The South Vietnam Food Trail

The Squad

I completed my Masters in Digital marketing at the University of Southampton. It was one of the happiest times of my life because of the people I met, and they have become life-long friends. Lam Phan, my Vietnamese friend, was shooting a video for the International Students office, and we were having a drink at The Stag’s (our university union pub) after the shoot. And, everyone was lamenting that the entire group will disintegrate after the masters. So, we decided that we will meet every two years in a new country (because we were 6 different nationalities in one group). The first country was Vietnam and Rendi (from Indonesia) even made a calendar invite. Except for 3 people, everyone else showed up for the trip, and it was a crazy ride.

But I had a specific agenda when I went to Vietnam. I know Vietnam is a culinary paradise and if you love food, you should visit this country. Every dish is balanced, made with fresh ingredients and above all, they tingle your taste buds. I told my friend Lam that there should be no limits on food and I shouldn’t be eating at the same place twice (the second rule was broken for a beautiful restaurant at Hue. More on it later)

I took the trip in July 2017 (yeah, I know!) but I don’t think the places wouldn’t have changed because all the restaurants are popular places among the locals. When you are travelling with a local, the entire colour of the trip changes and that’s what happened with Lam by our side.

Disclaimers

  1. I have visited all the places personally. The photos were shot by my friends or me unless it is specified otherwise.
  2. The trail will stop at Hue (hence the title of the post) as we couldn’t travel to the North due to time constraints. Vietnam is a place to explore in leisure and one more reason to visit my friend.
  3. I have used the original Vietnamese script at some places to specify the names and normal English script. If you are from Vietnam and if you find any mistakes, I apologise in advance. If I have made any mistakes, please mention in the comments and I will make appropriate corrections.

Ho Chi Minh City

The Independence Palace or the Reunification Palace, the seat of President of South Vietnam during the war.

Ho Chi Minh is the business capital of Vietnam. It’s vibrant, multicultural and has a long history because of the war. Due to the multiculturalism, you get to see influences of various cuisines, and at the same time, they are rooted to their Vietnamese cuisine. I am going to list some of the best stuff that I had in Ho Chi Minh and where you can get them.

The Best Phở in town

When I landed, the first thing I asked Lam was to take me to the best Phở (Pho) place ( I was the first to reach in the group). Over the period of next 7 days, we had Pho at various locations, but the first one was the best. It was also the same place where we had our last meal before taking the flight.

Pho is the national dish of Vietnam. It looks deceptively simple, but the complexity of flavours will engulf you only when you taste it. Pho is basically a noodle soup with Chicken or Beef broth (mostly the latter), topped with local herbs and spices. According to most historians, Pho could have come from Pot Au Feu, a French Beef soup. Initially, Vietnamese didn’t use Cows for meat, but it all changed when French arrived in the country. Pot Au Feu is a beef soup that’s cooked for hours. As the French were the elite, they got the best part of the meat, while the Vietnamese got the bones and cartilage. The Vietnamese created the broth with the bones, and it’s usually cooked for 3 hours. They made a version with rice noodles and herbs. This was supposed to be the original version of Pho. The Vietnamese pronounced Feu as Pho and the name stuck.

Later many versions were introduced with Chicken and Potato during the economic downturn. During that period, the restaurants closed but the street vendors survived. Even till date, it’s one of the most prominent street food. The place I visited wasn’t a proper restaurant but a big traditional shack like place where they had long wooden tables and stools to sit.

Pho Hoa store Image sourced from Akos Kokai through Creative Commons 2.0 — https://www.flickr.com/photos/on_earth/26195081582

Phở Hòa Pasteur (the name is Pho Hoa, but it’s on Pasteur street) is part of Pho Hoa chain of restaurants across the city. Pasteur Street because there is a Pasteur Institute – one of the long-standing buildings of the French era. The restaurant is 40 years old and hasn’t changed much over the years regarding service, ambience and taste.

Location of the Pho Hoa Pasteur

The speciality of the place is you can choose the cut of the beef that you want on the soup. Pho is served with fresh herbs for seasoning and giò cháo quẩy (Fried dough sticks). I was more interested in the Pho. What makes Pho Hoa, a class apart from other establishments is that the broth is the most balanced and the noodles was fresh. They were literally replenishing the noodles as the demand was really high. Pho Hoa is so famous that American Vietnamese Pho restaurants use their name.

