Tag Archives: Vietnam Travel

Happy New Year in Huế and Hội An

Above, picked chilli. Below, rendered pork fat in dried chilli.

I’ve been dying to write about Vietnamese food from the other cities aside from Hanoi and a recent trip to the above places gave me this opportunity. This is more exciting as Hanoi is incredibly homogenous in culinary terms. If you love your Phở and Bun Cha then you’re in heaven, these places are absolutely everywhere. If however you like a multitude of choices for your evening Vietnamese street food then options are pretty limited as far as capital cities go.

My inner child was definitely in a sweet shop as a drove into Hue and Hoi An. These cities on the mid-eastern coast are known for their Royal cuisine – small dishes named after and appealing to men and women of repute from days gone by.

We arrived into Hội An at an awkward time –  Tet (or Lunar new year) celebrations were in full swing, and half the residents of the town had left to be with families in the outlying provinces. As such, eating options were limited and the place seemed populated by equally bemused tourists walking through what looked like the unopened Asia section of Disneyworld. Looking for something to sustain us as we prepared to traverse the Hai Van pass on the three hour bike trip to Hue, I stumbled upon a Cao lầu place off a main street and walked in.

Cao lầu can you go?

In Vietnam, if you’re remarking about ‘going out for a Cao lầu’, you’re going out to have an expensive and privileged time. Such was the high status given to this dish in previous times. I received initial bad press about Cao Lầu – that it was greasy and had given my girlfriend a bad tummy. But those fears dissipated as I tucked into my first bowl. Tender slices of pork belly melted alongside mint, coriander and beansprouts. But the noodles themselves were the standout performer – nutty and udon-like, their rough texture clung to the densely-flavoured broth and had just enough bite to satisfy. I destroyed the bowl in two minutes before ordering another. Prior to paying, the owner said I was đẹp chai (handsome). As far as I could tell from the bill, this self-esteem boost didn’t form part of the bill.

The motorbike drive up to Huế got such a good press in Top Gear – the presenter described it as ‘the best coastal road in the world’. It certainly was dramatic – the mist at the top lent the mountain an apocalyptic feel. And driving on cliffs while looking down into the sea made you wonder which car advert you were inadvertently in. It was an exciting drive, but the glamour quickly faded as rain fell on the potholed lanes past the mountain and we swerved to avoid blasthorned coaches, deep mud and lethargic water buffalo.

Four hours later, we arrived into Huế shivering and delirious. Before visiting the Forbidden city the next day, the Bún bò Huế in my stomach was the perfect tonic to the damp and grey weather.

The real thing.

I confess I’d already eaten this in Hanoi. But as always with these things, there’s no substitute for the real thing. the noodles in pork and beef broth were good enough but the beef meatballs put the dish on a next level. It was also served with a side condiment of pieces of rendered pork fat (similar to pork scratchings) covered in dry chilli.

A good final meal of the holiday. Heck, a good final meal.

On our last day in Đà Nẵng before flying back to Hanoi we couldn’t leave without trying Mì Quảng, a dish we had seen on street stall signs all the way from Hội An up to Huế. As a regional specialty it represented well. Bone-in stewed chicken with dense broth on noodles with bean sprouts, shallots, peanuts and interestingly, rice crackers to top it off. The side condiment was a sweet chilli jam I’ve not encountered before in Vietnam. And yes, it was delicious.

The holiday was beset by non-food-related illnesses and other mishaps, but the food was one of the highlights of the trip. For most of my life I’ve lived in cosmopolitan cities where world food was easily accessible.

But sometimes its best to meet food in its natural habitat, made by those who have no clue (or interest) on how to make anything else. You can’t get more authentic than that.

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Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #7: Bánh Gói

Not an English motorway station in sight.

A quick one this.

In a bit of a rush between a 12-hour-day and drinks I stopped off to grab a few quick bites at the side of the road on my main street of Đội Cấn. I had driven by this stall several times on the way to work and thought the same thing every time. They look like Cornish Pasties, an English hand-held snack of meat and potatoes in a pastry thick enough to withstand accidental blows whilst stuck in a harsh English coal mine.

Called ‘pillow cake’ in Vietnamese, these pastries were made from a thinner dough akin to an Indian samosa. Maybe the Vietnamese mines had better conditions in those days. Either way I appreciated the lightness of the pastry with this much oil involved. It was filled with pork and glass noodles and probably other things but they were long gone before I had the chance to inspect the contents my mouth. Comes served with the mint and the lettuce and the spicy dipping sauce and your own saliva.

Where: Close to the corner of Đội Cấn and Liễu Giai.

