We came to Vietnam to eat. My husband and I had three weeks, a limited budget, voracious appetites and a fervent desire to experience the food and culture.
Our budget was not a problem. Most meals cost less than $2; guides and drivers were $55 to $65 a day plus tip; hotels $60 to $140 a night.
Good guides are the ticket to truly experiencing Vietnam. Most will readily bring you to not-to-be-missed sites like Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton), the serene Citadel in Hue and the colorful Cai Rang Floating Market in the Mekong. But to understand and experience the culture — and appreciate the beautifully balanced flavors of Vietnamese food — ask your guide to go where he or she eats.
Pho is one of the best-known dishes of Vietnam. Go out before 10 a.m. for this traditional breakfast dish. In Hanoi, vendors line the streets, sitting on 2-foot high stools in front of a giant vats of steaming broth, their carts piled with bowls of thinly sliced beef, bean sprouts, fresh herbs and noodles. Sit on a tiny plastic stool and let the light but flavorful broth, savory meat and noodles be a meditative start to your day. Soon the city will be bustling and your senses will be zapping from the cacophony of sights and sounds.
Another traditional Hanoi breakfast is bun oc, a steaming bowl of rice noodles, pillowy crusted fried tofu, and mild, chewy snails topped with fried shallots, all in a satisfying sweet and sour broth. Go to 44B Phat Loc; as is often the case here, its name is its address.
We left the heart-stopping traffic, grit and endless street food adventures of Hanoi behind as we drove through the winding Thung Khe Pass. At the peak of the harrowing mountainous journey, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view through the cold mist — and a row of aromatic, smoky roadside shacks. We sat on the ubiquitous low stools across from an elderly Muong woman grilling pork skewers made from the locally raised black pig. She handed us warm wooden rods and showed us how to peel back the pliable bamboo to reveal sticky rice steamed in the branch’s hollow.
In bucolic Mai Chau, home to many minority tribes, we stayed at the Mai Chau EcoLodge, which overlooks tranquil vistas of flat rice paddies surrounded by green hills. From here you can wander through quiet villages where families rely on backyard fish ponds, small livestock and rice fields for sustenance. Eat at a homestay, where locals offer lodging and traditional simple meals — grilled pork, fish steamed in bamboo leaves, salads and rice.
Hue, Vietnam’s royal capital, was a striking contrast from the rural villages. We toured with local food celebrity Madame Huy, who led us to the renown Hue dish, com hen. This mildly spicy, soothing rice dish with tiny river mussels, chilies, mint, fried pork skin, slivers of fried shallots, and peanuts is a treasure trove of flavors and textures. Hue is also known for banh beo, small steamed rice cakes topped with shrimp, fried shallots and the ever-present fish sauce.
Hoi An may be the most charming — and tourist-oriented — city in all of Vietnam. Enjoy the usual sights and activities, like a lantern-lit night boat ride, but for a deeper dive get off the beaten track with a food tour from the incomparable Huynh Huu Phuoc from EatHoiAn.com. We met cooks, vendors, producers and growers and tasted their food all day long. The specialty dish of the region is cao lau, chewy thick rice noodles, thinly sliced glazed pork, fresh herbs, lime wedges, bean sprouts and crisp fried croutons made from dried noodles. It's all topped off with a small ladleful of smoky broth.
As we headed south to the Mekong Delta region, the weather got warmer, the landscape lusher and the skies sunnier. We were dazzled by the colorful floating markets and the sweeter, spicier flavors of the south. Most of the Mekong Delta is dedicated to growing and making food; under the tutelage of a patient local, we attempted to make the 2-foot wide translucent rice cakes that are dried to cracker crispness on wicker racks in the sun. We also learned the local way to cook a just-caught fish and talked to an orchard owner about natural pesticides and sampled fruit she plucked from her trees.
While we could have happily spent more time in the Mekong Delta, it was a perfect place to wrap up our exploration of the foods of Vietnam and the people behind them. Besides, we know we’ll be back.
Five dishes to try in Vietnam
EGG COFFEE Whipped egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk spooned over hot coffee. You’ll find it throughout Hanoi; our favorite was at the charming Gau Coffee & Bakery, 33 Hang Be, in the Old Quarter.
CAO LAU NOODLES There are many stories about what gives these thick, coarse noodles their unique chewy texture. But you will only find them in Hoi An. Cao Lau Lien, 16 Thai Phien St.
BANH MI Anthony Bourdain declared this sandwich “the best in the world,” located next door to the bakery that churns out the perfect bread — crispy on the outside, soft inside. Go for the classic with roast pork, pâté and mayonnaise. 2B Phan Chu Trinh, Cam Chau, Hoi An.
BANH XEO This savory turmeric rice pancake is folded over a variety of fillings, making it a dead ringer for an omelet — until you slice it, roll it in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dunk it in fish sauce dressing. Found throughout Vietnam, with regional differences.
NOM THIT BO KHO Green papaya salad with sliced and dried beef, sweet and sour dressing, herbs, crunchy salted peanuts and fish sauce dressing. 23 Ho Hoan Kiem, Hanoi.
Tours and guides
We arranged for guides and drivers ahead of time through Hanoi-based Handspan Travel Indochina, which prides itself on being culturally and environmentally sensitive. Our trip was fully customizable: we communicated our interests in food and travel off the usual tourist paths, and Handspan was very responsive. Every one of the guides they provided was earnest and knowledgeable (handspan.com).
Our favorite food tours:
Hanoi. Hanoi Street Food Tours, streetfoodtourshanoi.blogspot.com
Hue. Ms. Nhu Huy, email email@example.com
Hoi An. Huynh Huu Phuoc, eathoian.com
Saigon. XO Tours, women-led motorbike tours, xotours.vn