"When we eat, we don’t talk much. We just focus on the food,” explained Tu, my guide. I looked around the unassuming white-tiled room at the people wedged together on communal wooden tables and realised it was silent, save for a steady slurping noise. I looked at Tu through the wisps of steam drifting up from my bowl of pho bo, and nodded, savouring the silkiness of the noodles, the contrasting crunchiness of the fried shallots, the richness of the broth and the fresh green flavours of the herbs.
I was at Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where they’ve been cooking up this one, perfectly executed dish for generations. In fact, pho, perhaps the most famous of all Vietnamese dishes, is all they serve here, starting at 6am and continuing until the pot runs dry. But, as I was about to discover, there’s far more to Vietnamese cooking than this one familiar soup.
Pho bo at Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Sarah Gilbert)
I was here to explore Vietnam through its vibrant cuisine, journeying from north to south to sample its regional specialities, crafted by climate, culture and history. Over the centuries, both invaders and neighbours have shaped the country’s eating habits. The Chinese, who ruled on and off from 111 BC, introduced stir-fries and chopsticks. Later, the Mongolian hordes brought beef, and in the 19th century, French colonists shipped in asparagus, coffee and baguettes.
However, perhaps the most important influence to cross its borders was the Asian culinary principle of the five elements: spicy, sour, bitter, sweet and salty. No matter how dishes vary across the country, this balance – “yin and yang,” as Tu described it – is key.
Vietnam’s diverse dishes don’t just offer clues to its past, though. Food still permeates every aspect of daily life here. There are markets in every neighbourhood and cooks on every pavement, so my journey began in the obvious place: on the streets of the capital.
“Cross like you own the road; they won’t stop but they’ll swerve around you,” advised Tu, as we faced a barrage of scooters. Safely across, we squeezed down another dimly lit alleyway in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and stopped at a stall selling cha ruoi. As I bit into the innocuous-looking deep-fried patty, I tasted anise-like dill and the citrusy tang of kumquat, and I was starting to realise that Vietnam’s deceptively simple dishes were filled with complex flavours, even if I was perched on a child-sized plastic stool.
“What meat was that?” I asked Tu, after I’d wolfed it down. “Sand worms,” he replied, smiling, “harvested in brackish water between 11am and 4pm. It’s a Hanoi speciality.”
Mobile shop in Mai Chau Valley (Sarah Gilbert)
Leaving the city hustle behind, I headed south-west to the Mai Chau Valley. Many classic Vietnamese ingredients are grown among the green-clad limestone karsts that tumble down towards a patchwork of rice fields. The villages here are a mix of seven ethnic groups, including the White Thai, who came to Vietnam thousands of years ago and built stilt houses to protect themselves from the bears and tigers that roamed the land.
Most of the houses here were still made of wood, or flattened bamboo, and I wandered around to a soundtrack of birdsong and the tinkle of water that feeds the rice that’s harvested twice a year. Women were bent double tending to the knee-high crop, faces shaded from the sun by conical straw hats. Doe-eyed buffalo were tied up underneath houses and pigs snuffled around in makeshift sheds, while raucous ducks and scrawny chickens roamed free.
Only the blaring music that accompanied the arrival of the mobile shop – a scooter overloaded with skilfully balanced dry goods – disrupted the tranquil scene. They grow almost everything else here in their gardens: tropical fruits such as lychee, pomelo and mango alongside starchy sweet potatoes and pumpkins, and tangles of morning glory and bok choy.
Local men also enjoy a glass or two of rice wine, especially in winter, to ward off the chill, so I stopped off at villager’s house to try it for myself. Ton and her family have been making corn, cassava and rice wine for generations, and she offered me some black rice wine – black sticky rice fermented with herbs and tree bark, usually saved for special occasions. I tentatively swallowed a thimbleful of this potent, sake-like homebrew and Ton laughed as I grimaced, her lips crimson and her teeth stained black from the age-old tradition of chewing betal leaves.
After the simplicity of rural life, I headed south to discover the complexities of royal cuisine. Around 400 miles from Hanoi (and over two centuries ago), the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam, chose Hue for their royal seat, and brought the finest artists craftsmen and chefs to the Imperial City during their 143-year reign.
