We were inspired to travel to Vietnam after watching a Vietnamese cooking show on TV, so it was obvious that we would sample as much of the food the country had to offer. We were familiar with the style of Vietnamese food from frequenting restaurants back home, but the local experience was very different.
We were newbies to this travel thing (this was our first overseas holiday together) and it was a learning experience and one that has led us to travel more and sample more of the food of the world.
These notes were made during a month-long trip through Vietnam in August & September 2001. These are just our food experiences and you may have a totally different experience depending on your budget, where you travel and where you eat.
Day 1: Hello Viet-nam
Our first local meal after arriving in Vietnam was at a vegetarian restaurant, Mon Chay. Most of the restaurants we passed had someone standing out front with a sales pitch to try and lure us into their shop. After much deliberation, we succumbed and entered one of them. We ordered coconut rice, sweet corn soup and of course spring rolls. It was a safe choice, foods that we were familiar with, that we might order at our local Vietnamese restaurant back home, although the atmosphere was certainly authentic.
Day 2: Gradual Introduction
On our first morning in Vietnam, we decided to stick with a ‘western breakfast’ as we thought that later in our trip when we go more ‘rural’ we won’t have that opportunity. This was our first trip overseas together, and we had not yet reached the point of attempting to eat locally at every opportunity. We tried a mushroom omelette and a toasted cheese sandwich and washed it all down with some watermelon juice. Even the western breakfast had a Vietnamese twist.
Later in the morning while waiting around for our day tour, we wanted to try some more local delights – the real stuff this time. Rob had a bowl of ‘pho’ and I had a glass of lemon sugar tea (as I wasn’t particularly hungry). Pho is the standard breakfast or any-time-of-the-day meal for most Vietnamese. It is essentially a rice noodle soup, with beef or chicken broth. It is served with local green vegetables, bean sprouts, Vietnamese mint, which is very different to western mint, and chilli sauce on the side. We love that you can add as much or as little of these ingredients as you desire. A lovely, refreshing meal we will look out for on the rest of this trip.
Day 3: Yam and Tea
During our tour of the Chu Chi tunnels, they gave us a sample of what the locals may have eaten while holed up here during the war – some Yam and Tea. A simple and cheap meal which would have kept a lot of people alive during the wartime.
Around town, we noticed that there is a lot of fresh bread available, which initially surprised us. However, it makes sense that the many years of French occupation in Vietnam has influenced their cuisine greatly. A good example of this is the abundant availability of fresh bread rolls, usually enjoyed with some cheese and salad. Nowhere else in Asia can you find much bread to eat. This can provide a nice break from the hot and spicy noodle and rice meals.
Day 4: Snake Tales
While having our evening meal, the table next to us were loudly enjoying shots of alcohol. When they invited us to join in, we didn’t have to be asked twice. After a few shots of this vodka-like drink, we were shown the bottle it came in. In the base of it were a snake and a chicken’s head, perfectly preserved. I’m not sure we would have tried some if we saw that first.
Day 5: Floating markets
It was a nice sunny day for our visit to the famous Mekong floating markets. We got a close-up view as we motored along in a boat among the sellers. The market sellers have long bamboo sticks on their boats, fixed upright holding the type of product they sell – everything from pineapples to sweet potatoes and so much more fresh produce.
One of our most enjoyable meals of the trip was when we stopped on an island along the Mekong River. We ordered fish, as it seemed appropriate as we had just got off the water, and on the menu it sounded like a nice local delicacy. They said it may take a little longer than the other meals, but we were happy to wait.
We were surprised when a couple of guys walked out from the kitchen and went to a little lake right next to us, wielding a net, and proceeded to catch our lunch. The fresh fish was then brought to our table a short time later, showing typical Vietnamese service, the waitress proceeded to roll up pieces of fish with some delightful salad and herbs in fresh rice paper rolls. It was so fresh, exquisite!
Day 6: A day in Dalat
We filled up on food for our day’s journey at breakfast, consisting of banana pancakes and croissants. Soon into the trip I realised that there had been no need to, as the locals hassle you on every street corner for you to buy some of their locally produced foods. I succumbed to one little old lady selling sugar cane sticks and cupcakes. Yummy.
In the hill station Dalat, we walked around the markets, viewing the freshest fish, so fresh they were still alive, some internal organs of animals, eyeballs, and other wonderful and interesting food. We ate lunch at a place where the food was pretty bland, but the toilets were clean – a rarity in Vietnam. For our evening meal, we found a restaurant nearby, recommended by a hawker, which was actually recommended by Lonely Planet. The meal was lovely; very long spring rolls, some noodles with vegetables and some tasty fish with rice.
Day 7: Claypot delight
We relaxed by the lake and had a couple of beers. They were warm but tolerable. The Vietnamese have a great tradition of providing a small bowl of peanuts with each beer purchased. Nearby we found a nice place to eat, where we tried a local specialty ‘clay pot’ meal each, and the accompanying rice paper rolls. The rolls were ‘do it yourself’, and we definitely needed a demonstration on how to combine the ingredients and make a solid edible roll out of it. Eventually, with practice, we enjoyed the meal.
