Culinary adventures in Vietnam

by Irina Vishnevskaya, Tastemaker in Residence

My visit to Vietnam happened on a whim, like all good things in life. My brother was living in Singapore at the time and was planning a pan-Asia trip, and I noticed that tickets to Vietnam were particularly cheap (why I happened to be searching tickets Minneapolis to Vietnam? who knows). We decided to meet there for a week of travels; my one condition was that my brother plan the trip. 

Well, he didn’t really plan a single thing. I mean he got us train tickets and figured out the visa thing, but other than that it was us and the winds of Vietnam. And aside from a few highly memorable glitches that now make for a great story, we had a grand ol’ time. 

Vietnam is an absolutely beautiful country; I laid eyes on some of the brightest hues of green I’ve ever seen in nature and swam in the most pristine, secluded beaches. But even so, undeniably, the best part of our time there was the food. Everyday was like some magical adventure through a world of deliciousness. Sometimes, I still look though my pictures of the food we ate there and reminisce. 

So as per usual, here are my field notes from the time my brother and I ate our way through Vietnam: 

Surprise yourself

Vietnam is definitely not the country to make dinner reservations in, or even to necessarily to know where you want to eat on any given night. Instead, do a bit of research to find out where the outdoor markets are, or where there is a clustering of food options, and then head there. Don’t expect to see menus outside of the “restaurants” or even to see any English explaining what they serve. In fact, expect no menus; food places in Vietnam usually specialize in just one dish and most are outside, or pseudo-outside, so make your dining selection based on the busyness of the place and the looks of the food. Most likely, it will look like nothing you’ve ever eaten before. That’s the goal! The prices of the food in Vietnam is literally a fraction of the prices you’re used to, so you can sit down, try a little, and continue on to the next place to try some more food. The risk is low (at worst you don’t like the food) and you’ve got at most three dollars to lose. Be brave, courageous soul! 

The shabbier the better

This was a bit of a shock for me, coming from the ultra stringent world of food service in Europe. None of those rules apply in Vietnam. In fact, it’s rare to even find a place with an official kitchen, well, maybe not rare, but those places are definitely not the real local joints so I would avoid them. In Vietnam, as my brother and I quickly learned, the scarier, shabbier and more hole-in-the-wall a food establishment looks, the better. Some of the best meals we had were literally eaten crouched on the sidewalk next to a woman cooking on a makeshift, nomadic kitchen near an intersection. And of course, as always, extra points for finding places that are packed with everyone but Europeans and Americans- those are the real deal. 

Pho, all day every day

Pronounced “FUH”, Pho is the iconic Vietnamese noodle soup which is made with broth (many varieties exist- fish, meat, vegetable), linguini-shaped rice noodles, and usually topped with green onions, meat, and a range of veggies. Pho is definitely street-food, and you’re bound to see more vendors selling it than any other food item. It’s most often eaten in the morning (yes, soup for breakfast- don’t knock it till you try it), it’s also common to eat for lunch, and in northern Vietnam it’s even a dinner meal. Pho is usually served alongside a plate of garnishes- such as onions, chili peppers, cilantro, lime, beansprouts and basil; and you can definitely expect to see a wide range of regional variations. Eating it is an all hands on deck process and admittedly took me quite a few tries to learn.     

The art of the Bahn Mi

Before our trip to Vietnam, I kind of thought the Bahn Mi was the Vietnamese equivalent to Cream Cheese Wontons- an American invention. Why else would this Asian country eat sandwiches out of a French baguette? Turns out, Bahn Mi is as Vietnamese as it gets and it’s all because of French colonialism. This beast of a sandwich makes every other sandwich you’ve ever had pale in comparison. It’s the best of both worlds- crisp French baguette (baked to be single-serve) and liver pate filled with Vietnamese goodness like cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, pickled carrots and all sort of other mysterious delicious ingredients. There was one Bahn Mi place that was so good, we went back 4 times (in two days). I noticed they had a special trick, before adding the toppings they would drizzle the inside of the bread with a tangy sauce that had the consistency of a broth- making the bread moist, juicy and delicious. 

Moral of the story? Go to Vietnam sooner rather than later, or at the very least get yourself to a Vietnamese restaurant immediately.