I didn’t know this before getting here, but there are actually two types of pho: there’s the beef version, called pho bo. That’s the one that we’re more familiar with back home. There’s also a chicken version called pho ga.
I tried both, of course. Again, I’m not a crazy person.
First up is pho ga, the chicken version, which I had at a restaurant called Pho Lam Nam Ngu in Hanoi.
It’s essentially the platonic ideal of a bowl of chicken soup; it had an exceptionally clean, simple (and delicious) flavour. It’s tasty on its own, but once you jazz it up with a spritz of lime and a bit of the chili sauce they’ve got on the table, it really starts to sing.
I wish the noodles had been a bit firmer, but all in all this was a satisfying bowl of noodle soup.
The second restaurant was called Pho Gia Truyen. It’s super popular. The first time I showed up, the place was an absolute mad house; I came back the next day right when it opened, and there was still a line, but it was a bit more reasonable.
It’s packed for a reason. The soup had such an intensely satisfying beefy flavour — with just enough spicing to compliment it but not get in the way — that I didn’t even bother putting any chili sauce or any of the other condiments on the table. I didn’t want to mess with it. It was perfection.
It was topped with a surprisingly generous amount of thinly-sliced beef; that beef was bananas. It was super tender, with a shockingly rich flavour. This was obviously some top-shelf stuff, because it tasted good.
The noodles were pretty great, too. It’s easily the best bowl of pho that I’ve ever had.
I think I might have actually ruined pho for myself, because I’m never going to be able to find anything this good back home. Oh well.
…And maybe the greatest sandwich I’ve ever had, period? It’s right up there, that’s for sure.
Banh mi, for the unaware, is a Vietnamese sandwich served on a version of a baguette. I’ve had a few since arriving in Vietnam. They’re typically served in roadside stalls like this one.
Or this one.
That last one featured a banh mi that was filled with grilled meat patties. It was quite tasty, but the patties were a bit too dry.
One of the better ones that I’ve had (up until the mind-blowing best ever that I’ll get to in a moment) is from a place called Banh My Lan Ong in Hanoi.
They’re famous for their freshly-made pate (you can even buy it in little plastic tubs from the restaurant), and rightfully so. That pate is absolutely amazing; a little bit chunkier than the norm, with a very mild liver flavour that’s balanced perfectly by the pate’s unique spicing (it has quite a strong cinnamon flavour).
But the bread itself was a bit overly crunchy; one of the great things about a banh mi baguette is the very light, crackly exterior and the fluffy interior. This one was aggressively crunchy — it’s the type of bread that’ll tear up the inside of your mouth if you don’t eat it carefully.
The greatest banh mi of all time, oddly enough, was a random discovery. I was just walking around in Hanoi and saw a very impressive line for a place called Banh My Pho Hue; if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know that I absolutely cannot resist a line for food. And even if that had never paid off for me, it still would have been worth it a billion times over for allowing me to discover this place, because oh man. Oh man, this sandwich.
It’s so simple: a slathering of butter, a heaping spread of pate, a little bit of pork floss, a few slices of cold cuts, and a few slices of plain cucumber. There’s none of the pickled veggies or herbs that you find in a lot of other banh mi, and you don’t miss it.
You can add on a little bit of the zingy chili sauce they have on the side (and you should definitely do this), but other than that it’s a pretty basic sandwich.
The bread is ridiculous; it’s satisfyingly crispy on the outside, and fluffy as a cloud on the inside. You can eat this sandwich as aggressively as you want — you’re not going to cut your mouth. And yet that outer crisp is still very much there, it’s just amazingly delicate.
The pate, like at Banh My Lan Ong, is a bit chunky, and absolutely amazing. It’s easily the star of the show, and is complimented perfectly by the creamy butter, the cold cuts, the pork floss, and the fresh crunchiness of the cucumber.
It’s a simple sandwich, but all of the components are so delicious and work together so well that it’s a revelation. If I were to list the top five sandwiches that I’ve ever eaten, it’d be on there for sure.
When I sat down to eat fish noodle soup (a Vietnamese dish called bun ca) at around eleven in the morning, I started to wonder: is this a mistake? Maybe eating a potentially very pungent fishy soup for breakfast isn’t a great idea?
Well, it turns out it absolutely was a great idea, because the bun ca that they served at a placed called Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi was phenomenal.
The broth, in particular, was something special: it was mildly seafoody, with a zingy, almost sour flavour that was given some added depth thanks to the fresh herbs, particularly dill.
The chewy noodles and crispy veggies worked great together, and there was a very generous amount of fried fish chunks.
They must have fried the hell out of those things, because they somehow managed to retain their crunchy exterior right down to the last piece. And yet the inside was tender and flaky. I don’t know how they did it, but it was pretty amazing.
I take back everything I said about crossing the road in China, because crossing the road in Vietnam is pure, unadulterated insanity.
The roads are constantly packed with scooters, and most crosswalks don’t have any pedestrian traffic lights. Even if they do, here’s something that’s fun: there’s no countdown clock or flashing light to tell you when a pedestrian signal is about to turn red. It just randomly switches over with no grace period, and if you’re in the middle of the road? Too bad, here comes some cars.
And if there are no lights at a crosswalk and the road is a non-stop stream of scooters (and a lot of roads here are non-stop streams of scooters), then you basically just have to walk out into the fray and let the scooters weave around you.
It’s tremendously off-putting at first, though clearly all of the drivers here know what’s what — as long as you’re paying attention as you cross, it never feels particularly dangerous. There’s something oddly satisfying about timing your crossing just right and watching as an army of scooters criss-crosses around you.
