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Nov 2, 2008 05:33 PM

Embarking on a Food Tour of Southeast Asia


Having been obsessed with Southeast Asian food since I was about 17, I've finally decided to embark on a food tour of Southeast Asia. I'll be there between the end of November and just before Christmas -- for three weeks. The only details that are set now is I arrive in Phnom Penh and depart from Bangkok. Everything in between those two cities is up for grabs, meaning that depending on where the best food is, I could visit anywhere nearby, e.g. Saigon, Hanoi, Siem Reap, the Isaan provice of Thailand, Vientiane, and even Rangoon (although that may not be the best idea in the wake of Cyclone Nargis); or maybe somewhere I didn't mention.

I'm interested in finding the most authentic (non-touristy) items possible. I'm partial to coconut-based curries, complex spices (both piquant and hot), and anything doused in fish or shrimp paste. (I am dying to spend some time alone with bplaa raa); but I'm very open-minded and don't wish to limit myself to these at all. I tend to enjoy more down-home, mom-and-pop food than white tablecloth stuff, but again, knowing nothing about the region, I don't wish to limit myself. Food quality is the driver.

I'm looking for suggestions from both the macro and micro perspectives. From a macro perspective, which cities or areas do you think it would be best for me to visit? I only have three weeks... From a micro perspective, do you have any suggestions for restaurants, open air markets (wet or dry), indoor markets, street food locations, festivals, or food-rich spots in towns or cities?

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer.

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  1. Lucky you. I just got back from a family reunion in Penang, Malaysia and must say I enjoyed the food there much better than Singapore (more commercialized). What I did was Google and found bloggers who live in Penang who gave me suggestions for local places to visit.

    I totally agree with your philosophy about eating at mom-and-pop places. If you end up in Malaysia, definitely track down Quai Teow at food stalls. It is one of their signature dishes, it's wide flat rice noodles stir fried with eggs, shrimp, char siu (roast pork) and chives. Very moorish, you can't stop eating it and keep wanting more.

    Unfortunately, I've not been to Thailand or Vietnam but hope to soon but there will be tons of food markets and they're always eager to tell you about their foods.

    Do give Tiger Beer a try, great with spicy Asian food, it's from Singapore but is widely distributed in Asia. It's a light lager and very delish, won many awards in England where they know a thing or two about beers.

    Here's a photo from a Penang fresh market to get you going.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Eleanor Hoh

      Thanks very much for your reply, Eleanor. As much as I'd love to visit Malaysia and Singapore, I've grouped those countries (along with Indonesia and the Philippines) in a different category and am saving them for another trip. This trip will be focused on mainland southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma.

    2. My priorities for you after Phnom Penh would be Vientiane, Savanakhet, and Isaan/NE Thailand - maybe Ubon. Chiang Mai is great. Bangkok is great for many things. Hanoi, Hue, Saigon, and Canh Tho are fantastic - and each different one from the other. I love Mandalay and the remote mountainous areas of Burma - farther NE. This would be a lot in three weeks. More realistic may be Phnom Penh, Hanoi or Hue or Saigon, Vientiane (especially the main market and the old traditional places along the river near the Beau Rivage Hotel), Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Moving more rapidly, you could include Yangon and Mandalay (go up and back by train). You need to save selected parts of Malasia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore for your next trip.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        Thanks, Sam. I've heard a few times now that Cambodia is a comparative dead zone for good food, whereas Isaan is one of the best places you can go. I might have made a silly mistake insofar as, believe it or not, I've always liked Cambodian food in the States (I'm from New England) more than Vietnamese, so when the clock ran down to buy the ticket, I chose an arrival in Phnom Penh. Saigon might have made more sense. It's easy to believe that Vietnamese food in Vietnam is an order of magnitude more diverse and delicious than its American counterpart, but it's bizarre to learn that Cambodian food may be worse in its native setting.

        1. re: guanubian

          Yes, it is odd: Cambodian may be best in the US; while Vietnamese and Lao are best by far in their respective countries.

      2. I like Hong Phat Coffee Shop, 206 Duong Hai Thuong Lan Ong (it's walking distance from Cholon Market/Chinatown). The coffee shop has a stall which serves absolutely delicious Hu Tieu Nam Vang (rice noodles in chicken broth), and another stall which serves sweet-savoury Banh Uot (steamed thin flat sheets of rice noodles, served with various cuts of Vietnamese-style sausages & ham).

        15 Replies
        1. re: klyeoh

          For a pure food tour, I would not spend so much time in Cambodia. I spent 6 yrs there and always loved getting out to Thailand or Vietnam, and even Laos, where the food is just so much better.
          Culturally though, it's fantastic. Just make sure you get off the tourist route. With 2 million arrivals in Siem Reap every year, that once sleepy little town is pretty much destroyed IMO.

          Kampot/Kep and Battambang are worth spending some time in. Kep is still great for eating fresh crab on the shore, although it isn't a $1/kilo anymore. Make sure you ask for it fried with the famous Kampot peppercorns ("k'dam chha m'riik Kampot"). Along with a coconut to wash it down, one of Cambodia's great simple meals.

