I’ve never really been about food, I mean I like food sure, lots of it, and yes my palate has increased slightly for the experience of travel. But all that said I could still quite happily live off carbs and dairy forever with little trouble if push came to shove. Pizza and Ice cream every day, whats not to love?
Thankfully, whilst travelling between Hanoi and HCMC this past April, no pushing or shoving was involved and I was therefore able to cram all sorts of tasty morsels into my mouth. They say that the heat will usually quell ones appetite, well not on this occasion. Whilst working my way through Hanoi, Halong, Hoi An and HCMC, the first thing I thought of when I woke up was food, which is very unusual considering I rarely eat breakfast when at home in London. And most nights, I would require a few spring rolls and just one more beer before being satisfied with my days efforts and allowing myself to drift off into a fat boy slumber. I can’t remember the last time I went travelling and put on weight, normally it falls off me owing to increased activeness, not in Vietnam, and not whilst there were so many good things to eat.
The jewel in the Vietnamese crown food wise in a simple yet scrumptious dish called Pho. If you have ever sat down and read any other travel bloggers writings on Vietnam, I have no doubt that Pho will have been mentioned, if not described in detail and had praise lavished upon it. It is a travellers fave, a meal big in taste (and portion size), but low on cost. There are more extravagant looking dishes on most menus, but few that can satisfy a hungry backpackers need for sustenance and incredible taste, on such a regular basis and at such a low cost.
I’ve bigged up Pho in that paragraph, but with good reason. Normally something that tastes so amazing and costs so little will be a hidden gem, located at a particular restaurant that is tucked away down a back street of a particular town that is somewhat off the beaten path. Not Pho, its everywhere, all of the time, and that’s because it is the national dish, the ‘soul of the nation’.
So what is Pho? Well essentially it is a noodle soup, made up of broth, meat (chicken or beef), noodles and selected herbs and spices. Chili and lime can be added, and are usually served on the side. It is said to have originated in the north of Vietnam, around 1880, the product of Chinese (herbs) and French (meat) culinary influences. As its popularity increased throughout the years and likewise spread throughout the country, cooks within the different regions of Vietnam started to experiment and put their own spin on the dish. Whilst the basis of each bowl remains the same, some areas are known for using different shapes noodles, or for using more rarely cooked meat. Its not always easy to tell the difference, but maybe thats because each variance is no less incredible than the other. True story!
For breakfast, lunch or your evening meal, eat Pho. Don’t ask questions, just order and eat it, over and over.
Rice and Noodles
Yes noodles make up a large part of Pho, but I felt that Pho deserved its own section within this post to be honest. Now I’ll say a few words about the other rice/noodle dishes that made their way into my belly in April of 2014. Now these photos aren’t great, owing to not taking my good camera out to dinner each evening, but even under the light of dimly lit Vietnamese restaurants and through the lens of my iphone you kind of get the idea anyway. From beef in black bean sauce, to ginger chicken. Curried duck and sweet chilli everything. They were all just soooo good, and so reasonably prices, even in the super touristy areas.
I don’t normally make recommendations restaurant wise, but this first pick below, of beef in black bean sauce was taken in Newday Restaurant, Hanoi. If you go, try get a seat in the Chinese themed room on the second floor. You may have to eat whilst sitting on the floor, but the decor is strange and interesting, there are numerous and much needed fans, and the view over the street is excellent. Also being that bit smaller, the room made it very easy to get chatting to those travellers on the next table. An Irish group who we befriended even allowed us to try some of their deep fried frog.
Anyway … rice, noodles, all amazing, all cheap and all should be eaten in vast quantities. And no wimping out by using a knife and fork, use the chopsticks provided, its much more fun.
… yes I realise there is a fork in one of the pictures below. #fail
Every day, without fail. They came in different shapes and sizes, and with different types of batter, but each time they landed down on my table, they were consumed with a smile on face. It goes without saying that spring rolls served up in the UK just do not come close to tasting as incredible as those served up in Hanoi or Hoi An. Within a week of arriving in Vietnam, the gf and I were ordering two beers and a plate of spring rolls without even needing to look at the menu first. Although one time she did have us try Pakora instead … we swiftly reverted back to spring rolls again the next day.
I am a very uncomplicated man when it comes to liquid refreshment. I am told that by limiting my options that I am missing out, and I could well be if a recent trip to Italy with a few fellow travel bloggers is anything to go by. They knocked back coffee and red wine like there was no tomorrow, whilst all the time grinning from ear to ear and waxing lyrical about morning caffeine. I however do not drink coffee or wine, and in fact I rarely drink tea, which probably sounds very odd considering I am English.
At home I am a water, OJ, beer and maybe the odd milkshake kinda guy, and that did not change whilst in Vietnam, with beer often the cheapest thing on the menu. There was never not an excuse to stop for a glass of Tiger or can of 333. If however it was just that bit too early for booze, fresh juice and lassi were also everywhere. Lassi is pretty much like a milkshake, so I lapped it up at most breakfasts.
To be honest, so good were the beers and juices, that we often had to remind ourselves to drink some much needed water. No one wants to be dehydrated, but at the same time water was probably the least attractive thing on the menu … other than coffee or wine obviously.
On the occasions where we had no time to pitch up at a quaint Vietnamese restaurant, or that by the time the girlfriend had finished getting ready everywhere was shut, street food was our savior.
My favourite was probably the sweet potato and coconut cakes in the 2nd picture below, the diabetes inducing doughnut in this first picture however was also pretty damn tasty. Took a while to get to sleep that evening, serious sugar buzz!
So there you have it, a quick guide to why my waistband is continually expanding these days, and why eating should be one of your main goals should you head to Vietnam anytime soon.
I am sure there are many more adventurous dishes to try, and there is certainly a hell of a lot more sea food available than I have included in this post. I have no idea why I took zero pictures of the sea food we ate, but in short there was calamari, octopus, squid and all sorts of white fish. I wouldn’t normally order seafood at a restaurant, but even I will admit that the seafood served up on our Halong Bay tour was a little bit special. We were lucky enough to be sat on a table for 3 out of the 4 inclusive meals on our tour, with a nice Vietnamese family who talked us through each dish, often advising that adding soy sauce and chilli makes all the difference. They weren’t wrong!
Right, I’m waffling , I know I am and so I shall bring this post to a close. I’m also starting to get pretty hungry myself, and as its currently 6pm on a Sunday evening, I think its time I head off into the kitchen to make some dinner. Your job is to now either start plotting your Vietnamese food tour, or if you’ve already been, reminisce about just how good the food in VietNOM was.
Happy eating all!