One evening in Ho Chi Minh City we wanted to try something “really Vietnamese”. We saw a very nice restaurant, so we decided to give it a try. It was extremely expensive compared to what we would normally pay for food and we were not quite sure what we ordered as the waitress couldn´t speak English so good. She brought us the food and we thought it´s just the appetizer. We even said to ourselves something like “wow, that´s quite a lot of food for an appetizer”. Well, it turned out this was it – this was the main dish, for the both of us. Rice cakes with shrimps, pork paste in banana leaf and something with rice. Hm, tasted good, but we left hungry ;).
Next morning, next try – we discovered these great spring rolls in rice paper wrappers. We ate a lot of those in the next few weeks.
Make vietnamese rolls at home:
prepare vegetables (basicaly anything you like to eat, chopped in small pieces or stripes. For instance cabbage, beansprouts, cucumbers or lettuce).
prepare herbs and spices (fresh coriander, mint, basil, chilli, fish sauce)
if you like you can add shrimps (you have to prepare them before rolling them in)
you can add rice noodles (prepare in advance)
soak the rice paper wrappers for about 20 seconds into lukewarm water, or until they are soft
fill in the rice paper wrappers with your ingredients and make a roll
keep the rolls moist separate from each other
serve with peanut or chilli sauce
The best thing about it is, that you can improvise and always make it a bit different!
Rice paper wrappers are made from steamed rice batter then they are sun dried. We saw a lot of them being made in some of the villages in the Mekong Delta area.
Vietnamese use lots of fresh herbs and vegetables. Among them are mint, coriander, basil, lime, lemongrass, ginger and of course chilli. Often they add fish sauce and shrimp paste to the food, so don´t be surprised if your noodles taste fishy allthough you did not order the seafood version.
The number „5“ seems to be big in Vietnamese cuisine. At cooking they try to find the balance of 5 elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. The dishes also include 5 types of nutrients: powder, water or liquid, minerals, proteins and fat. The cooks try to implement 5 colours also: green, white, red, yellow and black. The dishes try to appeal via 5 senses: food arangment attracts eyes, crispy ingredients make sure you also hear what you eat, your tongue detects the spices, aromatic ingredients stimulate your nose and some meals (like finger food) can be perceived by touching.
It seems like everything to do with food, cooking and eating has a deeper sense in Vietnam. Back home we would just cook somehting and would not take care that it contains all the 5 colours, right? Cooking and eating play a huge role in Vietnamese culture.
A few times we ran into „strange restaurants“. One time we did not even notice it until we were given the menues – then we just decided to drink a beer and go to another restaurant later. While drinking that beer, we were still staring at the menu, probably with rather disgusted face expressions. A common breakfast small dish is a fertilized duck egg with a good developed embrio inside, which is boiled and then eaten. Yummy, hm? Well, there is a reason why I do not have any photos of that. Some dishes also include embrios, snails, sparrows, doves and worms. And yes, there are also „dog restaurants“, which does not mean that you can bring your pet with when going for lunch. Besides dog, you could also have a turtle, snake, mouse or a cobras still beating heart. Nothing is wasted at cooking, they use pretty much every part of the animal. Personally I am not the biggest meat lover, so I did not force myself to try anything containing organs, embrios or intestines. We were perfectly happy with many noodles, rice, seafood and soup varieties.
Coffee with condensed milk and an omelette on the street. Sometimes we also ate banana pancakes, baguette sandwiches or fruit salads. The most traditional thing you can eat for breakfast would be the soup called Pho – we tried it, but since we so often ate soups for breakfast in Cambodia we felt like a change.
NOODLES & RICE
Either fried noodles, glass noodles, stir fry rice, with shrimps, chicken or just vegetarian – it tasted good every time. Some chilli, fish or soy sauce on the side, peanuts on top of it and we were satisfied. Everything comes with spices and herbs and fresh vegetables like cucumbers, onions, spinach, carrots, bok choy, cauliflower, cabagge, eggplants or water cress.
Especially at the coast, you can get delicious seafood for a reasonable price. Shrimps, clams, red snapper, catfish or lobster. In Nha Trang and in other beach towns, you might see lobsters offered to you on the beach – i would not buy one if it´s already dead. I got the feeling that they sell them to individuals, because the quality is too poor to sell them to restaurants. If you do not think the food is fresh, don´t eat it, even if the price is tempting – your stomach will be thankful.
You cannot avoid eating them and they are everywhere. Either in a juice or shake, just like that or in your dinner meal. The pinneaples and papayas were so tasty, not to mention the dragon fruits. Since i like spicy food i was amazed by the “chilli salted pinneaple” combination. The other most common fruits are: coconut, jackfruit, mango, lychee, durian, rambutan, watermelon and star fruit.
Cheap and quick – if the food looks fresh, you can eat it!
SWEETS AND DESSERTS
We tried some, but mostly we decided to stick to spicy things, it seemed like a better choice anyway. Many desserts are made with sweet condensed milk, especially yogurts and puddings, therefore they are really really really sweet. Instead you can have a different fruit shake every day, that can also count as a dessert.
Floating markets, markets in the city, small street markets, seems like everywhere someone is selling something to eat. Mekong Delta´s great floating market, Phong Dien has lots of stand-up rowing boats and fewer motorised ones – it is less crowdy and a great way to spend an afternoon.
Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh is so big that you can easily get lost. Besides food you can find also clothing, hardware, jewelery and much more.
As I said, food is everywhere. Even in the dark evening someone will row up to your boat in Halong Bay and offer you some snacks and drinks!
We loved the food in Vietnam, everything was fresh and the combination of herbs and spices was amazing. Many different kind of restaurants to choose from and great markets. Prices were reasonable and we never got any stomach problems. If you are a beer drinker, try the local draft beer Bia Hoi, it´s good value for money.