          In Phnom Penh, the Ponlok is still a good bet for nice Khmer food. Go early to snag one of the tables on the second floor terrace. It's a great view of the bustling river and Sisowath Quay. The deer in Thai style curry is good here, as is the frog fried in ginger ("kong kep chha 'k'ney"). I only order frog during the rainy season when they are plump and tasty.

          1. re: koknia

            Thanks for this excellent reply. It echoes something I've heard a couple of times -- that the food in Cambodia (and Burma) is inferior to that in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. This frustrates me to no end, because I want to do a food tour, but I can't really stomach missing Angkor or the Khmer Rouge historical sites. It seems like a huge waste.

            What do other people think? How does Cambodian fare fare?

            1. re: guanubian

              I'm not saying don't go. It's a must see if you want to check Angkor off your list. Just don't dawdle in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

              Believe me , the food is lacking. I was just talking to an Aussie friend of mine who's still there (16 yrs) and he was marveling at his wife's ability to go to the market, bring home an amazing variety of fresh veggies and herbs, only to turn it into a meal where he couldn't eat anything. (He owns a restaurant, so he eats at work.)

              Thais and Vietnamese can take the same stuff and make an incredible meal.

              To focus your entire trip around food would be an massive mistake IMO. Meet some people, experience the culture. Food is part of that, not independent of it.

              1. re: koknia

                Turns out, I'm likely to be staying on Sisowath Quay, so I'm going to get that deer curry -- you practically read my mind on that one. Do you know where in PP are the best spots for street food?

                1. re: guanubian

                  I don't do a lot of street food in PP.
                  Save it for Thailand and Vietnam IMO.

                  1. re: koknia

                    They didn't have the deer curry when I went. But the prahok and amok were quite good, and I had a beef tartare with lime-pepper dipping sauce that I enjoyed (and which, gratefully, didn't make me sick).

          2. re: klyeoh

            Thanks! Any suggestions for must-try Vietnamese dishes that are hard or impossible to find in the States?

            1. re: klyeoh

              Thanks! Any suggestions for must-try Vietnamese dishes that are hard or impossible to find in the States?

              1. re: guanubian

                I learned stuffed bitter gourd from a no-name place ein Canh Tho - still one of my faves to prepare.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  Hi, Sam,
                  Would you mind posting your stuffed bitter gourd recipe on the Home Cooking page? When I was younger, I couldn't stand ampalaya (you probably know several translations other than Tagalog), but I've learned that it can be delicious. Our old cook back in Manila used to prepare a braised ampalaya stuffed with ground pork, and I regret not having tried it then.

                  1. re: pilinut

                    NUT!!! How nice to hear from you! Cut ampalya in half (across the length) and remove seeds and stuff with a table knife. Fill with a mix of ground pork, one egg, chopped green onion, chopped red onion, finely chopped cilantro, minced garlic and ginger, fish sauce, and as much minced chile as you like. Steam until ready. Slice in half inch thick coins. Serve with a dipping sauce of lime juice, shoyu, touch of sugar, and chopped chile - and rice, of course.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Gee, thanks, Sam! I look forward very much to reading your posts--and I am looking forward to trying this ampalaya recipe--it bears a significant resemblance to the Filipino one.

                      If you ever plan to visit the SF Bay Area, let me know and I can promise you some good Filipino food! Salamat!

                2. re: guanubian

                  Cha ca la vong at No 14 Cha ca street, grilled fish with greens, sounds boring, but best food memory from Vietnam. Have tried it many times in Little Vietnam in S California, and none came close.

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                    Hi Delucacheesemonger, my friend from the France board.
                    In Saigon don't miss Quan an Ngon
                    Street vendors brought together in a clean setting.
                    Very inexpensive, excellent food, and experience.
                    We had dinner there several times, as there is so much to try.
                    It is a large restaurant, and you can watch many of the dishes being made.
                    Ask to sit in the garden, as there is sort of an air conditioning, as a mist of cold air is sprinkled down from overhead pipes that create a nice cool breeze.
                    In Bangkok, we love Cy'an.
                    It is high end and more expensive, but would earn a star or two in Europe, and so much cheaper than Europe.
                    Don't miss Somboon.. and the curried crab, a definite "wow"
                    They also serve giant prawns grilled that cover an entire plate, and the morning glories stir fried are outstanding.
                    Beware of crooked taxis in Bangkok, as they will take you to similar restaurants and tell you that they are Somboon.
                    we actually had that experience , and had it been our first trip to Bangkok, and had we not been to Somboon before, we would have been fooled.
                    We were warned about taxis in Vietnam, but never had a problem.

                    1. re: erly

                      I read the Saigon version of Quan an Ngon is significantly inferior to its counterpart in Hanoi. Comments?

