General Vietnam Food Notes
If you want to do some additional research on restaurants and Vietnamese food in general; see Noodle Pie (mostly for Saigon but also for some other parts of) and Sticky Rice, which primairly deals with Hanoi.
In general, the food in Vietnam is really good and unbelievably cheap. It was not uncommon for the two of us to have a drink (a beer for me and a club soda for the wife), share an appetizer (usually vegetarian spring rolls – called the same but different at every restaurant) and two entrees and have a total bill of $5-$8 USD. And most places served a complimentary fruit plate for desert.
With all the different regional cuisines, there obviously is a lot more variety available in Vietnam but as a general observation, the food served at the better Vietnamese restaurants back home is reasonably close to what we got in Vietnam. What we found in Vietnam was food that had a brightness and balance of sweet and sour and an emphasis on textures.
In some cases some of what we were served was similar to Thai. We also found many “Vietnamese” restaurants also offer Chinese dishes. As a gross generalization, the food was not spicy at all. We didn’t eat much street food on this particular trip but it sure looked and smelled good and is available everywhere.
We also thought the Cambodian food was really good. One dish in particular we really liked in Cambodia was Fish Amok. It’s kind of a fish curry stew with coconut milk.
If you order pancakes in a restaurant, you will likely be served a crepe rather than a stack of American style pancakes and there’s a good chance the syrup will be chocolate.
The beer is typically a very decent lager style and usually served chilled but not ice cold. It’s also cheap. Tiger Beer is the most popular brand in the south and is available all over the country. In Hanoi we enjoyed Hanoi Beer and La Rue. 333 is a local premium beer. When we were up in the northern mountains, there was a local beer (I don’t recall the name but it was in green recyclable Carlsburg bottle) that was pretty good and Chinese beer that wasn’t. No Tsing Tao to be found. Tiger beer was also available in Cambodia but the local brew of choice there is Angkor.
Bottled water is very cheap. I think the best price I got was 2 liters for a dollar.
The fruit is really good. We really enjoyed watermelon juice. And the bread wasn’t bad either and basis for the Vietnamese style sandwich on baguette known as Bánh mì, one of the better French contributions to the local culture.
Vietnamese coffee is very strong and sweet. The milk in what they call “Coffee with Milk” is sweetened condensed milk and when served, it’s sitting on the bottom of the cup or glass. With a good stir, it turns into a very grown up mocha and can be orered hot or iced.
On our first night in Saigon we ate at Com Nieu Sai Gon, a restaurant we had seen featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour” TV show. The seafood was extremely fresh. As I recall, we got shrimp in garlic and a whole fried snapper. The veggie spring rolls were some of the best we ate on the whole trip. If you go there, you have to order the house specialty – com dap: crunchy rice sealed and baked inside a clay pot. At service, the clay pot is broken and the crusty rice disk inside is thrown across the room Frisbee style from one waiter to another before it is served.
One order will be enough for 4 of you to get a taste but you’ll want another rice dish too if there are 4 of you. It’s not only a good show but the rice with the sauce they serve with it is really good too. We noticed a lot of the locals were also ordering soups and other rice dishes.
When you get to this place, there is an alley that runs down the middle of it. The more pleasant dining area will be on your left.
Com Nieu Sai Gon
6C Tu Xuong
District 3 – Ho Chi Minh City
+84 8 932 6388
In Hoi An, there are several local specialties that the city is famous for that you may want to try including the noodle dish Cau Lao. Many restaurants along the waterfront serve Cau Lao and not surprisingly, some are better than others. On our first night there, we went in search of one in particular that had a good reputation but found it had been closed so we wandered around and ended up in a place we didn’t know but that looked nice and overlooked the river, Unfortuantely, the food wasn’t all that great.
I read one review of the food in Hoi An and the writer lamented that many of the restaurants there have fallen into the trap of only serving (without imagination) the local specialties because that’s what many of the tourist ask for and our experience confirmed that. There are some good restaurants there and I’m sure some of them do a good job with the local specialties but we didn’t find them.
The next night after our disappointing dinner we had a great meal at a place that definitely had some imagination. The front door of Mango Rooms is on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street but there’s also a back door on the riverfront. It is a Cuban/Asian fusion restaurant with a very innovative menu and is a very hip spot to be in Hoi An. Chef is a young guy with a lot of style who seems to be having fun at what he’s doing. We ordered two different specials of the day and both were great. Good mango with sticky rice for desert. This was a little more expensive than most places we ate on the trip but I think the whole bill was still only about $20 for the two of us.
111 Nguyen Thai Hoc Str, Hoi An
Tel: (0510) 910 839
We ate really well and very inexpensively in Hanoi. Our favorite place was a Vietnamese cafe named Ladybird Restaurant located at 57 Hang Buom Street in the Old Quarter. We always sat upstairs and tried to get the table on the balcony overlooking the always busy Hang Buom St. They had a good list of vegetarian dishes. The food was so good and so reasonably priced and it was located so close to our hotel that we ate there several times. In fact, we ate there so often over about a 10-day period that the owners asked us if we were living and working in Hanoi.
