Footpath Feasting: Vietnam Eating Tips from a Local Expert
Planning a holiday in Vietnam with food a high priority? Who better to consult for Vietnam eating trips than a local expert, the kind we go to for recommendations when we head back to Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City resident, writer, and street food tour operator, Barbara Adam.
As long as we’ve been travelling – and long before we started writing stories and authoring guidebooks – Terence and I have always sought out local experts in places for tips. If we want restaurant recommendations we consult chefs and restaurateurs. If we’re after the best wine bars or cocktails, we’ll seek out the city’s finest sommeliers and mixologists. And the beauty is that these days most people are on social media and are happy to share some suggestions.
I first found Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) local and expat Aussie journalist, guidebook writer and blogger, Barbara Adam on Twitter when we were living in Hanoi. Her feed became a great source of information when it came to Vietnam eating tips. Seven months later, when we arrived in Saigon, I got in touch about doing one of her Saigon Street Eats‘ food tours. We’ve stayed in touch via social media ever since.
To celebrate the launch of Barbara and her Vietnamese husband Vu Vo’s new book, Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips – and a Guide for Moving There, published by Wandering Educators, I interviewed Barbara about everything from her favourite city escapes to the lesser-known dishes she recommends for food enthusiasts. You can read part one of that interview, concentrated on travel, here. Part two focuses on Barbara’s best Vietnam eating tips, from regional street food specialties to dining in local restaurants.
Vietnam Eating Tips from a Local Expert
Q. How did you and your husband Vu come to start offering street food tours?
A. Our food tours are based on what we’d do with friends and family who visited us. After they returned home, they would always contact us saying the highlight of their visit to Vietnam was eating street food with us. They said it was better than any of the tours they paid to do. This is what popped into my head the day after my online editing job disappeared.
The magazine I was working for had run out of money and laid everyone off with an email at 5.15pm on a Friday. Luckily I was in Vietnam when it happened. Most of my colleagues were based in Singapore, with their rental contracts and visas tied to their employment. Vu had been a stay-at-home dad for a couple of years and was talking vaguely about getting a job, but we didn’t have anything lined up, and neither of us expected my job to vanish so suddenly. Our first reaction was “we need to get jobs”.
Then I thought about how many people had told us that they would pay for a foodie experience like the one they’d had with us. We decided we’d try it. We worked out some routes, set up a website (Vu did the photos, I did the words), and paid for some Google ads. We also set a financial target and agreed that if we didn’t hit the target within two months we’d abandon the idea and go get ‘proper’ jobs. We were very surprised to hit our target that first month. We got very lucky, word spread quickly, and we’re still going three-and-a-half years later.
Q. We firmly believe travellers who love to eat should do a food tour as soon as they arrive in a new place. Agree?
A. When I first arrived in Vietnam I found the street scene quite overwhelming. I wanted to dive in and try stuff but I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t until I started working at the newspaper that people started taking me out to eat. They were horrified at the idea of me eating alone! That’s when my Vietnam experience really took off, when I was eating local food alongside the locals, with my colleagues on hand to explain what was going on.
It saves a lot of time and worry to have someone show you the ropes, point out what to look for and what to avoid, what tastes good and what doesn’t. We run small group tours because we like people to feel they’re hanging out with friends. That means we can explain things, like how to avoid things like meat, generally, offal, or pork. People have many different likes and dislikes when it comes to food, so we can help people work out what to look for when they’re traveling through Vietnam.
Our tours are designed to demystify the whole street food experience, to give people the confidence to walk up to a street food stall and have a look at what’s on offer and order what appeals. Being polite or timid just doesn’t achieve any results in Vietnam. You have to barge in and tell people what you want. It’s not rude, it’s just how things are done here.
Q. Vietnamese food, like many of the cuisines of Southeast Asia, is so regional, yet most travellers, even foodies, don’t realise that.
A. When it comes to Vietnamese food, most people outside of Vietnam know Southern Vietnamese food, because it was the southerners who fled Vietnam in the 70s and 80s and started Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, the US, France, Germany, Canada, and the UK.
Most regions of Vietnam have their own food specialties so it really is worth doing research so that you eat the good stuff in each place you stop in. If you start your travels in Hanoi, in the north, you’ll have trouble finding bánh mì, and if you do, it won’t be very good. You won’t be able to find gỏi cuốn at all because in the north it’s known as nem cuốn. You’ll also be shocked at the plain-ness of northern phở.
Q. Everyone knows phở, gỏi cuốn and bánh mì, especially Australians. What would your recommendations for travellers who want to sample some lesser-known dishes?
