Learning to Love ‘the People’s Food’ in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

(The New York Times)

In the summer of 1996, fresh out of college, I moved to Ho Chi Minh City for one simple reason: I loved Vietnamese food. At restaurants in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, I’d grown fond of the staples of the cuisine — grilled meats, startling herbs, crunchy vegetables — and particularly of pho, the aromatic beef noodle soup that is Vietnam’s national dish. As graduation approached, I knew I wanted to live overseas, and Communist Vietnam, which had just opened its doors to the West, was the obvious choice. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a choice at all — it felt like destiny.

But as I quickly discovered, liking a cuisine is not the same as understanding it. My first sense of this disjunction came a couple of weeks into my stay, when I settled in for lunch at a downtown restaurant. The manic energy of the streets — the flood of motorbikes, the clanging construction crews, the gawking tourists — had dissipated in the midday heat. Time to eat, and nap and breathe and think, away from the tropical sun.

This respite is likely the only reason that I happened to notice the man with the gun. He was across the street, standing in the clear sunshine. He was Vietnamese, in his early 40s. He wore sunglasses. And at his side, he held what I assumed was an Uzi. Then he disappeared into a storefront. If the street had been full of 100cc Hondas, as it had been an hour earlier, I would’ve missed him entirely.

It was an odd sight, and I wanted to ask someone — anyone — about it. Was the man a gangster? A cop? Then my food arrived, and I forgot all about him. I hadn’t known what to order, but something on the menu caught my attention: luon nuong mia, freshwater eel wrapped around sugarcane (held in place with a chive bow) and grilled over charcoal. As I bit, I fell in love. The eel was rich and oily, caramelized from the charcoal heat, infused with the tang of garlic and fish sauce and the sweetness of raw cane. And the cane itself, when I gnawed it, released a burst of sugary juice tinged with the meaty slick of the eel.

This, I knew, was what I couldn’t get back home. This was why I’d picked up stakes and moved to Vietnam. The eel was so great that I wanted to turn to my neighbors and tell them that it justified everything.

But I had no neighbors. I was alone in this restaurant — alone and confused. After all, this seemed to be a quality spot; the eel was proof. So where was everyone? What was I doing wrong?

Those first months in Vietnam were full of such confusion. All around me, I was fairly sure, were amazing food experiences waiting to be had, yet I couldn’t figure out what to eat, how to order, and where, and when, and why. At lunch, for example, I’d often order pho at the renowned Pho Hoa Pasteur. But when I told my students in my English classes, they looked confused. To them, pho was breakfast, not a midday meal. I’d protest: Plenty of Vietnamese people were at Pho Hoa Pasteur! My students would backtrack, perhaps wanting not to contradict their teacher, or just to make me feel comfortable. Oh, sure, they’d say, you can eat any food anytime you want. Khong sao — no problem.

But it was a problem. And I knew its roots. At Vietnamese restaurants in America, all kinds of foods are served together — noodles, soups, stir-frys, spring rolls. But in Vietnam, restaurants are often devoted to a single dish: pho, banh xeo (a rice crepe stuffed with pork and bean sprouts), goat hot pot. Adapting to this was hard. Knowing only a small subset of dishes, and only a few words of Vietnamese, I didn’t even know what to commit myself to. I knew that I should just blindly walk in, point to whatever I saw on other tables, and enjoy the result, but fear and shyness kept me at bay. Is there anything more alienating than not knowing how to eat?

Too often I wound up at the non-Vietnamese restaurants in the backpacker and tourist districts. They were often good: excellent Italian fare, thanks in part to fresh tomatoes and basil; a devoted expatriate clientele demanded serious Japanese; and a century of French colonialism meant that pâté, red wine and onion soup were vernacular dishes. But these meals all reminded me of my ongoing failure to penetrate Vietnamese culture.

After a few months, I moved from my sixth-floor rented room to another on the fifth floor. The new room was larger and air-conditioned, but I took it for the simple reason that it had a tiled patio that was ideal for takeout alfresco lunches.

