After two and a half weeks of eating in Vietnam, I’ve compiled a Top 5 of every meal I’ve had. I started out this part of my trip with a page-long list of dishes I had to try while in the country. Although some of the foods I wanted to try were Southern Vietnamese dishes, and I mostly stayed in the North, I managed to hit the majority of what was on my list.
Let me preface this by saying that the best meals I had can be found in the most unlikely locations. I didn’t want to spend this trip eating “safe” food from restaurants that cater to tourists. I ate crouched over a tiny plastic table, sitting less than a foot off the ground on a grimy, rickety, plastic stool. I ate the best at sidewalk restaurants, motorbikes whizzing by, surrounded by crowds of people. The majority of the time, the ‘chef’ was a middle-aged woman sitting behind the pot, combining ingredients. Maybe she’d have a helper or two, ladling broth into a bowl or taking your order. These ladies were incredible. They’d take 3 or 4 innocent looking ingredients, throw it in a bowl, and somehow transform it into the best pho you’ve ever had. And it would cost $1.50. I could go on, but someone has already written an excellent and informative book on this subject called Eating Vietnam. Graham Holliday goes into every delicious detail about eating on the streets of Vietnam, so if you’re into food, I highly suggest you read it. Also, please excuse me if I get any names of dishes wrong, and for my lack or proper accent usage!
Top Five Meals in Vietnam:
5. Nom Bo Kho
On our last full day in Hanoi, we decided to go on a street food tour with Hanoi Street Food Tours. We probably should’ve done this at the beginning of our stay, considering we were already seasoned eaters (and seasoned at crossing the street in Hanoi), but we joined a group of about ten people and ate for three hours. Our second stop was for this dish, dried beef salad. Shredded green papaya, herbs, cured shaved beef, and thin beef jerky (way better than anything you could find in the States), is assembled onto a tiny plastic plate, and topped with crushed peanuts and drenched in a sweet nuoc cham-type sauce. Mis it up a little to dress the salad, and fill your chopsticks with a little of each ingredient for maximum enjoyment. We went back the next morning to have it again for breakfast. Though pretty hard to find, since it’s on an unnamed side street, it was worth walking around for an hour retracing our steps from the night before just to eat it again! We had this salad and a lime tea for 50,000 dong each, or about two dollars.
4. Bun Cha
Bun Cha is a dish I was familiar with before coming to Vietnam. I’ve had it in the States before (though it was not as good), and also Obama ate this with Bourdain in Hanoi on his recent visit. I think this dish has gained notoriety since then. It’s a pretty accessible dish because it’s not weird, and has ingredients you can identify. Also it’s delicious. You get a few different plates of stuff when you sit down for bun cha. A plate of thin rice noodles, a basket of herbs and lettuce, and a bowl of broth with meatball-type things, barbecued pork, and thinly pieces of green papaya. Add minced garlic and sliced chilis from a separate small bowl, and you end up with a sweet and spicy bowl of soup. I ate this wrong the first couple of times I had this, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it! Dump the noodles in the broth bowl, put some herbs on top, and enjoy. We had this for breakfast in an alley for under $2, which the woman insisted we pay up front for before we even got the food.
3. Banh Khot
We stumbled upon this sidewalk joint in Nha Trang. We sat down and the woman in charge asked us something in Vietnamese. She was pointing to a bunch of stuff that I couldn’t identify. I did a general sweeping motion with my arm as if to say, “Just hook me up with something delicious,” and she nodded as she got to work. This dish is made with glutinous rice and egg batter, and is cooked on a special device. It is circular and has small, round slots into which she poured the batter. Held over a flame to cook and covered with a lid to steam the cakes, she then put different ingredients on each one. I now know that she was probably asking us what fillings we wanted, because we got one of everything. There was pork, beef, squid, shrimp, snails, and one plain. The bowl of sauce was part nuoc cham sauce, and part green onion sauce. You dunk or submerge the rice cake in the sauce, add some shredded green papaya, and shove it in your mouth. Every single one was amazing, including the snails! We spent $3 for two.
2. Banh Xeo
I had already eaten dinner when I convinced my travel buddy she should eat this for her dinner. It was on my list of things to try, so I recognized the name hand-written on a sign. We ate this in a night market on Cat Ba island. The woman making it was really excited we sat down to eat it. She took her small frying pan, and poured what I think is some rice flour batter, making a thin pancake. She then filled it with bean sprouts, unidentified meat parts, dried shrimp, and some shredded something that may have been cabbage or egg. She let it brown in the pan and then cut it up onto a plate with a pair of scissors. The Vietnamese cut food with scissors, not knives; it takes a while getting used to. She then showed us how to assemble this meal: take a small square of rice paper, fill it with greens like herbs and lettuce, put a pice of the pancake inside, roll it up, and dip in nuoc cham sauce. The finished product is full of flavors, crunchy and soft, and just delicious. I ate the whole thing even though it was my second dinner. It cost us 60,000 dong for two meals and a beer, about $3.
I ate this noodle soup at a sidewalk restaurant in Hanoi, located next to the Circle K (a convenience store), on aptly-named Cha Ca Street. This street is where you find Cha Ca, there are many ‘upscale’ places to choose from. We chose this one because it was right next to the Circle K where we were looking for Vietnamese candy (they don’t really eat any), and I was starving. We took a stool right in front of the women making the food. She pointed to fried fish and noodles, and I shook my head yes. I had no idea what she was going to make. We stared in amazement while she worked her magic.
When I tried Cha Ca for the first time, the heavens opened up above me! The broth is filled with dill and green onions, and the rice noodles are boiled in the big broth pot along with bean sprouts to soften them up. A few pieces of fried fish are placed on top. Combine this with their homemade chili sauce, and you have perfection. We ate there three times, two nights in a row. It cost 30,000 dong, or just over $1.
It wouldn’t be a food post about what I ate in Vietnam if I didn’t give a shout out to the following:
- Egg Coffee
Egg coffee is the best version of coffee I’ve ever had. Egg yolks are beaten together with sweetened condensed milk, and is scooped on top of a shot of Vietnamese espresso. The egg part gets thick and creamy, and when mixed up with the piping hot espresso, ends up tasting something like a tiramisu. We walked for 20 minutes almost every day in Hanoi to go to the cafe that invented it called Ca Phe Crang. To find it, look for a white vertical sign that has the number 39 on it, got down a tiny alley, and take the stairs up to the second floor. The tiny stools and tables, natural light, old photos, and plants make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
- Meat on a Stick, or Sticky Meat
What’s not to love? I had my favorite meat on a stick in Sapa Town, on the side of the street. After a long night on the sleeper train, we wandered around and found a long street full of barbecue vendors, all selling the same kinds of meat on sticks. We stopped at the friendliest looking person, and pointed to a bunch of sticks, without knowing what much of it was. My all-time favorite was the herbs wrapped with pork- delish!
- Banh Cuon
I first tried these on our street food tour, and got them again for breakfast the next morning. A thin fermented rice flour batter is gently ladled onto a cooking device not unlike one would use to make crepes, except it boils water underneath to steam the batter. The result is a very soft, delicate rice pancake. It’s just on the border of a texture that will make me gag, without crossing that line. Like a poached egg! It is stuffed with finely chopped woodear mushrooms and pork. The man and his wife who made these for me lived at the end of a tiny quiet alley. I think they were surprised and delighted that I wanted to eat this, so they stared at me the entire time, talking about me. The man even mixed up my nuoc cham for me with pepper and chili paste, thinking I didn’t know any better. It was sweet.