Oh man. How to organize this one? There’s so much, it’s going to have to be done alphabetically this time. But we’ll save dessert and coffee for last.
This is by no means a comprehensive survey of Vietnamese food. It’s going to be our biggest travel food post, but we didn’t come close to sampling all the possibilities. As we were looking up the Vietnamese names for things (please feel free to submit corrections), we kept coming across lists of “must try” foods that we either skipped or flat out never saw. We spent a month in cities in Vietnam, from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and our number one objective was to eat. But there is still so much we missed.
How do you find good food in Vietnam? Wander down any sidewalk or through any market hall. Look for tiny plastic stools. Are there only one or two stools free? Is everyone throwing their napkins and bones and lime peels on the ground? Good. Sit down immediately. Wait. The proprietor may ask what you want. They’re probably only serving one or two things. Point to your neighbor’s table or just hold up one finger and smile. You will be brought something delicious.
Here goes. What We Ate in Vietnam:
Bánh Xèo, Nem Lụi – Savory griddle cakes made with turmeric, pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts. Skewers of grilled minced pork. Wrap it all up in rice paper sheets, along with spicy peanut sauce, herbs, shredded green papaya and unripe banana.
Bún Chả – Sweet broth with fish sauce and slices of green papaya. Grilled pork. Rice noodles. A mountain of cilantro, mint, local herbs, lettuce, and green beans. Chopped fresh garlic and chiles. Some assembly required.
Cao Lầu – Noodles, broth, meat, herbs. A combination we’ve come to know and love, but this one is a little different. The cao lầu noodles are made with water from certain wells in Hoi An, so supposedly the true version of this dish is only available in one place in the entire world. We were skeptical, but the noodles do have a unique mineral flavor that we never encountered again.
Giấp Cá – This is the only non-yummy thing in this blog post. The first time I (Alicia) ate this herb, it was mixed in with a whole bunch of others that I was rolling into rice paper along with other delicious things. I took one bite and literally gagged. Something tasted like old fish tank water. I thought maybe something spoiled had found its way to my plate and my appetite was killed for the rest of the day. (If you know me, this is a shocking event.) The second time, it was lurking in a dish of Cao Lầu. I recognized the nasty flavor and tasted each leaf in my bowl until I found the culprit. I pulled out all of the dark green glossy leaves. Later that day, I Googled “gross Vietnamese herb” and found it. Apparently the Chinese call it “fishy smell herb.” Yep. That’s the one.
Mì quảng refers to the type of noodles, and the name of this dish should have additional descriptive words following it, but I’m not sure what those are. This mì quảng had herbs, just enough broth to moisten the noodles, a chicken leg, roast pork, corned beef, and dumpling.
Mystery Skewer – These tiny rice paper envelopes are stuffed with thin noodles and make a great vehicle for sweet, fiery chili sauce. We found them in the tiny fishing village of Bai Xep. A skewer costs mere pennies.
Nem Chua – Fermented pork roll steamed in a banana leaf. Sounds terrible, looks worse, but pairs nicely with a cheap brew. We had these on one of our afternoon bike rides through Hoi An.
Phở Bò – Beef noodle soup doesn’t begin to explain the magic. The thinly sliced meat is put into the bowl still raw, and the rich steamy broth is ladled over top, cooking it just past rare in a flash. You can doctor it up with lime, chiles and herbs.
Phở Thịt Lợn – Another excellent noodle soup. This one has pork and is topped with pickled shallots, hot sauce, peanuts and cilantro. A squeeze of lime and a side of green papaya slices takes you to the moon.
Phở Gà – This one’s with chicken. You can even add…
…Giò Cháo Quãy – Donut sticks. Ok, we’re going out of alphabetical order here, but DEAR FRIENDS, YOU CAN PUT DONUTS IN YOUR SOUP. What a magical world we live in. Crispy on the outside and nearly hollow inside, these things soak up your phở broth and you’ll forget things like oyster crackers ever existed.
Roll-your-owns. – That’s obviously not the Vietnamese name, but we ate it on a sidewalk in Saigon and there wasn’t a sign posted. Grilled pork with peanuts and green onion. Top with pickled carrots and green papaya, slices of starfruit, unripe banana and cucumber. Add lettuce, mint, basil and chives, dip in sweet and sour fish sauce with chilis. Roll it all up in rice paper triangles. This was so good and so cheap that we ordered a second round and tipped 50 percent.
Train Lunch. – What you might get from the hot food cart on a train at lunch time. Steamed rice, greens, deep fried egg, mystery meat (probably beef) stir fried with pineapple and pickled bamboo shoots.
Village Mystery Soup – Another culinary mystery from the village of Bai Xep. The broth tasted of sea food and the rice noodles were thick, transparent and gelatinous. The chunks floating in it didn’t have much flavor and we thought it could have been squid or octopus, but the woman shook her head and laughed when we pointed to the soup and then pointed to Tony’s squid tattoo. In hindsight, it was likely pig stomach or some other sort of organ. We may never know.
WHEW. Hopefully you have a little room for coffee and dessert.
Cà Phê Sữa Nóng – Strong black coffee brewed by the cup. The velvety richness of Vietnamese-style coffee can be explained by the fact that it is often roasted in clarified butter. Add to that a generous pour of sweetened condensed milk (sữa) ready to be stirred up. If the cafe serves coffee in mugs instead of glasses, it might come in a bowl of hot water to maintain optimal temperature.
Chè Bắp – Sweet corn pudding dessert topped with coconut sauce, served cold. Sweet corn is a very common dessert component throughout Asia and its naturally sugary profile makes us wonder why it doesn’t have the same designation back home.
Mystery cookies – We never found the name for these, but our guesthouse owner in Hoi An said these sweet little tea biscuits are made with beans, onions and beef. Definitely a departure from the Western concept of dessert, but surprisingly sweet and pleasant.
Bia Hơi – Fresh beer on tap for 33 cents a glass. This particular block of establishments in District 1 in Saigon had two dogs that were trained to bark when the police were approaching the neighborhood. When the canine alarm sounded, the proprietors collected all the plastic chairs out from under the customers who were sitting on them in the street. The evicted stood around bewildered until the police slowly cruised past, then the chairs were re-issued and the party started all over again.
And that’s what we ate in Vietnam.