These days you don’t have to travel to Vietnam to enjoy authentic Vietnamese food. Vietnamese immigrants have opened restaurants and food stalls in various parts of the world to cater to lovers of Vietnamese cuisine. However, our many visits to Vietnam dating to as far back as 22 years ago allowed us to appreciate its culture and most specially its food more. Vietnamese cuisine ranks right up there as one of our top 5 favorite international fares. Here are some of the dishes we have sampled.
Easily the most popular Vietnamese dish world-wide, this French-influenced noodle soup originated from Hanoi in the early 20th century. Made with flat rice noodles, herbs (mint, coriander and others), meat (typically beef or chicken) and tasty broth, pho is also topped with bean sprouts and other vegetables. We often add Hoisin and chili sauce to the mix for more pep.
We first dined on pho at a restaurant in Puerto Princesa in Palawan in the mid-90s. The owner was one of several Vietnamese refugees making a stop in the Philippines while on the way to America and migration; this Vietnamese decided to stay in Palawan for good. After that initial encounter we ordered pho wherever we could find it from Metro Manila’s Vietnamese restaurants to those in America and of course in Vietnam. Our transition to a whole-foods, plant-based diet did not stop us from enjoying this noodle soup since vegan pho may be found in almost any Vietnamese restaurant in Metro Manila.
Banh Mi (Bánh mì)
Almost as popular as pho worldwide, this crusty, savory baguette sandwich is perhaps the most conspicuous proof of French influence on Vietnamese cuisine. Originally from Vietnam’s southern regions, banh mi is a sliced baguette filled with layers of meat (traditionally pork but also with myriad variations of other meats), radish and carrot pickles, cucumbers, cilantro, pate and mayonnaise. We add chopped chili peppers to this mix as often as we can.
Now don’t scratch your head but in all our trips to Vietnam from 1998 to 2004 only Nina ever got to sample a banh mi once – at a street cart in Da Nang. Leo got his first taste of banh mi at K Sandwiches, a Vietnamese sandwich shop in Linda Vista, San Diego in the U.S. and fell in love with it instantly. Our shift to a plant-based diet wasn’t much of a problem since vegan banh mi is sold in many Vietnamese restaurants here in Metro Manila. But probably the best vegan banh mi we’ve had so far was during our 2019 trip to Hanoi.
Bun Cha (Bún chả)
This is a dish we encountered fairly recently on our trip to Hanoi. It’s based on charcoal-grilled pork served with cold vermicelli noodles and green leafy veges such as lettuce, perilla, cilantro and mint. It’s also eaten with a side of deep-fried crab spring rolls. Bun cha is thought to have originated from Hanoi. The first bun cha restaurant was located right at the Hoan Kiem district where we encountered this dish.
Banh Xeo (Bánh xèo)
Banh xeo is another of our Vietnamese food favorites – in the past at least. A crispy, savory crepe made with fried rice flour batter stuffed with pork belly slices, shrimp, green onions and lightly cooked bean sprouts, banh xeo is another French-influenced dish. Our first encounter with banh xeo was in our old office at Baguio City when visiting Vietnamese colleagues prepared several of them. We liked it so much we consumed 3-4 each. Our Vietnamese friends however looked at us in disappointment and asked us if we didn’t like it. Later we understood why. When it was their turn to eat, each one was able to polish off 10 of the savory crepes. That they could eat this way and yet remain svelte and slim was a source of envy for us.
Goi cuon (Gỏi cuốn)
Vietnamese cuisine also includes several salads and appetizers. Our favorite salad is perhaps their pomelo and shrimp salad (goi tom buoi) but what we often order as appetizers is goi cuon. Known as fresh summer rolls (not spring rolls) goi cuon is shrimp, pork, herbs, rice vermicelli and other ingredients wrapped up in rice paper. It is usually dipped in a rich peanut sauce although we sometimes use light fish sauce with spices as a dip.
Cha Gio (Chả giò)
This is the deep fried version of goi cuon and is often referred to in English as fried spring rolls or egg rolls. It’s among the first dishes we’ve tasted in Vietnamese restaurants in the Philippines and it very much resembles our local lumpia. Goi cuon is usually made up of minced pork, veges and spices wrapped in rice paper and deep fried to a crisp.
Cha Ca La Vong (Chả cá Lã Vọng)
Another specialty dish from Hanoi, cha ca la vong is a grilled snakehead fish or catfish cut into nuggets and served with rice vermicelli, roasted peanuts, spring onions and herbs. The fish is marinated in galangal and turmeric giving it a caramelized coating after grilling. A dipping sauce made up of fish sauce, vinegar and garlic adds to its flavor. Some folks will also add a bit of shrimp paste with lime juice. We had this in a restaurant at the Old Quarter in Hanoi but a cousin said it’s best eaten at the market not far away.
Bo Kho (Bò kho)
We’ve had this beef stew on a few occasions in Vietnam, the U.S. and in Metro Manila. It comes with carrots, onions and cilantro and while sometimes eaten with rice we’ve eaten it with bread – usually a baguette.
Rice Plates and Veges
As in many other Southeast Asian countries, rice plates served with meat or vegetables or a combination of both is a staple in Vietnamese cuisine. One popular dish we encountered in Ho Chi Minh City was com tam. This dish originated among poor farmers who utilized broken rice fragments damaged during the milling process (and therefore difficult to sell). During the mid-20th century enterprising South Vietnamese made it more suitable for foreign guests, even serving it on plates with a fork instead of in bowls with chop sticks. The com tam of today is usually a bed of rice with greens and different types of meat with grilled pork as the most common.
During our trip to Hanoi last year we ordered vegetable claypot rice on a number of occasions. Claypot rice is originally a Chinese/Southeast Asian dish of pre-soaked or sometimes partially cooked rice finished in a clay pot with other ingredients. The rice develops a tasty crust in the process.
We mentioned earlier about our Vietnamese friends consuming phenomenal amounts of banh xeo and still maintaining their trim figures. It must be the genes but perhaps a better explanation is in the kinds of food the Vietnamese eat. In our travels to the country we often see locals gathered around plates of heaping vegetables plus a variety of herbs including lemongrass, mint leaves, cilantro and basil leaves. It’s unthinkable for a Vietnamese to have a meal without them. This healthy vegetarian tradition has kept us so much in love with Vietnamese cuisine with our shift to a plant-based diet.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee (cà phê sua dá)
A favorite of ours, and a beverage with French influence, is cà phê sua dá or Vietnamese iced coffee. This is strong coffee served with plenty of crushed ice and sweetened with condensed milk. We’ve tried this in restaurants outside Vietnam but have ended up disappointed for the most part. The best Vietnamese iced coffee we’ve had is still to be found – no surprises here – inside Vietnam itself.
Egg Coffee (Cà Phê Trứng)
This coffee is a relatively new concoction made with egg yolks, sugar and condensed milk. Some people will tell you it’s the best coffee in Vietnam. We’ve tried this just once along with coconut coffee in Hanoi. A more exotic coffee is civet coffee, an increasingly popular coffee in Southeast Asia (also known as kopi luwak in Indonesia and kape alamid in the Philippines). We didn’t try this in Vietnam but bought several bags of ground civet coffee to take home.
These are just some of the Vietnamese dishes and drinks we’ve had over the years. With several Vietnamese restos here in the Philippines hardly a month passes by that we don’t visit one, especially since Leo needs to have his banh mi fix at least every month. Even with the quarantine imposed due to Covid19 these restaurants can deliver dishes right at our doorstep ensuring that Vietnamese food won’t be leaving our palates in a long while.