This post was inspired by a candid comment which came up whilst in conversation with a Vietnamese woman. According to her, phở, or Vietnamese noodle soup, is a dish to be eaten (or drunk, depending on your language) alone, and quickly. Therefore the image of a phở restaurant is of the sound of slurping, little conversation and a quick turnover. In Vietnam it really seems as though different foods are heavily associated with certain types of people, places and atmospheres.
Likewise, when I was in Bangladesh, I found that a great way to summarise my time there was through some of the most iconic dishes that I’d tried. I’m not really a “foodie” by nature, but I do get attached to certain places, including my favourite cafes and bakeries here in Hanoi. I’ll use this post to showcase some of the best (and most unusual!) eats I’ve had in Vietnam, though it’s by no means a comprehensive list, and I can’t possible comment on the regional variations that occur throughout the entire country!
What? Fresh vegetarian spring rolls (technically “phở” rolls, as they’re made of the same vermicelli as phở noodles!)
Where? The local Buddhist vegetarian (cơm chay) restaurant.
Best enjoyed…with friends, as part of a shared meal.
What? A pastry shaped like a chicken leg. Filled with mung bean paste. And a salted egg yolk centre (ooh, meta).
Where? From the French bakery opposite a fancy hotel.
Best enjoyed…When you feel like you’re taking life too seriously.
What? Phở Gà (chicken noodle soup).
Where? On most street corners, on plastic tables, surrounded by tiny, low plastic stools.
Best enjoyed…As stated above: alone and when in a contemplative mood.
What? Chè, Vietnamese dessert soup made from jelly, fruit, seeds and condensed milk.
Where? Most streets have small chè stands and stalls, and there are a couple more upmarket cafe-type places which serve chè alongside fruit tea.
Best enjoyed…on a tropical summer’s evening, or a particularly sultry afternoon. Preferably with fresh bubble or kumquat tea (see image).
What? Bánh cuốn. Rice batter pancakes filled with ground pork and “wood ear” (木耳) mushrooms, topped with fried shallots.
Where? Small eateries usually set off the main road. Stainless steel tabletops seem to be the norm.
Best enjoyed…on a rainy day, when you need something hearty.
What? Starfruit (cut into little stars!)
Where? Buy directly from street vendours which wander along the roads, much cheaper and fresher than a supermarket.
Best enjoyed…according to the Vietnamese, with a little chilli/ spice on the side to really bring out the complementary flavours (sweet/sour, bitter/sugary).
What? Tart Sô-cô-la. Chocolate tart.
Where? Most French-style bakeries (or more accurately, patisseries).
Best enjoyed…at the end of a long day, or to round off a salty meal.
What? Cơm Rang (pronounced “com zang” in the north). Fried rice, usually fried with beef, egg and vegetables. Topped with fried onion.
Where? All good “worker’s canteens”, typical eateries along the side of the street.
Best enjoyed…when you’re seriously hungry and it’s not too hot outside.
What? Egg coffee (Cà phê trứng). It genuinely contains whisked egg yolk.
Where? Most local cafes, Giảng Cafe is particularly famous for egg coffee in Hanoi.
Best enjoyed…on a relaxed weekend morning.
What? Mangosteen (quả măng cụt) a tropical fruit completely unrelated to mangoes.
Where? Marketplaces and street-sellers sell these between May – July.
Best enjoyed…as a refreshing snack when you want something that’s both sweet and healthy and don’t mind waiting around to peel these fiddly things!
What? Passion fruit juice (chanh leo) with lime, mint and lemongrass.
Best enjoyed…on a leisurely afternoon when it’s too late in the day for that strong Vietnamese coffee!
What? Kem sầu riêng – Durian flavoured ice cream with coconut (topped with peanuts). Durian is something of a controversial flavour in SE Asia, but it tastes much better in desserts than it does raw.
Where? This one is actually quite difficult to find! It’s something of a speciality from the south of the country, and is popular in Da Nang. Some of my Vietnamese friends are actually jealous of the fact that I managed to track this down!
Best enjoyed…after dinner, sitting in a small, family-owned restaurant, with an open front.