              2. i'd definitely make sure you go to Chiang Mai...certain dishes, like gaeng-hang-lay (Burmese/Thai pork stewed w/ ginger) are fantastic there...

                i had some great food in Isaan (Udon Thani), where the grilled fish w/ lemongrass, sticky rice, and somdam lao are the best i've ever had (though i've never been to Laos)...but if you don't have time to get to Isaan on this trip (esp if you are already alloting time for Laos), there are several good Isaan places in Chiang of the favorites among locals is a place that's on Singharat Rd, about a five minute walk north of Wat Pra get there by tuktuk or songtaew, tell the driver you want to go to Siam TV (electronics store): the Isaan place is directly across the street, a fairly large quasi-outdoor restaurant w/ booths and tables...some of the best laab and somdam in Chiang Mai...

                also in Chiang Mai, check out SP Chicken, on the north side of the old city, by the moat...and the khao soi places on the Muslem St (Charoen Prathet Soi 3?)...and the Sunday market is a blast (you might want to time your CM visit to be there on a Sunday)...but i'd avoid the Anusarn could easily spend three weeks eating in Chiang Mai and still be happily discovering new places...make sure you eat some sai-ua (Chiang Mai sausage: spicy and full of innards): it's best in the morning at the indoor market: the breakfast of champions!...(one of my fav Chiang Mai memories was returning from a night of whisky&dancing til dawn at a university pub on the outskirts of town, and then making my way to the market for some fortifying 6 a.m. sai-ua)

                in a way, it's good that BKK is your last stop because you'll be able to try the amazing myriad of places there, yet also get some of the regional stuff (e.g. Lao food) that you'll surely still be craving...BKK is covered pretty extensively on this board: so check out some of the older posts from Curt SoiHound, klyeoh, and myself and others to get some nicely mappped out could also happily spend 3 weeks (3 months, 3 years) just exploring BKK streetfood and you wouldn't get bored...

                Have a great trip and report back here with your findings...

                sidenote: 3 weeks is a great vacation and you are going at a great time of year weatherwise, but my gut instinct is that it's a little rushed to do Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam...doable, but rushed...for me, one of the joys of SE Asia is developing local favorites, comparing them to other places, and then returning (within a couple days, you can develop a wonderful little rapport w/ your fav local somtam lady, who knows *just* how many chilis you like chopped up in it, how much lime you want, etc)...i know others will disagree, but you might consider saving Vietnam for another trip, depending on what feels right at the time...

                sidenote number two: i'd also highly highly recommend learning some basic food vocab in the languages of the places you are'll do fine by just pointing and eating, but being able to request things to order, graciously compliment the chefs, etc. will enrich your experience...

                52 Replies
                1. re: Simon

                  Thank you for this great reply. I think you're right when you suggest I might be rushing things. I've fought with myself over omitting one of the countries, Vietnam or Cambodia, but it seems the food is too good in Vietnam and the cultural/historical sights in Cambodia (Angkor, Khmer Rouge stuff) are too compelling to miss. If I had to distill Vietnam to one city only in order to save time, with food as the top priority, what would be your suggestion?

                  1. re: guanubian

                    i'm not the best one to ask about Vietnam...i've been there twice, but only for 5 days and 10 days...and i've only been to Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An (never to HCMC or anywhere else in the south)...

                    i liked many things about Vietnam and i plan to go back at some point...but i have to say that it was my least satisying country in Asia, culinarily-speaking...i did have some yummy food, but for my personal tastes and/or luck of the draw, it paled (that's an understatement) in comparison to Thailand and China...i'm not dissing the country, but rather i'm suggesting that it might be a place that requires more time to fully appreciate than somewhere like Thailand, where a one-minute stroll outside of virtually any hotel will land you in streetfood heaven...and while i had memorable experiences in Vietnam, i've always felt a sense of joy and relief when i returned to Thailand...

                    So, that's one of the reasons why i think it might be better to save Vietnam for a longer trip, when you can travel the length of the country, learn some Vietnamese, and get a far better appreciation of it than i did on my very short visits...on the other hand, if you're over there and have the visa, go where your palate and instincts take you...*smiles* first visit to Hanoi was a last-minute decision during a 5 week trip to Thailand and was a fascinating experience despite it's brevity...

                    1. re: Simon

                      I am Chinese and I too prefer Thai and Chinese over Vietnamese food. I live in Texas and I believe we have one of the higher quality Vietnamese food here. But still, I am totally biased because I tend to see Vietnamese dishes as Chinese dishes done strangely. I still ask to replace rice noodles with egg noodles when eating pho. :-) .
                      So the point here is that food is a very personal thing. If you always liked Cambodian food in the states, the only way you can find out if you like the real things there is to try them out yourself. Since you would be going there and you need to eat for those days anyway, why not take advantages. One thing though, you mentioned you are from New England - Elephant Walk in Boston? I have never been cambodia myself but I learned it from my thai food experience - the "fusion" stuffs we have here in states resemble nothing like the real deals. Firstly, it's the ambiance. They eat at a stall, by the road side, open air, with cheap warm beer. Wouldn't it be comical to have the maitre d reading the kanom jin inexpedience to you?
                      Issan food is popular with Thais from other regions so don't miss it. With the stronger taste in their dishes, sticky rice is the best staple. Their pork rind is very good too.

                      1. re: shengtang

                        You're spot-on mentioning Elephant Walk. I learned about Cambodian food in the States from two sources -- that, and the Southeast Asian places emanating out of the community based in the Lowell, MA area. The best one I'm aware of today is Floating Rock in Revere.

