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A Culinary Tour of Vietnam

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A Culinary Tour of Vietnam

Kim N. | Sep 22, 2004 07:28 PM

After receiving such thoughtful and helpful advice from Chowhound members on where to eat in Italy, I wanted to contribute with some recommendations on places to eat in Vietnam.

We went a year ago, for a month, and still talk excitedly about the multi-course meals we had there. We tried almost everything, from street food, to market stalls, to small family- run establishments, and top-notch restaurants. I speak fluent Vietnamese so we successfully avoided many of those horrible traps where tour buses unload unsuspecting visitors for expensive, low quality meals.

First and foremost, hit the markets regardless of what city or village you're in. Here you'll find the small food stands that serve fresh food to locals. Of course, the busier the stand, the better. Many stall owners will try to corral you into eating at their stalls, but resist and head to the place that seems the freshest and has the most turnover. They can be aggressive, but they’re always polite and a shake of the head will do. Our favorites were meat and shrimp filled crepes (banh xeo) in Hoi An, vermicelli and lemon grass grilled beef in Nha Trang (bun thit nuong), and french-vietnamese sandwiches (banh-mi) stuffed with ham, headcheese, pate, and pickled vegetables in Saigon. (Steingarten calls these the "best of pig" sandwiches.)

I wish I could provide more specific directions to the particular stalls we visited and enjoyed, but once you enter a market in Vietnam and see the swarming maze of stalls, stands, tables, and make-shift shops, you’ll understand why I can’t be more detailed. But just stick to the crowded places and you’ll be fine.

However, here are restaurants we had AMAZING meals at. These restaurants have chefs trained in China and France and their creations are entirely Vietnamese. This is not fusion food. Rather, it’s perfectly executed, beautifully presented, and extremely delicious Vietnamese food fit for a king or queen. (And in fact, lots of the dishes are classic “royal” dishes served centuries ago.)

Mandarin (Saigon) - The restaurant is in a four story “villa” with beautiful colonial furniture and decor. Order the stone crab steamed in beer. It comes pre-cracked and all you have to do is pull out deliciously sweet and tightly packed white crab flesh. Also get the grilled fish marinated in tumeric. This is a fancier version of the classic “cha ca” dish which originates from Northern Vietnam. (See Cha Ca Va Long below) but is nonetheless fantastic. A waiter grills fresh, tender pieces of white fish soaked in garlic, onion, tumeric, and some curry tableside. One eats the fish with fresh vermicelli, ground peanuts, and delicate shavings of lettuce, mint, and cilantro.

Wild Rice (Hanoi) - Even though it’s a new favorite with the emerging wealthy middle class of Vietnam, it still serves excellent food. Try the slow cooked pork in brown sugar and the spring rolls made with a stuffing of ground beef and bananas that brings a new meaning to the sweet-salty combination of flavors. The grilled duck breast with black pepper pate sauce is stuff dreams are made of.

Cha Ca Va Long (Hanoi) - If you are in Hanoi, you must go to this place. It’s been there for so many generations that the street on which it is located was renamed Cha Ca Street. Here, you’ll find the classic cha ca dish - huge chunks of white fish marinated for days in sesame oil, tumeric, garlic, and fish sauce. You grill it yourself over charcoal brisquettes, slowing adding mounds of fresh scallions and dill to the bubbling sauce as the fish cooks. Eat it with fresh vermicelli, peanuts, and don’t forget an ice cold beer. Don’t be put off by the rickety stairs or seemingly unclean tables. This place has fresh, wholesome, and unbelievably delicious fish.

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