Forget your Jamie Olivers of the world, it’s the Vietnamese who really know how to cook. On your next Vietnam holiday, he who dares (because some of the food here is both hairy and scary) will be rewarded with a taste explosion of pure culinary brilliance.
1 | Street side satisfaction: Banh Mi
Banh Mi is a fusion of soft dough and an assault of flavours. These popular baguettes are stuffed with layers of pork, shredded beef, a dollop of pâté, mayonnaise, Vietnamese radish and pickles, and then (we haven’t finished) garnished with a few slices of cucumber, coriander and a smattering of fresh chilies. Up until the bread lid is shut, it’s a balancing act of gargantuan proportions. You’ll find dozens of street side carts selling these, and dozens more locals clambering to buy them.
TRY IT: Banh Mi Phuong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh, Hoi An. Anthony Bourdain raved about this place. Your palate will need a pep talk first: a flavour grenade is about to go off in your mouth.
2 | Feeling frisky? Bo La Lot
Betal leaves are an aphrodisiac and a natural breath freshener, making the betal-wrapped Bo La Lot a whole lot of fun (some would say a Bo La Lot of fun). Ground beef is encased in wild betel leaves, rolled and then grilled over charcoal. The cooking process infuses the meat with a fragrant taste while holding in all the juices. It tastes slightly peppery but also a little bit sweet. Add some extra dipping sauces, a squirt of lime or a dollop of something fiery and you’re good to go.
TRY IT: Cô Liên Bò Lá Lốt, 321 Võ Văn Tần P5 Q3 in Ho Chi Minh City.
An unassuming eatery you could easily pass without thought, but the Bo La Lot is to die for in Cô Liên Bò Lá Lốt restaurant. Look out for a huge food-filled cabinet facing the street, step inside and have fun rolling your own.
3 | Can’t decide? Yes you Banh Can
A goodie for breakfast, but who are we kidding, you’ll want them any time of day, Banh Can are mini rice flour pancakes baked in small, terra-cotta moulds. Similar in texture to an English crumpet, they’re often topped with egg, meat and seafood, and win extra points for the sweet and spiciness of fried green onion, fish sauce and thinly-shredded green mango. We’ll bet you a million dong you can’t pass a vendor without stopping for one.
TRY IT: 148 Hoang Hoa Tham Street, Nha Trang. The coastal city of Nha Trang in the central part of Vietnam boast the best Banh Can. Made by a little Vietnamese lady sitting outside this address. With nothing but her stove and a bevy of loyal customers.
4 | Can you keep a secret? White rose dumplings
Back to Hoi An for another city speciality: the elegant white rose dumpling. Known locally as Banh Bao Vac. Rice paper parcels are filled with spiced minced shrimp or pork and hand-crafted to resemble little white roses. The recipe is a centuries-old secret, held by only one Hoi An family. They supply the entire town with Banh Bao Vac so you can literally try it anywhere, the only difference will be its presentation.
TRY IT: Anywhere in Hoi An. If you’re feeling lucky, pay a visit to Tran Tuan Ngai at 533 Hai Ba Trung Street and lay on the charm. A third generation secret keeper he might just let slip an ingredient or two.
5 | The one everyone loves: Pho
A journey to Vietnam isn’t a journey without Pho. The country’s most infamous broth. Classic Pho is as simple as four ingredients; clear stock, boiled beef, rice noodles and herbs or green onions, but at Pho Thin Restaurant (and our favourite in Hanoi) they sauté the meat with garlic first. Skeptics, who at first disregarded such a wild alteration only needed one slurp to be converted. Imitate the locals and season with a dose of lime, pickled chillies and hot sauce, as well as sticks of fried dough (quay) to lap up the broth.
TRY IT: Pho Thin Restaurant, 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi. Located in the French Quarter, pay 50,000 VND (approx. NZ$3.50) per bowl when you enter, pull up a wooden bench at a steel table and your garlicky hot Pho will arrive shortly after.
6 | One noodle to rule them all: Mi Quang
Mi Quang of Quảng Nam Province origin are noodles worth going out of your way for. Thick-cut and broad, the balance of softness and chewiness allows for the perfect texture, while the flavours are rich with chicken stock but also fresh due to the crisp lettuce, mint and basil. Cu nen, a garlic-like vegetable that's fried in raw oil and toppings such as as boiled roasted pork, quail eggs, peanuts and river shrimp all contribute to quite a finish.
Try it: Mì quảng Bà Vị Restaurant, 166 Le Dinh Duong, Danang. We hear there is no better place in Vietnam for Mi Quang. Also a bit of a local hang-out, enjoy authentic dishes in authentic surroundings.
7 | For the DIY chef: Hanoi barbecue
If you possess a cast-iron stomach and an equally hardened mind-set, dive straight in and try a Hanoi-style street barbecue. Grab a basket, an old plastic plate and some tongs, then load up on an assortment of ingredients. The choices are never labelled and there's definitely no menu, but once you’ve taken it back to your street-side table, fired up the mini burner and grilled your very own Vietnamese speciality, it’ll all taste phenomenal.
TRY IT: 66 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem, Thanh Pho, Hanoi. Granted, everything’s a little bit funny looking, it might have tentacles and there are rows of skewered unknowns but we promise you it’s delicious. Especially if you crack open a crisp, cold Vietnamese beer while you cook.