Amazing varieties of food in south and central Vietnam

As part of my current travels, I spent a full eight days (which for those of you who know me know is an incredibly long time for a Merri trip) in Vietnam, working my way through the major cities from south to north.  I’ve wanted to visit Vietnam for a while for multiple reasons, not the least of which was its food.  And the food certainly exceeded my high expectations!  What impressed me the most about Vietnam was its huge variety of food depending on where one is in the country.  I ate so much there that really two blog posts are necessary to describe the sheer breadth of food options.  I tried as much as possible, from the famed (rightly so) street food to some quite nice restaurants! Without further ado…

IMG_8287This was my first meal in Ho Chi Minh.  I found the heat so intense that I actually didn’t feel that hungry and only wanted to eat cold things, so I got this mango shake (served in a handy plastic bag because the condensation gets everything wet instantly) and some fresh rolls at the market right by my hotel.  Total cost: c.$2 for everything.  To be critical though the fresh rolls were not that amazing.  Like, they were fine, but not the best I’ve ever had. (The couple fried ones they threw in there might have been even better to be honest.)  I am always in search of the perfect fresh roll so these were to be my first of many.

IMG_8303I went on a bit of a street food tour that night and was treated to this view of a typical banh mi stand.  Banh mi is the traditional Vietnamese sandwich that uses French bread but then has delightfully Vietnamese fillings.

IMG_8305But, when given the option, I had to go for the food that my tour guides said they personally enjoyed the most – “broken rice” – which is basically just pork and some pickled vegetables over rice.  Hearty and filling!  And on the side is sugarcane juice, which they make everywhere on the streets.  It’s incredibly sweet, but you can squeeze lime into it to make it a bit less cloying.

IMG_8318The next morning, I summoned up my courage and sweatily ate a bowl of steaming pho in a roadside restaurant with plastic tables.  I was lucky enough to get a bit of a breeze from a fan but still, I was sweating profusely by the time I was done.  Despite the heat of the dish (seriously, why do people eat hot soup in summer in Vietnam on the streets?!), it was thoroughly enjoyable – delicious thin noodles, excellent broth, and the fresh herbs were fantastic.

IMG_8343Onward to central Vietnam!  There are a few classic dishes served in Hoi An that are particular to central Vietnam that I have certainly never had before and have never seen in Vietnamese restaurants in the Western world, so I was delighted to try them.  This is banh bap, or crispy rice crackers, which is like an appetizer.  It’s served with a peanut dipping sauce and has a couple layers – one being crispy and the other on the inside being like a flimsy rice noodle.  It’s hard to describe but the contrast in textures is really interesting.  I thought it was kind of ok at first and then found it surprisingly addictive!

IMG_8344This is banh vac, or “white rose”, which are like steamed dumplings with a filling of very finely minced pork and prawn.  I believe the dumpling wrappers are all rice paper based as well.  These were amazing and I ordered them again over the next few days that I was in Hoi An because I love steamed dumplings and these tasted entirely different from any I’d had before.

IMG_8345THIS is cau lau, my hands down favourite dish of central Vietnam.  It uses very particular rice noodles that apparently can only be made in central Vietnam (or so say people in the north and south), over a bed of herbs and greens, topped with slices of roast pork and crunchy croutons.  There is a bit of broth but it’s nothing like pho.  I think I may like it more than pho to be honest.  This dish and the previous ones were my dinner and all of them together were literally 5 dollars.  I mean, I could not get enough of these prices.

IMG_8400After a day of biking around, it was time to try more street food for a late lunch – this is a traditional Vietnamese pancake, which was not what I was expecting at all. It had some pork and prawn in it and it was like a fried batter of sorts, but then you take it and you actually wrap it in a rice paper roll with fresh herbs and dip it in a sauce.  It was delicious, but I liked the steamed variety of street foods more.

That night, I went to dinner at Mango Rooms, which is about as upscale as you can get in Vietnam (eg, dinner costs c.$20).  This place was recommended to me by a fantastic foodie friend and I could immediately tell it was sophisticated and fun from the interesting fusion-type menu.

IMG_8404Some light bites to munch on while browsing the menu – plantain chips and a delightful mango salsa

IMG_8408Little amuse bouche of vegetable tempura – but like no other tempura I’ve had to date.  I loved the mix of seeds on the outside and the batter was impossibly light.  Delicious starter.

IMG_8409Yes, I had to get fresh rolls, and yes, they were far better than the ones I had on the street (not to say that street ones can’t be good – but these were amazing).

IMG_8410Look at that artfully presented main course!  There were green beans which were delightfully peppery, there were noodles served in a banana leaf cone, and the main attraction was red snapper, which was pan seared and served with a zesty mango-tomato salsa under it.  YUM.

IMG_8411Ok so I know mango sticky rice is more of a Thai thing, but I cannot resist.  This one had toasted flakes of coconut all around it, a condensed milk sauce, and of course the main attraction of perfectly sweet mango.  If I had to only eat one non chocolate dessert for the rest of my life, it would 100% be mango sticky rice.

I also ate at another fantastic restaurant that was more in the mid-price range (like, $10-15) called Morning Glory (yes, it’s a top pick by Lonely Planet) twice because I was so enamored with the variety on the menu.  I went for dinner one night and then just had to go back for lunch before I left the next day.

IMG_8452Trying the white rose dumplings again.  These are presented a little more tastefully than the street food version but tasted about the same (which is delicious)

IMG_8453Minced prawn on sugarcane, which you remove and, like many things in Vietnamese food, wrap with a bunch of herbs in rice paper and eat.  There’s just something about food being served on sugarcane which makes it infinitely more appetising, right?

IMG_8454Stir fried morning glory and rice – I put these two together in one shot because they are the two most commonly eaten foods in Vietnam and the two most common crops.  Rice is a staple in EVERY meal, and morning glory is a very commonly grown crop and thus is eaten frequently.  Which I am 100% ok with, since morning glory is delicious and like a far better version of spinach.

IMG_8455More cau lau, again served with slightly more artistry and the crouton in one sheet as opposed to multiple.  I liked both versions – the rice noodles are clearly what makes the dish.  It seems like total comfort food to me and I even enjoyed eating it in really hot weather!

IMG_8461But sometimes when it’s searingly hot out, all you need is a salad – and this green mango and prawns salad was just what I needed after one last morning exploring the surrounds of Hoi An.  I could honestly eat green mango or papaya salad all day long.  It’s just something about the combination of the tangy fruit, fresh herbs, crunch of peanuts, and saltiness of the fish sauce that really does it for me.

IMG_8462And I had to have a roast pork banh mi sandwich because when in Vietnam, you must have that even if it’s the most “Western”-y food you can think of.  This one was amazing – perfectly crispy baguette on the outside, great soft filling, and the pork was delicious.

I am definitely craving Vietnamese food hardcore again after writing this.  The amazing thing about Vietnamese food is there is just so much variety that you could have different things every day for every meal for days on end and still not discover everything.  But believe me, I tried!  More details to come in my next post about food in northern Vietnam!

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