One thing we were most looking forward to in Vietnam was the food – and we were not disappointed with the fresh, tasty and cheap food on offer! As well as trying many restaurants and cafes, we also did a scooter based street food tour in Saigon and a cooking class in Hoi An which were lots of fun.
On our first morning, we headed down to a local pho shop to start our Vietnamese food journey. We were the only Westerners in the busy shop, filled with families, sometime three generations had congregated here for their breakfast. The bowls of stock and noodles came out very fast, and the best thing was each table had huge plates of herbs to add in – we didn’t know what half of them were at this stage – but they were tasty and made the meal very fresh. Our pho was so filling that I had no requirement for morning tea (very unusual for me!).
Saigon Street Eats – Street Food 101 Tour
To get a better understanding of the Vietnamese street food culture, we joined the Saigon Street Eat’s Street Food 101 tour. It was great fun right from the start, when we were picked up by scooters and rode as passengers to the meeting point, weaving through the crazy rush hour traffic. The road rules about lanes and traffic lights were only loosely followed, but somehow it all worked and the traffic flowed better than if there were rigid adherence to ‘normal’ road rules. Once we had arrived at the meeting spot, our guide then explained the two key principles of eating street food:
1. Only eat street food you can see being made in front of you, so you know that it is fresh.
2. For good street food, select stalls that only do one thing – lots of them have been cooking the same thing for years and have truly mastered their speciality!
Our first stop met both these criteria, where an old man was cooking Banh Xeo pancakes – the same way for over 30 years! These crispy pancakes contained prawns and pork in a thin pancake batter, that are then wrapped in salad leaves.
We learnt about the correct way (our guide was very precise) to place slices of pancake in a large mustard leaf; then add mint, basil and a small bit of a leaf which smelt like fish; carefully wrap up the parcel and finally dip in nuoc cham (fish and chilli dipping sauce). They were delicious and very crunchy – but we couldn’t eat too many as it was only the first food item on our tour!
Our next major stop was on the seafood strip, we sat on our requisite small plastic chairs (which feature at every street food stall and most restaurants that aren’t upmarket places), while the stall holders cooked a seafood feast on their grill. First we had scallops and whelk which has been fried in butter, chilli, garlic and condensed milk – very tasty indeed.
Next we had scallops which had been grilled on the shell, covered in soy sauce and peanuts. Scallops are one of my favourite foods, and these ones were lovely. A plate this big would have cost a fair bit back home…
The scallops were followed up by steamed pipis with lemongrass and chilli. The amount of lemongrass in the pot was staggering – Woolies sells 30g for $3 so this pot would have contained around $15 worth of lemongrass in Australia! This was my favourite dish of the food tour, and I consumed quite a lot of pipis… To eat them you spooned some of the broth into the shell and then slurped it down like an oyster.
During our seafood stop, we had been chatting to one of the young students who was helping out on the tour. He had suggested that Vietnamese ladies would prefer to go on a seafood date night, rather than be given flowers, which was supported by one of the young female helpers. We got back on the scooters and headed through some narrow back streets in the China Town (Cholon) area of HCMC to our penultimate destination. I laughed as one of the streets had only florists with huge bunches of flowers in every shop!
At our next stop we tasted Bo La Lot, beef and lemongrass wrapped in a betel leaf and then barbecued. The betel leaf imparts a spicy fragrance and keeps the beef from drying out. We added our Bo La Lot into bowls filled with vermicelli, bean sprouts and of course a selection of fresh herbs. These were very tasty and maybe something that we could make at home, although the only place to buy betel leaf is on Gumtree!
One of the most famous foods in Vietnam is the Banh Mi. Bread was introduced to Vietnam by the French, although the baguettes used in Bahn Mi include rice flour which makes them lighter and more airy than normal baguettes.
Traditional fillings include pate, mayonnaise (the French influenced items), pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, coriander and sauces like spicy chilli and soy (the Vietnamese influenced items). The meat can be a variety of cold cuts with pork being popular. The bread roll needs to be hot – traditionally kept warm by heating over a charcoal grill.
We tried numerous Bahn Mi ranging from roadside stalls in Saigon to two very famous shops in Hoi An – Madam Phuong’s (declared the best by Anthony Bourdain) and Madam Khanh’s (self proclaimed Bahn Mi Queen). Both were very tasty – there were so many different flavours in these banh mi that it was difficult to pick them all out, but none were overpowering and they all worked well together. Banh Mi are great value, less than AUS$3, but do leave a trail of crumbs behind!