I wasn’t quite able to capture it, but I took a video of me crossing a fairly busy road. It’s extremely shaky and the framing is quite off — I had the camera to my side and wasn’t looking at the screen, because I didn’t particularly feel like getting walloped by a scooter — but it gives you a basic idea of what crossing the road is like here.
There was something particularly depressing about eating at McDonald’s in Vietnam. I’ve only been here a few days, but it’s already clear that this country has some of the best food of anywhere I’ve visited so far. It kind of sucks to waste a meal on McDonald’s, but I’ve come this far. No point in turning back now.
The feeling of vague sadness was compounded by being surrounded almost exclusively by Western tourists. I don’t want to be the kind of traveller who judges the way that other people travel, but my hotel is near the main tourist-centric stretch of town, and I’ve seen some stuff. There are so many tourists that hang out at these cheesy-looking bars eating stuff like pizza or nachos, and it just makes me sad. The food here is so good.
But then blog or no blog, I’m in McDonald’s too, so I guess I’m part of the problem.
The menu here had a few interesting things, at least.
The first thing I tried was the pork and rice. This came with a small pile of rice with teriyaki sauce, a cut up pork patty, some veggies, and an egg. It was fine, I guess. I think you can get a pretty good idea of what this tasted like just by looking at the picture.
I had the curly fries on the side. There may as well be one factory that makes all of the curly fries for the entire planet, because they always taste exactly the same.
There were a few sauces other than the usual ketchup at the dispenser, which helped. I tried the chili sauce, the garlic chili sauce, and the mayo sauce, and they were all fairly tasty.
I had the Strawberry McFizz to drink, which was basically a strawberry soda with jam on the bottom. It was intensely sweet, but refreshing.
I stumbled across this one while I was walking around the city; unlike the Ben Thanh market, which felt quite touristy, this one was clearly just a local market.
There’s something very entrancing about wandering around a market like this and just taking in all of the sights (and sounds, and smells).
There was a vendor selling a tropical-looking fruit (I looked it up, and I’m pretty sure it’s jackfruit). I figured I’d give it a shot.
I wasn’t crazy about it. It had a mildly farty flavour that reminded me of a much, much less intense version of durian (durian, for the unaware, is a notoriously stinky tropical fruit that tastes like literal garbage. Not only is it the worst fruit I’ve ever had, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten).
Thankfully it wasn’t quite as foul as durian — I was actually able to eat most of it — but it’s definitely not something I’d want to eat again.
Take, for example, bun bo hue. I just had a bowl of it at Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao, and it made a strong case that there should be room in your life for more than one noodle soup from Vietnam.
It’s got a zingy, ever-so-slightly sour broth that’s really satisfying; it’s much more of a face-punch of flavour than the comparatively subtle pho.
It comes with various sausagey mystery meats that are all quite tasty, and a couple of plates worth of veggies and hot peppers to customize your bowl.
I should note that those peppers are inferno hot; I added most of them to the soup, which was probably a mistake. The peppers themselves were fiery little spice-bombs, and they quickly infused the broth with their intense heat. I have a fairly high tolerance for spicy foods, but even I found this to be a bit much. I was getting pretty sweaty by the time I finished the bowl.
It’s one of those places where they sell everything under the sun — from knockoff watches and knick-nacks to produce and prepared meals.
I wanted to get something to eat, but I didn’t have anything in mind, so I figured I’d just wander around until I found a crowd.
The busiest vendor — by far — was this one, selling a dish called banh beo hue.
It’s not like anything I’ve had before, and when I ordered it, I literally had no idea what it was. Was it seafood? Some kind of sausage? Who knows!
It turned out to be slices of a chewy rice cake (it’s really similar in texture to Korean rice cakes) topped with fish sauce, a generous handful of parsley, and some crispy bits of pork crackling for contrast.
It was surprisingly delicious. It was chewy, crunchy, tangy, and addictive. It also cost 20,000 dong, or about $1.10 Canadian for a fairly filling lunch, so like everything else here, it’s delightfully cheap.
I just had my first couple of meals in Ho Chi Minh. For lunch, I stumbled across a tiny little restaurant that specializes in broken rice. It was a pretty basic version of this dish: it’s a fairly substantial pile of rice (made with, as the name suggests, broken grains of rice) topped with grilled pork, greens and some crispy bits (I have no idea what these were but they were super tasty). It also came with a really satisfying bowl of vegetable-packed soup.
The price? 30,000 dong, or about $1.66 Canadian. That is obscenely cheap for such a satisfying, delicious lunch.
For dinner I went to a place called Bun Thit Nuong Chi Tuyen. Their specialty is a dish I’ve had countless times back home that features a mix of rice noodles, pork, veggies, and herbs, with a spring roll on the side. You top the whole thing with a sweet fish sauce (there was also a container of fiery red chilies at the table that I’ve never seen back home; it really kicked things up and was a pretty amazing addition).
This is my go-to dish at Vietnamese restaurants, and this was the best version of it that I’ve had by far. The noodles had a really great chewy texture, and the balance of flavours was incredible. Back home, sometimes the herbs are a bit overwhelming, or the proportion of vegetables is off, but here everything was just right.
And don’t even get me started on the spring roll, which was absolutely perfect.
And you know what else was perfect? The price. 47,000 dong, which works out to $2.60 Canadian. It’s suddenly becoming very clear to me why this place is so popular with younger travelers. You can make very little money last a long time here.
And a bonus at the noodle joint: this almost improbably adorable puppy, who was sleeping on a chair just outside of the restaurant.