The Weekly Getaway: Savor Vietnam
Taking on a trip around Vietnam can be adventurous and rewarding. Here's our take of this sacred land and what we saw crossing the north all the way to the south.
Part I - North
"Cám ơn" we yelled as we swiped our tickets at the gate and raced to coach 6 of SE1, the reunification railway line connecting the length of Vietnam. As part of our discovery of the pulse of a country, we've often found immense joy and gained incredible insight by traveling as the majority would; this train ride was no different. There's no better way to really experience the gorgeous Vietnamese landscape and in our opinion a must do while traversing the length of the country.
Several bowls of Pho and conversations reminiscing about the amazing Bun Cha (Bun Cha Dac Kim on Hang Manh street) and Pho (phocuonvinphong.com.vn) in Hanoi, the train pulled into Da Nang, Vietnam's fifth-largest city and the closest station for the historic town of Hoi An - our first stop.
Part II - Central
Our riverside Airbnb as we happily discovered was tucked away in the corner of Cam Nam island overlooking miles of lush paddy fields and the neighboring fishing village and yet perfectly situated across the bridge from the main Hoi An market.
In an era of increasing popularity of farm to table restaurants, Vietnamese cuisine has long since captured this essence with their subtle flavours gloriously showcasing the freshness of their locally farmed ingredients. This had us drawn into dingy alleys, stopping by push carts and almost always pulling up tiny plastic stools for more.
Our exploration in Hoi An started with the legendary Bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette) which remains the finest leftover of French colonialism in the country. We had heard much about Hoi An's Bánh mì Queen, Madam Khanh who had spent years crafting this most delicious fusion of French and Vietnamese culinary expertise often referred to as the world's best sandwich. A bite of this juicy succulent Bánh mì brought to life what is unquestionably the star of this wonderful invention, the baguette - a beautifully crunchy exterior with a melt in your mouth interior. Beautifully complimenting it is what we soon learned is the Yin and Yang of Vietnamese cooking, a secret sauce that was a perfect balance of sweet, sour, spicy, elevating the stuffing of pork, pate and gloriously fresh greens, making this our top pick of the many local bahn mi shops in Hoi An. A close second is Bahn Mi Phuong which gained instant popularity after Anthony Bourdain hailed their creation as “symphony in a sandwich”. Feel free to deviate from the menu and mix various options as we did when we discovered the bacon and egg bahn mi combo. Coupled with the local caphe Su Da, with just a splash of condensed milk, it makes for the perfect breakfast.
The gastronomic stars, however, that define Hoi An's local cuisine are Cao Lao, a noodle dish that is unique to this town and Com Ga, a chicken rice duo that makes for a hearty and wholesome dinner.
Tucked away in a corner alley across from 51 Phan Chao Trinh is a family run shop across that we chanced upon as we saw a lady sweep away vast quantities of tissue strewn below the table. The quantity of tissue littering a stall's floor is what we had come to discover was a clever barometer of a joint's turnover, obvious popularity and ultimate quality.
Not surprisingly, this perfectly matched what can only be described as the art of cooking with love as the sartorial old Man carefully sliced tender sheets of pork and delicately arranged them on top of these piping hot thick noodles before pouring a dash of a soy based broth and garnishing with crunchy bits of fried noodle - the perfect Cao Lao. Our other favourite was a tiny stall in the alley alongside 69 Phan Chao Trinh, which also made a lovely soupy local Pho dish. Remember to season with chilli, soy, fish sauce and lime or watch a local doing it first to get the most of this dining experience.
A celebrated lonely planet favourite, we walked into the Bale Well restaurant and amidst some aggressive touting, we spotted a little sign further down the narrow alley that
read ‘Cơm Gà Xí.’ "All plans are off," Kanu said to the rather annoying Bale well staff, "Xi's it is." Moments later we found ourselves devouring a plate of tender strips of chicken topped over a light yellow chicken broth flavored rice. Accompanied by an abundance of greens, a side of pickled green papaya and carrot, a bowl of the most soul warming chicken broth and a generous portion of Chili sauce, this was one of our favorite dishes in Hoi An.
Another spot down the street from the lovely Mr Xi's spot was Mrs Ty (27 Phan Chau Trinh) who short of welcoming us into her house offered a delightful homely experience. She looked on with a huge smile as we gobbled up her chicken rice characterised by the most flavorful rice across all the chicken rice spots we tried.
Part III - South
Ying and yang...play and work... love and lust.... traditional and modern - everything worthwhile seems to have two sides to it. That appears to also be the case with travel - New York vs. DC, Shanghai vs. Beijing, Tokyo vs. Kyoto and so on. Vietnam is no different. Hanoi is the humbler more serious, more traditional half where the bedrock is still Confucianism. Ho Chi Min, or Saigon, as the locals call it is it’s devious playboy brother.
We are were fortunate to catch the Under 23 football World Cup final: Vietnam vs. Uzbekistan and the newspapers had to spend much real estate space on explaining what Uzbekistan is and where it is. And different to no other day in the week, weekend or year, the men lined the coffee shops. At least today they had something to do. Vietnam is a lazy man’s dream because the women do all the work while men waste away to coffee shops and beer parlors.
Our 3 days in Saigon were massively short. The absolute highlight was the 3 storey house we stayed in that had a story of its own. It once served as an architects studio and home and in true Bawan fashion blended the outdoors and indoors so effortlessly with a tree running up through it. Our photographs will never do justice. The rooftop stone tub was magical. This is the perfect spot for a dinner party with strangers — there is no greater form of travel than being at a dinner table — the next level of this is to throw your own dinner party and there couldn’t be a better place than this to do it.
Saigon’s food is an incredible amalgamation of the country’s incredible diversity, produce and differing points of view. We ate so much good food that mentioning any specific restaurant just wouldn’t be fair.
Instead we thought we would list the types of food that one must eat and our advice would be to seek them out wherever you are — your local hosts / guide are your best source of recommendations. And for God's sake, stay out of a car. This city is best done on foot and at most on bike taxi.
Here is a list of the most famous foods and their pronunciation and their descriptions:
- Oop La [scrambled]
- Ban Mi (for the bread)
- Com Tam (Pork Chop on Rice)
- Pho with crabmeat broth
- Bot Chien
- Bun (noodle) and all its variations- Bo Hue, Cha
Enjoy — the only struggle about traveling in this magnificent country is how to fill the short time between eating.