The proximity of the Perfume River, sea and mountains ensured a steady stream of produce to the royal kitchens, which served up creative concoctions that took culinary art to a new level – dishes often took the form of animals – during lavish 50-course banquets. There are restaurants that still try to emulate Hue’s illustrious menus, with varying degrees of success, but you don’t need a palace to feast like a king and some of the finest cooking in the city can be found in more modest family homes.
One morning, I joined local resident Nga on a visit to the market before going back to her house for lunch. While she cooked, her husband Quy proudly showed me his small garden, packed with fruit trees – figs, dragon fruit, jackfruit, carambol – as well as herbs and spices, and delicate orchids. He made green tea every day, plucking the leaves straight from the bush, and showed me the process: crushing the leaves to release the tannins, adding ginger and boiling water, then waiting 20 minutes before drinking the refreshing, citrine-coloured brew.
Lunch was vatron, a salad made from figs found only in Hue, followed by the city’s signature dish, bun bo Hue. This tangy broth is made from boiled beef bones suffused with spices, such as lemongrass and fiery chillies, ladled over paper-thin strips of pork and ubiquitous rice noodles. Nga made it the traditional way, with cubes of congealed pig’s blood, which sounded unappetising but added a rich flavour.
That evening I had dinner at Ben Xuan Garden House, arriving by gaudily painted dragon boat as the sun began to streak the river pink and gold. This exquisite example of a traditional teak house took its owners, Camille and Ngo, eight years to build, and they’ve since opened an art-filled, intimate dining room, serving a contemporary take on royal cuisine.
The menu here was all about slow food. The couple grew herbs and vegetables in their organic garden, kept chickens, ducks, pigs and fish, and would buy whatever was fresh at the market that day. I was treated to a mini banquet of dishes, including a clear lemongrass soup, fresh rice-paper rolls tied with dainty bows, and white duck breast served with mango.
When the Vietnam War ended, Camille, who is related to the erstwhile royal family, had to make a new life in Europe before later returning. In a luminous silk ao dai – a traditional Vietnamese dress – and accompanied by classical musicians, she performed songs from Hue. The notes were redolent of love and loss as they drifted into the balmy, frangipani-scented air.
Hai Van pass (Dreamstime)
A short, scenic drive over the Hai Van pass brought me to Hoi An in the centre of the country. Set on the Thu Bon River, tucked between lowland countryside and the balmy South China Sea, it was once a stop on the Silk Route, its port an age-old hub for international trade. Today the city moves at a more languid pace, but I wanted to see if the influence of China, Japan and France was still as strong in its dishes as it was in the old town’s architecture.
The current doyenne of its foodie scene is Trinh Diem Vy, better known as Ms Vy. I found myself at her latest venture, The Market Restaurant And Cooking School, to learn how to rustle up cabbage roll soup, crispy pancakes and green mango salad.
Before the class, we visited the food market. En route to Hoi An, I’d watched families in Danang wade thigh-deep in the sea, straining every muscle to drag in their nets for a catch of tiny, thrashing fish. Here the haul was much richer. Live crabs, claws tied with twine, clacked around a tin bucket; plastic bowls were filled with still wriggling shrimps, and women sat at low tables surrounded by glistening snapper, outsized squid and enormous slabs of swordfish.
We stopped to check out the city’s legendary cao lau noodles, thick like Japanese udon. Shrouded in mystery, they’re made from a secret recipe and have to be boiled in water from Ba Le, one of the centuries-old wells that dot the old town. Any other water, people say, just won’t work. When served with slow-cooked pork, seasoned with five-spice and steeped in a tangy broth spiked with anise and topped with mint, coriander and a crumbled rice cracker, it’s so good you’ll start to believe the myth.
Then it was back to Ms Vy’s and the ‘weird and wonderful’ station, to sample salads made from pig’s ears, jellyfish and river snails along with spicy lemongrass frog, before baulking at duck embryo. I watched as the chefs created a more palatable Hoi An speciality: white rose dumplings, a delicate shrimp parcel reminiscent of Chinese dim sum that fluttered like an ethereal sea creature before I popped it whole into my mouth.
Later, I strolled through the narrow streets of the Old Town bathed in the steamy heat of early afternoon, stopping off to visit vestiges of its trading past: the covered bridge, built by Japanese merchants in the early 17th century; the Quan Cong Temple, founded by Vietnam’s first Chinese settlers in 1653; and the ancient timber merchants’ houses. Then I sat and watched the ebb and flow of river life, over an iced coffee from the terrace of the Hoi An Roastery, until the light of the riverfront lanterns began to shimmer on the water.