Day 8: Mexican Meal
At the beach in Nha Trang, there are plenty of restaurants with deck chairs along the sand, but if you want to enjoy the beach and stay in the shade, you have to buy something from them. They were all pretty quiet so we picked one, bought an expensive beer, and enjoyed the shade and the vibe. Dinner was back in town at a Tex-Mex restaurant. We are big fans of Mexican food back home, we wanted to see how the Vietnamese enjoyed Mexican food. With their limited availability of ingredients, we ate some very interesting interpretations of nachos, enchiladas and burritos. At these touristy centres you could find a small variety of international cuisines.
Day 9: Islands in the sun
Just about all tourists visiting Nha Trang will experience a boat cruise. While we were on ours, as a special treat, one of the crew members dived into the coral to harvest a sea urchin, which was cooked up for those who wanted to pay a little extra for it. The other treat of the cruise was the floating bar. We all jumped into the warm waters of the South China Sea, wrapped with a floating tube, and enjoyed copious amounts of mulberry wine.
Day 11: Hoi An
The central Vietnamese town of Hoi An is renowned for its historic buildings, tailor-made clothing, and a few special dishes. There was a festive atmosphere, the whole town was decorated with beautiful red and coloured lanterns getting ready for an upcoming festival. This evening we tried a few of the local delicacies: white roses, wonton noodle soup, and shrimp spring rolls.
Day 12: Coconuts
One of the delights of traveling in Asia is buying a fresh coconut, letting the seller crack it open and stick in a straw. When you have finished drinking it, if you are lucky they will also chop off a section of the shell so you can scoop out and eat the flesh.
Day 16: Hurray for Hue
For breakfast, we searched out for a Hue speciality – Banh Khoai, a rice pancake with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Once we read about it we knew we had to try it. We went to three restaurants before we found one that had it on the menu, and it did not disappoint.
Day 17: Aqua?
We concluded after a couple of months trying to teach ourselves Vietnamese that it is a very difficult language to learn. We tried to learn a bit before we came here, but did not get much past counting to three. One thing we did learn was how to ask for a bottle of water – “Mot chai nuoc soui”. We got a few laughs when we tried it, but an essential phrase to know on a hot Vietnamese day.
Day 18: Dollar Dazzlers
Today we decided to lash out and treat ourselves to a nicer restaurant at one of the upmarket hotels. One of the main attractions was their clean toilets which we used to freshen up. The promotion of the restaurant to lure us in was $1 meals, however, each small dish cost $1, which added up to more as you needed quite a few of these to satisfy yourself. The advantage of it though was that you got to sample quite a few different dishes. Even more expensive restaurants have the same problems as others – while dining we noticed a commotion behind the service desk I saw a large rat race across the floor before one of the waiters stomped on it. The staff then looked around as if nothing had happened, trying not to alarm the patrons.
Day 23: Sticky Sleeper
On our train trip back to Hanoi from Sapa, we shared the sleeper with three friendly Vietnamese ladies, who also shared their sticky rice cake with us, a popular travelling snack. They wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Day 26: Last days in Hanoi
The restaurant we were looking for turned out to be too fancy for us, considering what we were wearing. We found another place more to our standards, and more traditionally Vietnamese. There were no English menus, so we made do with the minimal Vietnamese words we knew, rice and noodles, along with some pointing. We ended up with basic fried noodles and mixed fried rice. The rice was certainly mixed – including to our surprise a full heart, possibly from a chicken, but we were too chicken to try it!
Our next stop was for ice-cream at a recommended place down by the lake. We tried some interesting ice-cream flavours – watermelon, ginger and cinnamon. Refreshing on a hot day.
Day 28: Over and Out
The trip to Vietnam is all over, and now we can reflect on the wonderful food we ate during the trip. Here is a list of some of the special meals that we will remember.
- Rice paper rolls; so fresh and healthy
- Phó; an absolute staple found everywhere, and really refreshing to eat
- Coconut candy
- Fish sour soup
- Coconut rice
- Avocado juice
- Cuttlefish (squid)
- Wonton soup with noodles
- Fried wontons
- Cau lau (pork and noodle soup with crackling croutons)
- White roses
- Tropical fruits: lychee, rambutan, paw-paw, green dragon fruit, citrus (like grapefruit), coconut, banana
- Sea urchin
- Drinks: mango juice, lemon juice, orange juice, mixed fruit juice, softdrinks, artichoke tea, pineapple juice, corn wine, snake wine, mulberry wine
- The largest array of spring rolls that you can imagine
- Mince crab meat
- Minced shrimp on sugarcane
- Mexican – nachos, burrito, enchilada – with a Vietnamese twist