Avocado Smoothie

After the Pho fix, Lam asked me whether I want something cold to drink. I said yes, and she called for a Grab Taxi (Grab is the Uber of South East Asia. Recently, they acquired Uber in this region). I said we could have had something nearby, but she was particular that I have to drink this smoothie from this specific place. Bùi Viện Street is the backpackers’ heaven of Ho Chi Minh. The street is filled with restaurants, bars,tiny street-food shops, a few nightclubs and hostels. Each alley from the main road has multiple small food and beverage shops.

Location of Five Boys Number One Smoothie Shop

In one of the alleys (refer the map), you will find Five Boys Number One Smoothies and Juice shop. An unassuming old man was sitting outside, and Lam ordered Avocado smoothies in Vietnamese. He had someone make them and came to one of the delicious smoothies I have ever had. I think the Vietnamese know how to balance their flavours. Nothing was overpowering, yet you can have the taste of avocado shining through the drink.

Five Boys Number One gets extremely busy in the evening. If you want a delicious smoothie, visit them in the afternoon.

Price: VND 25000

Sủi cảo

Sui Cao is comfort food at its best. Along with the Chinese, some of their food came to Vietnam. Eating Sui Cao during Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is considered to be lucky, and it ushers in good health and wealth. Sui Cao is steamed or fried dumplings in a broth (usually Beef) with few vegetables and crunchy elements. Sui Cao should not be confused with Wonton because the filling is different. – usually has a mix of shrimps, pork, pepper and oil. The mixture is soft and doesn’t break the dumpling when you eat. Eat in one shot, and you will get the perfectly balanced hit. It’s part of the experience. Pair with Rau má đậu (Pennywort with Mung Bean drink) for a delicious ride.

Sui Cao with Rau Ma Dau on Ha Ton Quyen street

The best place to Sui Cao in Ho Chi Minh is the Ha Ton Quyen Street or famously known as the Sui Cao street as every establishment sells the same food. There are no names for the shops, only numbers. You might see 162 being so prevalent on the internet, but we had our Dumplings at 195.

Price: VND 40–50K

Kem Bơ

When you have spicy dumplings, you have to finish it with a beautiful dessert. Lam was keen to take me on an avocado trip. I was a sceptic, but she said that I should give it a shot. After tasting Kem Bo, I decided that I should let her choose. Kem Bo is made of avocado, condensed milk and whipped cream. It’s usually served with coconut shavings on the top. But the crunchy element on the top changes based on the city/area etc.,

The best Kem Bo in Ho Chi Minh city is Kem Bo Da Lat at Le Van Sy, in District 3. It’s a small space, and they serve only Kem Bo. I bet you can’t just have one.

Price: VND 35K

It’s near the Karaoke Bar.

Cơm Tấm

The next day when majority of the squad arrived, we wanted to have a traditional street food breakfast. Com Tam is made of broken rice – the rice that’s left out during the milling process. Usually, these are not sold to the market and farmers consume them but the Vietnamese were smart enough to create a beautiful dish out of it.

Com Tam

Com Tam is a complete meal in itself. Cooked rice is served with meat (usually pork or beef) or fish, deep fried egg, sliced cucumbers/tomatoes and fish sauce. There are a lot of places that you can have the Com Tam but if you are fine with street food, go for the alleys/hawkers on the road. Lam took us to an alley on the Bui Vien street. We had to sit on small stools to eat the food. It wasn’t comfortable but the food bloody delicious.

Price: VND 20,000 – VND 50,000 depends on the place you eat.

Kem Chuối (Vietnamese Banana Ice cream)

Kem Choui

It might not look appetising. It might sound simple. But you can’t explain the joy when you have it. Whole bananas are flattened, dipped in a sauce made of coconut milk and tapioca flour (other flours are also used), sprinkled with coconut shavings and peanuts. The bananas are then frozen to make it to Popsicle consistency.

Kem Chuối is available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh, but we had it from a quaint coffee shop called Vietnamese Coffee Company.


Hoi An

“Person places candles inside paper takeout container lanterns” by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

Hội An is one of the oldest cities in Vietnam. During the Cham period and later the Chinese, this city was one of the prominent port cities in South East Asia. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is known for its heritage, culture and food. The city was called “Faifo” by the Europeans derived from Hoi An Pho. Hoi An means peaceful meeting place. It was indeed a tranquil place :)

Bánh mì

Bánh mì— Vietnamese Baguette that marriages the French cuisine with traditional Vietnamese flavours.

As I mentioned earlier, Vietnamese have the knack of creating delicious dishes out of the foreign-influenced ingredients. Banh Mi is one such dish that perfectly marriages the French baguette with Vietnamese flavours.

