Philly food is so much more than cheesesteaks. Let us show you.
When I first sat down to write about Vietnam, I wanted to come up with some all-encompassing quip, Anthony Bourdain style, which would succinctly sum up my time there in a somewhat poetic, meaningful way. But with the cramped charm of Hanoi, the cool rurality of the rice terraces of Sa Pa, the calm majesty of the Ha Long Bay, heat and history in Hue, the backpacker mecca of Hoi An, and the bustling, crowded Ho Chi Minh City, there is no one word or sentence or sentiment that can accurately describe the myriad experiences of Vietnam.
Well, okay. Maybe there’s one.
Vietnam has innumerable sights worth seeing, but I have no problem admitting my top priority was the food. I also have no problem admitting that every day we were in Vietnam (except one, when being in a hurry and trying to kick a stomach bug interfered) I had pho for breakfast. The smaller portion, as well as a lighter serving of meat and heavier serving of greenery than we get in America, makes it the perfect way to start your day—even with the day is 108 degrees. It didn’t matter. Breakfast every day was worth looking forward to.
But who am I kidding? I looked forward to all the meals. From bun bo Hue and a vast selection of city specialties in the food capital and former imperial seat of Hue, bowls of freshly grilled bun cha in Hanoi, and unforgettable banh mi in Hoi An to a motorbike tour of Ho Chi Minh City that took us on backroads and to street vendors and restaurants we never would’ve found on our own, there was a nonstop parade of food and we loved every minute of it.
For a lot of things, Vietnam’s cuisine is just variations on a theme. Pho in the north differs from pho in the south, but it’s still pho. In the north, there is less emphasis on meat and more on herbage in the bowl, and the south is more of a choose-your-own-adventure with a plate of herbs and chilies—much more akin to what we get in America.
One of our favorite parts of eating in Vietnam, though, was this ability to customize as your saw fit. When my wife and I sat down for bun cha in Hanoi, we were given a bowl of garlic, one of chilies, and a towering plate of herbs to choose from. While we shared the experience of eating the same dish, each bite was our own, decorated with herbs—many of which we’d never tasted or even seen before—however we wished. This spirit of customization runs rampant throughout the cuisine.
If you plan on visiting Vietnam, do yourself a favor and try to see as much of the country as you can. Go to the north, the south, and everywhere in between. For a small country, it’s got so much to offer—with food and with everything else. I would recommend, however, going the opposite route we did: start in Ho Chi Minh City and go north. Get the hustle and bustle out of the way first, and then move on to Hoi An, which feels like a large college campus. Move up to Hue, a smallish city with a lot of history, and then to Hanoi to branch out from there. Sa Pa is beautiful, as is the Ha Long Bay—after the first part of your trip, a junk boat through the cool waters is the perfect way to relax. And you’ll also enjoy the climate change, going from excessive heat in the south to cooler temps in the north.
But, above all, no matter how you decide to travel Vietnam, just travel it. The country is beautiful and the people are friendly. The food is exceptional, whether you’re sitting in a restaurant or on a small plastic stool on the sidewalk. And as another traveler said, nowhere is as savage as you think it is. Going to a place like this with a fear of their culture, the way they eat, or any number of horror stories you may have heard is doing yourself a great disservice. Go with an open mind and an endless stomach, and you’ll have one of the best trips of your life. I did.
EAT YOUR FILL AT…
Bun Cha Dac Kim (1 Hang Manh, Hanoi) – Visiting Hanoi without eating bun cha should get you banned from the city. Smokey, grilled pork meatballs in a tangy but not overpower fish sauce, accompanied by garlic, chilies, noodles, and, of course, a heap of herbs (most of which you’ve never seen before). Sit and enjoy with a Bia Ha Noi. Just don’t get fleeced like we did—even though the address is “1,” the first bun cha joint on the street is apparently a copycat. Make sure the sign includes the “Dac Kim” before you sit down (although the copycat is damned delicious).
Pho Thin (13 Lo Duc, Hanoi) – This turned out to be our favorite pho stop, and was recommended by Graham Holliday via his book Eating Vietnam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table. As another traveler told us, “after this, everything else is water.” They have huge vats out front making the broth, and they grill their meat in advance instead of letting it cook in the hot broth, which gives it an added depth of flavor most pho doesn’t have. Throw in a pile of herbs and green onion and the homemade hot sauce on the table, and you’ll never spend a better $2.
Quan Hanh (11 Pho Duc Chinh, Hue) – This is a one-stop shop for all the best local dishes. Banh beo (small steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp and intensely flavorful fish sauce), banh khoai (a crispy pancake stuffed with pork and shrimp, served with an array of fresh and pickled vegetables and a pork and peanut dipping sauce), nem lui (pork cooked on lemongrass skewers, which you wrap in rice paper with veg and dip in the aforementioned sauce), banh cuon thit nuong (barbecued pork wrapped with herbs in boiled rice paper and dipped in garlic ginger fish sauce), and some simple nem ram (fried pork spring rolls). Get the tasting, leave full and happy.
Quan Cam (38 Tran Cao Van, Hue) – This is where you go for the city’s eponymous noodle soup, bun bo Hue. The bowl comes with a spicy beef broth tinged red from chilies and infused with lemongrass, poured over noodles, thin strips of beef, pork and crab meatballs, and a thick cube of huyet—congealed pig’s blood. The blood was better than expected, though it reminded me (in texture and taste) of raw hotdog. We got there at 6:30 (bun bo Hue is a breakfast food), and beat the crowds. They stop selling at 9:30, so don’t be late.
Banh Mi Phuong (2B Phan Chau Trinh, Hoi An) – Not only were these the best banh mi we had on our trip, they were the best banh mi we’ve ever had. They were so good that, immediately upon finishing our first order, my wife and I ordered another sandwich. Then, on our last day in Hoi An, we went back—something we never do, as there are so many places to try to eat on a trip like this. But if you’re in Hoi An, this is a must. The #5 (barbecue) was far and away the best, but this isn’t the kind of place you’re going to get a bad sandwich. Try them all.
Back of the Bike Tour (Ho Chi Minh City) – This food tour was one of the best times we had on our trip. The guides were knowledgeable and engaging, riding on a motorbike in Saigon was a hoot, and the food is stuff we never would’ve found on our own. And thank god we found it, because the goi du du bo (papaya salad with dried beef liver) we started with was worth the trip, and still stands as one of the best things we ate our entire time in Vietnam. The banh canh ghe (crab soup) was another phenomenal find, and you can even make your own banh xeo (crispy rice pancake) at a street food stall. Check them out here, and be sure to read our review of the proprietors’ restaurant right here in Philly, Same Same.