It’s not all about Pho, you know.
|Tofu Pho by the excellent MessyVegetarianCook.com
…Okay, it is a bit about Pho. But Vietnam has plenty more delicious stuff to feed you than just the classic noodle soup, whether you’re a raging carnivore or a veggie/vegan plant-based fiend.
Different regions have different specialities, but wherever you’re headed it won’t be a struggle to find something delicious to eat. Whether you’re down for fresh, flavoursome summer rolls or thick, sticky noodles, don’t be that guy who orders french fries at every stop. Aside from the fact that everyone will spot you for the scaredycat you are, you’ll miss out on loads of stuff you’ll struggle to find again at home.
If chopsticks are intimidating you, be safe in the knowledge that the variety of dishes offered by even streetside food carts means forks and spoons aren’t hard to come by – not that you’ll always need them. And if you really, really can’t deal with learning the easy-once-you-get-it art of eating with a pair of sticks? Just shove a trusty fork in your backpack for emergencies. Ain’t no shame in having a back-up.
1. Cao Lau Noodles (Hoi An speciality)
Excuse the potato-quality photo – I ate half of this stuff before I even thought to snap it, because that is how delicious Cao Lau noodles are. Big, thick, chewy noodles, Cao Lau are a Hoi An speciality and are only truly authentic when the noodles have been cooked in water from a nearby ancient well, mixed with the ash of a particular species of tree that grows offshore on Cham Island – apparently. The traditional recipe calls for slices of tangy cured pork, but you’ll find tofu and chicken versions available in many of the restaurants that sell this dish.
The noodles are steamed and served piled high with local greens, a gently flavoured and stomach-filling meal that can be bought cheaply even in the tourist hotspot that is Lantern Town. Don’t worry if you’re not into spice – this isn’t a chilli-laden dish, so if you’re looking for a bit of a kick you’ll want to ask for some extra spice to stir in.
2. Bánh Mi (available just about everywhere)
Nobody really likes being colonised, but at least the French occupation of Vietnam has left a legacy of delicious breaded goods.
Banh Mi are available pretty much everywhere you go, and the best place to get them is from a cart at the side of the road. Depending on where you’re staying and what you want inside, they can be anything from 5,000 dong (about 23p) to 40,000 dong. Each cart will often have a different array of fillings than the next, but you can expect spiced beef and pork options, sweet chicken, marinated tofu slices and in many places even a conspicuous taste of home – Laughing Cow cheese.
Whatever you pick there are spicy sauces and soy marinades to top it with, and as always, an assortment of fresh greenery like coriander and Thai basil to give it an extra dose of flavour. I ate about 1,000 of these when I was in Vietnam, not least because they’re available late into the night and make a good snack to crawl into a hostel bunk bed with.
3. Spring and Summer rolls (if you can’t find them you aren’t looking hard enough)
Exhibit A : Some tofu and peanut spring rolls I made while I was away.
Exhibit B : Some summer rolls I definitely didn’t make, because mine were a shambles
Can I just start by saying that anyone who tries to tell you spring rolls are just summer rolls that have been deep fried is a liar, and a fraud, and you shouldn’t ever trust that person.
Summer rolls are apparently on a list of the world’s most delicious foods, which sounds like the sort of list I ought to read but haven’t. If spring rolls aren’t on there too, it’s an oversight.
If you’re reading this blog and you’ve never eaten a spring roll, I really question whether you’re as curious about Asia as one might expect. Or whether you’ve ever ordered takeout. That being said, the similar-but-different summer roll isn’t as well known, so here’s an introduction.
Summer rolls are often a raw snack, or at the very least a room-temperature one, sometimes served with cold cuts of meat inside or cold marinated tofu. If you get the rice paper wrapping wrong or mess up the herb-to-filling ratio (which I did last time I tried to make them) you will ruin what can be a really moreish, guilt-free bit of grub. Look out for places that serve these with chilli and ginger marinades or balsamic strawberry dip (that classic Vietnamese staple) and like many things, try and find them from food carts or smaller restaurants that’ll serve you a decent portion for a minimal price.
4. Mi Quang (Da Nang area)
|Pork&Shrimp Mi Quang – photo credit to Tranbina
|There’s actually a song about Mi Quang, because people think it’s that great. This dish is kind of a cross between the world-famous noodle soup Pho and the thick noodly Cao Lau dishes from just up the road in Hoi An. Wide, flat noodles are served up with a small helping of spicy broth, and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame rice crackers (banh trang me) and whichever meat (or not) you might want.
Being a herbivore I’ve only tried the veggie version myself, but I’m told the traditional pork and shrimp combination is a winning one for people who want a new way to think about surf&turf. You can find this dish further south in Vietnam, but here you’ll find it served much more like Pho, with heartier helpings of broth for the noodles to soak in – like the photo above.
5. Bánh rán (Northern Vietnam) / Bánh cam (Southern Vietnam)
There are about a million different kinds of sweet and savoury dumplings available in the various regions of Vietnam, but banh ran/banh cam are a good place to start delving into the world of fried carbohydrates. These guys are deep fried balls of glutinous rice and sesame, with a sugary sweetened dollop of mung bean paste inside.
Mung bean paste might not sound like an obvious choice for a sweet snack, but trust me, it works. You’ll spot these in fryers at local markets, and I saw people walking around with towers of them balanced on their heads once or twice. A bag full costs virtually nothing and will give you a good refuelling for a day out getting lost in the heat.
6/7/8. Bun Bo, Banh Bo and Banh Bao
I could sit here and write out all the things that taste good in all of Vietnam, but it’s actually a pretty big country and there’s quite a lot of food there. Everybody knows what pho is, and while it’s more prevalent in the north you’ll be pleased to know that its international popularity means you can find it just about anywhere.
One thing that probably is good to know when you’re trying to pronounce your order is that Banh Bo and Bun Bo are very different things. If you order Bun Bo, you’ll get a noodle soup similar to Pho. If you order Banh Bo, you’ll get a sweet, sponge-y dessert bun made with coconut milk. This, in turn, should not be confused with Banh Bao – another type of doughy bun, but filled with pork.
Oh, and Bun Bo Hue is the same as Bun Bo only spicier. As you can probably guess, you’ll find this around Hue.