Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!

We had high expectations of Vietnamese food, based on extravagant claims issuing from TripAdvisor and other travel forums.

The reality was disappointing. We got on to lots of good food, but the truly exquisite eating experience that you quest after when travelling eluded us this time. It was frustrating.

Exploring the local cuisine is right at the top of my priorities when travelling. Prior to this trip, my partner and I had always managed to track down great local eating venues and regional specialties in SE Asia by applying two simple strategies:

1. ASK THE LOCALS for their recommendations (hotel staff, taxi drivers, anyone). They know more about their cuisine than any guide book writer, and their information is up to date.
2. Wander out of the main tourist areas and look for crowds of locals noshing down at a particular street stall or restaurant.

Our fail-safe tactics did not work in Vietnam!

One reason was that hotel staff work prohibitively long hours, hardly ever get time to go out to eat, and due to their meagre earnings are very restricted for venue choice anyway. We received plenty of restaurant recommendations when we sought them, but it inevitably emerged that the staff member concerned had not actually tried the places they were directing us to. After a couple of bum leads, we realised that our usual strategy was not holding up.

Even good street food venue recommendations were hard to come by. Although we did have some nice pho at a street stall in the guts of the District 1 tourist party-zone in Saigon, I formed the impression that most of the Vietnamese food in this area was tweaked for Western palates. That may have been an erroneous assumption, but I found myself looking on, and on, and on…and The Authentic seemed like a mirage, beckoning to me, full of promise, but never getting any closer.

Seeking food advice outside the hospitality industry is extremely problematic because so little English is spoken by the general population – including the taxi drivers!

So what about the crowded venue indicator? Not so easy in Vietnam. The crowded open-air restaurants specialising in seafood that come to life in the evenings outside Ben Tanh markets in Saigon, for example, are uppish in price and targeting tourists (although better-heeled locals patronise them also). We ate there one night and it was good, but not special.

I was talking to a friend last weekend whose god-daughter was adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage. He visited the birth-mother and her family at their remote village a couple of hours drive out of Saigon. There was not a tourist in sight. He was taken to a restaurant for dinner, where a range of local dishes was spread out before him. He said the food was fantastic, and I have no doubt it was. That’s the sort of authentic dining experience we were pining for, but never found.

Next visit, we’ll get far further off the tourist trail than we managed this time. And do some serious research on Vietnamese food. Some knowledge of the cuisine beyond the obvious – pho, spring rolls, lemongrass chillie chicken, banh mi etc – would have made things a lot easier.

Anyway, as we worked our way through the country, we did sample some of the regional specialties I had noted down from my pre-trip research and our guidebook outline. All nice, some quite exotic… I’ll let the pics tell the story from here:

We never really scratched the surface of Saigon cuisine. When you’re staying in the District 1 backpacker area, there are streets full of restaurants to choose from, but most specialise in Western and other foreign cuisines! Once you down a couple of ‘happy hour’ beers, it takes quite an effort to get transport out to some other area that is likely to have mostly authentic local food, so you settle for something close by. We didn’t strike any extraordinary Vietnamese food in District 1. It’s no doubt there – but where?

Com stall, Saigon. These places appear at lunch time, then disappear until evening, like drawers sliding in and out of the wall.

This marinated pork and rice dish with the ubiquitous pickled carrot and daikon on the side is typical of the sorts of dishes served up by the com stalls…

…as is this chicken dish. Price around $1.50

Can Tho, Mekong Delta
The local specialty our tour guide recommended was Elephant Ear fish, which is deep-fried whole then mounted upright on a special plate. You slice off pieces of fish, wrap it in rice paper with fresh greens and sauces, and yum – nice. The fish itself is white-fleshed, but rather bland.

(Thanks to Shai for the pics – I neglected to take any)

Nha Trang
Seafood is the big attraction in the restaurants of Nha Trang. We were not impressed with the quality of the food generally, but one of the managers of our hotel put us on to a great restaurant just hours before we left – the Kirin. Best seafood we had in Vietnam. No pics, unfortunately.

The only food pic I took was over breakfast:

‘American breakfast’, Nha Trang

Hoi An
Something of a food centre, with three famous regional specialties: White Rose, Cau Lau and Banh Xeo.

