First published November 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
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Food is a daily pleasure when visiting or living in Vietnam. Vietnamese food is fantastic, and the variety is astonishing. This is partly to do with the ingenuity and creativity of Vietnamese cooks over the centuries, and partly to do with cultural and culinary influences over its long and interesting history. But it’s also because of the country’s geography, terrain and climate: for a relatively small country, Vietnam experiences dramatic changes in weather and landscape. This is never more apparent than when travelling the length of the country by bus, train or motorbike. I’ve written at length about some of the changes I notice when travelling south to north by motorbike, but, on a recent road trip between Saigon and Hanoi, I made a record of some of the meals I ate along the way, to try and illustrate the variety of food available, and what a delight it is to eat your way from one end of the country to the other.
FOOD DIARY: SAIGON TO HANOI
Below I’ve illustrated 11 dishes in geographical order as I ate them from south to north. I’ve written a brief description of each one, including the addresses, and marked every meal on my map. During my trip, I made no attempt to eat dishes I thought represented each region, nor did I research the places I ate at: when I was hungry, I simply looked around for a place to eat (not a difficult thing to do in Vietnam). Even so, the dishes on this page do reflect some of the culinary changes from south to north and showcase the variety and richness of the cuisine. I have not made a record of the prices for each meal, but all of the dishes below were not more than a couple of dollars each.
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11 of my meals between Saigon & Hanoi
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Phở (beef noodle soup):
*Location: The dining car on the train between Saigon & Phan Thiet [MAP]
Vietnam’s most famous dish, I ate this bowl of phở at 6:30am as the train was pulling out of Saigon station, with the city’s alleyways and shopfronts rolling by in the sharp dawn light. As with many meals in Vietnam, location is a big part of the dining experience: it wasn’t the best bowl of beef noodle soup I’ve had, but it was pretty darn good for the buffet car of a moving train (certainly better than anything I could ever hope to get on a British train). The broth was ‘real’ – a large cauldron of boiling beef bones and spices in the dining car kitchen – and flavoursome. Of course, phở is famously a northern dish, but it’s available all over the country.
Bánh Căn (rice flour ‘sponges’):
*Location: Bánh Căn Nhà Chung; 01 Nhà Chung Street, Dalat, Lam Dong Province [MAP]
In Dalat, after a long day, I’d intended to go to bed early. But then I stumbled upon the street food stalls on Nhà Chung Street, near the French colonial church. I spent a good couple of hours eating bánh căn followed by fetal duck egg, surrounded by chattering students and locals, all dressed in coats and hats to keep warm in the mountain air. A couple of very friendly ladies served the bánh căn; little spongy pancake things cooked in tiny pots over a flame and served with a dipping sauce with sour mango, fried shallots and spring onions. The pancakes, made of rice flour and quail eggs, soak up the sauce perfectly. Bánh căn are very popular in Dalat, but more commonly found in coastal regions between Vung Tau and Phan Rang. For dessert I had several boiling-hot fetal duck eggs (which are always much tastier in highland and rural areas, away from the big cities) to fortify me against the cold night.
Bún Thịt Nướng & Gỏi Cuốn (rice noodles & fresh spring rolls):
*Location: Nameless eatery; 103 Ngô Mây Street, Quy Nhơn, Binh Dinh Province [MAP]
After a rewarding day of riding the coastal back-roads south of Quy Nhơn, I arrived in the city late and went straight to Ngô Mây Street for a cheap, filling and easy dinner. A nameless eatery (no more than a shopfront) sold a good, fresh, crisp and cooling bowl of bún thịt nướng; a cold rice noodle salad with chopped cucumber, grilled marinated pork, shredded green papaya, mint, and crumbled rice crackers. As I was hungry (I always am), I also ordered a couple of gỏi cuốn; fresh (cold, not fried) spring rolls filled with shrimp, herbs, and rice noodles. This is a pretty common street-side meal in central coastal regions and the Mekong Delta.
Bún Chả Cá (fish noodle soup):
*Location: Ngoc Lien; 379 Nguyen Hue Street, Quy Nhơn, Binh Dinh Province [MAP]
I love Quy Nhon (everyone does). As a coastal city, it’s famous for its seafood. In particular, Quy Nhon is known for bún chả cá; rice noodles in a spicy broth with fish cakes. For breakfast, on a typically sunny, salty and bright morning, I headed to Ngoc Lien, one of the more established bún cá joints in town. They churn out hundreds of fresh, light, fishy and spicy bowls of noodles here each morning, as locals and Vietnamese tourists come to dine on this famous central coast dish. The broth was clean and clear, the fish was fresh, and the spice was invigorating.
Cơm Bình Dân (common rice lunch):
*Location: Quán Long Liên; Cat Khanh District, Binh Dinh Province [MAP]
On a sweltering noon I stopped for lunch at a classic rice shack in a dusty village along one of the coastal back-roads leading north of Quy Nhon. This is the kind of place and food that I love: unassuming, cheap, delicious and, because they rarely look appealing from the outside, unexpected. Cơm bình dân are ‘common’ or ‘affordable’ lunch eateries. Found all over the country, they cater to anyone, but generally you find the local working classes – labourers, fishermen, farmers – tucking into food at low plastic tables. At Quán Long Liên, a lovely proprietress served my lunch of steamed white rice, pork belly stew with wood ear mushrooms and bamboo, bitter melon soup, and a plate of fresh leaves for dipping in the salty, locally-produced fish sauce. These are the meals, and these are the moments (of which there are many), that make me happy I’ve chosen to live in Vietnam.
