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Jun 29, 2006 01:27 PM

A bit more on Vietnam

So I just went on a 2 week tour through Vietnam with a friend of mind who isn't of the exact same eating mindset but was willing to tag along. I followed mostly chowhound tips, being wary of most tourbook restaurants, and after two weeks have this to add:

1) DO NOT EAT AT RESTAURANTS - apart from two very notable exceptions, one in Hanoi and one in Ho Chi Mihn city, (Quan An Ngon - you just have to go to this place if you're in HMC. Absolutely sensational food and variety, as well as beautiful seafood.) restaurants, even restaurants suggested in chowhound and multiple other sources, just werent as good. Ever. That includes, in Hanoi, the roundly well-reviewed (and extortionate for Vietnam) Brother's Cafe, and also, in Hoi An, the equally well-reviewed Cafe des Amis. Neither were bad, per se, just not nearly as good as good street food, which is easier to spot and usually about 30 times less pricey (you can get a great full dinner of two soups for about 60 cents most of the time, and that's on the pricier side of street food.) A general exception exists to allow for those half-street-half-restaurant places (street stallish but inside) with white walls and open fronts that really are restaurants, but pretty much only for the Vietnamese.

2) You will not get sick off of street food. If you do, you'll get over it soon. I ate raw lettuce off the street with soups or sandwiches or other things maybe every other day of the trip. I even drank some tap water. Didn't even feel my stomach rumble. Eat on the street. It's perfectly safe. That said, onto the actual recommendations:

My hotel was in the old quarter on Hang Bo street, a short strip because many vietnamese streets there change names when they hit a new block. There were two fantastic street shops on the block. I, in the course of 5 days there, ate possibly 5 or 6 meals a day, in many different places, and I am certain these places are good even relative to other street food. There are clearly even better ones out there, but if you want pointers, these are good, and pretty near the lake. During the morning up until noonish, there is a shop right next to the Hoa Linh Hotel, look the hotel up to find it if you want, that serves a lovely Bun Cha, a sweet vinegar pork broth with pickled radish, charcoal roasted beef-chive patties and bacon, lettuce, shiso, sticky noodles, and fresh Thai bird chilli. Verrry good. On the closest corner to this shop is another stall open mid afternoon to what is very-late-night for Vietnam food (11ish to maybe 12.) This stall serves a great My Van Than, opaque yellow vermicelli, sweet pork broth, bean sprouts, fried pork wontons, peanuts, deep-fried shallots, bbq chicken, pig kidney, and shiso, with a side broth made with clear scallion, shrimp and dried baby mushroom broth swimming with mushrooms, baby scallions, fresh pork wontons and fried bread ladyfingery things for dipping. For fantasic Cha Ca, catfish fried with tumeric and dill, eaten with noodles, dill, peanuts, sprouts and basil (I'm forgetting and ingredient,) go to the restaurant (I know, but this is like a stall of sorts - only one dish in the restaurant) Cha Ca La Vang. I think most caddies know where it is. At least mine did, and he approved of the choice. There's supposed to be a great dog and snake market (they kill the snakes, sometimes cobras, for you and cook each part differently!!) just out of town over a bridge, but my fellow traveller wasn't so excited by the prospects of eating snake and dog, and I left Hanoi, and Vietnam, without having eaten either of those. Dammit.

I went to Dien Bien Phu, and because the sun was setting in town our crappy, bizarre hotel was miles out of town, and taxis are hard to find there, we went back to the hotel and had one of the worst dinners of my life there. Bad move. I here they have a great black sticky rice there. Terrifically nice people. We were the only westerners we saw, and everybody said hello. We even got invited into the houses of people who didn't speak a word of English and given tea.

I wasn't a tremendous fan of the local specialty soup, Bun Bo Hue, a very lemony (citronella, actually) soup with meatballs and a shank of some meat, amoung other ingredients. The best one I found, though, was on 11 Ly Thoung Kiet. Worth getting if you have an extra meal. The unmissable meal in Hue is in one of those indoor stall places, called Hang Me. It's on 45 Vo Thi Sau. If you've already heard about this place, note the address. It's changed recently. Wow. We got one of everything they served (5 local rice-flour-shrimp specialties), for lunch. Really great, really cheap. Not a white guy in sight. Just go there and order everything. It's not too much. It's sort of tapas.

