I used to love eating Vietnamese food in the days when I still ate beef. I recall sipping on the hot piping soup of the beef pho at Holland Village. Back then the number of Vietnamese restaurants were so limited and the only food we knew about Vietnam was pho and baguette. Fast forward to today, a search on google will reveal multiple choices in town and even neighbourhoods offering authentic Vietnamese food. Do not be surprised to even find a stall in our local hawker centre or coffee shop selling Vietnamese delights!
I have the chance to visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in the recent 2 years for work and I discover that Vietnam has so much to offer in terms of cuisine. Here are my favourite 10 dishes I had during my visits.
This place in Hanoi is very famous because of the visit President Obama had with Chef Anthony Bourdain. You can even see multiple pictures of the duo plastered all over the shop. My local contact told me that before the visit the shop was like any other shop selling bun cha. Today, the shop is bustling with locals and tourists alike but this restaurant is not just a namesake, the food is equally good. A bowl of bun cha which is basically grilled pork in broth and rice vermicelli costs only VND 40,000 ( S$2.35 ). There are various bun cha combo on the menu and I highly recommend ordering the fried crab roll as a side dish at VND 7,000 each ( S$0.41). The grilled pork was juicy and tender with strong flavours which is best paired with the bland rice vermicelli. The way to eat the dish is to dip the vermicelli in the broth to soak up the flavours of the pork and broth. The fried crab roll is quite similar to Chinese fried spring rolls except the fillings are all crab meat. This is so crispy and so full of fillings which are still juicy and not dry like other fried spring rolls. The small rolls are very addictive and you can keep popping them in your mouth.
This next item is something you can only find in Vietnam. As many might know, Vietnam has a strong coffee or tea drinking culture and most Vietnamese will stop by a coffee-house during siesta for a cuppa by the roadside on their famous low stools. I was told that Hanoi which is northern Vietnam has more of a coffee drinking culture while Ho Chi Minh City in the south has more of a tea drinking culture. I had this during my visit to Hanoi and you will find this interesting yoghurt coffee item in the coffee house menu. This is basically plain yoghurt mixed with traditional Vietnamese black coffee. The combination is amazing with a milk pudding texture but with a sweet, sour and bitter taste. The first spoon will give you a weird after taste but the following spoons will just make you crave for more. Do try this when you are in Hanoi.
This little noodle shop called Phu Thanh sells my van than – Hu Tiu which is noodles with pork and wanton. The restaurant is located at 9A Dinh Liet street in the old quarters of Hanoi. The shop is very popular with locals for breakfast and lunch as it is a quick to go meal at only VND 40,000 ( S$ 2.35). The noodles are the white rice vermicelli noodles and they also have the yellow noodles for choice. There are dry and soup versions of the dish at the same price. The dry noodles comes with a bowl of soup which is very thick and sweet from hours of boiling the pork bones. The noodles itself is very springy and the sauce is light and savoury with a dash of fried shallots as toppings. The pork slices were very tender while the wanton crispy although you can hardly taste the wanton filling. The shop also sells fried dough fritters and soy milk which are extremely crispy and delicious when dipped into the soy milk.
This next dish has me thinking and craving for it for months and even now. The store is so popular that competitors even sabotage them and caused them to close for several months. As introduced by the locals, this is the best store to have this dish. The restaurant Xoi Yen is located in old quarters of Hanoi and is at the corner of a 3 storey shophouse. You can eat it at the tables upstairs but do come in pants since the chairs are all low stool. This dish is called Xoi Xeo which is a combination of glutinous rice, turmeric powder, mung bean, shallots and some meat fats. The store allows you to add different toppings to customise your Xoi Xeo and we added Chinese sausage and shredded chicken. Not sure how to describe this but the dish is ingenious with how the glutinous rice and mung bean combines to such a smooth texture with unhealthy yet delicious oil from the fats. The natural bean taste marries the sticky chewy glutinous rice to such perfection I finished the rice way before the toppings. The star for this is definitely the rice and the toppings just helped it shine brighter.
I have absolutely no idea where this is as we were brought by our local contact to this place for supper. The only thing I remembered was it is next to a square. The entrance of the restaurant exudes a traditional Chinese feel and you can choose to sit inside the restaurant or by the roadside just outside the restaurant. They serve piping hot porridge in clay pot and the famous one is pig liver porridge. The porridge is thick, smooth and creamy with well marinated sliced meat and liver slices. This is a fantastic supper selection.
I was told this next dish is a typical Vietnamese breakfast item and can be found almost every where from street stalls to restaurants. This is called Com Tam Suon Nuong which is grilled pork with broken rice. Broken rice refers to fractured rice grains which is a traditionally cheaper grade of rice produced by damage in milling. The rice is basically the same as normal rice and is commonly consumed in this part of the world. The grilled pork chops are juicy and tender similar to the ones used for Bun Cha except the ones used for Com Tam is thicker like a steak. This is a quick and satisfying meal and the best way to sample the local cuisine.
Everyone must have a Banh Mi when in Vietnam and there is no need for explanations. The Vietnamese know their baguette and they know it well with most Banh Mi I tasted crispy and fluffy. The combination of fresh ingredients in the Banh Mi makes it a very light yet filling breakfast or lunch to go. I especially love the ones with very nice pork pate and fresh crunchy vegetables.
The next dish is a popular street food called Banh Beo. It is a dish that comes from Hue, a city in Central Vietnam and is translated to mean waterfern cakes in English. They are made from a combination of rice flour and tapioca flour and the ingredients include; rice cake, dried shrimps, crispy pork skin, scallion oil, and dipping sauce. Each rice cake is steamed in small porcelain saucers and can be eaten by scooping the dipping sauce onto the rice cake and sending it into your mouth. The dipping sauce has a little bit of vinegar and taste sour and sweet at the same time. When combined with the salty savoury fillings on top of the rice cakes, it burst into a melody of flavours. I love them and it is so difficult to find really good ones as there are some really mediocre ones served by restaurants.
This is widely available in all restaurants and this is probably something that is available worldwide as well. I simply love the fresh rice paper prawn spring rolls. There is something so satisfying biting into the crunch of the fresh rice paper and various fresh sticks of vegetables. The taste is just so refreshing especially the after taste the mint leaf leaves on your palates.
Last but not least, this is something I have not seen in Singapore or other parts of South East Asia. If I still ate beef today, this spot will no doubt be for beef pho as the beef pho in Vietnam as I heard is non comparable. I do always have chicken pho when I visit Vietnam but that is kind of lacklustre and can be found in Singapore as well. So I left this spot to flaming coconut prawns. It looks like a gimmick used by restaurants but the flaming of the coconut indeed adds flavour to the prawns. You can taste the burnt coconut sweetness when you bite into the crunchy prawns. This is available in most Vietnamese restaurants.
I hope to discover more good eats the next time I visit Vietnam as I believe the country has so much more to offer in terms of cuisine.