Vietnam had me at
hello…“Ăn cơm chưa?” which translates to “have you eaten yet?” Any place that starts a conversation this way is a place where you know you’ll enjoy every meal. Food is the center of Vietnamese culture and it builds a sense of community, even among strangers. Not only is the food delicious, but also colorful and fresh with lots of vegetables and herbs from local farms making their way into every dish. Driving through the country or walking through the city, you’ll see street stalls selling everything from sticky rice to duck, or people hunched over a massive bowl of rice on a sidewalk step preparing lunch for the day. Just watch out for the thit cho (dog meat)! Vietnamese food is served with no frills, typically in some kind of colorful plastic bowl on a sidewalk on low-slung stools and kiddie tables. Something about it creates such a sense of comfort through childlike nostalgia. Caffeinate with a traditional Vietnamese coffee, and then hit up our favorite spots in these two popular cities — Hanoi (North) and Ho Chi Minh (South).
Hanoi, the old capital of Vietnam, is a colorful small city adorned with lakes, beautiful temples and remnants of French Colonial times. Hanoians take their food very seriously. Ask the locals, they hate it when Southerners put sugar in their dishes and think their cuisine is more refined. Because of this food pride, Hanoi can be treated like a city-wide buffet as the streets are divided into categories, which in many cases are named after the dish or product in which most vendors on that street specialize.
Bun Cha Ta
I’ve been scouring New York looking for an equally good bun cha since my return to no avail. None of them stack up to the real thing visually or in taste. Bun cha is a barbecued fatty pork grilled to create a perfectly crisped outside and a tender melt-in-your-mouth inside served with slithery vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs and a sweet, almost-caramelized sauce that is so good it can be consumed as broth. Even places in Hanoi praised for having the best bun cha don’t stack up. Order it with a side of crispy spring rolls, which you’ll wrap in lettuce and herbs, and get ready for flavor overload.
Banh Mi 25
The best banh mi I had was in the upstairs room of a cafe with no sign outside. When we tried to navigate our way there a second time, locals didn’t even know of the little alley it was tucked in. Because of this, we’ll have to go with the second best banh mi in Hanoi. Because of Hanoi’s French influence, this popular sandwich features a flaky French baguette fused with southeast asian flavors. Banh Mi 25 features seven different banh mi fillings including pork, French ham, pate and more. For your first, go with the mixed meat banh mi, grab a mini blue stool and watch the scooters zip by as you chomp on this perfect sandwich.
Bia Hoi Corner
Wash down the pate with a cheap glass of bia hoi – Vietnam’s freshly brewed beer tapped from barrels. There’s no lack of places to get a glass of bia hoi, as there’s a whole street dedicated to it. A huge glass of cold beer goes for less than 50 cents. Cheers with some locals and chant một, hai, ba, zo (1, 2, 3, drink)! If it gets too crowded mid-beer, you can walk the streets with your bia hoi to your next destination.
Orchid Cooking Class and Restaurant
Orchid is a cooking class and a restaurant, as it’s name suggests, though you can eat here without taking a class. A friend in Vietnam suggested this restaurant for their Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Pancakes), and they did not disappoint. The pancake itself is a crispy fritter served with vegetables and herbs, which you wrap together inside of rice paper, and dip into a sweet fish sauce and top with crispy shallots.
This wouldn’t be a Vietnamese food guide without mention of Pho. Pho Thin is popular among local Hanoians and tourists alike. Only one type of pho is served here. It’s said pho originated in Northern Vietnam, and the pho at Pho Thin is cooked Hanoian-style with no added sugar, herbs pre-cooked in the broth (not served next to it), and with a clearer broth than you might be used to seeing in pho. Don’t expect: service. Expect: great pho and about ten minutes to eat before other customers stare you down waiting for your seat.
Hanoi Street Food Tour
I highly recommend starting your time in Hanoi with the Hanoi Street Food Tour. Not only does the tour introduce you to the local cuisine, but also helps you navigate the city better. The guide’s name is Ms. Moon and she knows her food. The tour runs for 3.5 hours and it doesn’t take you to the most popular places, but restaurants with the actual best food in unassuming locations. And don’t worry about being hungry after, you’ll hardly be able to walk after all the food which includes bun cha, noodle dishes, fried spring rolls, banh mi, fruits, desserts, egg coffee, local beer, and more.
The capital of Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon, is a large city with some Western influence and a mega culinary hub. The food in the South is influenced by Chinese and Cambodian cuisine, making the flavors more sweet and sour. The difference in flavors from Northern Vietnam are definitely evident, even as a non-local, but the food is equally good.
Cuc Gach Quan
As you’ve probably gathered, there’s a lot of great food in Vietnam, but Cuc Gach Quan takes the cake. The menu at Cuc Gach Quan is extensive, but ask the waiter for his suggestions. I had the fried tofu with lemongrass and chili, tender pork rib stewed with pepper, fish soup with sour bamboo shoot, squid with tamarind sauce, pumpkin flowers, and their fresh juices. To this day I dream of every single one of those dishes. The sautéed pumpkin flowers were crisp and delicious. Who knew pumpkins produced something more delicious and less basic than pumpkin spice? The restaurant is decorated beautifully and feels like someone’s lavish home. The ambiance and food quality would rack up a high bill in most places in the world, yet the food was inexpensive for the amount of food. If you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh soon, go to Cuc Gach Quan. If not for yourself, go on my behalf.
Le Fenetre Soleil
This restaurant gives off major colonial era vibes. Eat here when you’re tired of fish sauce and enjoy some Indonesian cuisine. The beef in coconut milk with chili sambal comes highly recommended. The beef is tender and the coconut milk and chili sambal give it the perfect contrast of sweet and spicy. Stay for the evening and have a drink (or a few) and enjoy live music.
Get a bird’s eye view of the impressive Ho Chi Minh city at Chill Skybar. This outdoor rooftop is located on the 26th and 27th floors making it the perfect place to take in the city lights with some cocktails.
XO Food Tour
Scooters and motorbikes are the main method of transportation in Vietnam. The scooter traffic can be daunting as there aren’t many rules, no real stop signs or lights (that are adhered to at least), and scooters won’t stop for pedestrians. The first rule you’ll learn in Vietnam as a pedestrian is to just cross the street and not show your fear, and the scooters will navigate around you. XO Tours is a food tour that let’s you get in on the scooter action without you having to fear driving one yourself or getting hit by one (like this girl). Hop on the back of a local’s scooter while they show you some hidden gems in various districts of Ho Chi Minh.
Written by Danika Daly
Feature image via National Geographic Kids