Trying to live a holistic life in an unholistic world

Time Travel: Vietnam

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Prior to moving to South Korea, I travelled solo around South East Asia.

I only had a one way ticket to Hanoi, no real itinerary, no real time frame, no real budget, no nothing except a wad of hard earned cash (via a soul destroying job) and unlimited time.

All I knew was I needed to travel, I needed to get away from everything that defined me.

I needed to lose myself in order to find myself.

I met some amazing people, many of whom I’m still in contact with.

It turns out that when you’re travelling on a familiar backpacking route, most people are asking the same questions as you are. We’re all on this big trip, thinking we’re taking a unique leap of faith, but really, we’re all searching for the same answers.

We’re all reading the same books, Shantaram, Life of Pi and at the time Eat, Pray, Love was viral. It was therefore assumed I was a broken woman flying solo on a quest for enlightenment, satisfaction and love inspired by Julia Roberts on a Carrie Bradshaw mission. Not 100% inaccurate, but still a long way from the truth.

So, I travelled from North to South Vietnam. Up and down the coast, weaving in and out, east to west.

I explored Vietnam mainly by myself. I was emotionally hungover from a particularly shite past few years and needed to clear the crap from my mind.

I hiked through the mountains of northern Sapa for 5 days to the border of China with only a guide and local tribeswomen. I had the honour of being welcomed into a local village party where they were celebrating the acceptance of their first-born into a Hanoi University. A humbling experience where I got to witness how proud her family were with a celebration of  festive food, in this case many dishes made from the prized mountain dog, and homemade cobra rice wine.

When in Nam, right!

Trekking through Sapa with my guide and H’Mong tribeswoman 

Festive celebration – the whole village was invited.

Far north Vietnam / Chinese border homestay
Preparing dinner with everything, vegetables and pork, sourced from his own farm.

I rode a motorbike for a few days through the central highlands of Dalat, visiting Phan Rang where my dearly missed dad was stationed. I wanted to see the Vietnam he saw.

Phan Rang: Dad on the right. Circa 1969-70

Phan Rang: 2011
Not too much had really changed

Street Vendor Phan Rang: Bánh xèo
Coconut milk flavoured crepe stuffed with prawns and beansprouts

Soups in the Dalat Centre Square

I saw the usual sights, Halong Bay, DMZ, the red sand dunes at Mui Ne, the beautiful French inspired Hoi An and got stuck for days at the beachy Nha Trang, swimming, drinking, cycling and lazing my cares away.

Life’s a beach – at Nha Trang

Street Vendor Nha Trang: Banh Can
A southern speciality which is a small rice pancake made with quail eggs cooked on a charcoal plate

Banh Canh Nha Trang: Fish noodle soup
I taught the girl in blue English for one week. At the end of the week she wanted to take me to lunch and meet her family.

Street Vender Hoi An.

Not exactly sure what it’s called but it was a standout. BBQ pork skewers served with mint and coriander, greens and dry rice paper.
Outta this world amazing.

But, it was essentially the food that kept me travelling and exploring. As you move north to south, the food changes dramatically and local delicacies found in Hanoi are not to be seen in Hue. (pronounced Hway)

Due to the apparent cooler climate in northern Vietnam, (definitely not when I was there in July-August) the production of spices is limited and therefore the cuisine is more mild, relying on black pepper instead of chillies for seasoning.

The soups and dishes of central Vietnam are noticeably more fiery due to the abundance of spices being produced in the mountainous region. As Hue was the capital of the last dynasty in Vietnam, the food is intricate and elaborate. (refer below to the many plates and separate banana leaf envelopes of Banh Beo and Lok)

Southern Vietnam also has a milder, sweeter flavour than the centre due to the tropical fruits and different vegetables such as garlic and shallots available which are indicative of the warmer temperatures. The region also uses more coconut milk in their dishes due to neighboring Cambodia.

Street Vendor Hanoi: Bun thit nuong
Round the corner from Hanoi Rendezvous Backpacker hostel.
Unbelievably fresh and good.

Street Vendor Hanoi: Bún chả

BBQ Meatballs served with cold noodles, fish/chilli sauce and salad.
OMG – Friggen amazing.

Start questioning why there are fine cheeses, breads and desserts in Vietnam and you learn about the history of the French Occupation in the 19th century. The French chefs taught many Vietnamese their methods of food preparation and techniques which were then adopted and fused together with traditional Vietnamese flavours and ingredients.  The French influence on Vietnamese food is now so deeply ingrained that some people are unaware of its presence.

Perfect examples of this fusion is the French technique of making stock to produce a broth for soup. When paired with Vietnamese flavours such as star anise, soy and fish sauce alongside garnishes of peppery Vietnamese mint, coriander, basil and chili it produces the rich and flavoursome dish of the country, Pho.

Street Vendor Hanoi: The quintessential dish – Vietnam in a bowl.
Beef Pho.

Street Vendor Hanoi: Pho

Street Vendor Hanoi: Banh Cuon

Another perfect French/ Vietnamese combination. Rice flour crepe with meat and mushrooms inside. Typically served for breakfast with fried egg atop. An absolute must.

Another fine example is the Vietnamese bread roll, Banh Mi. Having mastered the art of a perfect baguette in not only shape, colouring and taste, but most importantly, texture. The firm and crunchy outer shell protects the soft, yet slightly chewy inside which when spread with French-style pate, luncheon meats and cheese – usually Laughing Cow, and combined with chili paste, “Sambal”, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, notably coriander, Banh Mi is the perfect marriage between French and Vietnamese cuisines.

