2013 Travels: #20 Vietnamese Cuisine

Mixed mango salad at the more upmarket Morning Glory Restaurant in Hoi An. Not a common dish in Vietnam but retains the essence of Vietnamese cooking. Fresh and full of flavour.
Mixed mango salad at the more upmarket Morning Glory Restaurant in Hoi An. Not a common dish in Vietnam but retains the essence of Vietnamese cooking. Fresh and full of flavour.

If someone asks me to recommend a place in Southeast Asia for good food, I’ll send them to Malaysia. Of course, that’s my nationality bias speaking but if there was a second choice, it would be Vietnam. Yup. Not Thailand. Not Indonesia. And certainly not – God forbid – Singapore. (Sorry Singaporeans, no hard feelings!) This blog and its glorious photos will show you why.

Newcomers to Vietnamese cuisine will first be surprised by the amount of greens served at almost every meal. Raw green vegetables and herbs are stacked highly on a plate, either to be eaten straight away or plucked and mixed into the main meal. Where herbs like coriander seem like an afterthought in oriental cooking; in Vietnam it’s a major component in certain dishes. This is something you need to get used to and understandably, not everybody favours it. If you like it though, you’re in for a treat.

If you care to look for it, you could trace foreign influences in the dishes, ranging from the Chinese to the French. Meats like pork, chicken, fish and shrimp could be found in the local diet while ingredients and herbs like fish sauce, basil, tamarind, coriander, spring onions are common. The French left its influence as well, with baguette and pate seeping through the daily diet.

The great thing about dining in Vietnam is that street vendors are everywhere at any time of the day, especially in cities like Hanoi and Saigon. However, not all of them are brilliant and a good number of them serve mediocre food. To uncover the really good, you need to dig deep inside the winding back alleys, either through sheer luck or through a local in-the-know. If you’re unsure, always observe. The number of locals dining is usually correlate to the quality of food. A high turnover rate also means the food is fresh, and you’re less likely to come down with food poisoning.

I’m willing to bet that if you could find one of those stalls that serve only the best meals, your tastebuds will never be satisfied. And long after you have returned to your home country, you will soon yearn for a good Vietnamese fix and be tempted to fly to Vietnam on impulse just for the gastronomy. I know I do.

(The following is a list of dishes I’ve tried during my 3-week stay in Vietnam. Although it barely scratches the surface and not every one of them were memorable, it should give you a good picture of what the cuisine is about.)

Com Tam Suon Nuong. Pork chop marinated in lemongrass sauce, grilled and then served with broken rice and fish sauce. It smells as good as it look and taste twice as good. (Can Tho, Vietnam)
A southern dish that combines rice noodles with a pork-based broth. (Cai Rang Floating Market, Can Tho)
A unique knockoff of a western steak. Kinda like the ones you get at some Malaysian mamaks, but this is pretty good. (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
Barbeque Chicken Wings, Chicken Thighs, Chicken Drumsticks, Chicken Hearts… you get the drift. If you love barbeque, you’ll love this. (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
A type of rice pancake, here served with pork rinds/skin and nem (A type of Vietnamese sausage). (Hoi An, Vietnam)
Banh Mi. I could write an whole essay on the Banh Mi, let’s just say it’s the French baguette, filled with damn good pate, delicious meats, fresh vegetables and flavourful sauces. (Hoi An, Vietnam)
Chicken Rice. Look at the amount of greens. This should be renamed Coriander Rice with Chicken. (Hoi An, Vietnam)
Mi Quang. The yellow noodles are apparently fresh and tangy because of the water used, which is drawn from local wells. Not sure if the practice still exist today but with this dish tasting so good, I wouldn’t doubt it. (Hoi An, Vietnam)
Banh Can and Nem. Little fried fritters. Delicious snack to have in the evening. (Hoi An, Vietnam)
White Rose. A type of dumplings popular in Hoi An. (Hoi An, Vietnam)
A type of porridge for breakfast. (Hue, Vietnam)
Bun Bo Hue. Rice noodles served in lemongrass broth and beef briskets. The Hue version is slightly spicier than the normal Bun Bo affair. (Hue, Vietnam)
Bun Thit Nuong. Rice vermicelli noodles served with grilled pork, peanut sauce and fresh vegetables. Easily one of my favourite food. (Hue, Vietnam)
Bun Cha. Similar to Bun Thit Nuong however this nothern dish is served with a green papaya sauce. Instead of mixing them together, you’re supposed to dip the meat and noodles into the sauce before eating them. Khoi introduced me to this dish few years ago and I’ve been missing it since. (Hanoi, Vietnam)
Banh Goi. Fried pastries filled with vermicelli, minced pork and mushrooms, usually dipped in a sweet sauce. (Hanoi, Vietnam)
Couldn’t remember the name but this was a noodle dish served with deep fried eels, peanuts and fresh vegetables. Pretty unique. (Hanoi, Vietnam)
Banh Xeo. A savoury local version of crepe, usually topped with shrimps, pork, beansprouts and onion. Usually eaten by tearing parts of the crepe, wrapping it with lettuce leaves and dipped into a fish sauce. (Hanoi, Vietnam)
The quintessential Vietnamese dish, Pho Bo. Pho Bo, although originated from the north, could be found everywhere in Vietnam. In fact, I had a plenty of good ones when I was working at HCMC. But when you’ve found one where its beef slices melt in your mouth literally, you know you have a keeper. (Hanoi, Vietnam)
Local homecooked dishes served at the homestay / hostel. (Mai Chau, Vietnam)


On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also to share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series. 

I was in Vietnam from March 20 to April 9. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone. 

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