French bread reached the shores of Vietnam during World War I. Due to the shortage of wheat, the bakers started mixing rice flour, and it brought a different taste to the bread. Banh Mi literally means “bread” was usually consumed for breakfast with sugar and mayonnaise.

After the partition in 1954, a lot of immigrants from the North moved to the South. Lê Minh Ngọc and Nguyễn Thị Tịnh opened a small bakery named Hòa Mã in District 3, and from 1958 they started serving a Banh Mi Thit. Somewhere in the north, a similar sandwich started selling. Over the years, people began having different filling based on the time and availability.

Banh Mi is as popular as Pho in the western countries. The name was added to Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, and more than 2% of the restaurants in the US have Banh Mi in their menu. The usual filling of Banh Mi consisted of some protein (Pork belly, sausage, pork liver, grilled chicken, chicken floss etc.,) and mixed with vegetables like cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots, radishes, chillies and topped with a sauce of choice.

Best Banh Mi

Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An is said to be the best place to have Banh Mi. If you don’t want to take my word for it, you can definitely take Anthony Bourdain’s word for it. The place was featured in his “No Reservations” program and became really popular. When we went there, there was a massive queue to get the Banh Mi. But to be honest, it was worth the wait.

I don’t know how they could make a baguette that’s so crispy on the outside but airy inside. The filling was, and you can choose your mixture. Don’t miss the fried egg on the top.

Mot’s Herbal Drink

When you are walking towards the Japanese bridge at Hoi An, if you find a large group of people waiting for a drink, you will be most probably seeing Mot’s Shop. There is a massive bowl of herbal tea garnished with lotus flower and one person serving the drink. When you drink the tea, you will taste Kaffir Lime, Lotus, Lemongrass, ginger and other local herbs from Vietnam. The beverage is refreshing, can cool you down and help you de-stress. Hoi An was sultry in July, and the drink was a welcome reprieve.

Restaurant recommendation: Morning Glory

Ms Vy was born in Hoi An and coming from a hotelier family, she started her career in the kitchens of her parents’ restaurant. After 11 years of experience, she began her first restaurant, Mermaid but she became famous after her book Taste of Vietnam that sold more than 100,000 copies.

As a native of Hoi An, she wanted to recreate the traditional recipes, and she started the Morning Glory restaurant. It became so popular that she expanded the brand to Morning Glory 2 and Morning Glory Signature.

Morning Glory aka Water Spinach. Pic source: Wikimedia commons

Morning Glory is a common name for 1000s of species of flowering plants that bloom in the early morning. One of the plants is Water Spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), is grown as a vegetable plant for its tender shoots and leaves. It’s widely used in the South Asian cuisine. Simple stir fry with ginger would make it delicious. Ms Vy named the restaurant as Morning Glory because she feels that Vietnamese people are as resilient as the plant as it grows in the most challenging conditions (We contest that, can we?)

Morning Glory serves some of the most authentic dishes of Hoi An, and it’s really popular with the tourists. But they don’t compromise on the authenticity for the foreigners (as many touristy restaurants do – Lam approves it).

Some of the dishes we tasted

  1. Vit Quay Voi Goi Hoa Chuoi — Roasted duck with raw banana flowers and shallot sauce
  2. Fried ca dieu hong – Fried Red Tilapia with mango salad.
  3. Bo Tai Chanh — Rare tender beef salad with onions and Vietnamese herbs

They have clear descriptions of the dishes, and so you will be able to choose wisely. They also have cooking classes that you can take at the restaurant. Look out for the timings.


Da Nang

The dragon bridge at Da Nẵng — it’s 666m long, 37.5m wide and cost USD $88 Million — The bridge was designed by the US-based Ammann & Whitney Consulting Engineers with Louis Berger Group. It crosses the Han River and the kicker — it breathes fire during weekends and the traffic is stopped for the show.

Da Nang is one of the prominent business cities in Vietnam, and it’s one of the few well-planned cities in the country. It’s the 4th largest city in Vietnam and the most urbanised in the country. The development of the city was attributed to Nguyen Ba Thanh, who led the city from 1997 to 2013. He was extremely popular because he transformed a coastal town into a tourism and investment hub. Known for his charisma, he was not privy to controversy. He was accused of corruption in the urban planning project, but somehow people loved him. He died due to cancer in 2015, and the city mourned his death instead of celebrating Tet.

The moment you land in Da Nang, you will see a vast difference between Da Nang and other Vietnamese cities. Broader roads, planned infrastructure, cleaner environment (each house has trash separation and keep it outside in differently coloured boxes) and above all tourist attractions like the one below. Long (my other Vietnamese friend) and Lam colluded after our short stint at Da Nang beach to take us to a famous seafood place. It was crowded, and they had tables on the service lane. Long had a chat with a manager to get us a separate room in the first floor.