                        I'm aware that Elephant Walk is hardly authentic, but their amok convinced me eventually to seek out the real deal and the rest of the cuisine, and in large part that's what this trip is about.

                    2. re: guanubian

                      You need to select among Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon. Can't go wrong with whatever choice.

                      1. re: guanubian

                        Wuddup Guanubian,

                        I just stumbled along this post while doing food research for my upcoming trip to Singapore (and Bali).

                        I currently live in Ho Chi Minh city (been here for 6 months) and if there's one city in Vietnam your taste buds can't afford to miss it's right here in Saigon. I've traveled this country from Hoi An to Phu Quoc to Hanoi to HaLong bay to the Mekong delta and Sai Gon easily has the most diverse range of cuisines available to the avid foodie (as am I).
                        I'm not talking about any of that touristy Pham Ngu Lao / Ben Thanh market sheite either. I live about 1/2 hour from the city center and the eats out here and amazing and soo inexpensive (Quan an Ngon gets all the hype for being a 'street food' restaurant, but it can't beat the real deal- plus it's 2-3 times the cost and the cocktail my girlfriend and I ordered tasted like Soap water)

                        I came to Vietnam thinking the food was just banh mi's, pho and spring rolls. I rarely even eat those three food items, as I've discovered a wealth of other tastier street treats instead. If you're interested I'll let you know in detail as to what I feel is the best of REAL vietnam.

                        I'm just like you, I travel to places to eat. The only tastier city i can say I've experienced so far in SE asia (vietnam, thailand, laos and malaysia so far) was PENANG. That place is amazing. I have recs for that place if you would like.


                        check my blog to whet you're appetite.


                        1. re: anthonyrza

                          I totally agree with anthonyrza,
                          In many ways I prefer the food in Vietnam to Thailand, especially Saigon.
                          I have only been to Vietnam once, but have been to Thailand three times in the past two years.
                          The natural fusion over decades of French and Vietnamese cuisine, has made Vietnamese food far more interesting to me than Thai.
                          Can't compare either to fine Chinese food... which is the best
                          Having said this I do not eat food on the street, as on my first trip to Thailand I got food poising from a particular chicken vendors stand highly recommended on the S.E. Asia Travel board.
                          In Thailand, if I want to try many typical dishes, I stay in the dept. store food courts.

                          1. re: erly

                            sorry you got ill, but i want point out to others that your experience in Thailand is not common...i've eaten street food in Thailand probably close to 1000 times and i've never been sick...i find the level of hygeine on street stands very good: a lot of dishes are made to order on the spot, and popular places have high turnover...if the food looks like it's been sitting out for a long time, just avoid that stand...

                            i don't want to start a Thailand vs Vietnam streetfood war here, but i'll also add that a lot of street stands in Hanoi looked unsanitary in the extreme: plates rinsed off w/ dirty water and then reused w/ food still encrusted on them, etc...perhaps that is atypical too, but the book "Catfish and Mandela", written by a Vietnamese returnee makes some similar observations...

                            1. re: Simon

                              Simon, I wouldn't eat street food in Vietnam either.
                              Most don't become ill, but it is possible.
                              I was referring only to the wonderful blending of the two cultures.
                              Also one step up from bun and Pho, not that I don;t appreciate Pho, as well, with the wonderful silky noodles and fresh herbs.

                              1. re: erly

                                If you skip the street food in Vietnam, you skip Vietnamese culture. You also miss out on com tam. That smoky swine-y goodness you smell in the air after ditching the tourist district is pork caramelizing on a charcoal grill. They slap a hot piece on top of your 'broken rice' plate and you drizzle with spoonfuls of the accompanying fish sauce (best in SE asia) to create a southern Vietnamese classic. All for under a dollar. Rice noodles not included.

                                1. re: anthonyrza

                                  You raise a good point: just what is the best fish sauce in Southeast Asia? I suppose I'm going to be doing a tasting tour. The one that really piques my interest is bplaa raa, which you can see here:


                                  1. re: guanubian

                                    Cambodians do their own version as well - prahok. You'll love it or hate it.

                                    In Thailand the common name is 'plaa dek'. You can ask for it in your som tam etc.

                                    1. re: koknia

                                      I was once visiting some Cambodian friends. I had to stay outside because the women were snacking on the stuff.

                                      1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                                        Yeah, it's like a ranker version of plaa dek. If that's at all possible.

                                        6 yrs in Cambodia and I tried it twice. The second time just to be 100% sure there wouldn't be a third.

                                        1. re: koknia

                                          Hehe, surely it can't be that bad. I heard "bplaa raa" was the Thai lutefisk, essentially. So bplaa raa is the same as plaa dek?

                                          1. re: guanubian

                                            Yes, plaa dek and plaa ra are 'same same'.

                                            I Googled lutefisk and got these quotes.

                                            From Garrison Keillor:
                                            "Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world’s largest chunk of phlegm."

