A few days in Vietnam, and you’ll be chewing your friends’ ears out about the food there for months to come. Travellers to the country and professional chefs agree that Vietnamese food has favours that are fresh and clean and that startle and soothe all at once. It’s difficult to say enough about this food because the Vietnamese put so much of their heart and soul into the food. It is said that nearly half the population of the country is involved in growing, producing and cooking food.
You’ll probably want to start off sampling pho bo, Vietnam’s unofficial national dish. This is arguably best enjoyed in Hanoi, given the number of establishments that peddle it, and because of the misty weather that makes the hot broth so particularly welcome. As in any self-respecting foodie country, there are vast variations in the food from region to region, so, while in the South, fresh herbs and bean sprouts are the usual garnish, Northerners seem to prefer milder pho, flavoured with coriander and scallions.
Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate pho is by ordering dry pho, or pho kho gia lai, in which all the ingredients are served separately and you can add the slow brewed beef broth just before taking your first bite so the onions are their crunchiest and the herbs taste as fresh as possible.
Banh mi, at first glance, may not seem very Vietnamese, since it’s a baguette sandwich typically filled with pate and mayonnaise, but peep inside at the fresh shavings of pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and chillies, and you’ll find yourself appreciating the delicious influence of the French occupation of Vietnam. If you’re headed to Hoi An, do try a banh mi there- it’s considered a local specialty.
Anthony Bourdain is said to have eaten at Banh Mi Phuong, where the banii mi also has hand-ground chilli sauce, tomatoes, a fried egg, and possibly anything else you could ever imagine, If you make it there in the early morning or early afternoon, you may be lucky enough to get a baguette that’s still warm from the oven.
But it is really Ho Chi Minh City that is considered the food capital of Vietnam in terms of taste and variety because you can find dishes from all over Vietnam served off street stalls. Try some banh xeot a savoury rice pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, mushrooms, etc, or the Vietnamese spring roll, locally known as goi cuon. Track down the legendary Lunch Lady whose customers have been lining up to eat whatever she may choose to serve up for more than a decade.
But, if you’d like a sit-down dinner for once to slowly savour everything you’re eating, head to the Cue Gach Quan , a romantic French Colonial mansion that has been carefully restored and now serves up the kind of food that makes the Vietnamese remember their grandmothers. The restaurant prides itself on serving everyday Vietnamese food elevated to gourmet levels, paired with French wines.