Right next door to Ladybird was the entry to Bittet, another place we liked a lot. They serve other things but are best known as a local’s place for a Vietnamese version of a French bistro style steak and fries. You have to order everything here including the moist towelette to wash your hands but it’s all so cheap you can order extra items just to try them. There is a sign for Bittet at 51 Hang Buom but from the street, you have to walk down an alley past open windows of neighbor’s homes and directly through the kitchen to enter the dining room of the restaurant. The soups were good and they served fried corn as a side. Basically it’s deep fried kernels of corn and was really good. This was a very good local experience.
We were wandering around the Old Quarter one day unsuccessfully looking for a small temple and decided to stop at Culi Cafe for lunch. It was a decent place and not too pricey. The owners are from Australian and New Zealand and it had a mostly young Western clientele. As I recall, we had sandwiches and French fries there and it was pretty good.
40 L uong Ngoc Quyen, Ha Noi Old Quarter
Phone: (84-4) 9262 241
We saw the restaurant Cha Ca La Vong included on one of those lists of “1000 places you have to see before you die” and it was across the street from our hotel so we decided to give it a try. It is a very old restaurant that is famous for the only dish they serve: Cha Ca Fish. It’s become so popular and famous that a number of copy restaurants have sprung up and keeping with the Hanoi tradition of grouping similar types of businesses all on one street, they have changed the name of the street it’s on to Cha Ca Street.
You have to walk up some narrow stairs to reach the dining room and when we entered, the first thought that crossed my mind was: “This is the dirtiest restaurant I’ve ever been in” and that’s saying something for we’ve been to some pretty out-of-the-way places. We were seated quickly, and since the waiter already knows what you’re having for dinner we got our food quickly. They place a charcoal burner on the table and set an already sizzling pan of fish that is heavily spiced with turmeric and frying in ghee on top of it. They add some dill and other greens to the pan and basically you stir until you are ready to eat. We even added some of the very smelly fish sauce to the mix. The food was really good and the La Rue beer was reasonably cold. In fact, the thought that passed my mind as we were eating was: “I wouldn’t mind eating here again.” Now the follow up to the story is that we didn’t have a serious stomach problem after eating there but beginning the next day, my stomach rumbled for a couple days. It was nothing so serious that it couldn’t be relieved with Pepto Bismol but our suspicion is that we didn’t cook the greens well enough. Or maybe it was the “not-so-clean thing”. Regardless, we didn’t go back to Cha Ca Vong on this trip and while I would like to eat Cha Ca fish again, I think we’ll look for a different restaurant to try it. (See additional notes on Cha Ca La Vong in our 2012 trip report)
We had two great Thai meals at Bangkok-Hanoi. It was a little bit of a cab ride from the Old Quarter but not too bad a fare assuming the cabbie knows where it is. The first time we went the driver got lost on the way there and the fare ended up being about double what it was on the return. It’s located in the embassy district…I think the Thai embassy was very near by.
The food was very authentic, the service was great and the Sing Ha beer was cold. We went back for a 2nd visit with some friends. This one was a little more expensive than most places we ate but still no more than $10 per person including dessert. (Note that in 2012, we found this place operating under the name Sawadee. See additional notes in the 2012 report.)
52ALy Thuong Kiet Street
We had dim sum for lunch a couple days at Dong Kinh Cantonese Restaurant. The entrance is a little hard to find on Cau Go Street but the back window overlooks the Hoan Kiem Lake. The food was good but nothing spectacular. We don’t normally go for buffets but the price was reasonable and it was nice to sample some items we don’t normally see at our local dim sum. It was certainly worth the price and good enough that we went back for a 2nd visit.
Dong Kinh Cantonese Restaurant
73 Cau Go, Hanoi
Tel: (84-4) 926 0801
In most cities in Vietnam you will find what you might call “training” restaurants. These are places that offer schooling and restaurant training to orphans and other unfortunate kids. Our guide in Sapa had trained at one there called Baguette and Chocolate (or it might have been Chocolate and Baguette) and we ended up eating at both their Sapa and Hanoi locations (next to our hotel on Cha Ca Street in the Old Quarter.) Both places offered a mix of both French and Vietnamese cuisines and we found the service to be a bit uneven (not so good in the Hanoi location and better at the one in Sapa) but the food and prices to be very good. They served some of the better Western style desserts we saw on the entire trip.
Also in Sapa we ate at a very good straightforward Vietnamese place called Little Sapa. Nothing special but both the food and service were good and the price was very reasonable.
You should have a drink and/or snack one afternoon on the balcony of The Mountain View Hotel at the corner of Sapa market & Cau May Street. It’s a spectacular view of Ham Rong Mountain.