How much: 6,000 VND each.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #6: Cơm chay

My early experiences of Asian vegetarian food revolved around going to the local Manchester Buddhist temple in my teens. A hive of activity, the temple was a regular gathering spot for the Manchester Vietnamese community and housed two communal kitchens where volunteers cooked for up to a hundred people. The food was normally excellent. But at one particular religious event, every plate I tried turned out to be meat-free. And it wasn’t in an obvious way – every dish dressed smartly like it was about to infiltrate a brando-sponsored banquet. The most reviled was the battered wheat protein that looked like chicken nuggets to my youthful eyes, but in reality tasted like deep-fried plastic.

A devotee of the triple religion, Mum explained that it was customary on certain days to eat only vegetarian food. Presumably this was done as an expression of virtue and self-restraint but as a devout carnivore, my own experience was more of confusion, deceit and misfortune.

And that’s how I left that issue. Of course I was to eat tofu and other vegetarian-geared products afterwards at university but these foods were clearly marked in trendy packaging, marked with words that I could actually read.

It was therefore with trepidation that I approached my colleague’s suggestion of Cơm Chay as a post-work dinner. I wasn’t up for sampling more unfulfilling slop.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that when you are aware of what you are eating, you normally tend to enjoy it. The food was excellent. The ‘beef’ in ginger (see top picture) was so good it tasted better than most beef cutlets at my local English supermarket.

So good that I dragged a fellow blogger there (who was also a fellow sceptic) to try it out for herself. Unfortunately, the second visit to the same restaurant was a more disappointing experience. Lukewarm food coming out superstitiously early is never a good sign. My fellow diner did however find the ‘pork skewers’ particularly good.

Still, devoid of lies and religious baggage, I’m sold on the wheat-protein delights. Fellow westerners, drop the hippie misconceptions about soya-based food and give it a go. Do you see what an open-minded meat-eater I am?

Where: 79A Tran Hung Dao, Hoàn Kiếm

How much: 120,000 VND

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #5: Nem tai lợn (fresh pig’s ear spring rolls)

ear-to-tail cuisine.

I often get caught out in the monsoon rain wearing only a T-shirt and sandals. It normally means a wet end to my day, which loses out a swirl of American sitcoms and sickly sweet Vietnamese snacks.

Not this time. Out on Ngoc Ha market as God began sobbing, I took shelter under an unassuming gazebo which housed what looked like a salad stall. Deprived of vitamins from my love of Bún chả (more on this later) I had made flirty eyes towards this exact stall the day before, promising myself I would get more acquainted with it when I had a chance.

It seems the heavens bought us together to become one.” I said.

“Chào em.” came the reply.

Being trapped by the rain isn't always a bad thing.

In Britain, to make a pigs ear of something is to totally mess it up. ‘You’ve made a pig’s ear of my cucumber sandwich!’ is how we scolded our servants, before finishing off our tea and heading out for a spot of tennis.

In Vietnam they invert the equation.

The ear is julienned and tossed in toasted rice flour. Another product is made by pulverizing the ear and leaving it to ferment wrapped in banana leaves. Both concoctions are paired with thinly-sliced carrot, coriander and lettuce leaves and wrapped in thin rice-paper. The nem is served with a spicy dipping sauce with peanuts inside.

The result: It was like the Dillinger Escape Plan had gatecrashed a party in my mouth. There was contrasting call-and-response between cartilage-crunch and the fermented chewiness of both pig’s ears. The mellow jazz of the rice paper quickly giving way to the piquant-scream of the dipping sauce. I ate in 13/8 timing and it was good.

A few mumbles and lots of pointing later, out came these:

Two parcels of pork meat cooked with wood-ear mushrooms. The outer-rice had the consistency of jelly, making a fine contrast with the juicy interior. I have no idea what they are called. If any Vietnamese people are reading, I’d appreciate the knowledge.

Crun-chewy.

I couldn’t go without sampling the salad, which turned out to be a similar mix to the Nem but in salad form. Also delicious.

The women who run the stall happened to be very nice people who let me take enough pictures to make it look like a murder scene. I thoroughly recommend you give them a visit sometime. Monsoon weather is optional.

I didn’t plan to eat here, just played it by ear. In order to find the best food in Hanoi, you need to keep your ears to the ground. They may be made from the ears, but they certainly bought home the bacon. You can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear but who cares when its this tasty?

Where: 14 Cho Ngọc Hà, Ba Dinh

How much: 40,000 VND (probably includes a foreigner mark-up, but worth it.)


Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #4: Phở cuốn (beef rolls)

Continuing the Truc Bach theme, the area is a bit of a foodie paradise. A stroll past the seafood and lau (hotpot) places takes you to the area known as Phở cuốn street. This is how eateries are distributed here, you normally have one street dedicated to selling the same food. And its not as if these places have extensive menus or anything, EVERY single place serves the same three dishes.

These are pretty much guaranteed not to give you lung cancer.