But what to bring home? Ham-and-brie sandwiches? Thai ground pork with holy basil? On a stroll down nearby Bui Vien Street one day, I spotted a man grilling pork chops outside a com binh dan, an institution that translates as “the people’s food.” Com binh dan are everywhere in Vietnam. For less than a dollar, you can have a plate of rice and a serving of, say, pork belly braised in fish sauce and sugar, water spinach (rau muong) stir-fried with garlic, or a soup of bitter melon stuffed with pork and mushrooms

But com binh dan had never appealed to me. Maybe their folding tables, plastic chairs and worn silverware looked too shabby. Maybe the pre-made dishes, sitting in the humid open air, turned me off. Maybe I needed to read a menu. Or maybe I was just afraid. My palate could handle a challenge, my fragile psyche couldn’t.

When I smelled the suon nuong, or pork chops, however, everything changed. Marinated in garlic, sugar, fish sauce and shallots, they gave off an intense aroma of fat and caramelization, one I couldn’t turn away from. So I ordered to-go — suon nuong on a mound of rice, with rau muong and sliced cucumbers — and carried the plastic foam box to my fifth-floor oasis, where I ate in utter bliss.

The com binh dan around the corner quickly became my go-to spot for good, unpretentious food. Usually, I’d get the perfect suon nuong, but the shop also had squid, stuffed with pork and braised until soft, as well as crispy-fried fish. And a fried egg could be added to anything.

Eating on my patio was nice, but more and more I ate at the com binh dan’s flimsy tables, noticing how other customers ate — with chopsticks, with fork and spoon, or with a combination. I studied the way they prepared dipping sauces, either by filling dishes with dark fish sauce and a few shreds of red chiles, or by pouring nuoc cham, a mix of fish sauce, water, lime juice and sugar, from the plastic pitchers placed on each table. (I’d thought it was iced tea — whoops!) People ate without much ceremony. This was good cooking, but it was also a refueling stop. As I watched and copied them, day after day, I didn’t even realize that, for the first time, I was eating like a regular person.

Nor did I realize that mastering this one meal would have collateral effects. Now that I’d locked down lunch, I could eat breakfast and dinner however I wanted. No longer did I have to feel guilty about starting the day with black coffee and fresh croissants; in a few hours, I’d be feasting on pork chops.

I could also experiment at dinner, testing dosas at the new South Indian restaurant, partying with friends in the Siberian Hunting Lodge, or feasting on braised snails and grilled mussels in a converted auto garage near the Saigon River. Whether these meals turned out delicious or dull, authentic or artificial, I knew that the next day I’d be eating a people’s lunch.

There was, however, one casualty of my growing cultural adeptness. Now that I better understood lunch, the restaurant that served sugarcane eel no longer fit into my eating life — by then I knew it was not a lunch spot, and come dinnertime there was so much else to explore. I never returned. The luon nuong mia, so fixed in my memory, seems like a heat-induced hallucination, almost as illusory as the man with the Uzi. Except it was all real, as real as the charcoal smoke that still billows forth from the com binh dan on Bui Vien Street, on a thousand other streets throughout Saigon, and wherever regular folks gather to eat.

(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/travel/learning-to-love-the-peoples-food-in-ho-chi-minh-city-vietnam.html)


Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

Poodles & Noodles: A Gastronome’s Guide to Vietnamese Food

By Steve McDonald in Backpackology

Going to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordering Pho is like going to a French restaurant and ordering a baguette. Sure, it’s a tasty meal, but you can do much better.

Vietnamese cuisine is one of the finest in the world, but also one of the most under-represented. For the uninitiated, this makes Vietnam the culinary equivalent to a glory hole—it might look shady and you wont know what you’re getting, but the adventurous shall be rewarded.

From the succulent seafood of Haiphong, to the dainty steamed rice cakes of Hue, to the soft summer-rolls of Saigon, Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes light, vibrant flavors with fresh, local ingredients. This makes writing a foodie guide extremely difficult, as the cuisine is insanely regional. For example, one of the dishes below can only be made in one small city, using water extracted from only one specific well.

