While you might be familiar with Vietnamese food from your local restaurant, nothing compares to going to where it all began.
As you travel through Vietnam, you’ll find there’s more to each food experience than what you see on your plate. It’s the sound of thousands of motorbikes whizzing past you. The moment of relief as you sit down for the first time after a full day of exploring. It’s learning about the history of regional dishes. Maybe it’s the uneasy feeling that the tiny plastic stool you’re sitting on could buckle underneath you at any given second. Or it’s perhaps sharing a meal and making new friends at a busy hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Together, these elements make each meal a memorable affair.
For our Australian readers, we’ve partnered with Traveller Tours to create a bespoke journey through Vietnam, with guest appearances from Pauline Nguyen, entrepreneur and owner of Red Lantern restaurant and Annie Dang, Senior Writer and Editor at Traveller. To inspire your next adventure, we reached out to a handful of food experts for their take on the best experiences in Vietnam. Here’s what they had to say.
If you’re in Vietnam, there’s a very high chance you’ll be visiting Hanoi. From freshly brewed beer to signature dishes that have an entire street named after it, the capital is the best place to start. Here, you’ll find the flavours differ to the south or central Vietnam – in the north, food is typically less spicy and often more fragrant.
‘Many people around the world have access to Vietnamese food where they live. But there is no substitute for going to a destination, like Vietnam, where native ingredients shine; enhanced by the principles of balancing depth of flavour with a touch of simplicity and freshness,’ explains Neil Coletta, the Food Product Manager for Peregrine Adventures.
So, what should you try in Hanoi? There’s pho, the famed noodle soup, which is consumed at all hours of the day. Or there’s bun cha – a meat-heavy (and indulgent) noodle dish that features slices of marinated pork belly, charcoal-grilled pork patties, a pile of fresh herbs, vermicelli noodles plus a few rice paper rolls.
For Nicola Marshall, Peregrine’s Destination Manager for Vietnam and Cambodia, cha ca (not to be confused with Bun cha) is a must-try.
‘My favourite dish is cha ca, which is so popular in Hanoi that they’ve named a street of restaurants after it – Cha Ca Street. Diners fry turmeric-marinated fish themselves, then eat it with dill, spring onions, vermicelli noodles, peanuts and, for the bold, fermented shrimp paste.’
Before the day is out, you’ll need to leave room for a round of bia hoi – fresh draught beer – which is brewed and consumed on the same day. Top tip: the earlier you drink it, the fresher it will be. Breakfast beverage, anyone?
Home to terraced mountainsides descending into the valley with tiny villages hidden in the hills, Sapa is picturesque Vietnam at its best. For Pauline Nguyen, entrepreneur and owner of Red Lantern restaurant, Sapa is one of her favourite places.
‘I have travelled across many countries, but Sapa in the northern highlands of Vietnam will forever remain a magical place for me. Sapa takes my breath away, and a highlight for me is enjoying the honest traditional peasant food, like chargrilled black Hmong chicken, goat in white bean curd paste, or crisp silken tofu in tomato and black pepper sauce.’
Located in the Quang Nam Province, on the country’s central coast, Hoi An should be next on your list of places to visit. Despite its small size, you won’t be short of regional specialities to try, says Annie Dang, Senior Writer and Editor at Traveller.
‘Beyond its striking architecture and graceful atmosphere, Hoi An is home to unique dishes that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the country. The region is known for its noodles; dishes like cao lau and mi quang should be on your list of foods to try. One of my other favourite dishes is banh bot loc, a chewy dumpling made from tapioca with shrimp and pork. Like most Vietnamese dishes, it’s full of flavour.”
But unsurprisingly, Annie says there’s more to this town than merely eating and drinking.
‘The other, and arguably more fascinating, aspect of Hoi An is its rich ancient and colonial history. It was once the most important trading port along Vietnam’s East Sea and the main channel for trade between Europe, China, India, and Japan. It was also one of the few cities not damaged during the Vietnam war – this rich history gives the town a vibrancy and heritage.’
To further enrich your travels, considering rolling up your sleeves to join a cooking class in Hoi An and learn the culinary secrets first hand.
Ho Chi Minh City
In the south of Vietnam, the culinary scene takes a different approach to the classics, as the use of spices, fresh herbs and sauces are far more generous than other regions.
Nhi Pham, Peregrine’s 2018 Guide of the Year in Vietnam, believes that consuming banh xeo, otherwise known as the Mekong Delta pancake, is a complete sensory experience.
‘The local food stalls in Ho Chi Minh City are the best place to go. What makes it special is the combination of different herbs and wrapping the big pancake in mustard leaves for a unique twist. It also involves all your senses when you eat banh xeo; your eyes to see the colours, hands to hold it, nose to smell the fish sauce, and tastebuds to taste the delicious flavours. When I take the travellers to the Ben Thanh night market, they always love banh xeo.’
Another essential dish to try is com tam, also known as ‘broken rice’ found throughout Ho Chi Minh City. In most instances, it’s served with shredded pork, pork chops and a fried egg.
As for the rest of the country, you’re in for a treat no matter where you go. If you see a dish you think looks good, pull up a stool, pop yourself down and try it. Or, make time to source a banh mi, head to the Mekong Delta for dishes you won’t find elsewhere, feast on goi cuon (fresh spring rolls), sip on a Vietnamese coffee, enjoy nom du du (papaya salad)… the list goes on.
Feeling inspired? Find out about the 13-Day Tastes of Vietnam Traveller Tour here.