Report from my trip in March:
It was actually harder to consistently find really good food than I expected. I am definitely spoiled by the great Vietnamese food in the SF Bay Area. Before we left, I wrote down recommendations from Noodle Pies blog and Chowhound, but often we couldnt find the restaurant, or wed just be in the wrong part of town and need to eat, so wed grab something somewhere. We tried to stick with local restaurants and stay away from the tourist ones, where the Vietnamese food is pretty dumbed down and not too high quality, but sometimes that was difficult. If I had it to do over again, Id stay in hotels away from the main tourist sections, but thats hard on a first trip. Sometimes, wed go into restaurants that appeared to cater to middle class Vietnamese and not tourists and the food would be awfulproving that not everyone is a Chowhound. At one nice looking place in Hanoi, the customers (who were young, prosperous looking Vietnamese couples) were all eating thin, grayish steaks and French fries along with fried chicken wings with no seasoning or dipping sauce and garlic bread. We ordered a stir-fried beef dish that was strangely slimy and made us sick. Other times, I just ordered badly. If I didnt understand the menu, Id order dishes that didnt complement each other well. Sometimes the person taking our order would help us, other times not. The street food is often very good, but sometimes the conditions under which its prepared are a terrifying. I dont want to think about how long that chicken is sitting out in a hot climate without refrigeration. I did get mildly sick a couple of times. The food in the market stalls was usually good, but the stalls dont have names so its hard to recommend specific ones. We did make it through a lot of the country, so here are some specific recommendations by section:
We visited Geoffrey Deetzs place Juice (49 Mac Thi Buoi St. tel: 8296900) and enjoyed a soursop shake. Chatting with him and his wife, Thuy, was a good way to get into the swing of a new country and culture. His place is bright, clean and fun. Didnt get a chance to eat there. Was going to when we returned to Saigon, but we didnt return to Saigon (long story)
Geoffrey is a partner in another new venture, Café Havana (25B Tran Cao Van St. tel: 8279682). It has a supper club type atmosphere. We sampled some food there and listened to some good music by a Vietnamese group and a group from Spain. The menu is all over the map (literally). We had fish cakes and lotus salad. They were fine, not great, but its a new place. The hospitality was great. Good place to have drinks and relax.
Quan 157-159 Bui Vien St. @ Nguyen Thai Hoc Dist. 1. We found this place purely by chance and had some of our best meals here. Its a sidewalk restaurant on a busy corner. You can sit on small plastic chairs at small plastic tables, sip cold beer and enjoy the best hot pot ever. No tourists here and you get to watch and very nearly be a part of the insane Saigon street traffic. The seafood hot pot was outstanding. It was accompanied by fresh egg noodles topped with bits of fried garlic and a very intense soy sauce with chilies. They also have lots of versions of snails on the menu (some of which are clams). We had the snails (clams) with herbs and nuc cham. Amazing! For some reason, the young man waiting on us would not let us order the chicken.
Quan 94 @ 94 Dinh Tien Hoang St. This was a chowhound or noodle pie recommendation. I dont remember which. Its a sit-down, indoor restaurant, though casual. The tamarind crab was a highlight.
I had a great Ban Xeo (Vietnamese crepe) in the Ben Thanh market and the noodle soups we tried in the market were all good.
Mui Ne (South-Central coast):
This tiny town is a good place to get a beach fix in Vietnam. There is one main road and all the restaurants and hotels are on it. The air smells pungently of fish sauce, since a lot of it is made here.
Rung Forest: touristy place that caters to German tourists. We had one excellent meal of simply grilled fresh seabass, sauteed morning glory and shrimp rolls with banana. The atmosphere is pleasant, the service great and they have bamboo water chimes that are soothing or annoying, depending on your mood. The second meal we had here was awful. Because the first one was so good, I decided to try their "Forest style" dishes. Dont do it. Stick to the simple seafood dishes.
Song Huong Restaurant
At this local restaurant they brought me the wrong dishes two days in a row, (lotus salad with no lotus root and sauteed cabbage billed as sauteed morning glory) I could tell they just didnt think Id know the difference, which bothered me, but I kept going back for fish salad Phan Thiet style (Phan thiet is the name of the province). It was the single best dish we had in Vietnam and something Ive never seen in a Vietnamese restaurant in the US. The salad consisted of strips of white fish that seemed to be cooked in an acidic marinadeceviche like. They were coated with finely crushed chilies and peanuts and came with a plate of fresh herbs and cucumbers and rice paper for wrapping, along with crunchy rice crackers that the owner instructed us to crumble and wrap up with the fish and everything else. The dipping sauce was thick, red and spicy, with crushed peanuts, kind of like a Vietnamese romesco. Outstanding!
The food is very different here than in the South. The dark, intense soy sauce with chilies that one gets in the South is replaced by a lighter version. There are many dumpling type dishes, which Im guessing are Chinese influenced. Lots and lots of seafood. The street food is good. We had grilled beef sticks that had sweet onions nestled between the strips of beef and a Bahn Mi with roasted duck, without the usual mayonnaise or pickled vegetables.