The following guide contains what I believe to be the twenty-five best, most distinctively Vietnamese dishes, arranged by region instead of course, as a culinary roadmap to Vietnam.

To understand Vietnamese food, you must first understand Nuoc Cham.

NUOC CHAM (DIPPING SAUCE): Nuoc Cham is Vietnam’s national condiment, a heady mixture of garlic, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, and spicy chili. The Vietnamese pour the stuff on e-ve-ry-thing. Nothing is holy. Nuoc Cham is to the Vietnamese as ketchup is to people who laugh at Larry the Cable Guy.

Northern cuisine closer resembles the cuisine of China than Southeast Asia, with noodles, soy sauce, and sour vinegar shaping a rustic flavor profile.

BUN CHA (BBQ PORK & NOODLES): The Vietnamese have discovered the meaning of life and they call itBun Cha. It’s basically a giant cereal bowl filled with Nuoc Cham. And just when you thought things couldn’t get better, you discover that there are delicious patties of grilled pork submerged in it! Your Oh-Great-Bowl-Of-Sauce is served with sides of vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and fried crabmeat spring rolls, which are dunked in the sauce and eaten with the pork.

NEM RAN (FRIED SPRING ROLLS): Despite the lies you were told by Panda Express, Spring Rolls are as Chinese as Freedom of Speech.
Vietnam’s most famous export involves deep fried rice paper rolls stuffed with vermicelli, pork, shrimp, crab, vegetables, oil, oil, and oil. Sometimes they’re transcendent. Other times, they’re just soggy tubes of grease. The best ones are wrapped in thin vermicelli paper, fried extra crunchy, wrapped again in fresh lettuce or herbs, and dipped in Nuoc Cham.

BAHN CUON (Stuffed Rice-Noodle Roll): Some people describe Banh Cuon as a “Vietnamese Crepe”—but they deserve to be slapped in the face by a Frenchman. Instead picture a giant, square sheet of rice-noodle wrapped around seasoned meat (usually pork) and buried beneath a handful of fried shallots. It’s very tasty, especially when doused in Nuoc Cham.

PHO (VIETNAMESE NOODLE SOUP): You could say I’m not “bowled over” by Pho (pronounced fuh). It has nothing to do with the taste—the broth stewed with cow bones is hearty and delicious, and the noodles and meat are perfectly accentuated with herbs and fresh, crushed peppercorn. My problem with Pho is my blanket hatred of all noodle soups. I enjoy noodles and I enjoy soup, but when they’re placed in the same bowl, it offends me on an elemental level.

THIT CHO (DOG MEAT): There’s no better way to start the morning than eating a whole basket full of puppies. While the littlest ones have tiny bones that are crunchy, their meat is wonderfully tender, because they’re so innocent.

In all seriousness, if you can get your head around the fact that it’s Mr. Fluffy you’re picking out of your teeth, then you’ll find dog meat to be surprising delicious, with all the richness of pork and all the gaminess of venison. For many, dog meat raises the ethical question of which animals are acceptable to eat and which are not. Does such a line exist? Eating dog is slowly losing popularity in Vietnam (especially amongst the younger generations influenced by Western culture), and is usually only eaten at the beginning of the lunar month, when its considered good luck.

BANH GOI (Vietnamese Fried Dumplings): Vietnam’s response to Indian samosas. It’s basically a pork spring roll made with fried dough instead of rice paper. It’s as super awesome and bad for you as it sounds.

Central Vietnamese food is perhaps the most sophisticated, drawing culinary inspiration from France, China, Japan, and its Southeast Asian neighbors to produce a flavor that’s uniquely Vietnamese. The portions are small, the flavors are bold, and the chili is fiery.

