Saigon and Hanoi and Danang are large cities with excellent food. It is a big part of visiting the three largest cities in Vietnam. However, some of the other cities in Vietnam also offer excellent culinary fare and often the best foods are the local specialties. This newsletter will look at the cuisine in Da Lat, Nha Trang, Quy Nhon, and Hoi An and will only feature foods that I have tried in these locales.
Though I threatened to omit Saigon, I must offer a few words and start with one: Pho. There is no better way to start your day in Saigon than with a big bowl of Pho at Pho Pasteur or Pho Vuong. Eating Pho is a day-long adventure in Vietnam and not restricted to lunch or dinner. If you are in a hurry, perhaps starting on a road trip, have a Banh Mi from Huynh Hoa and then head across the street to enjoy that along with coffee or tea at Vy. If you want something different, Dat Set (Đất Sét in Vietnamese language) is a fine restaurant. They have a good variety of local foods, Tiger beer and great quail embryo if that is your thing. You may not want to eat here if there is a Vietnam soccer game as it will be crowded, and service might be slow. However, the atmosphere is great.
Let’s leave the warm Saigon weather and head to a cooler climate: the central highlands and Da Lat. A good place to start is the Dalat Palace Hotel and the high tea. It is not inexpensive but enjoy a tea of your choice and some sweets while sitting on the terrace and soaking in a panoramic view of the hotel grounds, the city, and the lake. For dinner head to the throbbing night market and enjoy a variety of street foods or find your way to a more formal restaurant and sample the fish soup, shrimp, pork, or other fresh fare. Lunch will be a bit unconventional. A little distance from town is Ho Thuy Quai. While you wait for lunch, you can attempt to fish in one of their ponds or to gaze at one of the pet crocodiles. You might notice your lunch pass by in the form of live chickens being carried by their feet and ready for the ultimate sacrifice. With the ultra-fresh grilled chicken and amazing sticky rice, a better meal will not be found.
Rice soup doesn’t often make food lists, but one Nha Trang restaurant has some of the best rice soup you will ever have. Whether you are ill or just in the mood for something else, the rice soup at Tram Anh chicken restaurant is delicious. If seafood is calling, there are several places along the beach. Hai San Bien Hen is one such place and while not inexpensive is very good. Pick your catch, including lobster, from the tank and enjoy it cooked as you desire. You can also go fishing and if you catch anything or don’t, can have a barbecue at a restaurant by the beach. Your catch and other delicacies such as squid, oysters and shrimp will form a great meal and the atmosphere is unbeatable.
Don’t forget fruit either. Fresh, seasonal fruits can be found around town, but the local market is one of the best places. Mangosteens are primarily a Southeast Asia fruit and the ones from the Nha Trang market were excellent and though banned from some hotels due to their propensity to stain, are a great car snack.
Quy Nhon stretches along a wide and beautiful beach and with about 500,000 people it is the capital of its province. It does not rival Nha Trang or Hoi An as a tourist mecca but does offer some unique food. Chicken restaurants dot the highway a few kilometers south of Quy Nhon. There are many to choose from, but we settled on Dong Ba and it was a good choice. Chicken was served three ways: fried, in a curry and boiled/plain. All three were delicious. The curry packed some heat and if you are sensitive to spicy foods, this would not be a good choice, but it was so good. The fried chicken was also outstanding. The plain chicken lent itself to dipping sauces and this enhanced its value. Vegetables and rice and other dishes could also be ordered. The city of Quy Nhon also offers some great choices. One option is the seafood restaurant which allows you to view tanks and select the seafood of your choice. Snails, clams, fish, shrimp, squid are just some of the choices. This food is fresh, and the restaurant can cook some to order. If you want to counterbalance the seafood, caramel pork is a consistently good choice. Finally, don’t forget the noodles. A local Quy Nhon favorite is Bun Tom or Bun Ram. Bun Tom noodles are dry with a meat sauce ladled on them. Both are good and ours came from a local place called My Hanh. From Phu Yen to Quy Nhon, food is varied and delicious. There are local specialties in Phu Yen such as Tuna Eye and Blood Cockle and they can be sampled in local villages in floating restaurants.
Hoi An is a food lovers paradise. Start with the famous Cau Lau. This is a rice noodle dish made with a special noodle soaked in lye water. They are unique to Hoi An. Broth is minimal and meat and veggies top the dish. There are many places to eat Cau Lau and all are good. Another semi-local noodle dish is Mi Quang which has yellow rice noodles topped with a powerful broth and a variety of other toppings including a quail egg. Hoi An mi quang is great but there are some regrets that the DaNang variety wasn’t sampled. If not craving noodles, try a Banh Mi at Phuong. Brave the line and you will be rewarded. For something simple but oh so good, try some sticky rice from a street-side cart.
Finally, treat yourself to a dinner of local foods. Start at a street-side noodle shop and sit in the small plastic chairs. Enjoy your noodles while watching people in all types of transport do take out. After that, find a spot in a barbecue restaurant and enjoy chicken and fish. Both are delicious. If you decide to take a break from Vietnamese cuisine, you can always have a hot dog and enjoy the view at one of the Western-style restaurants in the old city. Food in Hoi An is an endless adventure.
Finally, don’t forget one of the great Vietnamese food adventures: fresh fruit. Depending on the season and location, Pineapple, Mangosteen, Dragon Fruit, Jackfruit, Papaya, Coconut, Mango, Rambutan, Star Fruit, Banana, Guava, Melon and others are as good as you will find anywhere. You might even like Durian.