                                            And from Jeffrey Steingarten, (author of The Man Who Ate Everything).
                                            "Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction. It is currently the only exception for the man who ate everything. Otherwise, I am fairly liberal, I gladly eat worms and insects, but I draw the line on lutefisk."
                                            "Lutefisk is the Norwegians' attempt at conquering the world. When they discovered that Viking raids didn't give world supremacy, they invented a meal so terrifying, so cruel, that they could scare people to become one's subordinates. And if I'm not terribly wrong, you will be able to do it as well."

                                            So, based on those quotes, I would say you are correct in your comparison. If you really want to go for it, order 'plaa dek bawng' (ปลาแดกบอง) when you are in Issan.


                                            1. re: koknia

                                              i've never understood why plaa ra has such a dicey rep...i like it and often request it in my somdam...but i like most fishy things...

                                              1. re: Simon

                                                As vile as it might be, I have a feeling I'm going to love it.

                              2. re: Simon

                                Simon, the only Thai streetfood I'd warn anyone against are oyster omelettes. The tiny oysters are only usually cooked only half-way thru so they remain moist/juicy, but with the bacteria/germs still alive & present. In my 4 decades of going to Bangkok (visiting relatives/holidays), I've only became ill from eating out twice - and both times, it's oyster omelette from Yaowarat!

                                If one wants to try street food in Bangkok or Hanoi, just follow 2 golden rules:
                                - make sure the food you try is cooked thru;
                                - only patronize stalls which are doing a bustling business, i.e. with queues. You're sure to get fresher foods there. I'd had no probem eating in the streets of Saigon, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Dhaka by observing these precautions.

                                1. re: klyeoh

                                  This is a little gem we went to last time in Bangkok, for Issan food: Tum Nour -
                                  Sorry I can't find the English version of this page. The place is near Siam plaza where there are many shopping venues for teenagers. This restaurant is also popular among Thai teenagers.
                                  Another great place is "Gin Lom Tam Sa pan" I am pretty sure this is not enough for you tell the Taxi driver - best to ask hotel concierge first and have them writing down Thai name for you. This is a seafood place by the river and has a great view of the Rama 9 bridge (or whatever the best looking bridge in BKK is called :-) ). I rarely recommend a restaurant for ambiance, but this place is dreamy. And I don't mean the pretentious candle in the dark place for cocktails. When I ate there, it rained and I saw the staffs rushed to pull out covers for the out door customers. It's a scene that comes to my dream many times while my plane crosses the pacific.

                                  Then of course, the typical BKK must eat list - Yaowarat, Baan Katina, etc.
                                  Personally I will bet Bangkok to be your favorite memory (in food) but of course, you gotta try this out yourself. I have been some of the places that you may cover - including Issan but I think Bangkok is hard to beat - that's of course until the next time you head south to Penang and KL and Singapore .... :-D

                                  1. re: shengtang

                                    I think you are referring to "Siam Square", not Siam plaza.

                                    1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                                      correct, Siam Square. Thanks for pointing it out.

                                      1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                                        And it's baan kanitha, not Baan Katina - I almost feel guilty now for my bad spellings.

                                        1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                                          and again, the seafood/Thai place by the river is - the bridge is Rama 8 . :-)

                                      2. re: klyeoh

                                        Re: oyster omlettes. Yes, this is one of my favorite dishes ( the mussel version - 'hawy tawd malang poo' - หอยทอดแมลงภู่), but I was poisoned on it once. (In Chaiyaphum. Stupid to eat mussels in an upcountry street market.)

                                        There are plenty of good places to get it though. I usually hit a small shop for this on 1 Soi Keson (Charenkrong 50), next to Robinson Bangrak. It's almost beside AV Camera. It's called "Volcanic Mussel Pancake" or something like that. I don't know if it's the best, but it's super busy and consistent.
                                        I have been eating Thai street food for 18 years and, except for the one Issan incident, have never been poisoned. Thai hygienic standards are incredible.

                                        In my 6 years in Phnom Penh I ate very little pure street food as the taste and quality weren't great. (The WHO did a study in the mid 90s that found 60%+ of street food was contaminated.)

                                        But I ate in local restaurants constantly. Again, almost never a problem. The worst poisoning I got in Cambodia was from a Thai restaurant catering to backpackers.

                                        1. re: koknia

                                          Thank you. In about 28 hours' time, I'll be touching down in Phnom Penh. It seems like street food may be a bust there. Would you be willing to share a couple of suggestions for local Khmer restaurants? I'd like to avoid food for foreigners as much as I can. (And while we differ on this point, I'd love to find some of the most pungent prahok!)

                                    2. re: erly

                                      I was fortunate to live and work all over South and SE Asia for 15 years. I ate street food almost exclusively and never got sick. I'd stay away from the food at fancy hotel restaurants.

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        haven't been here for 15 years yet but i agree!
                                        Worst stomach pain i've had after 8 months of street eats is after an expensive lobster at restaurant in Mui Ne (vietnam). You can get sick anywhere! Don't deprive yourself of superior grub due to your hesitance of getting ill.

                                        1. re: anthonyrza

                                          And I always found the street food - where one can see everything - to have clean facilities, clean food, and no age-old dirty infrastructure. The fancy hotel kitchens were much more of a mixed bag in terms of cleanliness. Enjoy your years until 15.

