Just over a year ago I was getting ready to fly off to Vietnam on holiday. I was excited to say the least! I had wanted to go to Vietnam for such a long time, there was something about the country that intrigued me – maybe it was the food, the history or maybe it was because everyone I knew who had been came back raving about it – curiosity had me.
For me a holiday normally revolves around food and exploring the local cuisine. Vietnam was no different, in fact this trip was food exploration on speed – there was so much to see and to eat and the Vietnamese enthusiasm for food never wavered.
Our exploration of Vietnam started in the electric and hectic capital Ho Chi Minh City. It was like many Asian capitals, ever-expanding, busy and noisy, but there was a charm to it. The city dotted with colonial memories, the river winding through it and the ever present high-rise towers of wealth being built. Our hotel the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside was right in the heart of the action, its roof top bar offering lovely cooling views of the city. The perfect place for a drink pre dinner. However, on the first evening we went full tourist and ventured to the famous Rex Hotel roof top bar. I know I know, so touristy, but its part of the city’s history. It was here the US army would brief the journalists in what became know as the five o’clock follies. So, an expensive cocktail later ( well by Vietnam standards) we were ready to tackle where to pick for dinner. The guidebook did not steer us wrong, we headed for something just around the corner – Nha hang Ngon. The restaurant is located in a colonial villa and is worth a gander even if you are not eating. There is a terrace out front and lots more seating inside. Sitting inside near the atrium we were treated to some excellent Vietnamese food. It wasn’t only the food that was excellent, but the atmosphere. The restaurant was heaving and it didn’t seem to look like it was ever going to get quiet. Even though it was noted in a guidebook it didn’t feel like a tourist restaurant at all. The restaurant was packed with families and groups of friends. At one point a tour group did come in but they were taken to an upper level away from the buzz of the ground floor, and I presume up to the big tables. This was exactly the introduction I wanted to Vietnam, the buzz of the city, friendly people and of course wonderful fresh food. Let the food adventure begin!!
The following day after a hot and sweaty day of sightseeing we had a food tour booked, and not just any food tour, one on the back of motorbikes. This was the XO food tour. XO bike tours are led by female guides, and they are the loveliest of ladies. It was such fun chatting with my guide as she weaved in and out of the horrific traffic. My boyfriend on the other hand enjoyed it a little less, a 6ft tall bloke on a bike with a tiny Vietnamese lady… I think he would have liked a seat belt. However the food by far made up for it. The tour aimed to not only show you bits of the city that you wouldn’t normally see but also get up and personal with the food, the way the local’s eat it. First stop was a local street market, with all sorts of food being sold. This really is a city that just keeps going whatever the time. Back on the bikes we headed to a local hang out – outdoor dining at its finest, a huge undercover seating area where you pick the food you want cooking, be it meat or vegetables. We settled down with our guides to a beautiful freshly roasted pork bahn mi, and a rice and pork bowl (this was pre finding out I was gluten intolerant – oh how I miss bahn mi), and some cool Saigon beer. Now it was time for dessert – back on the bikes and more alley ways. Stopping at a little cafe we propped ourselves on little plastic chairs and were presented with what can only be described as creme caramel type dish. It was cold and refreshing in what was still a hot evening. This was definitely one of the best food tours I have ever been on. We got to see parts of the city we would never see on normal tours, we experienced the fast and noisy city the way it should be, on the back of motorbikes and yes even more food.
One other place that we explored while in Ho Chi Minh City was Ben Thanh Street Food Market – a hipster paradise. A covered marketing full of little food stalls selling different things from dumplings, to BBQ to noodle dishes and soups. It was a great place to hang out for a long leisurely lunch and to escape the heat and at night it really gets going with locals and tourists a like meeting there for a beer and to eat, and of course catching up with friends. This is a great modern gem in a historic city.
Leaving the city of Ho Chi Minh behind us we headed for Hoi An, BUT firstly one must make note, about the airports. We took a few internal flights while in Vietnam and I am sure anyone who travels will understand my disdain for airport food – but no, not here in Vietnam. This is a country where food never gets dull – Pho bars in the airport – oh yes!! a pre flight Pho at every opportunity.
