I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks travelling from north to south Vietnam in April 2016 this year culminating in a friend’s wedding which was spectacular! The trip took us from Hanoi (2 days) to Halong Bay (2 days), then down to Hoi An (6 days) before ending up in Ho Chi Minh City for 3.5 days.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam despite having a smaller population than Ho Chi Minh City. It is a bustling city but with many interesting points of interest – The Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum among others.
There are tons of cool bars, restaurants and street food venders all around the city. Generally I would have a chicken pho for breakfast (with extra hot birds eye chillis to wake you up), possibly something like a Banh mi for lunch (French baguette with chicken or pork usually, pate, vietnamese vegetables and soy/chilli etc), then a mix of rice dishes, summer/spring rolls and stir fry/curries in the evening.
Chicken Pho below – always served with fresh herbs and greens on the side. Rice noodles with chicken and spring onions in a chicken broth. Simple but so tasty:
This was one of my favourite dishes of the whole trip. It was at a stall run by an old woman who had a selection of meats and vegetables laid out on a table and you could fill a bowl with what you wanted. I chose some great char siu pork loin on top of cabbage and morning glory (a type of spinach/greens). You then mix it with a sweet vinegar chilli sauce. So simple but absolutely delicious! We had this for a quick lunch stop sitting on those tiny plastic chairs and as a 6ft 3, 90kg man I was pretty worried it was going to break but it held up!
We then took a trip to Halong Bay which was breath taking. We spent just under 2 days, 1 night on a ‘junk’ cruise boat, we highly recommend the Dragon Legend – http://www.indochina-junk.com/dragon-legend-cruise/. We were waited on hand and foot including a 6 course lunch and dinner including a selection of fresh seafood as well as activities such as kayaking, visiting caves, chilling out on the beach and visiting a floating fishing village and oyster farm.
We then moved on to the lovely coastal city of Hoi An which is about half way down the length of Vietnam on the east side. This is a fairly touristy and family place but also more chilled out with a great beach and lovely hotels for relaxing.
There is a dish in Hoi An called Cao Lau which is typically only made in Hoi An, so we had this a few times whilst we could get it. It is a dish made of thicker rice noodles, sliced pork and local greens and lettuce as shown below. The other dishes are morning glory (spinach/greens), shrimp summer rolls and shrimp rice.
Above from left to right we have Cao Lau, spicy baked pork ribs, won tons (top right), fried veg spring rolls, the shrimp rice dumplings in the middle are wonderful and called ‘White Rose’ due to the arrangement on the plate and then Com Ga (Com meaning Rice and Ga meaning Chicken).
Below we have variations of the same. Chicken and rice, boiled and steamed spring rolls and a beef and green mango salad.
This was a seafood beach lunch including a green mango salad at the top of the picture.
And finally a stir fried chilli beef dish, crab in tamarind sauce, chilli and salt/pepper prawns and yet again and green mango salad!
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh is another busy City like Hanoi but feels much larger. It is also much further south and therefore was around 33-35 degrees Celsius and far more humid compared with Hanoi which was cooler and more cloudy. Probably 28-29 degrees.
The image below was at a fantastic traditional Vietnamese restaurant near the apartments we were staying in. We had some crispy suckling pig (top left), Garlic fried greens, a coconut goat curry (middle – and amazing) as well as a usual selection of starters and spring rolls etc!
London Vietnames Restaurants – Kingsland Road
So how do Vietnamese restaurants compare in London? Are they authentic? What are the differences?
Well there is clearly a big difference in price. In Vietnam main courses were as little as £1-£2 each which was incredible value for money but this is London and restaurant and staff costs are clearly vastly different. I recently ate at Viet Grill on Kingsland Road which is one of the slightly smarter restaurants on the ‘Vietnamese Strip’. I have to say it was very good. Apart from a few dishes including spring rolls and Pho the menus were quite different to those we saw and experienced in Vietnam but the benefit is that in London they are more ‘Westernised’ to include more meat content and are possibly more complex including more sauces and curries. Don’t get me wrong I love curries but if we are talking about authenticity then the dishes in Vietnam tend to be more simplistic, generally including a form of rice, meat and vegetables cooked very simply. That could be chicken, fish or pork (sometimes beef) and either rice or rice noodles. This is because rice and vegetables are both cheap and easily available.
My favourite Vietnamese restaurants in London are Salvation in Noodles (Finsbury Park) – the Pho is great as are the spring rolls and the crunchy honey chicken wings are an absolute must! Others are mainly located on the Kingsland Road include Song Que Cafe, Mien Tay and Tay do.
Our meal at Viet Grill was good. We started with a selection of meat and veg spring rolls including some fresh prawn ‘summer rolls’ and some chilli squid. I have to say the fresh ones could have had more mint for a fresher taste but otherwise the starters were good. Both the pork and vegetable spring rolls were very nice.
For mains we had a duck leg curry and a clay pot Mekong fish dish with a soy/tamarind sauce. I particularly liked this dish. Meaty white fish and a rich sauce nicely contrasted with just some steamed jasmine rice.
Overall then I think the starters and Pho in London Vietnamese restaurants are pretty good and authentic. They tend to be more ‘saucy’ and include more curry dishes in London than found in Vietnam (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and they also contain more meat or fish – again, I’m not complaining! Check some of the restaurants named above if you get the chance. Still great value for money, even in London.