The year is off to a blazing start, and I hit the ‘go’ button by…going on vacation. I scuttled off to Vietnam right about the time when people were finalizing New Year’s resolutions. Vietnam it would be, because Vietnamese cuisine boasts flavours that are refreshing, vibrant and clean – and because I love Vietnamese banh mi (which ironically I never ended up eating because they were all pork-based). I was in search of flavours completely different from the ones we get in Dubai, for the simple reason that after a marathon year of eating with Frying Pan Adventures, I simply needed to reset my palette and start again.
Over the course of a five day trip to South Vietnam, I experienced many memorable meals and squished in two food tours as well as one homestay. I won’t bore you with the details, just the best dishes, the craziest things I saw, and maybe the most memorable meal that I had during my stay. North and Central Vietnam didn’t make it to the list because my stay was far too short to travel the whole country. But rest assured they will feature in my travels at some point because my appetite for Vietnamese food is not sated just yet.
My Best of South Vietnam list is admittedly a tediously long list, so I'll cut straight to the two morals of my 5-day Vietnamese story. First, when in Vietnam, sign up for a food tour and be led around the city. This is not an easy place to eat through if you’re here only for a few days – partly because the language is so different and it’s practically impossible to tell a good stall from a mediocre or bad one unless you’re a local. I was well-fed thanks to the brilliant food tours run by Saigon Street Eats and XO tours that were referred to me by the well-travelled Lara Dunstan at Grantourismo Travels,
Second moral of the story, you can impose a rigorous detox regime on yourself at the start of the year. Or you can skip the misery and live it up in Vietnam. There's an emphasis on fresh and local, made totally possible because over 70% of the nation is locked into agriculture.
So here's my best eats list. Don’t even ask me the name of the restaurants or street carts we visited – my brains were on holiday and I just let my food tour guides lead me about the city like a hungry tongue-wagging dog.
Fresh fruit - rambutan, longyan, water apple, milk apple, guava, pineapples, jackfruit, steamed bananas...you get the gist. A couple of juicy bites in, it hit me that almost everything I’ve bought from those Thai ‘exotic fruit stands’ in Dubai was really just…plastic.
Strange velvety berries that we tasted on our Saigon Street Eats tour with Vu. They were some mix of tamarind and sour raspberries…anyone know the name?
On the drinks line-up, sugarcane juice with kumquat during our XO sights tour was such a throat tease that it was gone in minutes, sipped on the back of the motorbike as we zipped around China Town. Kumquat just might be my favourite flavour of Vietnam - it's some mix of lemon, orange and perfumed floral tones that can brighten anything from sugar cane juice to seafood.
In the same slurpable league was the Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk that we ordered on our Saigon Street Eats tour – a sweet chocolatey concoction with the added perk of a cool caffeine rush with every sip. The fresh pomelo juice we bought from the market later during the tour was a close runner-up on the drinks list, and a welcome aid in washing down the truckload of street eats that made it to our lunch spread with Vu.
There’s something about Vietnamese noodle soups in all their forms that feels healing, almost detoxifying, like the beef Pho that Vu ordered for us on his tour with Saigon Street Eats. I'm no Pho expert by any means (read Robyn Eckhardt's take on a Pho variant if you want something more informative) nor did I attempt to pass the soup under my psychoanalysis scalpel which I had consciously left in Dubai before flying out on holiday. With the singular goal of unwinding, healing, turning my mind off, I let my tastebuds lose themselves in every bowl of noodle soup I had in Vietnam, slurping slow-simmered broth between chopstick twirls of chewy soft noodles that begged all my attention lest they rudely splash back into the bowl.
There’s more to Vietnam than Pho, but God help you if you leave without tasting a good bowl of it – and you can depend on Vu to show you the real stuff. Toss in a variety of herbs and condiments for good measure: Vietnamese mint reminiscent of unripe berries, cumin leaf that smacks of liquorice, crunchy saw tooth leaves, spicy Siracha, deadly green chillies, hoisin and more fish sauce – all probably South Vietnamese flavour boosts to this mild-intentioned soup born in the north of the country.
XO tours expanded my noodle soup horizon to Bun Ho Hue, a beefy soup dished out from a non-descript cart on the roadside. We started our foodie tour with a hefty bowl of bun rice noodles and silky sheets of tenderized beef steeped in a broth of beef bones, lemongrass and star anise. And of course fish sauce, that salty ingredient which infuses a simple soup with subtle but unmistakable soul.
The only oxtail soup I had in Vietnam was with Vu, and a darn good one at that. Oxtail is one of those strange-sounding foods that gets cooked for some painfully long period like ten hours until it is silky soft and irresistible. Extra credit goes to the cook for tossing in scallions and coriander, which cut through the blubbery nuggets of oxtail with rewarding freshness.