A. In Hanoi, try bún chả Hà Nội, barbecued pork strips and patties served in a warm dipping sauce with a side of herbs and fresh noodles, and chả cá Lã Vọng, fish braised with turmeric and dill.
In Hue, try bún bò Huế, of course, a spicy beef noodle soup that originates from the former Imperial capital. Also track down Hue’s bite-sized dishes, including: bánh bèo, small steamed rice flour pancakes topped with prawn, ground dried prawn and a square of fried pork fat; ram ít, a tiny prawn encased in crunchy batter, topped with a soft rice pancake and a sprinkle of ground prawn; bánh khoái, a fried stuffed pancake related to the southern Vietnamese version of bánh xeo; and chả tôm, a prawn version of fish cake.
In Hoi An, try the local specialties cao lầu and mì Quảng, both prawn and pork noodle dishes that are so different in taste and appearance. Mì Quảng is one of my all-time favourite Vietnamese dishes*, and it’s served all along the south-central coast area, from Danang to Phan Thiet.
Anywhere coastal – and Vietnam has 3,444 km of coastline – try the local seafood. Usually seafood is prepared quite simply, barbecued and served with a dipping sauce.
Q. Vietnam’s markets are wonderful. The produce is fantastic and they’re cleaner than markets in some other parts of Southeast Asia. What are your tips for food lovers keen to explore markets?
A. First of all, stay well away from Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh Market. It’s a horrible, horrible tourist trap. The night market there is okay for touristy Vietnamese food if you can’t be bothered venturing out of the tourist area on your own. And never, ever hire one of the cyclos that lurk around that market.
We take people to a local market on our Pho Trail morning walking tour. We spend quite a bit of time poking around, looking at what’s available, and talking about how the market is set up to suit Vietnamese family life. In most cases you don’t need to get off your motorbike to do your market shopping!
The markets sell an incredible range of goods, from gold to fermented prawn paste and everything in between. There’s usually a cooked food section, where you can sit down for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or a between-meal snack or drink. There’s also usually a clothing section upstairs, and a great selection of kitchen equipment.
I love wandering through local markets in Vietnam, especially with my kids. I can point out all the interesting things to them and no one is bothered by the fact I’m not buying because they’re focused on the kids. We usually buy some fruit during a market visit. We just can’t resist fresh in-season lychees, longans and mangos.
Q. Do you have any eating tips for dining out, whether it’s a family restaurant or a bia hoi joint, because even the most travelled foodies have some challenges in Vietnam, don’t they?
A. My best tip is for people to be patient with Vietnamese service. In Vietnam, there is no expectation for the waiters to anticipate or even notice what the diners are doing. The diners take responsibility for the service, and it’s your job as the diner to get the waiter’s attention to order more food, another beer, clean napkins, and the bill. “Em oi” is the most important phrase for traveling through Vietnam. It translates as “hey you” and it’s used to get the attention of waiters or other service staff, as well as friends.
When eating out, people order a bunch of dishes, the order gets sent to the kitchen, and once each dish is cooked it’s brought to the table. There is no concept of entrees and mains, or of every diner getting served at the same time. Instead, the steaming hot dishes are placed in the centre of the table and everyone digs in, transferring food to their own little bowls.
Shared meals should be enjoyed slowly. If not enough food has been ordered, just order more! These kinds of shared meals usually finish with a hot pot, cooked communally at the table. It’s a very social and fun way to eat.
Q. If people don’t have time to do your food tour, and they save your book for the beach at Nha Trang, what are your top tips, food-related or otherwise?
A. My number one tip for people before they leave home is to check Vietnam’s visa rules. The visa rules change regularly, with very little notice. At the moment, citizens of ASEAN countries get a 30-day visa exemption, people holding some Nordic passports get 15-days visa free, and the government is trialling 15-day visa exemptions for citizens of Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the UK until June 2016.
The second tip is to remind people that Vietnam remains a Communist country, with only one political party allowed. Politics is a sensitive topic in Vietnam, and it’s best not to ask too many questions because people do feel uncomfortable answering. If you start asking questions and you notice that the replies contain nothing of substance, that’s your cue to switch topics. Ask about the football – most people follow the European Championship.
*Mì Quảng is one of our all-time favourite dishes too: see Terence’s post on our favourite noodle shop in Hoi An.
Click through to read part one of this interview, focused on travel, for more insightful Vietnam travel tips or click here to purchase Barbara and Vu’s book: Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips – and a Guide for Moving There.
Pictured above: Eating on the streets of Hanoi. See more Vietnam pics on Terence’s photography site.