Coming from the capitalist west, I initially wondered why speciality food joints weren’t spread out more evenly over the city. Surely the competition at Phở cuốn street would be too much for some businesses to bear. I mean, can you imagine ten large supermarket chains having outlets next to each other? But as often with financial and economic matters, I was wrong. Every single one of these places is packed. Why? because the Hanoian mindset is the completely opposite way to how we think in the West. They decide what they want to eat before they’ve looked at the menu, before they’ve even left the house. It therefore makes sense for retailers to concentrate into areas known to serve these dishes in order to attract the most business.

I spend most of my idle time making mundane connections in languages. Like the other day when this guy on a motorbike looked at my rolled tobacco cigarette (rare in Hanoi) and called it a ‘thuốc lá cuốn’. My brain started to hurt as I formed a connection:

thuốc lá cuốn… Phở cuốn… so ‘cuốn’ must mean rolled!’

But I had no-one to hi-five.

Phở cuốn is medium-thick rice sheets rolled with minced beef and lettuce, coriander and a few other fresh herbs that I really learn the names of. Served alongside Nuoc Cham, it’s a really simple dish that seems to encapsulate the food here in Hanoi really well. Light, zingy and fresh tasting. Found throughout the city, Hanoians are justifiably proud of this dish.

After the meal, I couldn’t help but take the picture below. A common sight in a city where it is nearly always impossible to find the real thing.

Genuine Calven Klains

What: Phở cuốn

Where: 27 Truc Bach, Ba Dinh

How much: 30,000 VND

Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes #2: Bún cá (Fish noodle soup)

You are a filthy whore.

There is a Vietnamese saying: You turn to noodles (or your mistress) once you’re bored with your rice (or your wife). And just recently, a Viet-American rapper posted a song in which he compares his bedroom prowess to a bowl of Phở. Try as we might, it is impossible to disconnect the relationship between food and sex.

Which brings me to fish noodle soup.

Having powerful Vietnamese friends can get you far in Vietnam, but having civilian Vietnamese friends will merely grant you access to consistently memorable food. But that’s good enough for me.  As a gracious gesture for teaching her English, a friend’s Hanoian girlfriend takes me for a 60 pence bowl of Bún cá. But not just any old rice noodles. They are cut like tagliatelle and then left to brown in the Hanoian sun. The slow drying results in a rougher textured noodle that somehow manages to soak up lots of the the delicious fish broth in which it sits whilst remaining ‘al dente’ at the biting point.

Take me now.

The broth is made from the bones of the ‘lake fish’ (I couldn’t get a better definition from my friend) and topped with fish sausage, spring onions and a very bamboo-like yellow vegetable.

Slurping down to the bottom of the bowl,  I could feel the endorphins bouncing around my head like freed zoo animals.  Is this the same feeling girls get when they eat chocolate? I finally understand that Cadburys Flake advert from years ago.

As we ate, the streets shimmered under the monsoon rain as everyone ran for cover. maybe this place isn’t so different from Manchester after all.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #1 – Bahn Xeo

It would be foolish to talk about Hanoi without mentioning the food. That’s like making a cup of tea and leaving out the milk. That’s like omitting seminal funk-rockers Faith No More from the rise of rap-metal in the late 90s.

I’m no stranger to Vietnamese food. For two decades my mother faithfully reproduced the food that she learnt to cook in her home town of Lang Son. She cooked simple, honest Northern Vietnamese fare  that carried more than a whiff of soy saucpiration (yea, I went there) from the Chinese province of Guangxi across the border. I therefore saw it as a given that a mother’s food should be amazing. It however didn’t stop me rebelling by diving head-first into learning to cook Italian food. But oh what a fool I was. For Vietnamese food is so much better.

I’ll be introducing a section that I shall tentatively call Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes. This is pretty self-explanatory and I’ll make sure I upload pictures that best captures the smell, as well as the surroundings in which it is eaten (also very important).

Lady making Bahn Xeo

First off we have Bahn Xeo. A couple of workmates found this dish to be one of their favourites and so we promptly rushed to their local only to find it closed. Luckily the German speaking owner (?) took us to his brother’s place instead, which was open for business. Win!

Aforementioned taste explosion

Now contrary to what I was saying sixty seconds earlier, the pictures really don’t do it justice. A paste is made with rice flour and turmeric. This is slowly fried with prawns, pork and a handful of beansprouts. The resulting pancake is eaten with Nuoc Cham (a condiment of lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce and sugar found everywhere in Vietnam) and some wonderfully bitter leaves. All washed down with the equally ubiquitous Tre Da (ice tea). The Nuoc Cham dipping sauce performed the Monica from Friends role here, bringing all the ingredients together into one delicious and sexy taste explosion. Its sweetness contrasts nicely with the bitter leaves, its piquancy expertly tango-dancing with the deep-fried crispy rice batter on your oh-so-grateful tongue.

All for one measly pound. For those of you lucky enough to be here, get yourself down to 69/9 Van Chuong. If you don’t live here, your local pound shop is likely to have a decent tinned-fruit section. Alternatively you can cook it yourself.