BANH HUE (Royal Rice Cakes): While most chefs would accommodate a picky eater with a plain noodle soup or a sandwich, this never occurred to the royal chefs of fussy Emperor Tu Duc. Instead they decided that the most logical course of action would be to fossilize individual shrimps in glass-clear cubes of pounded glutinous rice, like Dr. Grant’s mosquito in Jurassic Park. Perhaps they were fucking with the Emperor. Either way, their dimsum-esque creations are popular in the old capital of Hue, where you can choose from a wide gamut of visually beautiful, delicious ‘Banh’ rice cakes. The most delicious are Banh Khoai, Banh Beo, Banh Loc, and Banh Uot.

CAO LAU (HOI AN-STYLE SOBA NOODLES): CAO LAU WILL BLOW YOUR FACE OFF AND YOU WILL WEEP WITH JOY. Take chewy Japanese-inspired noodles, add mouthwatering Cantonese-style char-sieupork, sprinkle it with Southeast Asian herbs and spices, and then top it off with a French-inspired reduction sauce and crispy fried “croutons.” Just trying to describe it, I nearly cream my boxers. In a unique twist, the dough of the noodles is made with timber ash, imbuing a smoky note. Might that be carcinogenic? Absolutely! But holy hell, is it yummy.

Sadly Cao Lau is only made in the old port city of Hoi An, using water drawn from one specific well. The universe is cruel.

CHAO TOM (SHRIMP PASTE GRILLED ON SUGARCANE): Who doesn’t love a tasty shrimp paste Popsicle? Not this guy. Chao Tom involves rich, decadent shrimp paste grilled on sugarcane. You’re supposed to roll it up in rice paper with herbs and veggies, almost like a tortilla, then dip it in a spectacular Vietnamese peanut sauce. DO NOT attempt to eat the sugarcane skewer like I did. I managed to bite off and swallow two large chunks of it before my waitress ran over to laugh at me.

NEM LUI (PORK & LEMONGRASS SKEWERS): The same thing as Chao Tom, except with delicious grilled pork and lemongrass instead of shrimp paste. The skewers were made of wood, which was much harder for me to swallow.


MI QUANG (SPICED NOODLES WITH PORK, SHRIMP, & PEANUTS): There seems to be a correlation between the amount of soup in my noodles and the scope of my rage. Fortunately, Mi Quang only uses enough broth to moisten its tasty ingredients, which include rice noodles, pork, shrimp, peanuts, banana blossoms, herbs, and a tangy annatto sauce. I might go as far as to say I recommend this noodle soup.

BUN BO HUE (SPICY BEEF & PORK NOODLE SOUP): Goddamn noodle soups! This was probably the least interesting of the ones I tried, but some people lose their shit over it, so here it is. Noodles, beef, and pork mingle in a reddish broth flavored with chili, lemongrass, shrimp sauce, and annatto. Pffffffff. Shrug.

BANH BAO VAC (HOI AN “WHITE ROSE” DUMPLINGS): Perhaps in retaliation for China stealing the spring roll, the Vietnamese hijacked the Cantonese steamed dumpling. It’s obscenely tasty. The only innovation is that you dip it Nuoc Cham.

The South is the breadbasket of Vietnam and its abundance of fish, herbs, and vegetables means you’ll find bigger portions. Local ingredients emphasize freshness, color, and flavors that veer on the sweet side.

BANH MI (VIETNAMESE-STYLE SANDWICHES): I don’t recall the last time I’ve been so enchanted by a sandwich. This southern specialty is a glorious pairing of French and Chinese colonial influence: a crispy baguette is stuffed with various manifestations of pork, vegetables, cilantro, pork crackling, and chili. Mayonnaise moistens, soy sauce imbues ‘umami,’ and the flavors are anchored with a generous slathering of pork paté. Some people are put off by the abundance of fatty pork. They’re stupid.

BANH XEO (VIETNAMESE RICE CREPES): Banh Xeo is like sad, make-believe Mexican food. It’s still very tasty—I just wish it were buried in cheese and sour cream. The dish involves bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp fried into a crunchy shell made of rice flour and turmeric.
Resist the urge to eat it like a taco. Instead, place it in your rice bowl and mutilate it beyond recognition with your chopsticks. You then roll the fragments in rice paper with vegetables and herbs and dip it in Nuoc Cham or glorious peanut sauce.

