Food Diary: Nommin' in Nam
During the last week of December, David and I visited Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate New Years Eve and experience Vietnam for the first time. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon, (although often still referred to as such) is a dynamic city well versed in cultural metamorphosis.
Over the last 200 years alone, Ho Chi Minh City has endured French reign (1862 -1954), more than a decade of occupation by the United States military (1961-1973), and finally reabsorption by North Vietnam during the country’s reunification at the end of the Vietnam War (1975). The impacts of Saigon’s torrid political history can be felt even today through the city’s unique culture - one that fuses both eastern and western influences, as demonstrated in the language, the architecture, and of course - in the food.
I think David would agree with me, that in terms of our culinary experiences in Asia thus far, Vietnam proved to be a dark horse. We didn’t anticipate that any kind of Vietnamese food (or really any kind of food ever again…) could possibly steal the crown from our reigning Thai favorites, like Khao Soi or Banana Roti, but lo and behold the cuisine in Ho Chi Minh city may have done just that. As I mentioned above, one of the things that makes Vietnamese food so extraordinary is the expert combination and range of eastern and western flavors, textures, and styles into a single, delectable dish. This makes Saigon the perfect destination for any foodie - but especially for a bread lover like me (enter: the french baguette)! Walk down any street in HCMC, and you’re bound to see food carts selling pork sandwiches on toasty warm baguettes, sweet iced coffee, and small pieces of “broken” rice served with chicken or pork for prices that will make even the most frugal of wallets smile (Vietnam is gloriously inexpensive - but more on that in a future trip recap post). Over the course of our five day adventure in Ho Chi Minh City, David and I made it our mission to pack in as much food exploration as possible, one Banh Mi at a time…
Banh Mi: Shortly after we landed in Ho Chi Minh City International Airport, bright and early at 9AM, we found ourselves with some time on our hands. Our Airbnb wasn’t quite ready for our arrival and I had an appointment at a tailor, but not until 11 AM. So naturally, we decided that breakfast time was as good a time as any for some Banh Mi. Banh Mi is literally the name for the french baguette that is the foundation of this palette intriguing Vietnamese-French hybrid sandwich. Typically, some type of pork serves as the main meat, like cold cut pork sausage, barbequed pork, or roasted pork. It’s then topped with a handful of cilantro, fresh cucumber, and pickled veggies, like carrot and daikon. To round it off, the freshly baked baguette is slathered with a generous spread of pate and mayonnaise. It is the quintessential example of French influence in Vietnamese cuisine and it is packed with flavor in every bite. In five days we ate no less than four renditions of Banh Mi - and two of them were on our first day! #NoShame
Our first Banh Mi was the best one we had, in my opinion. We chose this particular food establishment semi-randomly, on account of its proximity to the tailor. In total, our two sandwiches cost us 15,000 Vietnamese Dong each, a whopping $0.65!
About three hours later we took an afternoon stroll down a popular walking street called Bui Vien, which is basically the Khao San Road of Ho Chi Minh City. Lined with bars, restaurants, and speeding motorcycles, Bui Vien is a popular night time destination for first time visitors and seasoned Banh Mi chefs hoping to make a buck (or a dong I should say…). During our exploration of this street we wandered across the Banh Mi cart below and happily dabbled in our second sandwich of the day. Dave claims the flavor of the first Banh Mi was richer, but the cut of the meat on the second one was better. I say - any sandwich that allows me to eat a whole baguette under the guise of “lunch” is a winner in my book.
Our second evening in HCMC (around 10PM), we forayed into our third round of Banh Mi at a popular establishment called Huynh Hoa. This place had decent Banh Mi, but it wasn’t on the same playing field as the first, or even the second, Banh Mi we had the day before. The service at this establishment, however, was lickity split. As soon as we approached the counter and asked for two Banh Mi we were a handed a bag with freshly made sandwiches that we enjoyed alongside other HCMC dwellers in plastic chairs, as we collectively watched the tornado of motorcycles, taxis, and determined pedestrians melt together in the nighttime traffic.
