with the other ingredients.
On our way to Hanoi from Halong Bay we stopped for a bite and finally found some packed banh cam. The sesame-covered deep-fried balls are filled with sweet mung bean paste with shredded coconuts and taste amazing. Again, during our breakfast tour in Saigon we found another version of banh cam, which tasted quite similar, but was shaped like a patty.
14. Vietnamese Wine
Vietnamese wine is not really popular among wine connoisseurs and sommeliers, but you cannot ignore the fact that despite the severe tropical climate of Vietnam, certain regions of of the country - primarily Dalat and Ninh Thuan provinces - have a climate favourable to grow wine grapes. While we did not visit Dalat as that was putting us off our preferred route, we specifically added Ninh Thuan to visit the vineyards of the region.
Our distance from Dalat did not limit us from trying the Dalat wine. The cruise that we had selected for our Halong Bay trip left us a complementary bottle of Dalat Wine in our room with a private terrace that had a captain's view. The bottle of wine gave us company while we enjoyed the picturesque views of Halong Bay.
When we were in Ninh Thuan we ensured we visit a vineyard and also see the wine making process. We tasted couple of their wines and even bought four bottles (unfortunately that is the limit that one is allowed to bring into India) as souvenir.
We also tried another brand of Vietnamese wine when the host of our homestay in Saigon left us a bottle as a surprise along with a wonderful note. Pardon the fact that we drank the wine in normal glasses. We figured that it is not a regular practice for our host to leave a bottle of wine for the guests, so there were no wine glasses in the self check-in room - this was something that made us happy for not getting wine glasses to drink the wine.
We would be writing about our experiences travelling through Tam Coc, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Ninh Thuan, Phan Thiet and Saigon for the last 12 days in the upcoming blogs. Follow us on our Instagram and see the amazing photographs we captured in the picturesque locations of Vietnam and to get updates when we post the future blogs.
If you are visiting Vietnam and need any help booking hotels to stay in or looking for restaurant recommendations, itinerary suggestions, you can get in touch with us and we will help you with the bookings.