BUN BO NAM BO (NOODLES WITH BEEF & PEANUTS): Bun Bo Nam Bo crams all the most iconic flavors of Southeast Asia into a single bowl; it can’t decide what it wants to taste like, so it decides to taste like everything all at once. Dry noodles are seasoned with mangoes, fried shallots, lime, garlic, lemongrass, pepper, tender beef, and just enough sour tamarind broth to moisten. Aside from having a having a cool name, Bun Bo Nam Bo is absurdly tasty.

HU TIEU (CHINESE-STYLE NOODLE SOUP): I take back what I said about Bun Bo Hue—this is my least favorite noodle soup. Soggy vegetables and cheap cuts of pork float unattractively in a boring, generic broth. Sometimes they use better cuts of pork or fresh seafood, but no one’s writing songs about it. Allegedly it’s a Vietnamese interpretation of a Chinese dish. I can’t think of any dish I had in China that resembles this, but for that I am thankful.

BUN THIT NUONG (NOODLES WITH GRILLED MEAT): Grilled marinated pork skewers with herbs and vermicelli noodles. It’s like a southern Bun Cha, EXCEPT DROWNED IN CREAMY, DELICIOUS PEANUT SAUCE HURRAY FOR PEANUT SAUCE.

GOI CUON (FRESH SUMMER ROLLS): Southern-style “summer rolls” emphasize fresh flavors. Unfortunately, these flavors are all quite boring. Unseasoned vermicelli noodles are wrapped in rice paper with bland pork and boiled shrimp. It lacks the glorious calories of its deep fried, northern cousin.

Ha Long Bay might draw the crowds and historic Hanoi may feature on all the postcards, but anyone can tell you the real highlight of Vietnam: Caffeine, Sugar, and Alcohol.
Save room for dessert.

CAPHE SUA DA (VIETNAMESE COFFEE): Vietnamese Coffee is strong enough to power a motorcycle, or at least get your hands shaking uncontrollably. While the grounds used aren’t special (typically cheap Robusta beans), the coffee is brewed to cocaine-like potency and sweetened with condensed milk. I’m not a coffee drinker, but this stuff is like chocolate-flavored crack. Perhaps I just like condensed milk.

BIA HOI (VIETNAMESE “FRESH” BEER): A Bia Hoi joint is a ghetto, Vietnamese beer garden, except the ‘garden’ is a dirty sidewalk strewn with litter and everything is in miniature. You sit on a tiny, plastic kiddie stool at a tiny, plastic table and purchase $0.25 pints of beer with colorful Vietnamese Monopoly-money. The experience feels perversely infantile. It’s like Fisher Price’s “Baby’s First Dive Bar;” the fact that the locals are always shitfaced only enhances this illusion of a kindergarten.

CHE (SUGARY ICE DESSERT-THINGY): “Che” is a word used to describe many dishes—from pounded rice cakes to syrupy soups to icy dessert cups. If you order Che Thap Cam, you’ll get a bowl of crushed ice topped with mixed fruits, syrups, coconut cream, pandam leaf, a parade of gelatinous mystery-items, and best of all, sweetened condensed milk.

I realize I’m only staying in Asia so that I can drink condensed milk everyday without seeming strange.

Vietnam boasts an enormous cuisine whose variety dwarfs the likes of Thailand and rivals the great kitchens of India and China. While it can’t compare in size, it compensates with ingenuity and regional flair. Inspired creativity is the hallmark of the cuisine. To indulge a trip along Vietnam’s coast is to indulge in an innovative and ever-changing menu.

So the next time you find yourself in your local Vietnamese restaurant, consider giving Pho a pass. Dig deeper. Travel your taste buds. Feast on rich Bun Cha noodles with pork. Explore the exotic fusion flavors ofCao Lau. Try asking the server for a nice basket of crunchy puppies. Most likely, the flavors will astound you. And in the unlikely event that they don’t… just dip it in some Nuoc Cham.



Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com