Vietnam – a culinary travel guide
I’ve long had a soft spot for the refined flavours of Vietnamese cuisine, most probably because of the French influence. First an obscure restaurant when I was at uni in England many moons ago. Here in Dubai, French-Vietnamese Hoi An at the Shangri-La Dubai, Indochine at the Grand Hyatt which has since shut shop, firm favourite Voi at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray and Hanoi, the hit-and-miss cafe hidden in JLT. But now that I’ve tasted the real deal thanks to a whirlwind nine-day holiday in Vietnam this summer, I can’t wait to return…to the foodie haven and UNESCO World Heritage old quarter of Hoi An in particular. So here’s my culinary travel guide to a country that marries street food so expertly with fine dining – what and where to eat and drink, plus some hotel options and a handful of must-sees in Ho Chi Minh (otherwise still referred to as Saigon), Hoi An and the capital Hanoi.
TOP TEN DISHES TO TRY
- Banh mi – when the French left Vietnam in 1954 they left behind a legacy of French baguettes that the Vietnamese adapted adding rice flour to the wheat mixture to make a lighter and fluffier bread. Common street food fodder, it comes with many fillings – barbequed pork, ham or pate with pickled gherkins and radishes, carrots, cucumbers and mayo. Incredibly moreish and a must-eat. Like with any street food around the world, be careful where you eat. There’s one stall just opposite the main entrance to Saigon’s tallest tower, Bitexco Financial Skydeck (great viewpoint of the city by the way) that we ate from and lived to tell the tale – all thanks to an impromptu encounter with a Malaysian business traveller who stops by on every trip buying ten baguettes at a time to take back home!
- Banh xeo – crispy fluffy rice pancakes, crêpe style, folded in half and usually filled with chicken or shrimps and bean sprouts. They are everywhere, on and off the street. Addictive.
- Banh bao – a translucent white rose shaped dumpling with a lovely tale. A secret recipe belonging to one family in Hoi An – restaurants place orders once a year and then simply steam and garnish. Heaven forbid they run out! Am pretty sure I detected a fragrant minced shrimp filling. You will only find it on menus in Hoi An’s restaurants.
- Pho – there are many stories explaining the origin of this dish but the one I love claims the name was derived from the French word ‘feu’ to denote the open fire this dish was cooked over. A slurpy noodle breakfast dish served with slices of boiled and air-dried beef (pho bo chin), slither thin slices of rare beef (pho bo tai), a mixture of both (pho bo tai nam) or chicken (pho ga). Originally a Hanoi street food, it’s now prolific across the country – you’ll spot many pho fast food chains.
- Thit lon xien cuon – minced pork skewers, lettuce, vermicelli, mint, peanuts and pickles all wrapped in paper thin rice paper. In fact you are encouraged to roll your own, RYO as its commonly known with pretty much any ingredient. Rice paper in Vietnam is like a bread basket to Europeans.
- Ca kho to – caramel fish (carp and mackerel are the most popular) with galangal, typical to the Mekong Delta. Here’s FooDiva’s version following a recipe from Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl’s Vietnamese Street Food cookbook.
- Vietnamese wontons – different to the more common stuffed wontons found in Chinese cuisine, the Vietnamese serve these flat and fried topped with shrimps, crab or tomato and mango salsa.
- Nom du du xanh – green papaya salad. Julienne strips jumbled up with a multitude of ingredients from bean sprouts, coriander and roasted peanuts to dried or grilled beef, chicken, shrimp and fried shallots. A FooDiva adaptation here.
- Elephant ear fish – usually found near riverbanks like the Mekong Delta and Halong Bay, this scaly fish is usually fried. A very meaty texture with a slight metallic taste. Not my cup of tea but your palate may prefer it.
- Coconut water – vendors galore crack coconuts on the streets. So refreshing, plus it has anti-ageing, anti-carcinogenic and anti-thrombotic properties apparently…and that’s without the rum ;).
HO CHI MINH CITY
Eat & Drink
- Hoa Tuc – formerly an opium factory, this Vietnamese restaurant is set in a courtyard brimming with eateries. Go for dinner when it’s all candlelit. The soft shell crab in green rice batter melts in your mouth.
- Nha Hang Ngon – previously known as Quan An Ngon so look out for both spellings. A casual hawker-style restaurant where you can either choose your food from the ‘street food’ vendors or from a menu. We went for the former which was a tad hit and miss as all dishes looked and tasted the same, aka RYO. Best to order from the menu.
- Chill Skybar – trendy sky-high rooftop bar. Stunning sparkly views of Saigon by night.
- Mekong Delta – for a peek into rural life and artisan production from coconut candy and honey to even bricks, take a day trip complete with riverboat and canoe cruising. Click here for my first Instagram video of coconut cracking. We used Asiatica Travel for all our tours – includes private air-conditioned car, driver, guide and a seafood lunch feast. In cases like this, food can often be a little hit and miss, but oh my with Asiatica, we ate like kings and divas ;).
- Intercontinental Asiana Saigon – you can’t get more central than this hotel (District 1). Room rates start from US$160 not including taxes and breakfast. Mind you, opt for breakfast as it’s a decadent buffet spread complete with some of the Vietnamese street delicacies I mentioned earlier. Oh and in the evening head to the bar for a nightcap where the barman mixes damn good dirty martinis.