Vu also hit a homerun with us by ordering up firm cubes of tofu with skins flavoured in tomato, pepper, or lemongrass – simple, but some of the most flavourful variations on tofu that I’ve had in a long time.
The great thing about Vu is that he combines his passion for food and natural eye for picking out good eats in a stampede of edible possibilities with an incredible knowledge of the culture and cuisine. He’s got that winning combination which makes him instantly credible with any serious and inquiring food-lover looking to learn the culinary ropes in Vietnam.
I’m miffed that I didn’t have enough time for Vu’s seafood tours, but thanks to XO tours, I did end up hovering my chopsticks over crabs, clams and scallops whose flavours had been amplified with some winning combination of kumquat, fish sauce, herbs, lemongrass, ginger, chilli and those fat granules of salt that you’ll see in almost every Vietnamese restaurant. We were at the comatose end of our food tour, yet I couldn’t help reaching out for seconds.
The look of the ugly scaly curls on the elephant ear fish that we had at the Uttinh Guest House in the Mekong Delta still gives me goose bumps, but they did such a good job with deep-frying it that I picked at it despite my shuddering self. (Thanks to Backyard Travel for arranging this!)
Flakes of fish beneath that hideous skin became surprisingly beautiful when combined with fresh lettuce and mint from the Uttinh garden. After a graceful demo from the host, we followed hungry suit, rolling up the soft fish into translucent chewy rice paper and dipping them into bowls of mild fish sauce.
Another winner was the Banh Khot that we bought from the market with Vu from Saigon Street Eats. The texture of these baby cups is totally irresistible – chewy, creamy, almost fragile and pulpy like a ready-to-burst egg yolk, yet without being undercooked. Vu meticulously tucked them into lettuce spring rolls, even though my preference was to enjoy them in isolation.
The Bo Kho at the Park Hyatt just scraped its way into the list, less because of the beef and tender carrot stew (which I’ve found a more soulfully seasoned version of at our very own Hanoi in JLT) – but more because of the impossibly light and crisp baguette. This is how baguettes probably are all of over Vietnam – with a hard-knock crust on the outside and angelic fluff on the inside. It makes everything else you’ve ever had feel somewhat stodgy.
Bo Kho at the Park Hyatt with a baguette that I should have packed up and brought back to Dubai. I'm fully aware that teeth don't hold any salivary glands, but I could swear that even my jaws drool at the thought of crunching into this bastion of light crunchiness again.
On the sweet front, the Bánh Chuoi we ate with Saigon Street Eats hit that moderately sweet + soft + moist cake spot that not many a cake can often hit. This steamed banana cake had squidgy purplish banana slices sandwiched between sweet caramelized folds of cakey pillow. Sweet enough to satisfy, soft enough to comfort, but not cloying enough to sicken.
Bánh Chuoi. Squidgy toffee-tasting banana cake.
Right up that same judicious dessert alley was the wobbly coconut jelly hemmed in with an opaque layer of coconut cream, served right at the overstuffed end of our XO foodie tour.
Coconut jelly in all its wobbly splendour on our XO foodie tour.
On a related coconutty note, the warm chewy coconut toffees we tasted at the kitchens in the Mekong Delta were surprisingly pleasing for something so synthetic-looking. They had the toffees in a range of flavours: plain, coffee, coconut, ginger, chocolate, peanut, pandan. I obviously bought them all.
I feel disgusted with myself even as I write this, but I really must applaud the mini custard doughnuts at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon – the highlight of my breakfast at the hotel. With all the herbs and fresh fruit and clear soups, it’s almost challenging to be unhealthy in Vietnam but I clearly found a way around that. It may not seem very obvious on this blog, but my love for doughnuts borders on the fanatical. If I haven’t written a post dedicated to doughnuts, it’s because I stay the hell away from doughnut shops lest I raze through every shelf and fall to the floor like a lazy, overstuffed, and stupidly incapacitated possum.
The photo above is not that of the real custard-oozing glob that I sunk my jaws into at the Intercon, this is an inferior version at Park Hyatt that dissolved into anticlimactic anonymity after I excitedly photographed it to bits and shovelled it into my mouth. But I felt so strongly about the one I had previously gorged on at the Intercon that I needed to record this painful visual memory that no other doughnut – no matter how pretty and angelic it may look - could be as custardy and floofy as the beloved one at Intercon. And you will be penalized with a sub-par doughnut if you dare to think otherwise.
There is one meal that is the most memorable of all – it was home-cooked in the middle of what felt like an island/jungle/a piece of hidden land with lizards and mosquitos slinking about. But that meal deserves a separate blog post altogether which can be found here.
My travel references for Vietnam: