Ah Vietnam, best known for it’s never ending stream of scooters, terrible war (if you are from the United States), and noodle soups. Heading to Vietnam I only knew a little about these subjects; before our trip Kane had sent me some rather terrifying videos of foreigners trying to cross the street without losing vital body parts, the Vietnam War (or rather the American War as it is known here in Vietnam) was touched on briefly in my high school history class, and my old university town had introduced me to the tastiness of pho (the most exported Vietnamese noddle soup). Now I can say, after a week in Vietnam, my education on all three of these subjects is much improved, but my favorite learning experience has most definitely been getting to know the truly amazing food culture of Vietnam and figuring out where to eat in Saigon. (To be fair, there was no way a war museum and death defying street crossings were going to be more fun than fried pork buns, but hey those are for another post.)
Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly known by its old name of Saigon) is the largest city in Vietnam, hosting a population of about 8.4 million people and more than enough eateries to entertain them all. From banh mi street stalls selling delicious sandwiches for 17,000 dong (about 75 US cents) to elegant chocolate shops catering to the upper crust of Saigon with US prices, this city is the city of food. The food itself is a fascinating mix of French and Asian influences that gives us the famed banh mi, a classic Vietnamese sandwich that most often consists of meat, pate, vegetables, spicy sauce, and creamy mayonnaise stuffed into a perfectly crunchy, yet soft baguette. Most importantly though is the biggest French influence on Vietnam, a cafe culture that is out of this world.
Due to years of bad espresso from chain cafes in the US, I am normally a tea drinker, but I hold a special place in my heart for properly good coffee. So far only Italian espresso has made it to that place in my heart, but after a week in Vietnam there is a new spot for Vietnamese iced coffee. Brewed strong by pouring hot water over coffee grounds and letting the freshly brewed coffee immediately fall over a bed of ice makes for the perfect iced coffee that is not too bitter or too sweet, even drunk without milk or sugar as I prefer to do. If you are looking for milk in your coffee, be forewarned that the classic Vietnamese coffee with milk will most often be made using sweetened condensed milk, a throwback to the era of French colonialism when fresh milk was hard to come by in Vietnam, thus beginng the tradition of using sweetened condensed milk that could survive the long journey from France. Sweetened condensed milk is now very common throughout Southeast Asia and you will see it in everything from Thai iced teas to banana pancakes. However, even though I much prefer it, I will note that Vietnamese black iced coffee is not for the faint of heart, their brewing process creates properly strong coffee that on more than one occasion has left me shaking for a good hour after consuming the stuff. Your best bet if you aren’t already a coffee addict is to go for the milk coffee or to make sure you eat something before your morning caffeine blast. A great place to sample the Vietnamese coffee is i.d Cafe, I spent many hours there writing and enjoying a mid afternoon coffee.
So what might you eat before sampling the famous coffee? There are so many wonderful options, from the classic noddle soup, pho, to the slightly spicy, meaty beef and pork noddle soup, bun bo hue. Then there’s the plethora of street food snacks of the mostly deep fried carbohydrate variety that really scratch that comfort food itch. My personal favorites are the sweet, custard filled buns and the fried pork buns with a little quail egg inside. There is a rather grumpy old lady who sets up her cart in front of the Cong Quynh market, only one street over from the backpacker street Pham Ngu Lao, who will sell you these little balls of heaven for only 6,000 dong a piece (25 US cents).
Our favorite pho came from Pho Phu Vuong, located on Nguyen Thai Binh near the corner of Calmette. They serve every type of pho imaginable, but my favorite was the pho thit nuong, slow stewed beef in a slightly sweet, clear beef broth garnished with mint, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, and Thai basil served over a generous bed of slippery rice noodles. Most authentic pho places will also offer you a selection of chili to spice up your soup as this dish is not served spicy, you are supposed to add the heat you want. Be forewarned though, the chili they offer are quite hot, just adding three slices to my large soup spiced it up to my liking and my preferences on heat have been described as on par with Thai spicy.
Bun bo hue is the up and coming noodle soup that is currently trying to dethrone pho as Vietnam’s favorite noodle soup. Our favorite place for bun bo hue was from Bun Bo Cha Ha, located at 300 Võ Văn Tần in District 3. For 62,000 dong a dish it wasn’t the cheapest noodle soup we’ve had, but it was stuffed full of meat and the broth was that perfect mix of spicy, meaty, and citrusy lemongrass. To be honest, I still might be a pho-supporter in the battle for the title of the best noodle soup in Vietnam, but the bun bo hue did not disappoint in the slightest, I just happen to have been a vegetarian for about a decade so heavier meat flavors still aren’t my favorite. Kane, on the other hand, is a bun bo hue convert, but this makes sense due to his love of a good steak.
Now what is a person to do when they’ve just spent a day wandering around a giant, traffic crazed city in search of the best food said city has to offer? Wash it all down with a beer (or two or three…) from the local craft brewery scene! We did a little research and decided to try Pasteur Street Brewing Company after seeing that they did indeed brew their own beer (not just try to sell imported craft beers and call themselves a brewery as is quite common in Southeast Asia). With Kane directing, as per usual due to my really terrible lack of an internal compass, we still almost missed the brewery and that’s saying something as Kane can find anything, even if it means chasing down coconut ice cream sellers in Bangkok.
The brewery is really an only for those who know where to look thing. To find it you have to spot the sign down a dodgy looking alleyway, head upstairs to an almost unmarked door, trust that you aren’t about to enter a heroin den, then boom, you open the door and you are in Portland. Seriously, this little brewery could easily hold its own in the competitive craft beer scene in the Pacific Northwest. Their beer is creative, yet all around well done, with my personal favorite being the Chocolate Stout. They use Marou chocolate (the upscale chocolatiers I mentioned earlier) that is single origin and grown in Southern Vietnam. The beer tastes like liquid dark chocolate in the best way possible, but be careful as it packs a big punch with its 13% ABV. The prices are also US prices and we ended up spending about $40 USD for our night out, but in our defense we don’t go out much and the beer was just too good. We split a flight of six and each had three chocolate beers so in the end I think $40 wasn’t overpriced. We did end up nursing our hangovers the next day, but it was worth it and just gave us another reason to go eat more amazing Vietnamese food.