Eat & Drink
- Bale Well – back-street joint famous for barbequed pork skewers, satay-style which along with plenty of greens and herbs, you’re expected to wrap into rice rolls and munch away. Cheap, cheerful and sublime. Set meal, no choice. Best to sit outside on plastic chairs. Hoi An’s equivalent to Dubai’s Bu’Qtair.
- Treat’s Cafe – casual, colourful spot in Hoi An’s old quarter serving traditional, wholesome Vietnamese fare. We lunched here after waking up at 3.30am to catch a flight to Da Nang (from HCM), climb Marble Mountains, following by a stroll in scorching heat around the Hindu temple ruins of My Son (often referred to as a mini Angkor Wat)…organised through Asiatica, but easy to do by yourself if you’re not lugging suitcases. Not bad for a half-day’s work.
- Morning Glory – a relaxed, buzzy restaurant owned by Vietnamese chef Trinh Diem Vy who prides herself on preserving the country’s culinary heritage by serving street food dishes.
- Ancient Faifo – probably our best meal in Vietnam. Creative French-Vietnamese fare in a beautifully restored Chinese house. Three courses à la carte for an incredibly cheap AED 50! I should add here that restaurant dining in Vietnam is ridiculously cheap – booze, wine in particular, is expensive but still less pricey than Dubai.
- Q Bar – cute and trendy bar perfect for a cocktail nightcap.
- Dive Bar – named after the diving school it’s attached to not the nature of this drinking hole ;). Stop by for a decent Bloody Mary. Nice clothes shop opposite, Ba Ba.
- Cooking classes abound in Vietnam. I chose Red Bridge’s evening class which is followed by dinner. A little disjointed because it’s hard to understand the chef’s accent, but a great way to get chatting to other travellers.
- Street food tours are abundant in every city, but sadly due to a last minute change in our itinerary we had to drop out of the Taste of Hoi An food tour. My recommendation is to slot this in for the start of your trip so that it teaches you all you need to know about Vietnam’s ingredients and signature dishes. Book early though as it’s hugely popular.
- Anantara Hoi An – a beautiful colonial style resort right on the riverbank and a five minute walk to the old town of Hoi An. Think cocktails lounging by the pool. Bag yourself a riverside suite. The hotel has its very own ‘guru’ who takes guests on a walking tour of Hoi An – again slot this in at the start of your stay to help get your bearings. Credit for some of the restaurant recommendations to the hotel’s delightful Australian GM. A deluxe garden view room starts at US$165 plus taxes inclusive of daily buffet breakfast for two people.
Eat & Drink
- Café Pho Co – ask your hotel concierge to direct the taxi driver as you’ll never find this spot. A teeny sign on the street leads you down an alley and up a myriad of rickety stairs (place your order at the foot – we popped in for a juice) to a spectacular view across Hanoi’s lake.
- Club Opera Novel – I’d call the cuisine here fusion Vietnamese set in a beautifully restored old French dining room with a mix of Art Deco and Art Nouveau design. The fried soft shell crab in tamarind sauce was so good we ordered two. Another memorable meal.
- Halong Bay – the reason we flew to Hanoi was to take in these breathtaking limestone rock formations protruding like dragons from the sea – both a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new Wonders of the World. A junk boat ride complete with yet another sublime lunch fest. The fruit and veggie carvings in this country are simply exquisite. We squeezed it into a day trip but beware, expect a 3.5- 4 hour journey each way with a private car (booked through Asiatica) – most peeps overnight.
- Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake – set on the outskirts of Hanoi (only a ten minute taxi ride to the centre), this hotel has rooms perched on stilts over a lake. Not quite the Maldives but pretty enough and a welcome respite from the city’s hustle and bustle. If you’re lucky like we were, you may even spot the Arsenal football team 😉 Another one where breakfast is a feast. Oh and the room-service pizza straight out of the Italian restaurant’s wood-fired oven scoffed on our lake-view balcony makes for a relaxing end to a long Halong Bay trip. Double room rates start from approximately US$115 plus taxes.
FLIGHTS: We flew direct from Dubai to Ho Chi Minh and back with my favourite airline, Emirates (they still haven’t sponsored me sadly) – a seven hour flight. Internal flights to Da Nang (an hour’s drive to Hoi An), Hanoi and back to Ho Chi Minh are available for cheap as chips, roughly AED 300, with a number of low cost airlines – we chose Jetstar and Vietjet Air.
VISAS: Most nationalities require tourist visas. You need to apply for an invitation letter in advance which you can do online here. On arrival complete an entry form (head to the front of the queue to get the form) and your visa will be issued. Roughly 30 minute wait.
WEATHER: There’s no ideal time to visit the country if you want to cover north, central and south as we did – tropical rains will shower you at some point. Having said that, we visited in July and only faced a a little rain overnight in the north, Hanoi.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had such a feel-good and eat-good holiday – testament to the fantastic energy in this country and the friendly Vietnamese peeps who simply eat ALL the time! Plus of course my witty travel companion @landofsand who persuaded me to stop eating and to visit the War Remnants Museum in HCM – a must if you want to understand Vietnam’s horrific war history.
I’ll be back to Hoi An for sure. So have I tempted you?
In the meantime, the Ritz-Carlton JBR’s new-ish South-East Asian restaurant Blue Jade with a Vietnamese chef at the stove is on my review list. Have you spotted any other Vietnamese restaurants in Dubai?
P.S – Intercontinental was kind enough to exchange my Mauritius prize (that I won last year in a Ramadan raffle draw) for Vietnam with free nights and a special rate, whilst Anantara offered a media rate.