It’s not uncommon for a traveller returning from Vietnam to hail the food as the biggest highlight of the trip, writes Claire Boobbyer
A woman sings as she pours curd into two, metre-long moulds. Behind her, tanks, pipes and cauldrons wheeze and foam. Next to the moulds is a batch made earlier: two lengthy logs of glistening tofu.
Mrs Hien churns out hard and soft tofu at her mini factory for sellers already crowding her stall on the hot Hanoi street. I try the soft tofu sold with sugar syrup. It’s so fresh I can still taste the water.
I’m with Ai, a MasterChef Vietnam finalist, collecting fruit and veg from a city market before a cooking class.
“Vietnamese shop every day at the market as we love to choose fresh ingredients,” Ai tells me.
Under the shade of umbrellas, we pass piles of leafy greens, bowls of live crabs, eels and prawns, a persimmon stall bulging with orange, red, and yellow-green fruit, and a pineapple stand where the seller flicks a knife all over the cross-hatched peel in a slick demo of skill.
In her home kitchen, Ai gives me a masterclass in identifying Vietnam’s pungent fish dipping sauces. Next, we marinade catfish fillet in turmeric, yoghurt, annatto oil and nostril-busting shrimp paste – the basis of a famous Hanoi dish. But Ai upends the traditional way it’s eaten – with rice noodles and dill – and we roll the marinaded fish into rice paper.
Ai ticks me off for not tearing up the herbs for the spring roll-in-the-making.
“I was taking the lazy option and dumping everything in!” I say.
By the time class is over we’ve made sauteed shrimps in rum with pomelo salad, too, and ‘Hanoi cappuccino’ - Hanoi’s signature egg coffee dating from a 1946 recipe made with whisked egg yolk instead of milk.
And we’ve ramped up on flavours. We make egg chocolate, egg mocha and egg matcha coffee. The robusta coffee – “more bitter than arabica bean and when matched with cream, it’s better” says Ai – comes from her uncle’s farm. The matcha is a hit.
Ai may not have made an accomplished chef out of me, but she fuelled my interest in devouring more of this Southeast Asian nation’s fragrant food.
Earlier this year Vietnam’s first Michelin guide was released awarding four restaurants in Hanoi and one in Saigon with a single star. I eat at Michelin-recommended beautiful An Ban Mountain Dew in Hanoi which serves ethnic minority cuisine – divine deep-fried pork that’s steamed for eight hours with a lovely, earthy mushroom sauce, and extraordinary rainbow-coloured rice.
But I was keen to sample the country’s world-renowned street food, the very dishes locals claim Michelin reviewers mostly ignored.
To that end I dip into Hanoi’s streets the next day with serious foodie Van Cong Tu. It’s a breakfast-cum-lunch tour. Tu tells me to skip my hotel buffet. I’m glad I heed the advice.
We tuck into bún thang, rice noodles, shredded pork sausage, omelette and chicken. The café owner serves up the soup, bubbling with chicken stock from a steaming silver cauldron. The cramped café is packed with Vietnamese atop green plastic chairs chattering, digging in with chopsticks , and cutting noodles with scissors.
“The owner tried to escape Vietnam after the war, but failed,” says Tu. So, she set up this business and it’s packed.
We feast on banh mi next, a French-style baguette, at a corner café watching motorbikes swing by. It’s made with 20 per cent rice flour, Tu tells me, so it’s lighter on the palate. It’s stuffed with pork pate, egg, carrot coriander, and pickles.
I swivel in my plastic chair to the adjacent stall and pick up bánh cuốn. These tiny parcels of soft rice pancake wrapped around pork, wood ear mushroom, garlic, kumquat and pepper are manna from heaven.
I’m so full, I need the afternoon off. I walk off the calories around the Hoàn Kiếm district’s central lake. It’s abuzz with walkers, trotting dogs, balloon-wavers, and tai chi practitioners.
At Loading T café, behind louvred shutters and inside the flaking remains of a beautiful French colonial villa, I research the city’s drinking holes, while knocking back more egg coffee served in a beautiful cup.
Michelin is late to Vietnam’s party. In 2021, three Vietnamese bars made it onto Asia’s Best 50 Bars 51-100 list for the first time. In 2023, three new bars made this list. Just 20 years ago, most bars in Hanoi were found in city hotels. The recent rise in a Vietnamese middle class is matched by increased interest in craft beer, spirits and cocktails.