Mì Quảng (central style noodles):
*Location: Nameless eatery; 789 Phan Chu (Chau) Trinh Street, Tam Ky, Quang Nam Province [MAP]
A brief stop in the hot and dusty town of Tam Ky for a bowl of the famous and much-loved mì quảng; flat rice noodles in a shallow broth. I often have this dish in Saigon, but it’s never as good as having it in its home province of Quảng Nam. This fairly basic noodle shop was just finishing up its lunch service when I stopped by. The noodles were good and thick, the broth (it’s a sauce really) was salty and sour (after a squeeze of lime), and the bowl was full of goodies, such as shrimp, grilled pork, quail eggs, mint, coriander, peanuts, chilli, and crumbled rice crackers with sesame seeds. A many-textured and satisfying bowl of noodles.
Lòng Xào Nghệ (fried pig intestines with turmeric):
*Location: Outside No.64 Nguyen Truong To Street, Hoi An, Quang Nam Province [MAP]
It might not sound very appetizing, but this was one of the tastiest and most unexpected street eats on my ride between Saigon and Hanoi. Within sight of Hoi An’s Tan An Market I spotted a lady serving something orange and delicious-looking out of a big metallic bowl. It turned out to be lòng xào nghệ; pig intestines fried in turmeric, garlic and chives and eaten on a crunchy sesame seed rice cracker. The colour, of course, comes from the turmeric, the flavour from the garlic and chives, and there’s a classic Vietnamese interplay of textures: chewy from the intestines and crunchy from the rice crackers. It was rich and light at the same time, but the turmeric stained my teeth for the next 24 hours. I was glad to find such a local dish in such close proximity to Hoi An’s old quarter where, because of the volume of international visitors, it can be hard to find local eateries aimed at local people.
Heo Quay (spit-roasted pork):
*Location: Lò Quay Thanh Trung; by the bridge at the intersection of QL49 & DT2, Hue, Thua Thien Hue Province [MAP]
Rolling into Hue on a beautiful evening, I passed a smokey roadside BBQ. Rotating over hot coals were sides of pork belly and ribs, and whole chickens and ducks. The smell of the smoke was mouth-watering as it drifted in clouds over the road, blinding drivers as the early evening traffic scooted by. I love a good hunk of roasted meat, so I ordered a box of heo quay to go. The lady was jovial and warm, and some kids stopped by on their bicycles to say ‘hello’ a dozens times before cycling off into the smokey dusk. Barbecued meat stalls are found all over the nation, but the ones on the outskirts of towns and cities are always better than the ones actually in large built-up areas. The reason for this, I suppose, is because the meat is fresher.
Bánh Nậm (steamed rice flour parcels):
*Location: Hương Hoài; 2 Le Thanh Dong Street, Dong Hoi, Quang Binh Province [MAP]
Dong Hoi is a great little city: a mini Danang or Nha Trang, with a long riverfront promenade, wide boulevards, a municipal beach, and plenty of food. Particularly numerous are eateries specializing in bánh nậm; steamed rice flour parcels wrapped in banana leaf and filled with ground pork, dipped in a slightly sweet fish sauce. There appear to be dozens of bánh nậm joints on every street in Dong Hoi, but I settled on Hương Hoài, because it was teeming with customers, all sat at low tables, peeling open their banana leaf parcels under the bright fluorescent lights. There’s something warm and comforting about the soft-textured steamed dumpling inside the banana leaf. They’re very addictive. Bánh nậm can be found all over central Vietnam, especially between Hue and Dong Hoi.
Bún Chả (rice noodles & grilled pork patties):
*Location: Liên Phương; intersection of QL8A & Đường 71, Pho Chau, Ha Tinh Province [MAP]
A sure sign of getting closer to the north, bún chả is a favourite of northern cuisine, and, incidentally, the dish that President Obama and Anthony Bourdain sat down to eat in Hanoi, during the presidential visit of May 2016. The town of Pho Chau is not my favourite place in Vietnam; rather it is a convenient stop on the Ho Chi Minh Road. But this late evening bowl of bún chả was pretty good: the noodles fresh and bouncy, the herbs (including my favourite, perilla leaf) crunchy and full of flavour, and the pork patties salty and chewy (which is a good thing). It was a quiet night, but the proprietors kept me company by quizzing me on my marital status. Vietnamese food, and the people who serve it, have a way of brightening up even the drabbest of places.
Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice rolls):
*Location: Hanh Trọc; QL217 high street, Cam Thuy, Thanh Hoa Province [MAP]
Now, you may have heard or read (possibly even on this website) that phở is the breakfast of the north. Well, in Hanoi that may be true (although bún chả must come in a close second). But outside of the capital, bánh cuốn is by far the most common dish available in the mornings across the northern provinces. Indeed, I’ve occasionally spent weeks travelling across the mountainous northern regions and had trouble finding anything for breakfast other than bánh cuốn. And so, when I sat down in Cam Thuy, 125km south of Hanoi, for my first plate of bánh cuốn of the trip, I knew I was finally in the north proper. Delicate rice flour rolls, steamed with much grace and skill by the (always female) cooks, bánh cuốn are easy to like. The rolls are lightly filled with a mixture of minced pork and wood ear mushrooms, sprinkled with roasted shallots, served with a couple of chopped pork sausages, and dipped in a salty-sweet broth. I’d been to this particular eatery before, on a similar trip in 2014, and the only thing that had changed in the three years since I was last there, was that the woman serving me looked even younger and even prettier.