Street Vendor Saigon: Banh Mi

Other dishes not to be missed is the Royal cuisine of Hue, Banh Beo which is a rice flour dumpling/pod in a small bowl combined with small dried prawns and pork rinds. Banh Lok is a more gelatinous rice ‘rectangle’ with whole dried prawns and pork fat enveloped and steamed in a banana leaf. Alone, the flavours are subtle and the texture soft, however when paired with the spicy, fishy, salty dipping sauce, the flavours of the pork and prawn are intensified.

Whilst these can be sourced out in Saigon, the quality and price is far superior in Hue. Not much else to see in Hue apart from the Citadel and a day spent biking around, but definitely worth the trip for the food alone.

Also a standout is Banh Khoai which is an egg and rice flour pancake with prawns, pork meat and beansprouts.

Hue: Banh Beo (small dish) and Banh Lok (Banana leaf)
One of my absolute favourites.

By the time I reached Saigon (I realise it’s called Ho Chi Minh now, however the locals still refer to it as Saigon) I was encountering similar dishes. Whilst I wasn’t growing tired of the food at all, I was struggling to find totally new eats.

However, I was staying a stone’s throw from this bustling restaurant below and after arriving late and starving, a new friend and I wandered down for a much needed beer (it’s always a hot, humid Summer’s day in Vietnam. The weather varies from hot and humid to fucking hot and humid and storming) and to see what the fuss was all about.

Beef Bo Kho.

Holy crap. It deserves a line to itself, centre alignment, bold and italics. I’d make it a gif if I had more time.

A hearty beef stew with carrots and onions in a rich tomato broth very similar to Beef Bourguignon, asian-a-fied with liberal dashings of basil, bean sprouts, chili and lemon. You can choose to have it with either rice noodles or a baguette. I preferred to just eat it straight up with extra bean sprouts.

Long lost love: Beef Bo Kho. The first thing I will eat the next time I’m in Saigon.

Whilst there is so much choice of what to eat in Vietnam, and I seldom ate the same thing twice (except for the free bowl of Pho for breakfast available at all the hostels I was staying at), this, available only in Saigon, was a daily staple. Seemingly an odd choice to be eating such a rich stew in the stifling heat, the flavours, fall-apart-tender meat seasoned with star anise and cinnamon was such a stellar meal that I still find myself thinking about it now.

Bia Hoi Corner: Old Quarter Hanoi

Not to be missed is Bia Hoi Corner in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Basically an intersection where there are four ‘bars’ on the corner selling large pints of fresh beer for 5,000 dong – .25AUD. They usually run out of beer at around 10pm – in line with the curfew, yes curfew, on the whole city (the one reminder you’re in a Communist country – oh and also the 5am? 6am? propaganda-ish sounding radio announcements). The other stipulation is technically it’s illegal to have chairs on the road, and the police roam past on regular patrols. There seems to be an unspoken handshake that if you just kinda attempt to get up and move your stool, all is forgiven.

I cannot even begin to describe my love for Vietnam. I had the luxury of spending however long I wanted in each city, heading in any direction I wanted. Whilst on face value, it is a mish mash of overloaded scooters, beautiful women covered head to toe, middle aged men with their shirts rolled up and full bellies exposed as a sign of wealth, stifling heat and the fishy, salty, sour smelling street food prepared on seemingly dirty apparatuses only to be served at doll-sized plastic tables and chairs, there is so much generosity, kindness and beauty to be discovered.

Learn the culture through the food, try anything and everything and avoid the places Lonely Planet suggests. It is the only way to truly experience Vietnam. Sit down with the locals on the tiny plastic chairs. Eat at the places on the street where you don’t even have to order, where there’s just one thing on the menu. Don’t be afraid to try anything once. If you see something you wanna try, buy it then and there, because chances are you might not see it again.

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” James Michener.

Written by ayearinpatissiere

September 27, 2012 at 18:16

Posted in Lifestyle, Rambles, Travel

Tagged with , , , , , ,

9 Responses

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  1. Shit. You’ve sold it.


    September 28, 2012 at 00:11

    • I would go again in a heartbeat. Make sure you go while you’re this close to it!


      September 28, 2012 at 02:10

  2. I feel hungry when I read your article. I wish that I could eat all those dishes now. I am sure that you did have a wonderful trip. You did very good trip and you did have a lot of experience for traveling. You should write a guidebook.


    October 12, 2012 at 03:28

    • Thank you for your kind words!
      Vietnamese Food is amazing!


      October 12, 2012 at 11:43

  3. Fantastic … about to embark on Dalat and this is the best post I’ve read so far on Vietnam. It helps that I’m a foodie 🙂


    January 21, 2013 at 13:33

    • Wow, thanks! I absolutely loved Vietnam and basically travelled there for the food aswell! Dalat was one of my favourite places, you will enjoy the diversity.
      Have a great trip!


      February 15, 2013 at 16:15

    • Wow, thanks chiefmadapple! I hope you had an amazing time as what I did.
      Glad it was comprehensive and able to assist you somewhat. From one foodie to another!


      May 23, 2013 at 19:43

      • Had an awesome trip- although my skin got really dry in Dalat (the cold weather? the water?) and I was ready to get out of there after a few days. Too bad too because the weather was so pleasant. I also had the Hue dinner stuff. Next time, more street food 🙂 Thanks again!


        June 2, 2013 at 13:58

      • Hello 🙂
        So happy to hear you made it to Vietnam! So glad you tried the food at Hue, hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
        The weather was really different in Dalat, much cooler, and it is also more mountainous, with a higher altitude, so both these factors could’ve contributed to your dry skin. Also, I’m sure it has something to do with the weather generally in Vietnam, it is so humid and sunny, even coming from Australia I know I got slightly dehydrated and sunburnt from constantly being outside in the heeeeeeat.
        And yes, you can never get enough street food!
        Happy to help, all the best 🙂


        June 6, 2013 at 20:45

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