To finish off our Banh Mi tour, we celebrated the first day of the year with a satisfying lunch of...you guessed it, more Banh Mi! We took a 15 minute motorcycle ride to find the highly regarded Hong Hoa restaurant (that Dave found on google). Like us, there were several others kicking off their 2019 with this delicious sandwich and some Ca Phe Sua Da (scroll down to read more about this caffeinated cup of magic) in tow. Overall, I would rank this particular sandwich as our third favorite, above the late night eats rendition of Banh Mi, but below the two versions we enjoyed on day 1.
Ca Phe Sua Da: One aspect about Asia that is sure to please any coffee lover is the frequency of coffee shops and cafes lining a single street (we’ve even found this to be true in in our small town of Phu Sang!). The coffee culture in Asia is a bit different from America, but it is sinfully delicious in it’s own way. We’ve found the coffee in Thailand to be much sweeter than back home, likely due to the heavy handed pour of condensed milk and generous helping of sugar that accompanies most coffee and tea based drinks (unless you specify otherwise!). Vietnamese coffee is perhaps even sweeter than Thai coffee! The famous Vietnamese “white coffee”, known as Ca Phe Sua Da, is available at most restaurants and nearly all cafes and food carts across HCMC. We took advantage of this opportunity a handful of times over our five days there. The coffee is brewed using a drip filter, then is mixed with sweetened condensed milk, and finally poured over ice. It’s served in a very small portion (comparable to the size of an espresso shot) - which is probably for the best, given what I’m sure must be an alarming sugar content. That being said, I couldn’t help but wish for an “American” sized portion of this magical concoction and feel a little bit sad each time I came down to the the last drops in my cup.
Banh Xeo: The Vietnamese pancake, known as Banh Xeo, is in my humble opinion, perfection on a plate. No seriously, this is my favorite dish I’ve had in Asia so far! Easily mistaken for an omelette to the naive eye, Banh Xeo is actually a thin (egg-free) pancake, owing its yellow color to a mixture of rice flour and turmeric. A thin layer of the rice flour batter is poured onto an uber hot skillet, filled with veggies (typically bean sprouts) and some kind of protein (typically shrimp and pork), and fried till its nice and crispy, sort of like a crepe. It’s served with lettuce leaves for wrapping and a fish sauce based sweet and sour dip, called nuac chom, for dipping. Our favorite Banh Xeo was at a popular restaurant in Saigon known as Five Oysters. I would highly recommend stopping by for dinner if you’re in town! It’s the kind of place that is always crowded (for good reason), so I’d recommend making a reservation if you can. We sat at a table on the rooftop and enjoyed the ambiance and authentic Vietnamese food.
Com Tam: As you are likely aware, rice is a staple food in the Asian diet - from steamed rice to fried rice, this powerful grain builds the foundation of countless meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Vietnam adds their own spin to this Asian culinary tradition by incorporating rice from fractured rice grains in a dish known as Com Tam, or broken rice. As the rice grains have been broken during the milling process, the resulting grain is much smaller than your typical “full grown” grain of rice, appearing more couscous in nature than ricelike. Per Dave’s research (are you sensing a trend here?…) we navigated our way to an unassuming restaurant, Com Tam 236, on a busy street in HCM specifically known for the dish. We ordered our Com Tam Suon Nan, or broken rice with juicy ribs, that had been sizzling on a nearby spit, and pickled vegetables. We topped off our order with a fried egg and hungrily dug into the masterpiece below.
Goi Con: A popular appetizer you will see on most menus in Vietnam is spring rolls, known as Goi Con. Vietnamese spring rolls are served cold, featuring mint leaves, cilantro, lettuce, bean sprouts, and cooked shrimp all rolled in a thin layer of vermicelli rice paper. They are the perfect “light and healthy” snack for anyone looking to avoid extra vacay pounds and are also incredibly fun to make! During the tour we took of the Mekong Delta region, we had the opportunity to learn how Goi Con is made and enjoyed the process of making some spring rolls ourselves for lunch. We also enjoyed Goi Con at Five Oysters, along with the Pho and Vietnamese pancake I mentioned above. Goi Con is served with a side of the multi-purpose fish sauce, which seems to make everything taste a little bit better.