                                    3. re: anthonyrza

                                      Oh no! Are you saying that the food in central Saigon is hopeless?? Any suggestions for good eats in district 1 would be appreciated. We are only there for 2 days so I don't know if a trip to the outskirts is an option but we could certainly try for good food! Also, you mentioned being to Phu Quoc. We're going there for a week, and I haven't been able to find much info about the quality or variety of food on the island. Any tips?

                                      1. re: h2o

                                        You have to be very fussy if you think central Saigon is hopeless. I found lots of good places to eat in District 1. I stayed at Sheraton Saigon, Dong Khoi St, District 1, during my last visit and found quite a few good restaurants (many along Dong Khoi St itself) which I enjoyed:
                                        - Nam Kha;
                                        - Kinh Bac;
                                        - Vietnam House;
                                        - Nam Phan on Le Thanh Ton St;
                                        - La Fourchette (French) on Ngo Duc The St, off Dong Khoi St;
                                        - Hoang Yen on Ngo Duc Ke St;
                                        - Quan an Ngon, Namky Khoi Nghia;
                                        - Signature Restaurant (fabulous continental restaurant) on Level 23 of Sheraton Saigon, with great views over the whole city;
                                        - Hoang Long (behind Opera House);
                                        - Crystal Jade for perhaps the best Chinese fine-dining, Legend Hotel, Ton Duc Thang St;
                                        - Snacks/quick meals from old Dong Khoi stalwarts, Cafe Givral and Cafe Brodard.

                                        Attached some pics taken at Nam Kha restaurant.

                                        1. re: h2o

                                          District 1, despite it's lack of street food, still has something to offer.

                                          Straight in the middle of backpackerville on Bui Vien street there a pretty tasty com tam stand that opens up at night. Ask for the grilled pork (suon heo) with a fried egg if you please (trung ga) and fish sauce to flavor the rice (nuoc mam).

                                          Downtown has a bunch of middle-upper end vietnamese restaurants as klyeoh has mentioned. Quan an Ngon is a decent option especially when you want to try a selection of different dishes in one sitting without running all over the city.

                                          A few of my favorites in saigon:

                                          Canh Chua Ca - Sour fish soup (specialty of southern vietnam)
                                          Thit Kho Nuoc Dua - Pork shoulder simmered in coconut juice (also a southern specialty)
                                          Bo Bia - streetside rice paper rolls stuffed with cooked radish, dried shrimp, fried shallots, basil, and peanuts. Might have to order them at a restaurant in D 1. (such as the franchise 'wrap and roll')
                                          Dau Ho (tofu) - A friendly lady sits down on the corner of Dong Khoi and Le Thanh Ton from around 11 o'clock selling bowls of tofu with sweet ginger syrup and coconut cream. 3.000 VND.
                                          Hu Tieu - Another specialty of the south (mekong region). This is a pork broth soup that's almost as popular as Pho in Ho Chi Minh. The broth is rich and slightly sweet, and usually enhanced with a spoonfull of lard.
                                          Bo Bia Ngot - Bo Bia younger sister; shredded coconut, black sesame seeds and sugarcane wrapped in a delicate crepe.
                                          Saigon Red - Cheap, decent.
                                          Rau Ma - Sweetened veggie drink made from the aforementioned vegetable (rau)

                                          as for PHU QUOC.

                                          The island is chock full of inexpensive FRESH seafood (mostly shrimp, squid and fish) but (in my opinion) most of the beachfront restaurants on Long Beach (main stretch of guesthouses and hotels line up along this strip) don't turn these saltwater beauties into delectable dishes. The first day we ate some food a hotel and decided we'd be better off cooking our own.
                                          We were lucky to stay with a super friendly lady (we actually stayed in her house for 5 bucks a night) and she let us cook in her kitchen! So my girlfriend and I went to the market and made our own creations, eating them on the beach during the sunset.
                                          So, if you can't do that it's sort of hit or miss with the hotels. In my opinion grilled is a better bet than stir fry for most dishes, as they get a little too generous with that 'goopy' sauce most of the time. Grilled seafood dipped in nuoc mam is just about fine for me.
                                          Getting off the beach and into the main town (duong dong) will give you a taste of standard vietnamese 'working class' food found all over the rest of the country. There's an amazing com (rice) stand up the street about 100 meters or less from the airport (if you are exiting from the airport, you make a left on the main street). There's a real friendly young lady. Order fish, or pork, or sausage stuffed squid and be sure to ask for the lovely sauce that's sitting in the pans to spoon over your rice.
                                          The variety in phu quoc can't really stand up to Ho Chi or even Hanoi for that matter but with the surroundings, you'll get along fine. Sip a mango shake while bathing in the crystal clear water. No worries.

                                            1. re: anthonyrza

                                              Thanks for the restaurant suggestions klyeoh. Anthony, I really appreciate the list of specific dishes. I'll try as many as I can! We're looking forward to a departure from the good, but definitely 'Canadianized' vietnamese food available at home.

                                              1. re: h2o

                                                I don't know where you're located, but much of the Vietnamese food in Canada is pretty close to what you'll get in Vietnam, especially in cities with large Vietnamese populations (Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, as examples). One way to prepare would be to visit some of the restaurants in your city and ask about different items on the menu--the ones you've never tried. Then you'll have more of a base to order from when you're actually in Vietnam.

