10 foods to try while visiting Vietnam

July 25, 2019

by Gabriella Fregona

“Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”– Anthony Bourdain

Having called Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam ‘home’ for 3.5 years myself, I found Bourdain’s deductions about this intensifying city to be not only relatable, but borderline kindred to my own.

More than just the multiplying number of buildings, motorbikes, and people; Vietnam’s generosity and unmatched humility is hard to ignore. Atrocities in the 1970s made this place a war, rather than a country.

Years later, being one of the youngest populations in the world (median age being 30.5) has seen a surge of youth culture with one of its’ largest supports being food.

Every day I was inundated by my work colleagues asking me “did you have breakfast?” or “have you eaten yet?”. While I couldn’t wrap my head around why people asked me this question all the time I soon learned; during war times, having eaten in the day showed you were having a good day. It is the Vietnamese way of asking how you are. If you have eaten, then you are good.

Luckily for me, these same work colleagues acted as my local guides to discovering my favourite Vietnamese dishes. Here is a list of my favourite things from my time in Vietnam. While not all dishes come from Ho Chi Minh City, most are available just about anywhere with a food cart.

As a forewarning, Vietnamese hospitality is its entirely own entity. Don’t expect to be seated and don’t hesitate. Just sit down with a smile and if you’re not sure how to ask for what you want (or no one speaks English) people are going to humour a conversation entirely through gestures and finger pointing. If in doubt point to what you want and they’ll confirm how many you’d like.

1. Bun Thit Nuong

1 Nguyễn Trung Trực, District 1

This was probably my most eaten meal in my 3.5 years and is comprised of vermicelli noodles, crispy fried spring rolls, barbequed pork, pickled vegetables, peanuts and most importantly; served with a side of chilli fish sauce. Serving suggestion; pour all the fish sauce on top. It’s not too much.

2. Com Trua Chay

6A Lê Quý Đôn, District 3

Towards the end of my time in Vietnam I experimented more with vegetarian or chay in Vietnamese. This spot served an amazing lunch special for 35 000 VND and it changed daily. Most of the time it would come with rice (cơm), vegetables, a pumpkin or bitter melon soup, and a sweet soup or some fruit as a dessert. Most dishes are served with a delicious glass of trà đá (iced tea) which is essential to keep you cool in the humidity Vietnam.

3. Com Tam

74 Đường Nguyễn Văn Cừ, District 1

On the border of districts 1 and 5, right next door to a KFC, is the most delicious barbeque pork and rice I had the pleasure of eating in Ho Chi Minh City. This is the priciest meal on this list of street food (paying over 100 000 VND for one plate is considered expensive). The marinade for the pork is well worth it and the portion size generous. Delicious pork, rice, fried egg and pickled vegetables is worth a stop.

4. Pho

323 Phạm Ngũ Lão, District 1

For this one, don’t expect service with a smile. Being on the border of the backpacker district I understand why perhaps my presence was never met with much friendliness. However, this was the most consistently good Phở during my time there. After my first regular spot closed down, Phở Quỳnh took its place as my after-work spot.

5. Banh Mi

In front of 572A Ba Tháng Hai, District 10

Right next door to where I used to work was a food cart with a deaf lady who sold bánh mì ốp la or Vietnamese sandwich with a fried egg. Bánh means bread and you can have just about anything in a Vietnamese sandwich; barbequed meat, pate, egg. Many people enjoy everything inside but the simple bánh mì ốp la from this ladys’ cart was a personal favourite.

6. Oc and Cua Rang Me

534 Vĩnh Khánh, District 4

Ốc or snails are a very popular snack mainly consumed in the evening; they go down a treat while sitting on tiny plastic chairs along one of the best street food streets Ho Chi Minh City. They can be cooked in many ways, but a simple chilli and garlic sauté is a staple.

At the same restaurant is a must try in Vietnam. Vinh Khanh Street is also known as seafood street. The whole street on both sides is lined with seafood restaurants. Their signature dish is roasted chilli crab claw. As a forewarning, most Vietnamese food comes with chilli in the dish or on the side. This dish is coated in chili so prepare to sweat.

Chilli is prominent in Vietnamese cuisine

7. Cao Lau

The market in Hoi An

A noodle and pork dish that isn’t easy to find in Ho Chi Minh City as it comes from the town of Hội An in central Vietnam. However, if you make your way to this part of the country this dish is worth finding. Comprised of yellow noodles, crispy pork and greens with central Vietnam’s signature spicy chili.

8. Mi Quang

Unfortunately, I’ve lost the address for this one, it’s between 320-360 Bến Vân Đồn, District 4.

This dish hails from central Vietnam and is a popular breakfast/lunch option. It is made up of a small amount of broth, wide rice noodles, meat, fresh herbs and crispy rice crackers.

9. Banh Xeo

Banh Xeo 46A – 46A Đinh Công Tráng

This dish serves as a testament for how Vietnam has made adaptations to the cuisine of countries that have inhabited it over time. Mainly Chinese and French cuisine has been introduced but made in a unique way that pays homage to the fresh and light flavours of Vietnamese cuisine. This sizzling pancake is usually made with pork and shrimp inside as well as bean sprouts. Served with fresh lettuce and greens this is best eaten wrapped in greens and dipped in the ever-present fish sauce.

10. Bo Nuong La Lot

This dish is at a restaurant which I would take visitors to experience multiple dishes in one location. Most Vietnamese restaurants only specialise in a few dishes which is why I would bring people here. They could try a little bit of everything in one place, namely; bo nuong la lot which is beef in wrapped in betel leaves and barbequed.

This should be a good start to your Vietnamese culinary experience. The brave may want to try pig brain soup and fertilised duck egg, but I suggest a subtle introduction for first-timers.

Other suggestions and restaurants

Other suggestions which are not meals but a Vietnamese must-try include iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá), iced tea (trà đá), fresh fruit (trái cây), fresh coconuts (trái dừa) and fried corn (bắp xào đây).

Having lived here for so long makes it tough to condense but here are some other restaurants to try; Bun Cha 145 (Bui Vien Street), Bánh Mì (37 Nguyễn Trãi Street), Chợ Tân Định is a huge market with lots of food options to explore (48 Mã Lộ Street), Phở Thìn (108 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm Street), Padma de Fleur (55/6 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm Street), Secret House (55/1 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm Street), Saigon Bagel (224 Võ Văn Kiệt Street), The Vintage Emporium (95 Nguyễn Văn Thủ Street).

Gabriella Fregona

By Gabriella Fregona

Living in my third country in 2 years, former photojournalist and English teacher turned New Zealand backpacker. Now's the time to write it all up.

Read more at wordsfromwaiheke.com

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