Red Bridge Cooking School
Since there are so many fresh herbs used in Vietnamese cooking, it make sense that the first place that we visited as part of our cooking school was Tra Que Herb Village. About 3km from Hoi An, farmers work small allotments growing herbs and lettuces organically.
The farmers work pretty hard for not all that much (herbs are sold so cheaply in Vietnam), and so a lot of the younger generation have chosen to work ‘better’ jobs in Hoi An, leaving older people toiling in the fields. However, with the gardens now becoming a tourist attraction and the diversification into restaurants and cooking schools, this has helped increase the farmers’ income. There also seemed to be an interesting way of allocating the allotments to families based on their number of children, a reminder that Vietnam is still technically a Communist country.
It was great to walk around the fields and see the various herbs growing in neat lines including morning glory, at least two varieties of mint, coriander, a couple of varieties of basil, spring onions, lettuces and even the fish smelling herb!
Another important place we visited was the local market, to stock up on fresh produce for our cooking class. As per most proper ‘wet markets’ there were some interesting sights at the Hoi An local market – lots of whole chickens and ducks, plus stalls of chickens feet, offal, live fish in baskets (often with netting over the top so they couldn’t jump out), unidentifiable seafood… Our chef also stopped off to get some cinnamon and came back with the largest cinnamon bark rolls we had ever seem – about 20cm in length and around 5cm in diameter!
Back at the cooking school, we put on our aprons and read through our menus. We would be cooking Pho– including the making fresh rice noodles, Clay Pot Fish with Fresh Dill (Cha Ca), Lemongrass Shrimp grilled in Banana Leaves (Tom Nuong La Chuoi) and Grilled Chicken and Banana Flower Salad (Goi Hoa Chuoi Ga Nuong). In reality we cooked some aspects, with a trusty team of helpers preparing the vegetables, minding the stocks and doing all the cleaning up.
Firstly we made the marinade for the chicken, prepared our pickles for the pho, and made the pho broth. This included browning some bones on the charcoal grill and then the very important step of washing them off before including them in the broth so that it remains clear.
We then prepared the salad, which involved lots of grating. The chef demonstrated a six chopstick mixing technique which was pretty amazing, and worked very well for long strand-like items in the salad that need to be mixed.
After this it was time to eat our salad. It was very yummy, though a pretty big serve considering we were going to also cook and eat the other three dishes!
While feasting on the salad, the chef and helpers cooked our banana leaf shrimp. We had carefully wrapped them in a particular order, with each of us adding an identifying item into the wrappings (a chilli, shallot, lime) so that we knew which one was ours, as we had all used different amounts of spice!
Although by now we were quite full, we returned back to the bench to learn how to make the noodles for the pho. Rice is soaked overnight, and then blended for an hour. A thin layer of batter is then spread on cotton, which has been stretched over pot of boiling water. After a couple of minutes steaming with the lid on, the noodle sheet can be removed and cut into strips – easy!
We topped our noodles with a few slices of beef, then collected our stock before adding fried shallots, herbs, pickle and a little fish sauce. It was good to know exactly how this famous dish is made, and our version of pho was pretty tasty.
Last on the list was clay pot fish, which was a great combination of flavours from turmeric, garlic, chilli and dill. The fish was fried gently for a minute each side and then simmered in the pot. By this stage we were pretty full, but it was hard to resist a few bites of this tasty dish.
Other dishes we tried
Bahn Bao Vac (White Rose Dumplings) – these are a Hoi An speciality, a dumpling with a shrimp filling and topped with garlic.
Cao Lau – another Hoi An speciality (supposedly only made with water from a certain Hoi An well), chewy fat noodles which we had with pork at Morning Glory, a highly recommend restaurant. Very yummy!
Nem Lui – this is a classic from Hue, where beef is barbecued on a lemon grass skewer. When cooked, the skewer is held tightly in a rice paper roll to remove the lemon grass, herbs are added and the wrapped item is dipped in a special sauce. I always enjoy a meal that needs to be assembled at the table!
Hot Pot – We tried beef hot pot in Hue, not really knowing what it would come out like. The staff bought out a large stock pot and a paraffin burner, when the stock was boiling we added the raw meat which cooked really quickly. It had a interesting flavour – actually quite sweet as stock included pineapple (and tomatoes which we removed!)
Fertilised Duck Eggs – the yolk was hard boiled and then there was also the duck fetus which had just started growing feathers… Not something I will eat again, but eaten a lot in Vietnam.
We also tried numerous super fresh mango/papaya/banana flower salads, lots of meat/vegetable/rice options, rice paper rolls, all kinds of interesting fresh fruit…
And of course after all that eating we ended with a local craft beer from Pasteur Street Brewing, based in HCMC.