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!
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.