How to Eat in Vietnam
The more I travel the more complicated eating becomes.
A self proclaimed foodie I remember when nothing brought me more bliss than biting into a piece of aged cheese or devouring a bowl of handmade pasta. I would proudly declare that french fries with truffle salt were my absolute favorite food.
However on my path towards becoming my happiest, healthiest self, my preferences have shifted. I would rather consume a green smoothie for breakfast than pancakes and bacon. I would rather munch on a colorful salad than crispy prosciutto pizza. Genuinely, it is more delicious to me. Genuinely, it is what makes me feel good.
Make no mistake I still wiggle with delight over a fried local treat or an indulgent meal with a big bottle of wine. However in order to have the energy and clarity to live a lifestyle that makes me happy, eating that way consistently is just not possible. I eat whole, organic, unprocessed food to fuel and nourish me; anything else I consume is extra.
So traveling through Vietnam without access to a kitchen, surrounded by white rice (let’s not even talk about the quality of the soil after all of the chemicals dropped during the Vietnam War), msg, refined sugar, and fried meat, I found myself with quite the dilemma. I had been living in my bubble for two months in Seattle existing on chia pudding and organic raw kale. Some friends even accused me of being health obsessed.
My first night in Hanoi I walked over to a corner pho stand, pointed at pots filled with unrecognizable meat, sat down on a plastic chair made for a baby doll, and slurped the most flavorful broth I have ever tasted. It cost $1. The entire family sat and watched me with smiles. Their children danced around me. Experiences like this remind me why I love to travel.
I strongly believe that eating the local food, with the locals, is an integral component of the travel experience. However, I also believe in the importance of nutrition and its role in my overall happiness. During my time in Vietnam I sought to find balance in feeding my three selves: the curious traveler, the indulgent foodie, and the vegetarian yogi.
How to Eat Like a Local in Vietnam
Vietnamese cuisine has always been a favorite of mine. In fact its probably the food I craved most during my long stints in Latin America. Even after living in Seattle, where I could barely walk a block without passing a pho shop, I was not at all prepared for how amazing Vietnamese food actually is.
Cheap, simple street stalls produce some of the most flavorful food I have ever tasted. Bear in mind, unless you speak Vietnamese (ahem, good luck with that), you will need to research and learn the names of local dishes or be prepared to eat things without knowing what they are. In other words, it’s impossible to do this if you’re a vegetarian or at all health conscious.
Approach the local food with an open mind and a sense of adventure. Go to places that are busy with locals, this increases the likelihood that the food is fresh and tasty. If you’re feeling apprehensive, try some of the local dishes in a restaurant with an English menu, then go out on the street and try the same dishes there.
Here are some of my favorite street food dishes from Vietnam:
All over the country, but particularly in Hanoi, you will find pho on the street. Pho is a type of noodle soup usually with meat, beansprouts, fresh limes,lots of herbs, and vermicelli rice noodles. It’s tangy, spicy, and delicious. There are many types of pho depending on what meat or seafood they include. You can usually take a peek at what is boiling in the broth and point to the one that looks best to you. The flavor is quite different between the north and the south. In the north pho is typically made with seafood or meatballs in a red spicy broth while its common in the south to have all sorts of meat, especially thinly sliced beef and a clear broth. Those who have eaten pho in the US have likely tasted Saigon style pho.
If you are feeling inspired here is a detailed recipe for Saigon pho.
Originating in Hue and served around the Central Coast, Bahn Xieu is my favorite Vietnamese dish. A thin crispy crepe made from rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric is stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork then served alongside rice paper, lettuce, fresh herbs, and nuoc cham which is a sweet and spicy fish sauce.
This dish is found exclusively in Hoi An and for good reason. The special cau lau noodles are made from locally sourced rice that has been soaked in the water from a special well with lye made from local tree ash. The noodles are thick and chewy with a wonderful savory aromatic flavor. They come served in a bowl with a small amount of well spiced pork broth, sliced pork, lettuce, fresh herbs, and fried rice crackers.
Read about how cau lau is made, but replicating it will be quite the challenge!
Fried and fresh spring rolls can be found everywhere in Vietnam in a variety of preparations. Fresh rolls are typically made with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, herbs, and shrimp. You can roll your own which come with sticks of grilled meat on the Central Coast or whole fried fish on the Mekong, sheets of rice paper, and the usual herbs and lettuce. Fried rolls are traditionally made with pork and shrimp but you can also find them with vegetables or shrimp. All spring rolls come with nuoc cham. Yummm!
Try out this fresh spring roll recipe or make a healthy version with cabbage leaves for wrappers and your favorite vegetables and herbs inside.
Green Papaya Salad
I was constantly craving raw food while in Vietnam and green papaya salad never failed to disappoint. Beautifully julienned carrots and crisp green papaya are tossed with lots of fresh herbs, sesame seeds, spicy tangy dressing, and occasionally fried shallots. These typically come with dried beef on the street and with shrimp in many restaurants and taste quite different from Thai green papaya salad.
This recipe uses shrimp and peanuts and sounds delish.