Hoi An, was somewhere I was looking forward too. I had heard great things about this historic town, and I was looking forward to our lovely boutique spa hotel, The Essence Hotel and Spa. The hotel was located just outside the historic centre, less than a 10 minute walk. Nestled on the outskirts of town it over looked paddy fields and you got a sense of real life in Hoi An. The coming and goings of the day away from the tourists.
Now this is a small town, but a town brimming with delicious places to eat. Yes its full of tourists but the food is still of great quality, be it a little street stall outside the historic centre, a bustling cafe or a place to watch life go by from an outside table.
We started our food journey in Hoi An with a fabulous cookery class, with the equally fabulous Van. Meeting just outside the market, donned with traditional Vietnamese conical hats we entered the market with our guide, as we weaved through the stalls she pointed out all the local delicacies, introduced us to her favourite vendors and of course brought everything she needed for the cooking class – talk about farm to table…. this was going to be one fresh meal. Jumping into her mini van we headed to Van’s house, located in the suburbs, she had transformed her kitchen into a great cookery school. The class was full with 12 people, an international group, this was going to be a fun day at the Green Bamboo Cookery School. It was a very hot day but once we got going you barely noticed. Each person had pre picked a dish to make – this was going to be a 10 course lunch! Van went through each dish, pointing out the importance of the herbs and spices and their importance to Vietnamese cuisine. Each person prepared and made their own dish, and it was a mighty feast – a real mix of the simple to the more complex – we got a great over view of Vietnamese cuisine.
Now Hoi An is a melange of restaurants, cafes and bars, but there are a couple of places that were recommended to us and did not disappoint. One of those places was Morning Glory, it almost seemed ubiquitous to the town, its in all the guide books and it’s always busy. It’s a sprawling old house packed with tables, and the kitchen is always bringing out dishes. It was a bustling place with a great atmosphere, the food was nice but it certainly wasn’t somewhere to go to relax for a leisurely dinner. If you want quick and good then this is your place. Across the road was another establishment owned by the same people – Ms Vy, this is a lady with her finger in many pies – Cargo Club. This is a more relaxed restaurant, with views of the river, it also has a cake shop and ice cream parlour. My favourite of Ms Vys restaurants was across the river, through the night market, Ms Vys Market restaurant. This open plan place had little food stall set around the edges making specialty dishes. It was a very civilised way to get that street market feel. The food was delicious and this was definitely a place to relax. One thing I would say about these restaurants is book if you can, as they get busy. You can pop by during the day to book for dinner to avoid disappointment.
Hoi An was a great place to relax and indulge in food. The next stop, Hanoi, was going to pull us back into the madness of Vietnamese city life. There were so many great restaurant stops, again offering decent food at a great price, but somewhere a little different was Green Tangerine. Located in a beautiful old French house with its walled terrace it was like stepping into another world. Offering a French – Vietnamese fusion menu, it was nice to have a touch of finer dining. The food was delicious, and a welcome change to traditional Vietnamese food, the service attentive and it was incredibly relaxed. I love a bowl of Pho, but it was great to have something that was a bit more constructed. Just before we left we had to of course indulge in the final Pho, and we found what was very much a hole in the wall – Pho Thin Bo Ho, located down an alley just away from the Lake. What a gem! delicious light Pho. However what added to the joy was we ended up eating in their front room! The tables in the alley were full so along with other customers we were popped in their lounge eating Pho. This just highlights the friendliness and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese! No seats – no worries we will find you one!
Vietnam was a fantastical food journey, one that will stay with me. I came back inspired with cooking ideas and love to recreate the fresh and delicious flavours. Vietnam was a country that didn’t disappoint and I would go back in a heart beat. I heartily encourage anyone going to try as many different things as they can when there, indulge in all the fresh herbs and just pick randomly from a menu to try new things. Go to Vietnam and eat until your heart’s content!