At the Haflington, newly listed this year, I take an uber-narrow passage to an apartment block yard and climb stairs to reach the Hall of Moonlight. It feels very Night in the Museum. The faux bones of a Mosasaurus is suspended above the bar. I’m transfixed.
The butler, aka the barman, tempts me with Iron Will, a martini made with Bacardi Superior 8-year-old rum, coffee beans, basil leaves, coconut syrup, lime juice and ginger ale. It takes an iron will to leave. The cocktail list, nay a book, is very alluring. But I’ve a flight to catch to Hoi An on Vietnam’s central waist.
Lantern-lit Hoi An is a gorgeous Unesco-protected town of ochre-hued homes and Chinese temples alongside the Thu Bon River.
I dive right into the untouristy back streets with former chef Phuoc of Eat Hoi An. Phuoc is a wonderful guide to the country’s street food. We stop at tiny stalls – all kitchen clatter, sizzling and smoking – to eat green papaya salad, a ‘drinking snack’, and fried rice cake with quail egg made by Mrs Dung who’s been serving customers under the shade of a banyan tree for 28 years.
I suck snails from a stream cooked up by Mrs Oanh and lap up local specialty Cao Lau, a fragrant handmade rice noodle soup with pork. I follow it with an unusual (for me) delicious black sesame sweet soup perfected by Madame Thanh for the last 35 years!
After all the tasty food found on foot, I was keen for a drink so dropped into 7 Bridges Taproom where I’d heard central Vietnam’s only craft brewery was serving up some unusual pints.
I ordered a beer flight featuring Upcycle, made using unused pizza dough, Beach Blonde Ale which was super light and very drinkable, and Chocolate Madness made using cacao husks and nibs from Vietnam’s first artisanal chocolate manufacturer, Marou. Cacao-infused beer is dreamy.
I follow the chocolate trail to Ho Chi Minh City where I sign up to a tasting session of dark 70 per cent bars from the southern provinces of Vietnam.
Marou was born of a dream by two Frenchman in Vietnam in 2011. Marou’s Pho Spice 65 per cent single origin dark chocolate wrapped in dazzling geometric gold and tangerine is a game changer. I feel like I’ve won a Willa Wonka Golden Ticket.
Marou has nailed the taste of Vietnam’s iconic spicy noodle soup, pho, making the leap from aromatic liquid to tongue-tingling solid chocolate.
Nibbling chocolate is tiring so I head out into the motorbike-tangled streets for a caffeine hit.
Café Cheo Leo, tucked away in an alley, has been brewing coffee in Saigon since 1938. Fat brown clay pots steam on an old stove where coffee is filtered twice through cloth. It’s a snapshot from another world.
But this is Saigon in a nutshell. In this city of nine million souls, powered by homegrown coffee, the vintage coffee hangout is as popular as say a sleek, glassy affair like Lacàph. Both fare better than Starbucks. As the world’s second-biggest exporter of coffee, it’s not hard to see why.
Pepped up by the addictive liquid heaven that is coffee with condensed milk, ice and coconut from Cheo Leo, I join my guide Shane for a street food tour by motorbike.
Under the skyscrapers and alleyways and perma-Christmas fairy lights of the city, we hang with the snail king of Saigon surrounded by platters of steaming clam with lemon grass and a large melo melo snail just right steeped in pepper. We devour rice pancakes stuffed with seafood and a rich beef stew before I ask Shane to drop me for a drink.
I complete the whirl in this buzzy vortex of a city by doing a little bar hop. Naked Battle made with Saigon’s Lady Trieu Hoi An Spice Road Gin, with peanut, and wild forest pepper at the Triệu Institute in downtown is a beauty. Spicy, peppery, and moreish, too.
At award-winning Stir with a 50s vibe inside an apartment block I sip a daiquiri made with Hoi An rum, and I’m knocked off my stool by a Tropical Punch Hard Soda, the colour of rosé wine, from the Steersman Brewery. It has a lovely tropical aroma, tastes of fresh lychee, and goes down a treat.
As I savour my way through the sultry Saigon night, I realise the news of the Michelin guide has eclipsed the everyday creativity of Vietnam’s talented chefs, mixologists, bakers and brewers. So, I raise my last glass to all of them.
InsideAsia has a 14-day Food Lovers Vietnam cultural adventure which costs from NZ$3525pp excluding international flights and includes 13 nights accommodation, all transport across Vietnam, breakfast every day, a range of dinners, lunches and food experiences.
For more things to see and do in Vietnam, visit vietnam.travel