How to Eat Like a King in Vietnam
Vietnam is a foodie’s dream, so I had to indulge while I was there. Hanoi, Hoi An, and Saigon in particular had world class dining for bargain prices and I certainly took advantage of it. To find the best restaurants I recommend searching Trip Advisor. My guidebook was often outdating, but it made for a good starting point in my research. Many food bloggers also write about restaurants in Vietnam.
Here are my favorites:
Quan An Ngon, Hanoi
This restaurant seems too good to be true. The enormous menu features Vietnamese specialties from all over the country in an open, airy, beautiful space and it costs next to nothing. Different cooking stations line the restaurant so you can walk around the perimeter for a food tour of Vietnam. My favorite dishes I tried here were the green papaya salad and the bahn xeo. I would recommend going with a group and sharing lots of dishes.
Morning Glory, Hoi An
Ms. Vy’s most famous restaurant, Morning Glory is the place to eat local dishes prepared by the master. The setting is beautiful and upscale and serves local specialties. Definitely try the white rose, steamed shrimp dumplings, which is a famous dish found exclusively in Hoi An.
Cuc Gach Quanh, Saigon
An excellent traditional style restaurant in Saigon that is special enough for any occasion. They have bottles of french wine and hundreds of variations on local dishes. The fried tofu with lemongrass is as soft as a marshmallow and so flavorful.
How to Eat Like a Hippie in Vietnam
Despite the fact that the country is considered Buddhist, vegetarianism is not a strong part of the culture. Street food will almost never be vegetarian and most dishes without meat in restaurants use fish sauce. However few, the major towns I visited did have vegetarian restaurants that did not use MSG and used the highest quality products they could source. Be wary of tofu which can be highly toxic if it is not organic. Personally I find it very difficult to digest and rarely eat it.
Here are some of my favorite “healthy” places I frequented in Vietnam. Organic was never an option in Vietnam, so it’s debatable how “healthy” any of this was, but we do the best that we can! At the end of the day food is nourishing especially when you believe that it is.
You can find fresh juice and smoothies on the street all over Vietnam. Be aware that it is standard to use milk and sugar, even sweetened condensed milk, in smoothies. My favorite combinations were carrot with mango and beet with orange.
These are basically the most nutritious food on earth and they grow abundantly throughout Southeast Asia. Most places in Vietnam sell young coconuts in restaurants and on the street. In Saigon you can buy them in the grocery store for about 25 cents each. The meat of the young coconut is quite filling and makes a great snack.
Zenith Cafe, Hanoi
This cafe is a rare gem anywhere in the world, let alone in Vietnam. They have a variety of healthy juices, strong ginger tea, kombucha, and the best veggie burger I have ever tasted made from pumpkin and chia seeds on wholemeal bread. Many times I’ve wished I could go and break my budget there.
Tamarind Cafe, Hanoi
The fresh juice here is excellent, especially the beet juice. They also have several salads and an entirely vegetarian menu though not all of the items on the menu are actually healthy.
Karma Waters, Hoi An
Great selection of salads and smoothies, 100% vegan Vietnamese and Indian food, plus its the only place I found in Hoi An that will refill your plastic water bottle.
One of my favorite restaurants I have ever been to traveling, Hum is a popular spot for locals and expats serving vegan cuisine. I met several Vietnamese patrons who were not vegetarian, but simply loved the food. They have amazing fresh juice, including green juice made from spinach, ginger, and apple, and endless pages of vegetarian treats. The tofu served here is made in house and is excellent. My favorite dishes were the nem rolls which were spring rolls wrapped in cabbage rather than rice paper and the mixed vegetables cooked in a claypot with homemade red bean curd.
A Day of Local, Delicious, Clean Eating in Vietnam
While traveling in Vietnam I began to wonder if it was possible to eat in a way that combined all three of my desires. To spend a day eating relatively healthy, local food that also feels decadent. I tried.
For breakfast I had a fresh young coconut with its meat on the street. This alone can be pretty filling. I also ordered a banana carrot papaya smoothie with no sugar or milk. Both can be found readily in Vietnam, cater to locals, are absolutely delicious, and are quite healthy.
I love eating a huge salad every day for lunch. While traveling in Costa Rica with my friend Andrea, a food and health blogger, I adapted to her style of eating and I don’t think I could ever go back. Undoubtedly I feel the best when I eat fresh raw vegetables for lunch. Salads are very different in Vietnam than in Western countries and are not always available, however most anywhere you can find one made with green papaya. Fortunately I love green papaya salad. To have protein and stay satiated I added steamed prawns.
For dinner I had a whole fish steamed in banana leaf with a side of steamed spinach. Two very traditional dishes. While the stir fries in Vietnam are delicious they use low quality vegetable which is one of the least healthy things you could consume. When trying to be health conscious order raw or steamed foods. The spinach came with lots of garlic and I sprinkled chilies on top giving it tons of flavor and the fish had all sorts of spices and was a truly amazing treat.
How do you eat when traveling? Do you throw health out the window and just enjoy all of the local specialties? Do you shy from street food altogether?