Hoi An
Our first dinner was a late one on the beach. It was great. I don't know the place, but he took us back to see all the seafood swim before cooking us a 6 or so course seafood meal with lots of drinks served to us on lounge chairs on the beach for a total of about 20 US (expensive there, but it was pretty worth it.) I assume there are a whole bunch of like restaurants on the Cua Dai beach. We also ate at Cafe des Amis, a place now pretty famous on Chowhound, that was OK. You just tell him seafood meat or veggie, and he gives you five courses. Nice, delicate and all that, just not local, and at least for a couple courses in our meal, not as good. It's still a good reastuarant, though, so don't be terribly discouraged. We also ate, on our tourbook's encouragement, at this weird, empty place called Faifoo, which is to be avoided, even though the waitress was nice. The place across the street looked better - more popular with locals.

QUAN AN NGON. Amazing place. Some sweet dude found all the best vendors in the city and paid them to cook there. Great seafood, loads of fantastic dishes. Great place. Really. I went there twice on my last day. There was also a nice stall on Bui Vien street (sorry for the vagueness, but you can find it) that served fantastic seafood and a mean half-formed duck embryo, if you're into that sort of thing.

Have fun. The food's great. Eat everything. Eat fruit too (try manosteen - called something like mank(r?)oot, - they're great.) And the coffee, wherever there's a Trung Nguyen sign - Vietnamese Starbucks with better but sweeter (sweetend condensed milk with STRONG drip espresso.)

Vietnam's awesome.
PS - if you're in Hoi An and want tailored clothes, DO NOT go into the market. Period. No exceptions. Market people will try to convince you otherwise. It's BS. the two places you should consider are Mr Xe (71 Nguyen Thai Hoc St - specializes in men's suits but does other stuff too, and it's worth going there just to meet him) and Bi Bi Silk (13 Phan Chu Trinh St. - most things, including gorgeous silk shirts and a nice variety of linen.) Have a great trip if you go.

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  1. Agree about restaurants, for the most part. But distinguish betw street food (served from a mobile stall or cart, or from baskets carried on a vendor's pole) and food served in open-air shops. The latter are just as good.

    Don't agree about getting sick. I've been sick plenty of times in Saigon and I have a cast iron stomach. Better to say - you *might* get sick, from street food OR restaurant food - but it will probably be entirely random (plenty of instances when I've been sick but my husband hasn't, and we've eaten from the same plates). And IMO the risk is worth it. Vietnam has wonderful yogurt, look for little bottles of it in markets - eaten daily, seems to help with that sort of thing.

    1 Reply
    1. re: foodfirst

      I feel as though I spend a ton of time explaining to my fellow travelers, after three trips to Vietnam, that you get your best meals on the street. (And, yes, I mean the street, with a boiling pot of water set up for the noodles, and the dishes being cleaned by a hose!)

      I still drool when thinking of the best bowl of noodles soup ever in all of SE Asia on "Silk Street" in the Old Quarter in Vietnam. It IS the first place I check when arriving in the city. Perfection for a mere 60 cents (and they may even be overcharging me; but I don't think so!)

      FWIW, I've never been sick in Asia (ok, there was that one time in Luang Prabang, but it was my fault; I was experimenting with fermented fish sauce!), but I'm pretty careful about the obvious things, making sure the place is crowded, water is boiling, and veg are cooked. (I am most paranoid about lettuce, btw, and will eat it in a 'restaurant' but not on the streets....) I only eat peeled fruits, too.

      I don't usually go to 'restaurants,' but found myself at Cargo Club in Hoi An in February, and thoroughly enjoyed it. And, they have lemongrass ice cream for dessert.

      Anyway, as far as being sick, there's nothing that a good dose of Cipro won't cure. I won't travel without it!

