My advice for your culinary tour of Vietnam is to sit next to a friendly young Vietnamese native on your flight into the country.
Vu Bich Thuy could hardly contain herself. Even though I was reading and tucked inside my earphones, she started asking about my visit to Vietnam. Before I knew it, she was writing in the back of my guidebook the outstanding local foods for each city I was about to visit.
We talked and exchanged emails, and Thuy quickly followed up with a note listing some favorite restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, formerly Saigon), including addresses.
Eight days later, I’m now one city away from sampling all her notes, and I can testify that she is spot on. In Ho Chi Minh City, a typical dish is bahn xeo, a rice and wheat crispy crepe pancake folded over a mixture of shrimp, pork, sprouts, and spices. In Hoi An, the cau lau is the local version of rice noodles with pork. Hué is known for its incredible rice cakes (think thick patties of rice pasta) with a sprinkle of fragrant ground stir-fried shrimp. Another wonton version of this is standard breakfast fare. In Hanoi, we’ll look for bun cha and bun muc, guessing these are fish soups with rice noodles.
Thanks to Thuy and Lonely Planet, we found Nga Han Ngon in HCMC, a busy restaurant that offers table service and menus for a group of magnificent ‘street’ chefs, each preparing their specialties. In Hoi An, The Morning Glory restaurant provides a similar emphasis on appetizers and small plates typical of street vendors. While we sampled White Rose Dumplings, the staff presented Rice Paper Rolls with Shrimp and Pork, with thoughtful instruction on how to eat them.
Hoi An is known for its food, so we signed up for a cooking class there. The tiny restaurant, Huu Nghi, whose name translates to Friendship, first attracted us with its 4,000 Viet Dong ($0.20) “fresh” beers, and its position on Bach Dang Street just across from a busy riverboat landing. The charming young Min invited us in to try the food. She was feisty enough to say, “If I say it is good food, you know it is good food.”
The class, two days later, started off with a trip to the nearby market. Min bought lemongrass, garlic, ginger, banana leaves, and mushrooms. Her favorite vendor didn’t take her money; I’m sure there is an ongoing balance of trade. I saw Min and other locals give small bills to the old woman sitting on the ground with her empty basket. “She has no family, no one, so…” Min explained. Deftly, Min also took me past a friend’s stall where it was plain I wouldn’t be excused until I bought a paring tool, made in China. “Say ‘com on’,” Min coached me. Yes, thank you.
Back at the restaurant, more items were already prepared for our cooking. The freshest butterfish, pork, and shrimp had been purchased earlier at the market, which opens at 5:30 a.m. Garlic had been peeled, and other cooking ingredients assembled.
So we set in to slice and dice. Garlic, lemongrass, ginger. More ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. Some spring onions. With the help of a small blender, and some prepared fish sauce and soy sauce and “Five Aroma Powder,” we made three fabulous dishes.
And then of course we ate: Butterfish Grilled in Banana Leaf (butterfish, also common in Bali, is my latest favorite fish, but we decided trout or walleye could substitute), Shrimp in Clay Pot (the clay pot dishes are also a specialty of Hoi An), and Squid with Pork. The squid with pork was the newest taste sensation for me. A Chinese-Canadian who happened to be visiting the restaurant as we finished class couldn’t help hark back to his mother’s version of the same, and he vowed to try it when he got home.
Our instructors, Nga and Min, were great fun. Min translated as Nga talked through the steps, and we were not spared their laughter, encouragement and chastisement for our clumsy participation. All the while, Min’s mother was in the back, rolling a pork mixture into rice paper for spring rolls. Min, 23, wants to stay on at the restaurant and enjoys working with her mother. Though it is not her family’s restaurant, they’ve both worked there for years. Min makes about 2,000,000 Dong a month (less than $100), or 70,000 a day ($3.36).
In Hue, we dined with our new friend, Randi, a friend of a friend. We made a beeline to one of her favorite street vendors on the river, Quan 99, and sampled aplenty! The young female chef apparently used to work at the Century Riverside Hotel where we are staying. The food was absolutely fresh and wonderful, better than it could be served en masse at the hotel. We feasted on folded rice pancake appetizers, stir-fried squash blossoms with garlic, fried rice, chicken wings, pork skewers, grilled quail, noodles. We shared it all and somehow easily went through 3 beers apiece, and paid just 500,000 Vietnam Dong (US$25) for the three of us.
We await the Hanoi specialties, and the wherewithal to recreate some of these dishes back home.