I’m not sure when I fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine. The first time I had Pho, I thought it was truly unspectacular. A few weeks in Indonesia and visiting some local Vietnamese restaurants I had learned to dress it up with fresh herbs, bean sprouts, sauces and lime. I was addicted!
While I proudly started claiming Vietnamese cuisine as one of my favorites, I actually knew little about it. What better way to know more than to visit the place in person!
Hanoi, it is said, is a dream come true for every foodie! It offers endless varieties of soups, noodles, buns, rolls, sandwiches and beer, all of it fresh! The very first day when we reached Hanoi, we went to the Old quarter area – famous for street food. The streets were lined with skinned animals and birds. Something, we Indians are not used to. The smell was a turn-off which led us away from the lane.
Vietnamese food varies greatly in the north and south. We got the best Pho (a dish which originated in the north) of the trip in Ho Chi Minh city (HCMC or Saigon). There were two gems though, one obviously Pho and the other a quaint restaurant serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine with a twist – and twist is that it was pure vegetarian cuisine (It does include fish!)
Pho in Saigon
Our friendly guide for the Cu Chi tunnels tour dropped us at Pho Hoa – District 8 in HCMC. Apparently she had accompanied a group of connoisseurs from a few countries across the world who ranked this place the best Pho in Vietnam. “Mai” our guide accompanied them to so many places that she now nauseates to the thought of having Pho. That day though, her boss wanted to meet her at the same restaurant and that helped us understand Pho in detail.
Spread across two floors, the only difference is that the floor on the top has aircon. As we went and got comfortable on the stool around our table, the first thing I noticed was the medley of colors on the table. Brown Chopsticks, Black Soya sauce, Redish Chili Sauce, Yellow-Green lemon, Scarlet chilies, lush green basil and some other herbs, shiny yellow bananas and brown fried dough known as quoy. Soon sweet coconut cakes in pandan leaf were placed on the table.
The menu (with price) is pasted on the wall and is in Vietnamese as well as English. We first ordered some coconut water followed by Pho. The dish is traditionally served with beef with an option to have a chicken version. We were told that the chicken version combined with the soup from beef broth would be an ideal combination and I opted for this one while TW (the wife) opted for the original Pho.
Soon, two large bowls of Pho were placed on our table. Topped with fistful of cilantro, the broth looked tempting along with the noodles and meat. A plate full of bean sprouts was a new addition to the variety on the table.
Mai quickly jumped in and helped us with mixing the chili sauce and soya in right quantities, topping it up with squeezed lemon. She went great lengths to explain us what on the table is free and what is not. Essentially, whatever was in abundance like the sauces and herbs were free, while whatever was finite like bananas, dough and rice dessert was to be paid on a per piece basis.
How does one eat it? The first reaction of seeing the colorful table is that its madness but to eat Pho, one needs to figure out the method in madness. Pluck some leaves of Basil and other herbs along with bean sprouts and put them in the bowl of Pho. Dip the meat in the sauce and then add the sauce to the soup. Keep alternating between eating the meat and rice noodles with chopsticks and drinking soup with the spoon.
The quoy can be had by dipping it in the soup or well not had at all since the Pho with meat tastes supreme. The quoy has no taste of its own and can be ignored.
We ended the meal with the sweet coconut dessert before paying for the bill and heading out. The open kitchen was a treat and with due permission a quick picture was clicked.
Apparently this place a little expensive but with a Pho at every alternate meal across HCMC and Hanoi, this place definitely stood out for the Pho. All I can wish is that Pho specialty restaurant soon opens up in India!
VietVeg in Hanoi
Vietnam is definitely a meat eaters’ paradise. To get a taste similar to it but as a vegetarian alternative can be a delight and thanks to a few friends in Vietnam we got introduced to Uudam Chay in Hanoi.
Their website proclaims that their name “Uu Dam” comes from Sanskrit term “Udumbara” which means “sacred flower descending to earth from heaven”. The restaurant is located in the central district of Hoan Kiem.
The place is considered pricey by Vietnamese standards but for the quality, taste and service, it wasn’t pricey by Indian standards. The rustic interiors and soothing lighting gel well with each other in the multistoried restaurant. Staff ushering you in and taking care of the slightest details like information on which steps are slightly higher than others give a good vibe even before you get seated.
It is very rare that we visit a restaurant twice when we are around for a very short time but Uu Dam was exceptional to say the least and we went there again.
Some of the items which we tried included the pine nut soup – remarkable not just in taste but also presentation, since it is served in a freshly baked bread and topped with mushrooms and pine nuts on the sides.
Fried rice with Macadamia – which was served in a pineapple well carved out for the rice to be layered into it. Fried rice with pandan leaf and rice with basil. Hawaii smoothie was a fresh blend of flavors served in a pineapple and I was completely in love with it.
The menu has interesting additions like a durian pizza, which we did not try and something which we missed was probably the hot pot – a meal which will require more people to finish.
The first thing that anybody will ask you when you order a Vietnamese coffee is if you want it Haww or Co. Well, they are asking if you want the coffee hot or cold. Took a while for us to understand the pronunciation, but we were ready with our answer of Haww or Co after we understood what is being asked. There is another variation with Mil or No Mil, that’s again with Milk or without. Both variants are wonderful and TW is now hooked to Vietnamese Coffee!
The country is world’s second largest producer of coffee. A darker and stronger coffee which comes from a different bean type, cultivation process and roasting is the specialty.
Trung Nguyen is a popular chain found at many places and the strong Vietnamese coffee is also sold in sachets by this brand. Another popular brand is Highlands which has stores at all major places.
The milk option of coffee comes with sweetened condensed milk – something which is told to you explicitly every time you opt for the “with milk” option.
One will notice a Vietnamese drinking coffee anytime of the day and at any place – from little plastic stools on the street to the best of hotels and restaurants.
Come to think of it, you will see many locals on the little plastic stools on the street for most part of the day! Another country ticked off the bucket list – with the usual, local food, local brew and local coffee.