Hoi An’s famous ‘White Rose’ – a type of shrimp dumpling…

…and equally famous Cau Lau (noodles with crispy pork croutons)

Another Hoi An speciality – ‘Banh Xeo’ (country pancake)

Breakfast baguette, Hoi An…

…and a crumb shot for the breadheads (you know who you are – hi guys)!

Fried pork spring rolls, Hoi An…

…and the mains, stir-fried duck with ginger and garlic and onion: price $3.20

Our favourite dish of the trip – water spinach! You get this all over Vietnam, sweated in oil and garlic. So good, we’re going to try growing it at home.

Another food centre. One specialty is Bun Bo, a spicy Hue take on pho. I had some at a local street stall for breakfast. Very nice, but the chillies were pretty fiery – a bit of a challenge at 7.30am. I’d have preferred to have it later in the day (according to local advice, the best and freshest Bun Bo is served only until around 10am).

Some of Hue’s other specialties are the most exotic we came across in Vietnam – see below.

A Hue speciality: Banh Beo (rice cake with beaten shrimp topping)…

…and in close-up

Another Hue specialty: Banh Nam (rice cake with shrimp pieces wrapped in banana leaf)…

…and when the banana leaf is unwrapped – voila! The most exotic creation we came across in Vietnam.

We were in Danang only a few hours, waiting for a flight back to Saigon. We had one of our best meals of the trip here!

Mixed seafood noodles, Danang

The Markets!
It would be remiss in assembling a summary of my eating experiences in Vietnam not to mention the magnificent fresh raw produce that is delivered daily to markets all over the country. There are great food markets all over Asia, but Vietnam’s are really something special. The diversity of the produce is unparalleled in my experience, and the quality is outstanding. Puts our limp, tasteless, cold-stored Woolworths and Coles crap to shame. As mentioned in a previous post, I had the best pineapple of my life in the Mekong Delta, and my partner bought some passionfruit at the market in Hoi An that was just bloody astonishing: large, fleshy, juicy and utterly delicious. Fruit just doesn’t get any better.

I only had two alcoholic beverages in Vietnam:

1. Rice wine with preserved snake and scorpion. Not bad, actually, but it’s not gonna make it on to Robert Parker Junior’s tasting list – novelty value only.

2. Beer!
And a lot of it – this was the pissiest trip I’ve been on since my Big Trip to Europe and Asia in my twenties. How can you resist when ‘happy hours’ last 4 hours (or more) and a nice long cold Saigon Green sets you back 50c? Well, the answer is you can’t!

There are some good regional brews further north (eg: La Rue, and Hue’s Huda).

But the star of the show, and an experience not to be missed, is the ‘fresh beer’, or bia hoi. Originally introduced by the Czechs (who have a lot to answer for), this beer is brewed in 24 hours, and has to be drunk in the next 24! It’s hand-pumped from kegs delivered daily and immediately packed in ice, and I have to say it’s surprisingly quaffable – especially at 25c per glass. An outstanding bargain.

Owner of Cafe 43, Hoi An, pumping out yet another ‘fresh beer’…

…and here’s the brew in close-up. Shame I adjusted the focus incorrectly, but in my defence, I’d had a few of these babies.

More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up

5 thoughts on “Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!”

  1. Greetings duc.

    You mean the bloke pumping the beer, or the fine-looking specimen wrapping up elephant ear fish?

    Redundant question. Neither are me. Rolan does not develop – in photographs, or life.


  2. Rolan,

    Ok, fair enough, if it had been [chap folding the food] I would have been shocked, I simply do not picture you that way.

    jog on

  3. Great post. We used this to figure out what we should be eating in Hue. Thanks so much! We are now in Hanoi and just had one of the best meals ever – some sort of vermicelli salad with beef, chili vinegar, roasted garlic and lettuce. Incredible!

  4. Pleasure, Amerika. Glad that you found the post of use, and thanks for your acknowledgement.

    I think I know that salad you’re referring to (although didn’t have it in Vietnam) – exquisite. As you’d have noted, I didn’t make it to Hanoi last trip, but hope to include it next year when we set off for SE Asia again. I’ve heard the best pho is in Hanoi.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip and have a bia hoi or 10 for me!


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