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Beyond Banh Mi

Eating Your Way Across Vietnam
  • morning glory

    Morning Glory Restaurant and its signature dishes

  • Metropole

    Spices Garden Restaurant at the Metropole Hotel

  • pho/beef

    Traditional pho; the chef prepares a Vietnamese beef dish

  • LA RESIDENCE HOTEL & SPA

    Le Parfum at La Residence Hotel & Spa

  • LA RESIDENCE HOTEL & SPA

    Outdoor Vietnamese cooking classes at La Residence Hotel & Spa

  • Park Hyatt Saigon

    Banh Knot; Square One’s outdoor terrace

  • Park Hyatt Saigon

    Square One at the Park Hyatt Saigon

CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

Vietnam winds down the eastern coast of Southeast Asia’s Indochina Peninsula in a long, s-shaped strip. It’s bordered by China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east and south.

WHY GO

The food, the culture, the history, a range of spectacular landscapes from jungle to highlands to tropical beaches — and it’s all an incredible value.

HOW

The international airports in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are well serviced by international airlines, with regular connections to Asian hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

TABLET TIP

Don’t let the plastic furniture and informal service turn you off of the street food vendors. The popular mom-and-pop stalls are home to some of the country’s best dishes. Go for the regional specialties: pho (aromatic noodle soup) in Hanoi, bun bo hue (vermicelli noodles with sliced meat) in Hue, and cao lau (rich, pork-laden noodles) in Hoi An.

Vietnam, March, 2013

The various cuisines of the Far East seem to travel extraordinarily well; no matter where you live, chances are you’ve got access to some truly inspired Asian-influenced cooking. But once you’ve had, say, a few hundred David Chang pork buns, or done the rounds of San Francisco’s izakayas, you’re left with an escalating craving that can only be satisfied by a visit straight to the source.

You’ve got plenty of paths from which to choose. To voyage into the heart of the Yunnan? Haunt Tokyo’s ramen shops? Make sense of Singapore’s labyrinthine food stalls? If it’s day after day, night after night of inspired dining you’re after — and you fancy a bargain — get thee to Vietnam, and eat your way across the country, from north to south.

Hanoi is the homeland of pho, the aromatic noodle soup that dutifully exemplifies the national food philosophy: a harmony of spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty in every bite. There’s hardly a bad pho to be found in Hanoi, but some are better than the rest. Head to Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter or Pho Thin on Luo Duc street. Or simply plan to wake up at the Metropole. Food isn’t the only reason to stay here, but it’s certainly one of them. Breakfast in particular is a spectacle, and a tall glass of their ca phe sue da (iced coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk) is the only way to start your day. Before heading out of town, you’ll also want to try dishes like bánh cuon, a plump tender cousin of the spring roll, and bánh xeo, a rice-flour crepe stuffed with savories like shrimp or pork. Both can be washed down with a glass of iced green tea (tra da) or a local lager like La Rue.

Heading south, set your sights on the imperial riverside city of Hue (pronounced “hway”). Bun bo hue is the local specialty, and it’s an umami extravaganza: a rich and soulful broth with vermicelli noodles topped with ragged slices of beef, pork bits, and occasionally a hint of duck blood thrown in for good measure. At Bo De, an open-air restaurant smack on the main thoroughfare Le Loi, a spread of fried tofu, spicy eggplant, and jackfruit salad will run you less than $15. For a more elaborate style of dining, ask your hosts at the deco masterpiece La Residence to prepare a royal feast — Hue’s signature “imperial cuisine” is all about an abundance of small, creatively presented plates, something of a precursor to today’s highfalutin tasting menus.

Leave some room for everything your next stop, Hoi An, has to offer. Sleepy fishing village no longer, this charming port bustles with visitors who come for the express purpose of eating. Many are on a quest to sample cao lau, a pork-laden noodle dish whose recipe is a closely guarded secret. Don’t waste too much time asking questions; instead get yourself to Thanh, a stall on Thai Phien street, where the modest setting won’t distract from the revelations on your plate. Or head to Morning Glory, a convivial restaurant that’s rightfully popular with tourists.

Finish on a strong note in Saigon. As an equal-opportunity eater, you must give the southern capital a chance before declaring any preference. The choicest lodging option in town is unquestionably the Park Hyatt, and its restaurant, Square One, is just the place to splurge. The hotel’s prime location in Lam Son Square also makes it the perfect jumping-off point for a few final culinary outings. Work your way down your hit list: bun, a versatile noodle dish; cua lot, soft shelled crabs; a seafood-lover’s soup known as hu tieu, and oc, a single syllable that stands for a multi-course feast of snails and shellfish. No matter how fanatic the foodie, it’s impossible to check all the boxes. But it’s the perfect excuse to return, retracing your itinerary — perhaps next time in reverse.

Hallie Davison

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CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

Vietnam winds down the eastern coast of Southeast Asia’s Indochina Peninsula in a long, s-shaped strip. It’s bordered by China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east and south.

WHY GO

The food, the culture, the history, a range of spectacular landscapes from jungle to highlands to tropical beaches — and it’s all an incredible value.

HOW

The international airports in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are well serviced by international airlines, with regular connections to Asian hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

TABLET TIP

Don’t let the plastic furniture and informal service turn you off of the street food vendors. The popular mom-and-pop stalls are home to some of the country’s best dishes. Go for the regional specialties: pho (aromatic noodle soup) in Hanoi, bun bo hue (vermicelli noodles with sliced meat) in Hue, and cao lau (rich, pork-laden noodles) in Hoi An.


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