My dinner plans were cheap and simple. The Vietnamese take on sandwiches is a legacy of French colonialism and the tiny Banh Mi Phuong eaterie has been serving up the best banh mi (stuffed baguettes) long before celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain put it on the map.
When I arrived, the queue snaked down the street, but soon the ladies standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind the small glass counter were deftly preparing my pork deluxe: thin slices of smoky barbequed pork and cha lua (a rich pâté) were slathered with homemade mayonnaise and chilli sauce, and topped with pickled carrots and daikon radish, all surrounded by a still-warm baguette. I’d devoured it before I reached the street corner, marvelling at how the Vietnamese had taken French bread and made it their own.
My last stop was Ho Chi Minh City, to check out its burgeoning culinary scene. While many locals still refer to it as Saigon, the city has changed a lot since Tank 390 crashed through the gates of its presidential palace in 1975, heralding the end of the Vietnam War and the subsequent reunification of the north and south. Today, glass-walled skyscrapers tower over the French Quarter’s tree-lined boulevards and the city’s richly decorated, dimly lit pagodas, where incense smoke swirls in shafts of sunlight.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City (Dreamstime)
Around the upscale restaurants, street-food stalls still ply their trade. In a city that’s easier to navigate on two wheels than two feet, one of best ways to reach them is on the back of a vintage Vespa on a foodie tour with a local-in-the-know.
My driver slapped a helmet on my head and we were off, zipping through the rush-hour traffic. I closed my eyes and swore under my breath as we came within a hair’s breadth of our fellow road users. But he was used to negotiating the endless stream of scooters, and by the time we stopped for locals’ favourite banh xeo, I was as relaxed as the Saigonese.
These outsized, savoury crepes are cooked in a sizzling wok until their shell is crispy but the inside remains juicy. Mine arrived spilling over the edges of a plate, turmeric-yellow and stuffed with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp. I tore off a chunk, its honeycomb edges breaking with a satisfying crack, and ate it wrapped in aromatic mustard leaves, washed down with a Saigon beer.
Beer is playing its own part in the city’s evolving culinary scene. The French brought brewing to Vietnam, and while Hanoians still favour Bia Hoi – cheap, low-alcohol, fresh-brewed draft beer served in basic bars, or on the street – in outward-looking Saigon, Western-style craft beer is on the rise.
Among the first and finest brewpubs to emerge was the Pasteur Street Brewing Company. Its American founders create unique brews using European malt and American hops, and I could taste Vietnam in the flavours of passion fruit, jasmine and vanilla.
Later, we made our way to Propaganda, a self-styled Vietnamese bistro where the brick walls are covered in murals and colourful reimaginings of Vietnam War-era posters. The menu offered up a contemporary take on time-honoured street-food classics, including Saigon favourite com tam, or broken rice, which was served here with barbecued honey pork chop and pandan leaves. The atmosphere was fun and buzzy, filled with tourists and expats, but I hankered after more homespun fare, so I went in search of the southern pho.
What set the local version of this broth apart from the Hanoian pho was not only its elaborate blend of spices, including star anise, cinnamon and ginger, but its spiciness, with the chillies added directly to the broth. In fact, the further south I went, the higher the temperature and the hotter the food seemed to become.
At a no-name restaurant, I took my steaming bowl of broth and heaped on bean sprouts, fragrant basil and rice paddy herb – the leaves of which pack a peppery punch; a mix of cumin and citrus that belies their diminutive size. This was all followed by a dash of hoisin sauce and a squeeze of lime.
Back on the pavement, I squatted on a low-slung stool and reflected on how much I’d learnt from eating my way around Vietnam: not just the way that food was produced, prepared and eaten here, but its role in family life and its inextricable links to the country’s past and future. Then I focussed on my pho and silently relished the essence of Vietnam in a bowl.
The author travelled to Vietnam with Audley Travel on a 14-night tailor-madetour that included bed and breakfast accommodation in Hanoi, Mai Chau, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City and full-board accommodation in Halong Bay.
Main image: Street food dishes in little bowls, Vietnam (Dreamstime)