Vietnam has welcomed me with open arms and delicious steaming bowls of Pho. What more could a foodie ask for?
The university students of Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) have a shamelessly open desire to learn and practice English. My first night out consisted of an instantaneous group of friends who asked us to join them in the street (quite literally, as they pulled out plastic chairs and plopped them down on the road) for drinks. It ended up being the best night out of our whole trip ending at 4am in Lush Club. Never before have I been greeted with such genuine friendliness. Locals converge in ‘Backpacker Alley’ and in Culture Park and descend upon Tourists who they crowd around and hammer with questions. It’s actually pretty hilarious.
It has often been said that life in Vietnam happens on the streets. I know for sure that that is where the best meals are to be had. I have spent countless hours day dreaming and trying to recreate the famous Banh Mi and Rice Paper Rolls but I couldn’t imagine how many varieties of them were available here. Banh Mi is typically a baguette made with a combination of wheat and rice flour which makes it more light and crispy than it’s French counterpart. In the South it is stuffed with Char Sui Pork and pickled vegetables. In the North it more often comes filled with green mango salad, coriander and a delicious doner kebab style pork. However, there are countless other options to be had from chilli laced omelettes to French style pork terrines.
Pho (pronounced fe) was once described as “Vietnam’s contribution to human happiness” and deservedly so. This delectable beefy broth is mostly eaten for breakfast and an early dinner but is available all day round, again in countless variations. My favourite was served on a rainy day in Trang An after a very wet moto-taxi ride. The top was sprinkled with roasted garlic and crispy shallots and the broth had the telltale signs of fatty pork bones simmered lovingly for hours. It was glorious and was the only thing to keep me warm through the two hour long boat ride in the downpour thereafter.
The most heart-warming experience that we had was in the small down of Mui Ne, Phan Thiet with a student’s family who we’d met in ‘Backpacker Alley’, Viet Duy. How many times have you made plans with a stranger while drunk only to forget them or conveniently ‘forget’ them the next day? Viet invited us back to his home town on the coast so that he could show us the famous Pink Sand Dunes and practise his English along the way. I was in for a long train ride (five hours with a hangover feels like ten) while Duy pounded me with questions about New Zealand and my travels. We poured over a couple of cook books that I’d brought along the way and he described his favourite dishes. It ended up being pretty fun. We were greeted by his smiling family and a spicy citrusy Pho with roasted Duck and vietnamese mint and the journey suddenly seemed all the worthwhile! The next day we toured all the local beaches by rental ‘Motos’, feasted on fresh Blue Swimmer Crab and ended up riding Ostriches on the way to a local waterfall.
Our luggage was left at Duy’s house through the day and in preparation for a long train ride we asked to shower and change at his place after a big day exploring. We were definitely not expecting the feast that awaited us and were overwhelmed by the generosity of his family. His sister prepared a huge basket of succulent scallops and clams. They were simply steamed and served with Nuoc Mam Gung, a sauce made of fish sauce, ginger, chilli, tamarind, and garlic. Incredible. The dried eel and small fish were not for my taste, or my friend Jody’s but we should get points for trying!
After a couple of days relaxing and diving in Nha Trang we decided to check out Hoi An. Streets is an NGO which helps orphans and street kids by training them in hospitality and teaching them English to help them build a better future. Their food is also incredibly good! I started with the Pork and Green Mango Salad which was served with Prawn Crackers to scoop it up with. The restaurant is situated in the most idyllic location overlooking the lantern draped bridge and it’s pretty good people watching on the main street too.
A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without trying the succulent smoky coal cooked Pork skewers, Bun Cha. Amongst my other favourites were the slow clay pot cooked pork belly with fish sauce and caramel notes. Banh Goi were good on a cold rainy day as were the tiny pork and vermicelli stuffed spring rolls of the North. Featured below is the seasonal Banana Flower salad with minted chicken and a sweet, sour, spicy dressing. All flavours that South East Asia is so famous for.
The absolute worst thing that I put in my mouth, while here, was the specialty of Hue. Banh Loc are banana leaf wrapped parcels filled with a tapioca flour paste and whole prawns, shell and all. Gross.
So come to Vietnam! You won’t regret it. The people are so incredibly friendly, the food is fresh and irresistible and the weather is great no matter the season.