    2. Just got back from 6 months in Asia, including several weeks in Vietnam. I whole-hearteldy agree with Sasha's suggestion to eat in street stalls rather than in restaurants, and also with the restaurant recommendations. I am not usually a meat eater, but I devoured a bowl of Bun Cha on the streets of Hanoi and loved it! Also, don't forget about the ubiquitous baguette sandwiches--delicious.

      I have to add a rec. for a great restaurant in Hanoi--Highway 4. It specializes in infused rice vodka, and they do fun flights of various flavors. Try the young rice flavor. They also have a big selection of food--hot pots were great, but we especially enjoyed the make-it-yourself snakehead fish spring rolls, as well as the pre-rolled catfish spring rolls with fresh dill. Yum! There's a cozy rooftop deck where you can sit on cushions on the floor, and a good mix of locals and tourists.

      1. Where is Highway 4? Any idea where it is in relation to the Sofitel Metropole?

        1. I ate at Quan An Ngon in Hanoi (there's a branch there too), and while it was one of the better meals I had in Vietnam, it was nothing to write home about. I bet it's Southern cousin is a lot better (I did not make it to HCMC). The whole time I was in Viet Nam I couldn't wait to get back to Bangkok to eat.

          And I disagree about the street food being clean. I found the vendors to be dirty all over the North and Central regions. Much dirtier than what I'm used to in Thailand. Take a look at the preparation surfaces, cleanliness of the vendors hands & where they clean dishes, that's how I judge always. But yeah, I'm sure the food is much better tasting than the restaurants.

          The thing I enjoyed most about Viet Nam was the strange herbs I kept trying. Yum.

          I have some photos of Viet Nam, including a lot of market/food shots here:

          1 Reply
          1. re: cee

            Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos! They reminded me that the other thing I loved so much in Vietnam besides the food was the people. I was enamored by the street food there and rarely set foot inside a real sit-down restaurant when I visited about 5 yrs. ago, but I hear that things are changing rapidly and that more and more restaurants are opening up. Can't wait to return...

          2. You obviously have an anti-restaurant bias in Vietnam! The one restaurant you seem to really have like is Quan An Ngon - which is a good place, but the ironic thing is that the concept of Ngon in Hanoi and HCMC is that it assembles all the good street food in one place, under one roof. My thinking is that if you're pressed for time, that's effective, but otherwise, get out on the street and find the real thing rather than the table-service version.

            There are many good restaurants in Hanoi, and HCMC. I prefer Hanoi. Highway 4 has a couple of different outlets, and there's Chim Sao, and Quan Com Pho, and (beware the service) Hanoi Garden. You can find a good collection of information, photos, recommendations, recipes etc. (including good maps, which are seriously rare) at
            Excellent stuff on Hanoi street food, restaurant recommendations, places to eat, markets, also things to do in Hanoi. Cooking classes, too! Okay enough on that.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Maelstrom

              I agree with Maelstrom - there are a lot of good restaurants in Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of weeks last year and thoroughly enjoyed every meal there.

              I enjoyed Khaisilk's three gorgeous restaurants there: Nam Kha on Dong Khoi St, Nam Phan at Le Thanh Ton St and Au Manoir de Khai. Vietnam House on Dong Khoi St is quite good, too.

              As for food stalls, I tried Bun Rieu Cua (a rich pork & crab noodle soup dish) at Ben Thanh Market & its absolutely delicious.

              Near Cho Binh Tay (in Cho Lon/Chinatown), there's a great coffeeshop called Hong Phat which sells Hu Tieu Nam Vang (Phnom Penh-style rice noodles in pork broth) and Banh Uot (steamed flat rice noodles, topped with an assortment of Vietnamese-style ham & preserved meats).

              1. re: klyeoh

                Wow! Klyeoh, I haven't been to any of the Khai restaurants in Saigon. I will have to do that. They sound great. As for Ben Thanh market, you will not go wrong eating in there - it's one culinary discovery after the next, and the only limit is the size of your stomach. Eat well.