We are all very familiar with the Vietnamese beef noodle soup called Pho (pronounced fah, not foe). We've all had it. It is one of the Vietnam's more popular dishes and naturally one of Vietnam's more well-known exports. So let's set that aside for a moment. When I went back to Vietnam last month, I knew that Vietnamese food was one of the things I need to preoccupy myself with. I need to dig deeper than Pho or any of their noodle soups and spring rolls, for that matter. There has got to be a reason why Vietnamese cuisine has been gaining popularity over the recent years.
Just like that, I found a very good excuse to eat. And eat, I did. Some of these dishes I discovered myself by closing my eyes and pointing at the restaurant menus. Some of them, I was introduced to by the wonderful people I met there. Having traveled through the country south to north, I have sampled a bit of what Vietnamese cuisine had to offer and I have narrowed down my seven favorite dishes. Here we go.
Com Tam Bi Suon
Coming in at number 7 is rice with pork chop, pork skin shavings and veggie side dishes. While not exactly a traditional dish, I lived on this for a few days because well, Pho 24 serves it and it's the only dish in their menu that's not Pho or spring rolls. And at the time, I was still a bit reluctant to eat on the streets or at local joints. Hey! I manned up eventually. That doesn't make this dish any less good though. I promise.
If there was one sinful dish the Vietnamese had (and that's rare considering how fresh and healthy they eat), Bo Kho would be it. Basically, it's beef stew, but thicker, gloopier, and therefore, fatter than your normal beef stew. That's a good thing, because all that gloop comes from bone marrow, tendons and other fatty beef parts normally thrown out. It's so thick and oily and full of that very distinct beef flavor that you can't really eat it on its own. You need to dip some crusty, crunchy bread to the broth. Or not. It's just so sinfully good.
Bale Well (Nem Nuong, Banh Xeo, Ram Cuon, Thit Nuong)
This is probably one of the more interesting Vietnamese foodie experiences I've ever had. Bale Well is the name of the restaurant. At that restaurant, they serve only one thing. By "one thing," I mean many things but you have them all in one bite. No kidding. You sit down. They serve you everything in their menu. Yes, everything. That's grilled pork satay, rice pancakes, spring rolls, and fresh and fermented veggies. You put them all together in one roll of rice paper, dip it in peanut sauce and take a bite. As Tony Bourdain might say, you get "neighborhoods of flavor" in just one bite, from the smokiness of the pork to the freshness of the veggies and everything in between. If you are traveling through Hoi An in Central Vietnam, do visit this little restaurant, hidden in one of the alleys right outside the old town. If anything, it's a very big but very cheap meal costing only 100,000 VND (5 USD).
Remember Pho? Of course, you do. Now imagine all the flavorful ingredients of Pho: beef bits, soft rice noodles, and fresh veggies. But this time, imagine the ingredients not cooked in a broth but stuffed into a spring roll. Yes, that's Pho Cuon. It's beef and veggies wrapped into very soft rice paper dipped into a very light-tasting fish sauce. It's so good my Vietnamese friend says it is a very common afternoon snack with office workers in big city Hanoi in northern Vietnam. Admittedly, I would not have discovered this dish had I not met a local. He had to take us out of Hanoi's tourist district (that's the Old Quarter) and into a residential area to have some of this delicious snack. The walk alone was worth it.
Com Ga basically means chicken rice. But it's so much more than that. The rice itself is so full of flavor you basically taste the chicken with every grain. Add some sweet onions and mint leaves (which is ingenious, by the way) and you have yourself a very popular dish with locals and foreigners alike. This is one dish that has many versions, I think. The one I had (and I had it more than once) was in Hoi An, Central Vietnam. And that's good enough.
To say that Bun Cha sustained me in cold, drizzly Hanoi is an understatement. Whenever I passed by a restaurant on the street in Hanoi's Old Quarter that was preparing it (and in Vietnam, they prepare everything street-side), I had to have some of it. It's grilled pork belly and pork patties (right there it's a winner already), twice-fried spring rolls all immersed, not just dipped, but immersed in a tangy broth made smoky by the grilled meat pieces swimming in it. You eat it with rice noodles and of course, veggies. Try to have all the ingredients in one bite (a theme in Vietnamese cuisine, I noticed) to get all the flavors the dish has to offer. It's a mouthful but it's worth it.
Bun Thit Nuong
Now we go to my favorite Vietnamese dish. Again, I had it in Hoi An. I sure ate a lot in that small town. Maybe it had to do with a fellow traveler I met there. He's French and you know the French with their food, right? He introduced me to this dish and I owe him my life for it. It's unfortunate that I only saw it there and not anywhere else in Vietnam (or maybe I was just too busy stuffing my face with Bun Cha?). Bun Thit Nuong is basically a salad with lots of lettuce, cucumber, thick rice noodles and big pieces of grilled pork satay. What brings them all together is the thick peanut sauce dressing, which I swear has some sort of fermented fish or shrimp paste in it. I am very familiar with that taste having grown up in the Philippines and all. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. It reminded me of a taste from home I never found anywhere else I traveled to.
That's all of them, all the Vietnamese dishes I fell in love with traveling through this huge and very diverse Southeast Asian country. From hot and sticky southern Vietnam, to the cold and temperate north, I am sure there are a lot more tastes and sensations Vietnamese cuisine has to offer. I am glad I had a taste of it. I reckon I will want a bit more.
Have you traveled through Vietnam as well? What dish is your favorite? What did you find the most delicious?