Café des Amis 52 Rue Bach Dang
Owned by a former chef of the South Vietnamese army, who greets customers with a beer and a cigarette in his hand. As you can tell from the name of the restaurant, hes a bit of a Francophile and youll hear croony French music and have the opportunity to order weathered bottles of Bordeaux, which are a little worse for hot weather, having mostly lost their fruit. The chef makes whatever strikes his fancy that day and the food is quite good and reasonably priced. The menu is fixed and you can choose seafood or vegetarian. The White Rose, a local specialty of delicate dumplings filled with chicken or fish paste and a sweet fish sauce, garnished with fried garlic stand out. The Cao Lau (another local specialty of thick rice noodles tossed with bean sprouts, greens and crispy fried flat crackers with sliced pork) was also good, but a better version can be found at a place near the market called Fukien. The fried wontons (yet another local specialty) were good here. They were topped with a medley of lightly sautéed vegetables. To eat them you drizzle a bit of soy sauce on them and pick them up with your hands. We had a comforting seafood porridge at one meal.
Quan 19 19 Hoang Van Thu
Billed as the place with the cheapest, coldest beer in town. They have several books filled with testimonials by customers about the excellence of the food. They are a nice family with very good marketing skills. The beer is indeed cold and cheap. The food, however, was ordinary. We ordered the hot pot because it was the subject of the most testimonials. It was pretty terrible (proving once again that not everyone is a chowhound and if you have enough cheap, cold beer anything will taste good) It was filled with sugar and thats pretty much all we could taste. The chili and soy sauce and raw garlic we were given with it could not save this cursed hot pot. Quite a contrast to the hot pot in Saigon with the lovely egg noodles and the bits of fried garlic.
Mango Rooms 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc
An interesting place with a nice, hip atmosphere owned by a young Vietnamese chef who has lived in Texas and Mexico among other places. The food is not Vietnamese, but fusion and, as is typical of most fusion food, some dishes succeed and others dont. Its worth visiting for the vibe, the good drinks, the freshness of the ingredients and the inventiveness of the cooking. There is plenty here for vegetarians to choose from as well. The one standout dish was the Green Papaya Salad with grilled shrimp.
I wish wed had more time here as the food is rumored to be quite good. This is where the famous restaurant run by deaf people (and several knock-offs) is. We didnt make it to any of them.
Hang Me 45 Vo thi Sau
This place was recommended by the proprietor of our guesthouse. It only serves Vietnamese snacks (traditionally eaten a 3 or 4 in the afternoon). No tourists and no English language menu here, but helpfully, they produced a notebook with descriptions of the dishes written in English by a traveler. This was a fun meal. We had Bahn Beo (a little bowl of rice paste with pork cracklings over which you spoon fish sauce before sliding it into your mouth like a jello shot), Ram It and Bahn Nam, both of which are rice paste wrapped around shrimp paste or a whole shrimp and cooked in banana leaves. I dont remember which is which.
We also had an interesting meal in a tiny restaurant at the end of the Le Loi Street. I dont remember the name. We basically ate in the familys living room. The only other customers appeared to be cab drivers. This place was also recommended by our guest house proprietor. He went to the trouble to translate the entire menu into English for us. Here we had swamp eel (which we witnessed being hacked up alive in the kitchen) It was stir fried with greens in a simple, but flavorful sauce. It was good but bony; loofah, a light green tree vegetable uncooked and crunchy and extremely bitter; and fried shrimp in flour, which was very greasy and not good.
By this point in our trip, we were tired, cranky and really really cold. Our stomachs were also a bit off. If youre feeling similarly, I recommend The Red Dragon English Pub 21 Muong Hoa St. It is quiet, comfortable and friendly (run by a very nice Vietnamese woman and her Australian husband) They even have a friendly pub dog. They make good fish and chips and decent sandwiches and entrees. We were pretty unlucky finding good Vietnamese food in Sapa, so I cant comment.
We kept striking out here when we tried to go to places Noodle Pie recommends. We either couldnt find the places or they were closed. We had some good street food. Follow your instincts there. I didnt write down any of the places.
Brothers 26 Nguyen Thai Hoc
This is a highly regarded restaurant set in the courtyard of an old monastery. It was on Noodle Pies Hanoi list and its in all the guidebooks. I didnt know when we went that it was a buffet. I personally dont like buffets since I dont trust the hygiene habits of my fellow diners and am not seduced by mass quantities of mediocre food. This is my own prejudice, but I was willing to give it a try. It was weird. The food was fine, but lacked soul and I felt like I was dining on a cruise ship (they were playing Anne Murray and Englebert Humperdink). This place wasnt for me, and it wasnt cheap either.
Café des Arts 11 B Ngo Bao Khanh
Another restaurant that appears in the guidebooks and (I think on chowhound). Unless youre really craving French food, Id give it a pass. The atmosphere is nice and if you sit by the window, you have a great view of the lively street scene below, but the food is just ok and not cheap.
Café Culi 40 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street
A travelers café run by a New Zealander, his Vietnamese wife and an Australian partner. They had just opened the week we were there. They are lovely people and offer exceptionally caring service and a relaxed atmosphere. The food is simple and well prepared western food, which, after 3 weeks in Vietnam, tasted pretty good. A nice hangout with good music, young expat customers and flattering lighting. They will soon be running tours.
If anyone wants non-chow advice for Vietnam, feel free to e-mail me. Im happy to share tips. Its a great place to travel.