A tasty tour of Vietnam
WHEN it comes to gastronomy, Vietnam is a world leader: the diaspora’s cooking has been delighting folk in the old adversary of the US ever since the fall of Saigon.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of when American military helicopters evacuated thousands of refugees from the former capital just as the People’s Army closed in.
In recent years, fans of Vietnamese food have reached far beyond the US. Mexico City, London, Paris, Moscow – a big city’s culinary circuit is no longer complete without a few stylish Vietnamese restaurants or trendy pho bars.
But only by heading back to the old country can you appreciate the full range and complexity of Vietnam’s cuisine.
While offerings abroad tend towards a general caricature, styles vary considerably across the country. There’s a lot more to it than pho, you know.
My journey starts in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam ever since unification in 1976. It’s a frantic city with little of the glitz and glamour of Southern Vietnam’s Saigon, but some of the best food in Vietnam can be found amongst its network of little streets pulsing with mopeds.
One example is Quan Goc Da (52 Ly Quoc Su), an unassuming Old Quarter eatery, where locals crowd outside on plastic children’s stools.
When I stumble across it, the commanding woman taking orders while operating the stove (also outside) suggests I try the tasting plate. In a few seconds, I’m presented with a selection of deep-fried banh, a broad term roughly meaning ‘bread’ or ‘pastry’.
There are dumplings filled with minced meat, as well as doughnut-style balls and an eclectic range of spring rolls; the mix of sweet and savoury baffles my tastebuds at first, but once I’ve adapted, nearly ever banh is a unique delight.
Elsewhere in the Old Quarter, I’m given a warm welcome at Mot Ngay Moi (Newdayrestaurant.com). With a traditional wood-panelled setting and half-open kitchen, 'A New Day' has been a local favourite since starting up in the late ’90s.
I try Bun cha, a kind of pork burger in a sweet fish-sauce marinade, served with rice noodles, salad and broth. It doesn’t disappoint.
Cooking classes are hugely popular in Vietnam – you’ll find them in almost every city. Perhaps the best of all is Hanoi Cooking Centre, near vast West Lake in Ba Dinh District (Hanoicookingcentre.com).
To begin with, charismatic local chef Duyen takes me to a nearby market, where I’m guided through myriad herbs and vegetables: I also see frogs being beaten to death by an old lady.
We return to the cooking centre with an arm-full of ingredients (no frogs, thankfully). Duyen then teaches me to make a colourful banana leaf salad and spring rolls, followed by ginger-and-garlic chicken cooked in a clay-pot.
“In your countries, you like the chicken meaty,” says Duyen, waving a drumstick later as we dine on our handiwork.
“But we Vietnamese don’t like the breast and thigh. We like skinny chicken, and chewing the bones!”
A few hours later, I order my first pho of the trip. The iconic beef-broth soup with rice noodles originates in Hanoi and is typically consumed at street-stalls in the chilly mornings before people head to work.
I try it at night, after a few glasses of bia hoi – cheap beer, brewed daily – and find it a bit bland.
Each region in Vietnam is known for its distinct culinary style, tenaciously defended. A 10-hour bus ride northwest of Hanoi, Sapa offers an enduring slice of traditional Asian culture, but it isn’t much known for its cuisine; even so, I visit local restaurant H’Mong Quan, the only one in Sapa Town owned by the Hmong ethnicity, guided there by a local-owned tour company Sapa O’Chau.
Dinner is spicy broth, grilled pork, flaky fish and steamed rice. It’s unrefined, but full of flavour.
An old fishing village-turned-blissful haven for backpackers and retirees, Hoi An caters to a more polished palate.
Case in point is the UNESCO World Heritage town’s signature dish, ‘white rose’ – delicate, near-transparent prawn-filled dumplings. Then there’s cao lau – pork with thick noodles and greens – which is only meant to be cooked with water taken from one of the town’s ancient wells.
Despite the air of sophistication, Hoi An’s most important restaurants have their roots in market food.
In 1992, one Ms Vy opened an eatery for market traders and factory workers, with the goal of keeping her parents’ much-loved recipes alive; their former food stall was a local legend.
Mermaid went on to become Hoi An’s first restaurant catering to both locals and tourists (Msvy-tastevietnam.com). It remains in rude health – the lau thai seafood hotpot I try is rich and moreish, sizzling prawns, squid and tuna vying for attention with fresh mushrooms, shallots and ginger.
Ms Vy has gone on to open three more restaurants, of which Morning Glory is the obvious flagship.
Set in an old colonial house near the river with high timber-beam ceilings and food cooked in an open kitchen via steaming cauldrons, it certainly attracts the tourists. But this is authentic Vietnamese food at its very best.
I try a Hoi An speciality, mi hoanh thanh – wontons filled with prawn mousse and crab, reposing in a gently flavoured broth. It’s heavenly.
Compared to Hoi An’s nuanced cooking, Southern Vietnam’s fare is rather brash. Even the best restaurants in Saigon – officially Ho Chi Minh City – tend to offer more potent flavours than elsewhere in the country, with rich sauces, fiery spices and many chillies.
Meals aren’t for the faint-hearted.
The city’s standout restaurant is Cuc Gach Quan, known as The Architect’s House (Cucgachquan.com.vn). Every inch of the rural-style building is lovingly crafted. The dream-like courtyard with floating staircase feels like an enchanted realm; I pass through it on my way up the tranquil attic for dinner, where I find the food to be similarly out of this world.
The stewed pork belly is sweet with notes of ginger, while the soft-shell crabs are crunchily decadent.
My favourite restaurant in Saigon, though, was a more low-key affair at Din Ky (137C Nguyen Trai, District 1). It’s a local joint, where the fish swimming in glass tanks are not for admiring and the staff don’t speak English.
In the end, I manage to order a scintillating soup of crab, scallop and seaweed. Then it’s grilled crocodile – dense but tender, the powerful flavour poised somewhere between venison and fish.
There’s much more to Vietnamese cuisine, but my journey ends in Saigon. I haven’t even mentioned banh mi, the essential baguette-sandwich filled with ham, pate and salad – a final fragment of French colonial rule.
But I know what you’re really thinking. What about the pho?
The finest bowl I tried was made by my mother. Not my real mum, but a lady who stood in for her for the week I slept (and frequently ate) at Cam Chau Homestay in Hoi An (Hoianhomestay.net).
Bubbling for hours by the time I woke (long after my adopted parents) and sprinkled with fresh coriander and bean sprouts, the beef broth was truly invigorating. I ended up eating it every morning.
Finally I understand why people say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Darren Loucaides flew with Vietnam Airlines from London to Hanoi with return flights starting at €1,200. vietnamairlines.com
Sapa O’Chau is the first tour company and social enterprise in the Sapa region to be owned and run by and for Hmong people. They offer treks and homestays throughout the region. sapaochau.org
Selective Asia offers tailor-made 10-day tours of Vietnam starting from around £850. selectiveasia.com
Words: Darren Loucaides
Photos: Andrea Alemany