Restaurant Recommendation: Nhà hàng Bé Anh

After an initial discussion, we were asked to go downstairs, and boy, it was crazy. They have a huge seafood market where you can choose your seafood. They charge you by the weight, and the preparation is free. We selected squid, prawns and crabs. This was one of the best seafood preparation I have ever had – the crab with Tamarind Sauce is to die for. The meat was succulent, the tangy sauce accentuates the sweetness of the crab and we paired it with a local beer to wash it down.

My friends were surprised that I could bite the crabs with my bare teeth, but that’s how I have always had my crabs.


Huế

The Imperial City of Hue

Huế is a city in central Vietnam and was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Emperor Gia Long took over Vietnam in 1802 and made Hue, the capital city. During the French colonial period, the last emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne and became a puppet king for the French. The communists didn’t agree to his rule. During the Vietnam war, Hue had the worst damage because it was at the centre (between the North and South). The battle of Hue damaged not only the physical attributes of the city but also the reputation and morale of the people. Both the Communist forces and Americans made Hue their battleground. Don’t forget to visit the ruins and even the imperial palace at Hue.

Restaurant recommendation: San May

One of the biggest complaints about South East Asian countries is that there is no vegetarian food. It’s actually not true, every country has its own version of the tasty vegetarian food. But there are places like San May that might make you rethink about Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine.

Housed inside a 100-year-old palatial noble house, San May is an entirely vegetarian restaurant (Vegan-friendly too!) that serves delicious local dishes. We reached there for lunch after a recommendation from Lam’s friend. We were so impressed that we had our dinner too at the same place. Please note, none of us were strict vegetarians. We just loved the food, and we went back.

Some of the food that we had and enjoyed,

  1. Traditional Veg Spring Rolls
  2. Taro Rice Balls
  3. Grape Fruit Salad
  4. Deep Fried Tofu
  5. Tofu with Sesame sauce
  6. Pumpkin Soup (my favourite of all)
  7. Vietnamese Pannacotta made out of Cheese fat and Aloe vera

San May is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in Vietnam and also, nominally priced for the food they serve. One of the must visit places, if you love food.


Beverages

Cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese Coffee)

Vietnamese love their coffee. They consume coffee like water. I am not overstating, but it’s literally a fact as you will see 4 to 5 coffee shops per street in Ho Chi Minh city. You get the usual espressos and cappuccinos, but if you want the best experience, you should taste cà phê sữa đá (or the Vietnamese cold coffee). Although there is a hot version of the coffee, Vietnamese drink a lot of cold coffee due to their tropical climate. There is a separate apparatus to prepare the coffee, and most of the shops will serve you with that apparatus while the coffee is dripping on the condensed milk topped with ice.

Like many other things, coffee was introduced by the French in 1857, and it seems the French soldiers started using condensed milk because of the non-availability of cow’s milk.

The coffee was predominantly grown in the Buon Me Thoat region, and it was in the central part of Vietnam. Both the North and South embraced coffee and it had become a national drink. If you want to talk to a Vietnamese, they are going to take you for a coffee :) There is an Egg coffee version from Hanoi, and I tasted that too. It was actually tastier than I expected.

And of course, I have the apparatus at home and Lam makes sure that I have ample amount of supply every year :)

Beers

There are two important local beers in Vietnam. Saigon and Huda.

Saigon is brewed Sabeco Trading Company (a joint venture between Heineken and Saigon Trading Group). There are multiple products under the brand name, but 333 is a variant that has 5.3 % alcohol. Have a lager version that has low alcohol levels and consumed widely.

Huda is a beer brewed by the Hue Brewing Company and native to the area. It won the Silver medal in the World Beer Championships in 2013. It became my favourite drink after I tasted it. You will like it too if you like beer.

Vietnam is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. As a group, we didn’t explore the usual touristy trail of Hanoi and the nearby areas. It was convenient, and at the same time, we wanted to explore an off-beaten track, and it worked wonderfully for us.

I wouldn’t say that you should choose the same trail but experience the food scene in Vietnam especially Ho Chi Minh City and you will be in foodie heaven.

References

  1. History and Evolution of Pho — LovingPho.com
  2. King of Da Nang mourned by all — South China Morning Post
  3. Hue: What to see after 50 years of war — South China Morning Post
  4. Morning Glory — original restaurant
  5. The fine art of making Vietnamese coffee — LiveMint
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