It’s hot, steamy, busy, friendly, vibrant, most of the time stinky but ridiculously delicious. Vietnam is not on most people’s honeymoon destination short-list (it was at the top of ours!) but it should be! It’s cheap, which for our poor Randela (ZAR) is a blessing, way less touristy than places like Thailand and it has the most fascinating food culture. Make a cup of tea, find a cosy spot and let me tell you about my adventures in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam…
Scooters. So. Many. Scooters. And no road rules – somehow it all works and during our 5 days in Ho Chi Minh, we saw just one minor accident. Crazy. It’s a cheap way to get around and by the 3rd day, it felt so normal that I put aside my fear and got on the back of one, for what was to be one of the highlights of the trip; a street food tour.
Yes, I closed my eyes for 90% of the time. I held on for dear life while we whizzed through the streets of Ho Chi Minh, weaving through traffic was terrifying, but the food was oh-so-worth it! Noodles in pork broth, crispy rice pancakes wrapped in betel leaves stuffed with bean sprouts and spicy peanut dipping sauce, Vietnamese BBQ (I ate frog. It was good!) and coconut ice cream for dessert, which was (weirdly) served with sweet corn, pumpkin and red beans. Not sure how I felt about that.
Book: Saigon Food Tour www.saigonfoodtour.com
The markets – oh, the markets! There are so few supermarkets in Vietnam that I didn’t see one during the 10 days we were there. Not one! Everyone buys fresh ingredients (and everything else they need) from the markets and who can blame them – the produce is just incredible. Walk into the market and your senses will be assaulted. The smell of fish paste and fish sauce is overwhelming (don’t worry, after a day, you don’t notice it anymore), it’s steamy and you’ll sweat a lot and feel completely out of your comfort zone but your eyes will be feasting on fresh wasabi, mountains of herbs, wriggling crabs and you’ll want to Instagram everything.
Move inside (even more steamy and stinky) and you’ll find bustling food stalls making everything from Pho (the national dish of fragrant broth, thinly sliced beef and rice noodles) to sticky, tender pork grilled over coals served with sticky rice, spinach and spinach water on the side (nothing goes to waste here!).
TIP 1: As a tourist, you’ll be urged by stallholders to eat their food (they can be quite persistent), but try and suss out where the locals are eating and head there. That’s where the freshest, most authentic food is.
Find it: Ben Thanh Market, District One
TIP 2: Sometimes the best food is down the side-street from a popular tourist spot, so explore the area and get lost. Case in point: This lady who makes the most mind-blowingly delicious crab and noodle broth down a side street from the Ben Thanh Market. Yes, we had to sit at the tiniest table in the world with itty bitty chairs, yes we probably looked silly, yes it was in a tiny corridor down some back alley that was hot as hell. No, at the time we didn’t know what we were eating, but it was the most flavourful broth we had on our entire trip – so we didn’t care. Worth it!
Find it: 24-22 Phan Bội Châu, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
TIP 3: For some odd reason, diners at street food spots throw all their rubbish on the floor during the course of the meal – squeezed limes, napkins, bones. Not normal for us, normal for them – don’t say I didn’t warn you. But don’t worry, it’s all cleaned up at the end of each evening. We came to realize that the dirtier the floor, the better the food (ie. The more locals had been eating there that night).
Chocolate. Yes, cocoa grows in Vietnam! Bean-to-bar producer Marou Chocolate’s café is a clean, modern boutique-style shop, which is a stark contrast from the chaos outside the door on Ho Chi Minh’s streets – and it’s not just because it’s (thankfully) air conditioned! Their frozen hot chocolate was refreshing and I could’ve easily had three. I stocked up on all of their single origin bars and some of their flavoured slabs – the cashew praline and coconut milk were my favourites. They also do a stunning range of pastries which will make you want to stay forever – if only to avoid returning to the hot steamy city streets aside.
Where? Marou Chocolate 167-169 Calmette, Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
If there is one Vietnamese food I miss, it’s the Banh Mi. Crusty, freshly baked baguette slathered with rich liver pate, mayonnaise then stuffed with coriander, pork cold cuts, roasted pork, pickled daikon and carrot, chilli and, if you’re lucky, crispy fried shallots, to finish. It’s the perfect sandwich and there were days I had 3 – they were that good. But with so many spots selling the famous sandwich, which is the best? Trip advisor told me that ‘The Best’ was 200m from our hotel – yasss!
TIP 4: 200m doesn’t sound far, but when it’s 40 degrees celcius outside, it’s FAAAAAR! FYI Ho Chi Minh has Uber Moto (scooter) which is super cheap and faster than walking.
Where? Banh Mi Hoang Hoa 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh city
The queue spilled out onto the street, and we joined the line of tourists instagramming and Snap-chatting their experience. It was delicious! But….
But it was not as delicious as the place we found around the corner (remember tip #2?), which, it turns out bakes the bread for ‘The Best’. Cheaper, more fillings (crispy shallots!) and, the locals were buying 4 at a time (tip #1). Tick, tick, tick! My advice? Go to both and decide for yourself.
Where? Hong Hoa Bakery, Bến Thành Quận 1 Vietnam, 62 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
While we found that the best food is to be found on the streets (the few restaurants we ate at were disappointing), there was one that I’d go back to in a heart-beat. A bowl of fresh rice noodles with thin slivers of raw beef is placed in front of you before being drowned in a piping hot, fragrant, spectacular broth (Bun Bo Hue, it’s called).
Where? 110 Lý Chính Thắng, ward 8, District 3, Hồ Chí Minh City
TIP 5: Each table is set with chilli, lime, fish paste and fish sauce – use these condiments to season your broth to your liking. Most dishes are served with a giant pile of fresh herbs (morning glory, sawtooth coriander, finely sliced banana flower, bean sprouts) which you add to your broth. If you’re unsure, watch the locals and copy them.
Coffee culture is huge in Vietnam and most days you’ll find locals sitting on tiny chairs, sipping iced coffees watching the crazy scooter traffic go by. I became addicted to cà phê sua đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. A dark-roast coffee which is slowly dripped over ice with a layer of condensed milk in the bottom, it’s the only way to start a (very hot) day.
Next, we headed off to Hoi An, the ancient town – stay tuned for the post!