My main travel goal in 2015 was to visit countries I’ve never been to and one country in the region I’ve never been to, but have heard tonnes about from friends, was Vietnam. Most of my friends have been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). In the interest of time (limited vacation leave, sigh), I opted to head to HCMC for a total of four days.
Out of all the things I did in Vietnam, the most enjoyable experience, was definitely having Vietnamese food. While Singapore is a rather multi-cultural city, it is still pretty lacking in terms of good Vietnamese food. Before my trip, all I knew of Vietnamese food was pho, coffee and spring rolls. Embarrassing, I know.
So to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes as me, and be all lost when you step foot into the city, here are some dishes you can try! No outlet names unless I remember them, and also because you can literally find such dishes everywhere, in alleys, along the streets. Go on and explore!
1. Bánh Mì Ốp la (Vietnamese Baguette with Eggs)
I first saw this dish while looking for Vietnamese dishes to try. This dish is essentially a de constructed Bánh mì or sandwich. Think of it as a breakfast platter if you’d like. I preferred this to the Bánh mì because it meant that I could slather as much pate and egg I wanted on the bread.
2. Bún Mắm (Fermented Thick Vermicelli Soup)
This was my very first dish in HCMC. We were wandering around Ben Thanh Market when a very kind old lady beckoned us to where she was and told us to try some of what she was having. Given that our Vietnamese food vocabulary was pretty much limited, we had to rely on her to order for us. As she knew we were foreigners, she cautioned that we might find the fermented taste odd. On the contrary, we loved it, though it did take some getting used to. It was accompanied by prawns, some fish cake and lots of greens. The store we went to in the Ben Thanh market looked really popular among locals and when we went back later in the afternoon, it was already closed. Do go early if you’re there!
The store you should be looking out for at Ben Thanh Market.
3. Bánh Bèo (Steamed Rice Cake)
We tried this at the Ben Thanh Market, which was right next to our hotel. We were really hungry after our day trip out and decided to wander around the market to see what we could have, and whilst walking around, we saw lots of locals crowded around a particular stall. So we sat down, asked for one portion and was served with this. Banh Boe reminds me of our Singaporean dish, Chwee Kueh, due to its consistency. The only difference is that it is drenched in a sweet mixture that contains fish sauce and other sauces I can’t really pick out. And topped with croutons!
4. Bánh mì (Sandwich)
Banh Mi on the top left of the photo. Apparently I was too hungry to take a dish-specific photo.
While I’m not a big fan of breads, I loved the Bahh Mi I had in HCMC, perhaps because the texture of the loaf we had there felt a lot softer and was easier to munch on. Essentially, Banh Mi is a baguette sandwich accompanied by greens and meats, smoothered with pate and mayonnaise. The more common version is Banh Mi Thit, which comes with pork within.
5. Phở (Noodle Soup with Beef/Chicken)
This is THE quintessential Vietnamese dish.I have had this multiple times in Singapore, so I was really looking forward to having the authentic version right in HCMC. I did notice one slight difference from the versions we have in Singapore and the one I had in Vietnam. The local version was served with loads of greens that you can just throw into your soup and the soup also had a slightly more oily look, but it still tasted great nonetheless. This can be found almost anywhere, but we had ours at Pho Anh, which is apparently a local favourite.
6. Vietnamese Coffee
I know I already mentioned this from the start, but one absolutely cannot leave Vietnam without having once tried their Vietnamese Drip Coffee. The coffee may be a little on the sweet side (just watch how much condensed milk they drizzle into your coffee!), but it is extremely fragrant and potent. My favourite coffee shop/cafe was Vy Coffee, which is about a 10-minute walk from Ben Thanh Market.
The next four dishes were those that were featured in our night street food tour with Back of the Bike Tours. While the tour was pricey, it was definitely a good way to try some of the city’s best foods at some of the cities’ most obscure locations. We also got to do so in a very local manner, zipping around the roads in a scooter. It was my first time on a bike, and while it was initially pretty nerve-wrecking, I was pretty enjoying the whole process of hopping on and off by the end of the night.
7. Gỏi đu đủ (Green Papaya Salad with Beef Jerky)
Though I’m familiar with this dish, having tried the Thai version several times, it was definitely the first time I was having it with beef jerky. And it wasn’t just any beef jerky… According to our guide, it was beef liver! I’m not a big fan of liver, but thankfully it tasted nothing like it. The smokiness of the beef jerky was a good complement to the sweet and (super) spicy sauce drizzled on the papaya salad. As the lady who sold it only had a roadside store, we had to sit on a pavement opposite the road to have it. Coupled with 888 (pronounced in Vietnamese as “bababa”) beer, the salad was an awesome start to our evening food tour.
8. Bánh Canh Ghẹ (Crab and Tapioca Noodle Soup)
This dish might appear to be a savoury one, but in reality the soup stock was actually really sweet. (The Vietnamese really like their food sweet, don’t they?) There were also hints of ginger in the soup. The accompanying noodles have a texture like Japanese udon, but are slightly chewier. While our guides call this the Vietnamese laksa (due to the colour and the similar type of noodles used), I’d liken the taste more to that of our local fish soup dish, except sweeter.
9. Cút Chiên Bơ (Quail)
I’ve always flinched at the thought of eating pigeon or quail, but when I’m overseas it’s a different thing altogether. I’m usually a lot more adventurous when it comes to food choices and it didn’t help that the barbecued quail looked really inviting. The dish was served alongside a baguette, which you can pry open and stuff the quail into, and then dip it into a salty black sauce before devouring it. As with all Vietnamese dishes, one can also opt to fill your baguette with lots of greens. I’m not trying to sound cliché, but it really tastes just like chicken, with a crazy amount of smaller bones.
10. Bánh xèo (Rice Crepe)
This was our last dish for the evening (minus desserts, that’s for another stomach), so by the time we reached this restaurant, I was mad stuffed. However, the allure of a crispy rice crepe with pork and shrimp was just too inviting.
We had the opportunity of trying to make our own crepe, which I tried for a good 2 minutes before I gave up because the oil kept splattering back on me. Though it was pretty easy to make the crepe, the heat from the flames and the hot oil definitely made it way harder than it looked. While some restaurants serve the crepe on its own, we were told to eat it with a rice paper roll, with lots of vegetables. (I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many greens in a day! Only in Vietnam!)
So there you have it, 10 out of the many foods I tried when I was in HCMC. As we were there for an extremely short period of time, we definitely didn’t get to try all the Vietnamese food that I’ve read or heard about. But considering how close HCMC is, and how cheap it is to fly there on a budget airline, I’m pretty sure I’d be back within a year or so.
Where did I stay? During my time in Ho Chi Minh City, I stayed at Anpha Boutique Hotel, which was right opposite the back of Ben Thanh Market.
When I first booked the hotel, I had no idea how central it was. Imagine my joy when the airport shuttle pulled up to the hotel and I saw Ben Thanh Market right opposite! It is relatively new, clean and while the hotel on a whole, is small (about 2-3 rooms per floor) and the rooms are quite narrow, it was still very comfortable. Noise is an issue though, as it is situated right next to a very busy road. We were on the fifth floor but I still remember being kept awake by the honking of traffic. But well, what’s a holiday in Vietnam without the blaring sounds of traffic, right?
What is your favourite must-try Vietnamese dish?