Pho: As home to the infamous noodle soup known as Pho, you can’t go to Vietnam and not experience it for yourself. Pho is a Vietnamese soup dish consisting of rice noodles, bean sprouts, herbs and spices (like basil, cilantro, and jalapenos), and beef or chicken. To be honest, neither I nor David are that into Pho per say, but we’re not dummies either. We recognized the opportunity before us to try some Pho in the country of its origination and seized the moment at the aforementioned Five Oysters restaurant. We ordered a bowl of flavorful beef Pho to share, and while we enjoyed the soup well enough, the experience did not convert us to fervent Pho-lovers, like so many others.
Banh Cuon: As a lover of carbohydrates, I am usually attracted to most meals that include some variety of noodles; which brings me to the Vietnamese savory dish known as Banh Cuon. Featuring seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots stuffed inside a wide rice noodle pouch, Banh Cuon is basically the Vietnamese version of a ravioli. It is typically served with bean sprouts, cucumbers, and a side of nuoc cham for dipping. We tried this dish as the Benthanh Street Food Market and thought it was decent, but nothing to write home about (except if you’re a blogger that is..). That being said, there are probably close to 50 different food vendors at the Benthanh Street Food Market, so it’s definitely worth a visit. Plus, there’s live entertainment and a bar, making it the perfect spot for a casual dinner.
Exotic Fruit: As an American living in Asia, I learn something new almost everyday...one such thing is the array of exotic Asian fruit that I never knew existed! During the tour we took of the Mekong Delta region, we had the opportunity to try several exotic fruits including longan, guava, java apple, and rambutan. I didn’t much care for the guava or the java apple, but the longan and the rambutan were sweet and juicy. The availability of fresh fruit in Vietnam is quite impressive and makes it that much easier to make healthy (and refreshing!) choices while traveling abroad.
Chocolate: A sweet surprise we were not expecting in Vietnam is the country’s expertise in producing perfect morsels of silky, melt in your mouth chocolate! Cacao was initially introduced to Vietnam in the late 19th century by French missionaries. Today, cacao production is a blossoming economic driver in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam (about two hours away from Saigon), thanks to the founders of Saigon’s first “bean-to -bar” chocolate factory and cafe, Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat. Founded by two expats (French and American), Marou specializes in purchasing sustainably grown Vietnamese cacao beans from local farmers and transforming these high quality beans into chocolate. After learning about this establishment on an episode of Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil, we were champing at the bit to try a piece of this delicious chocolate for ourselves. Pulling up to the factory, the aroma alone was enough to tempt any passerby to wander in for a visit. We opted for a chocolate chip cookie, a mini cheesecake with a chocolate crust, and two hot chocolates (#treatyoself). Both the cookie and the cheesecake were out of this world. The hot chocolate was rich and creamy - so much so, that neither of us could finish it. The cafe itself was charming, albeit quite crowded. Visitors can take a peek into the chocolate bar making process through large windows in the cafe dining area that face the kitchen. On our way out, we snagged a couple bites of a free sample of dark chocolate that magically melted in our mouths. It is quite evident that Marou knows their stuff when it comes to making sensational chocolate. But don’t worry - if you can’t make it all the way to Vietnam, you can still purchase their chocolate in many different countries across the world!
Craft Beer: Ho Chi Minh City has a surprisingly robust craft beer scene. There are several breweries in District 1, where our Airbnb was located, each boasting a wide variety of ale from IPA’s, to ciders, to porters, and stouts. It’s not often that you come across many breweries in Northern Thailand (aside from Singha Park in Chiang Rai), so we made it a point to stop by a few while in HCMC. On the recommendation of a friend, our first stop was East West Brewery. The atmosphere reminded me of the breweries back home in the states. The vibe was what I would describe as industrial chic with large, metal barrels on display behind the downstairs bar. We opted to sit on the rooftop and each enjoyed a flight of four different beers. Our next beer adventure was at Urban Basement Craft Beer & Kitchen. We didn’t stay long, but we each enjoyed a casual beer, while a soccer match played on the TV in the background. This bar was cool and casual, and would be a great spot to catch a sports match with some friends. A few days later, we visited our final brewery of the trip, Heart of Darkness Brewery. We sat outside on their patio, enjoyed a flight of beer, and some perfectly crispy truffle fries. Despite the intimidating name of the place, we left this establishment with happy bellies... and full hearts (don’t tell the owner).