                                                1. re: prasantrin

                                                  Agreed, the Vietnamese food I eat in Toronto is very authentic. There is a massive Vietnamese population, so this obviously is the driving factor.

                                                  One of the best street food experiences I've had in recent memory was on Thai Van Lung St, (D1) in Saigon. In the late afternoon a family sets up a 'shell restaurant' on the sidewalk. (Everything served has a shell.) We had an incredible snail dish. Large-ish snails served in a thick coconut based curry with fresh herbs. You just eat them with your hands and suck out the meat. The sauce is addictive. We also had a couple dozen scallops, grilled over an open flame on the half shell and served with a thin peanut sauce.
                                                  All shells get chucked on the ground.
                                                  Dinner for two with beers, less than $5.

                                                  1. re: koknia

                                                    Very good point! I do live in Toronto and we eat at Vietnamese restaurants often. I tend to stick to my familiar favorites but I'll take Anthony's list and see if I can try some dishes. I had planned on doing it the other way around... try it first at the source. My DH travelled extensively in Vietnam and laments that it never quite tastes the same but that's probably more of an issue of freshness and context.

                                                    1. re: h2o

                                                      I'm from california (bay area) where's there's also a huge population of Vietnamese immigrants (and restaurants). The restaurants are GOOD - even great, and do create close renditions of their homeland dishes but it's still not the same. It can't be the same. They might have access to some- but not ALL the ingredients needed; such as fresh vegetables. Even domestically between the north and the south there is different access to fruits and vegetables. A coconut in Ha Noi costs almost twice as much as a coconut in Saigon because they need to travel from Ben Tre province (mekong delta area) and more gas is obviously needed to take it the distance up north.The chicken even tastes different here (better! free range i've been told). I'm sure the vietnamese in california and toronto KNOW exactly how to make their pho or banh mi's, but for the sake of availability and profitability they have to make some changes. To be honest I prefer the banh mi's in San Francisco to Saigon, with their superior bread and larger portions of grilled meat. Just some personal insight as to why it probably never 'tastes the same'!

                                                      1. re: anthonyrza

                                                        I think there is much less MSG in the N American pho as well. Some of the stuff you get in Vietnam is OTT with it.

                                                        1. re: anthonyrza

                                                          This is so true. I had Banh Xeo in Saigon and it was accompanied by mustard leaves that I've never encountered in the States. These leaves combined with the other herbs to enhance the dish in such an artful way -- it's hard to describe. Vietnamese food is just not well represented in the States, at least on the East Coast.

                                          1. re: anthonyrza


                                            Thank you for your reply. It's exactly what I was looking for. I will be going to Saigon.

                                            I share your opinion about those three staple US-Vietnamese dishes -- I like them, but I'm not overwhelmed. So I'm very interested in your view of the REAL food Vietnam. In addition to wanting to hear your general opinion, I'm curious where in the city I can get the best and most diverse street food. Also, where if anywhere in Saigon can I get some of that syrupy fish sauce from that island... What is it, phu quoc? Speaking of which, I wonder if there is a fish sauce factory in Saigon I can tour...

                                            1. re: guanubian

                                              The only downside of eating ho chi minh is there isn't really one street with EVERYTHING. If you're up to it, i'd suggest renting a moto- makes food hunting ALOT quicker- if not a little more invigorating.

                                              NGUYEN TRI PHONG STREET (district 10) (from NGO GIA TU to BA THANG HAI) has several streetside seafood restaurants serving fresh(ly killed) seafood for cheap. Less than $12 US for a kilo of shrimp (200.000 VND) although you can get smaller portions and taste more (i.e. 100 g coconut steamed shrimp, 100g grilled shrimp). Cua Rang Me is a popular crab dish, which is a whole crab stir fried with tamarind sauce- do try. Drinking a beer + noshing on fresh seafood + sitting in your mini-plastic chairs is classic saigon.

                                              CACH MANG THANG TAM (district 3) street has a stall in the afternoons (2-3 ish) that serves an EXCELLENT soup (mi quang- a specialty from central vietnam) and amazing fresh fried donuts as well. It's right across from the LAN ANH sports club about 100 meters north of the traffic circle where BA THANG HAI street ends.

                                              AN DUONG VUONG street and the surrounding district 5 area have a lot of COM TAM eateries. Follow your nose, you'll smell it. Lunch (11-1) or nighttime.

                                              Besides that, just head outside of district one and you'll see tons of food stalls all over selling: HU TIEU, PHO BO, MI XAO and so on...

                                              Many foods are only available via portable carriers (bicycles). Always flag these people down! You never know what they'll take out of their magic box, and it should never cost more than 4.000 VND (.24 cents).

                                              Phu Quoc fish sauce is available all over ho chi minh. This island is the most famous for it's fish sauce among vietnamese, but I've found 'nuoc mam' from phan thiet (mui ne) to be delicious as well. you can't go wrong. Also, it's not syrupy..maybe you are confusing it with the prepared version of 'nuoc mam' which adds a sugar to tone down the 'funk'. No fish sauce factories in Ho chi Minh to my knowledge. You gotta get out the the beach for that.

