Vietnamese food, friend or pho?

Vietnamese food, along with Indian, were the two cuisines I was most looking forward to trying on our trip. Would it live up to the hype and it’s reputation as one of the best countries for food in the world or would I be left feeling pho faced?

What better dish to start with than the ubiquitous pho and we certainly ate a lot of it during our six weeks travelling around Vietnam. It’s another version of noodle soup, generally with thin slices of meat (like our favourite pho bo, beef noodle soup) or meat balls, fresh noodles, a meaty broth and a handful of green stuff, most frequently spring onions and coriander leaves. In addition you would sometimes be given (or there was already a basket on the table containing) mint, lettuce and a weird leaf that I’ve no clue of it’s name but it tasted of fish, I wasn’t a fan of that one!

Our final meal on Vietnam and of course it was pho bo for breakfast

Of the many bowls of pho that we munched and slurped our way through, there are a few that stand out from among the ordinary. Hanoi has many eateries serving pho bo and the one that was recommended by our hotel was delicious, especially as the chunks of beef they used seemed better quality than usual. The other beautiful bowl of pho was with Mary in Ho Chi Minh city, she took us to a local joint not far from where she lives. We all perched on micro stools at tiny tables and ate a delicious bowl of soupy goodness, there was no wondering what other leaves or condiments to add, it was all done for us, we just had to eat and slurp our way through it, mmm mmm! She then took us for proper Vietnamese coffee and Mike was in heaven, as prior to this he wasn’t a fan of the coffee in Vietnam or Cambodia, although this one was incredibly strong! Vietnamese coffee is traditionally served in a stainless steel filter slowly dripping into a small glass with a layer of condensed milk at the bottom and often by the time it’s finished dripping the coffee has gone cold. Save for the coffee in Ho Chi Minh city, I found it to have an acquired taste that I never did acquire, although it was nicer with condensed milk or better still as iced coffee.

Waiting to drink our coffee in Phong Nha national park

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, two come to mind for culinary enjoyment, Hanoi and Hoi An. Our hotel in Hanoi, Little Hanoi hostel recommended some great places to eat, I’ve already mentioned pho bo and while trying to find one restaurant that served it we stumbled across another where everyone was eating beef fried noodles. After ordering, were we served a big plate of fresh fat noodles piled high with fatty beef on top, we enjoyed it so much we went back for more the next day as well!  

It may not look appealing but this massive plate of beef noodles was delicious!

Our other favourite foodie town, Hoi An has it’s own breakfast specialty, cao lau which soon became our number one choice from the menu at our guesthouse. It’s another noodle dish, made with barbecue pork, bean sprouts, lettuce, some herbs and small amount of broth/sauce. It’s only found in Hoi An as the noodles are traditionally made using water from a well in the town, giving them a distinctive texture and taste, like others I would describe them as being similar to Japanese udon noodles with a slightly chewy texture. Our guesthouse in Hoi An invited us to join them for dinner one evening and grandma whipped up a feast with an endless supply of spring rolls, we perfected our rolling technique that evening! 

Cao lau, a great way to start your day

Early on during our trip through Vietnam, we took a day trip to the Mekong delta from Ho Chi Minh city and saw the rice paper wrappers for spring rolls being made. It looked like laborious work as they steamed sheet after sheet and then piled them up on bamboo drying racks. Spring rolls were served in a variety of ways in Vietnam and always with a dipping sauce, they were either fresh, such that the filling was rolled in the rice paper and then served, or prepared the same and then deep fried before serving. The other variation we tried tasted like glutinous spring rolls, perhaps the rice paper wrappers were freshly made and not dried out, giving them a much stretchier and glutinous texture.

It may not look like it but this was in fact spring rolls

While trying to decide where to eat each meal time, we soon came to understand a few of the restaurant signs, the two we could easily spot were pho and com. Com in fact should be com tam and means broken rice and is a common fast food dish as the rice is cheaper to buy, a meal would consist of meat, generally pork and often barbecued, served with a few vegetable side dishes, perhaps a bowl of soup and of course a large portion of rice. The most memorable com we tried was on the outskirts of Dalat, it was barbecued pork, topped with a fried egg and served with a bowl of soup and some salad, the taste was probably improved by us being starving hungry but I can still remember the chefs staring at us as we wolfed it down! We also ate at quite a few restaurants that just served one dish, this may seem like a strange concept to everyone used to perusing a menu to decide what to eat but if you only cook one dish then it’s easy to prepare and from the places we ate at, it was cooked really well, so why bother with other dishes?!

So hungry and such delicious food, that I couldn’t sit still for the photo!

Finally a collection of the weird and wonderful. The weird was a dish we tried in Hue, which was glutinous rice served 5 different ways, it was made into a paste and spread thinly with a variety of fillings including shrimp, in our whole year of travelling Asia it was like nothing else we tasted, perhaps Japanese mochi comes closest but this was much thinner and stickier. Now for the wonderful, whilst travelling if we saw people eating something that looked nice we would often try one for ourselves, Cu Do was one example, they are peanut waffle sweets bound together with caramel, everyone stopped to buy the during one bus journey so we indulged too! Another gem we discovered was morning glory, also known as water spinach, it was frequently served fried in garlic and was delicious, we always ate it if we spotted it on a menu. 

Fried rice (cakes) with morning glory in the background, so good!

So Vietnamese food, wow that was a long list of the food we tried and it all sounds impressive and delicious to read it back. However, in all honesty, although we did have some amazing food, it wasn’t quite the culinary delight I was expecting and we ate a lot of food that was average. Perhaps as I was so looking forward to Vietnamese food, the reality was going to be tough to live up to the expectations but a good bowl of pho is still hard to beat and I look forward to trying it again, some day, somewhere. 

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