I’m no foodie, but I was good this time and made sure to try a range of authentic eats during my recent trip to Vietnam. On my weeklong journey through Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An, I came to realise that Vietnamese tend to eat a lot of noodles, and that plastic stools are a staple of the authentic dining experience.
Here’s a quick recap on some notable dishes I ate during my trip, and my personal rating for them.
Bun thang (chicken noodle soup)
On my first night in Hanoi, I joined a walking food tour somewhat on a whim. It ended being a private tour and my guide was a male university student who took me to eat bun thang as the main dish. After a tiring journey from Tokyo with little sleep, it was just what I needed. Chicken noodle soup is soul food in any culture, and the Vietnamese-style one is no different. The soft, shredded chicken and tasty broth revived me and I finished every bite.
Banh cuon (rice rolls)
My first solo Vietnam eats was banh cuon. Its appearance reminded me of one of my favourite Cantonese dim sum dishes, 肠粉 [chang fen], so I was pretty convinced I would like it. I was right. Loved the texture of the soft rice rolls combined with the crunch of dried onions. Not a fan of coriander though, so put them all aside.
Bun cha (pork meatball noodles)
For this dish made famous by former U.S. President Barack Obama and the late Anthony Bourdain, I visited the very restaurant they dined in. The establishment appears to have reconstructed its entire identity around the visit, with posters of the two men adorning every wall, and the dish sets they used encased in plastic and on permanent display.
As for bun cha itself, it is pretty delicious. Served with a generous helping of greens and thin white noodles, the pork meatballs are tasty and filling. Would eat again.
Pho bo (beef pho)
Pho is arguably the most famous cuisine of export of Vietnam, and I felt I couldn’t leave without trying it from the source. So as usual, I sat on a little plastic stool in a small mom-and-pop roadside eatery, and ordered myself a bowl of beef pho. It was alright, nothing to write home about.
Bun bo hue (Hue-style noodles)
Heading down to the historical capital of Hue in central Vietnam, everyone said bun bo hue is a must-try. Honestly, none of the ingredients — which included beef shank and pig blood curds — appealed to me, but I thought I should give it a go. I struggled to finish it, and ended up putting so many chilli flakes in the broth that it felt like my mouth was on fire. The fishballs were good though. I’m sure this dish has its fans, but it’s not for me.
Com ga (chicken rice)
I am a big fan of Hainanese chicken rice and Thai chicken rice, so this was an instant try for me. Staff from hotels in Hanoi and Da Nang both recommended the same little joint in Hoi An, so there we went. To be honest, the dish was a little underwhelming, and not what I expected at all.
I didn’t mind that the chicken was shredded as opposed to the solid pieces, but the appearance was bland. Based on pictures online, I had expected more greens or colourful garnishes. Taste-wise, okay, but not to the level that I could understand why so many locals would go so far as to recommend this particular eatery.
Banh xeo + nem nuong (Vietnamese-style crepes and pork skewers)
Yum, yum, yum. You can’t go wrong with any crepe or pancake-style food, and banh xeo is no exception. You eat this crispy, stuffed rice pancake by wrapping it in lettuce leaves and dipping in a chilli sauce. It pairs well with nem nuong, or pork skewers, for the ultimate stall food snack.
Had this at the Son Tra night market in Da Nang for just 25,000 VND (US$1.06).
I enjoyed this combination so much than I ordered it again at our hotel restaurant the following day, although it cost like 10 times the price there. (In other words, around $10). But the presentation was of course better, and the portions bigger. Taste-wise, equally delicious.
Mi quang (Quang noodles)
Mi quang, pronounced “me wang,” is a noodle dish originating from the Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam. I tried a bowl also at the Son Tra night market in Da Nang, at a stall run by an elderly couple. The ingredients can vary, but the bowl I had included rice noodles, chicken and pork pieces, peanuts, boiled egg and various herbs. I had been told that noodles tend to be yellow, but the one I had was white. Not bad at all.
Jelly and coconut milk dessert
Going back to my first night in Hanoi, the walking tour guide also took me to eat this simple, but refreshing, dessert. A mixture of coconut milk, yoghurt and plant-derived jelly, it reminded me a lot of the type of stuff you can get in Malaysia or Singapore.
Thuy Ta lime mint ice cream
The guide also bought an ice cream stick for me. He said it was a traditional ice cream made in Hanoi by a local company since 1958. The flavour of lime and mint was certainly unique, and it was a nice way to refresh the mouth after eating a range of foods.
All in all, I’m pretty satisfied that I got a rather representative sampling of typical Vietnam eats from mostly non-touristy places. And I gotta say, the food you eat in Vietnam is rather different from the offerings at Vietnamese restaurants in Japan and probably other countries, which tend to tweak it for local palates. Always an interesting experience to try the original.
Despite not being a foodie, I do have a category for eating. Check it out if you’re interested in more reviews and write-ups about food.