                                              1. re: anthonyrza

                                                Man, thank you so much.

                                                I've heard southern Vietnamese cuisine incorporates neighboring, non-Chinese components, i.e. coconut milk, curries, and it generally hotter. Is there a go-to place (or area) to sample this version of Vietnamese cuisine, as opposed to its (possibly blander?) northern counterpart?

                                                1. re: guanubian

                                                  yea I read that as well before I departed but to be honest they don't use coconut milk so often in (savory) dishes. I love anything with curry and coconut milk but thailand is the place to get your curry fix without a doubt.

                                                  although in ho chi minh they do have one curry dish
                                                  ca ri ga (chicken curry) or ca ri vit (duck curry). It's a basic powder mix, unlike the pastes of thailand or indonesia but the fresh coconut milk gives the dish a great flavor. There's no go to place for this, just keep your eyes open or ask around. Most of them actually taste the same. Nice to dip a (suprisingly unimpressive) banh mi into.

                                        2. re: Simon

                                          Here's a question: can I get the northern Thai food experience -- Chiang Mai style, Isaan cuisine -- in Bangkok? If so, then I could omit actually going to Chiang Mai in favor of Angkor...

                                          1. re: guanubian

                                   can get Isaan food in Bangkok and all over was better, naturally, when i was in Isaan, but there are some great places for Isaan food in Chiang Mai (the place across from Siam TV) and Bangkok (esp a lunch place on Langsuan Soi 5, and the stand that's on the first left off Soi Convent after you pass Bua, walking from Silom)...

                                            But i've never had good Chiang Mai cuisine outside of Chiang Mai...i don't know of anywhere in BKK that does a good gaeng-hang-lay (a Northern, Burmese-influenced stewed pork dish)...and the sai-ua (spicy sausage) at the local markets and stands is incomparable (the stale sai-ua one usually gets in BKK is nothing like it)...and then you also have the variety of khao soi places there to sample...

                                            Chiang Mai is my fav place i've been in SE Asia and one of the best places to eat in the world, so personally i wouldn't recommend omitting it...

                                            1. re: Simon

                                              I couldn't agree more with Simon.
                                              There are lots of good Isaan restaurants all over Chiang Mai. The one across from Siam TV is one of the best. It's called Khen Chai Restaurant. All the tuk-tuk and songthieow drivers will know it. My favorite dish there is a true Isaan specialty but I don't think it's available this time of year -- Ant Egg Soup.

                                              1. re: el jefe

                                                Thank you both. I was literally bracing myself for spice explosions, but I had a uniformly bland experience at this place. This is not to say it was bad -- the food was quite good -- but it just wasn't spicy or blow-you-away interesting. I had the northeastern sausage, catfish laap (laab?) and somdam (somtam?). The Lao versions I had in Vientiane knocked me on my ass -- I had to eat very slowly with ample rice and beer to chase -- so I know I didn't magically take on the palate of an Isaan peasant during this trip. The food at Khen Chai is certainly authentic, but who knows, maybe they refuse to spice it up for farangs, even though I begged them explicitly -- "make it Isaan-style, not farang-style" -- to do so.

                                            2. re: guanubian

                                              Street and market stalls in Bangkok include Isaan food: look for the big baskets of sticky rice and you're good to go.

                                            3. re: Simon

                                              Hi, Simon. I'm in Chiang Mai now. By "indoor market", do you mean Warorot or Lamyai Markets?

                                              1. re: guanubian

                                                hi!...hope your trip is going well...i meant Warorat...but Lamyai is right nearby, but i believe Lamyai (the interior/covered part of it) is more uncooked food (though there are dozens of stalls in the exterior part right by the footbridge)...but browse and see what you find...

                                                too bad the Siam TV place disappointed, but very cool that you are developing specific preferences in Isaan/Lao cuisine...

                                                where else have you gone in Chiang Mai so far?...hope you will be there for the Sunday market...

                                                please write a massive summary of your finds when you return...

                                                1. re: Simon


                                                  Thanks, I intend to write a big summary, complete with photos. I wouldn't say the Siam TV place disappointed -- that's too strong -- but I'm guessing they dumbed down the food for me from fiery and excellent to spicy and very good. Maybe you need to speak a little Thai to convince them that you don't need it farang-style.

                                                  I was here for the Sunday market, where I photographed just about everything I saw, and ate good spring rolls and excellent sai-ua.

                                            4. I take it you've inhaled everything on the blog. You can read posts just on select countries, and it is specifically meant to be future-eater-friendly, that is, it very clearly tells you where to find the same things they ate.

                                              I don't think Cambodian food is worse, but just that there is probably less variety to explore, or the variety is on a very subtle level. I made my focus sour soups the last time I was there (2002), and was not disappointed. But Vietnam, Thailand and, Laos, will offter you more bang for the buck.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: mary shaposhnik

                                                Thanks, Mary. That blog is absolutely great; unfortunately, its Cambodia coverage is all non-Phnom Penh. Do you have any suggestions for Khmer food in PP?