Editor’s note: In light of the Covid pandemic, “the Vietnamese government continues to suspend entry into Vietnam to all foreigners, including people with a Vietnamese visa exemption certificate,” according to the US Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam. Instead, we’re scheming and dreaming for a time in the hopefully not-to-distance future where we can eat and drink together around the world. Until then, we hope you enjoy this colorful account of June Massel’s pre-pandemic adventures.
In the main cities of Vietnam, there are so many choices of where to eat that it’s easy to find both delicious food and have a culinary adventure at the same time. You can choose among cuisines such as traditional Vietnamese, modern Vietnamese, French, American, Italian, or Chinese, just to name a few. And you can choose among atmospheres – from sitting on a small plastic chair and being served in an alley to fine dining in an elegant old colonial mansion complete with gardens, terraces and even traditional music performances.
Here are some suggestions by city.
I chose the Hidden Gem Café in the Old Quarter to try the famous Vietnamese egg coffee. It is coffee mixed with egg yolks, and was invented in the 50’s when there was a dairy shortage. Found primarily in Hanoi in the north, it is not commonly found in the south. The Hidden Gem is a funky place true to its name, occupying the second, third and fourth floors of a narrow old building typical of the quarter. Aside from great coffees (try the coconut coffee as well), there are tons of beverage options – smoothies and hot and cold teas with ginger and lemongrass. Climbing the narrow staircase to the inside seating or outside terraces is an adventure in itself.
For an elegant dinner in a colonial house, try the Ly Club in the French Quarter.
The moment you step into the lovely dining room, you are transported to French Indochina. The menu features both French and Vietnamese dishes. I had an excellent breast of duck with steamed cauliflower and broccoli. There is a wine list, but even the locals will tell you not to order Vietnamese wine. There were a few choices of wine by the glass from Australia and New Zealand and more choices if you ordered by the bottle.
Wild Rice is another elegant dining choice – with a more interesting menu and excellent food. It too is in an old, colonial house in the French Quarter, but the interior has been modernized. The feel is sleek with contemporary art on the walls. I had the tasting menu that began with fried spring rolls, prawns and pork rolled in mustard leaves, sticky rice cake, and fresh spring rolls with beef. The main courses were equally robust – roasted duck with orange sauce, sautéed prawns with pineapple in a chili sauce and a vegetable dish of stir-fried morning glory with garlic.
Hanoi is a city of lakes and the largest lake is Westlake in a residential area popular with expats. The Intercontinental Westlake Hotel’s Café Du Lac has an amazing breakfast with almost every food choice you can imagine. The Vietnamese pho soup is a traditional breakfast soup with noodles and either beef, chicken or shrimp. It is served with a variety of condiments and was very delicious and filling. But it was hard to pass up an assortment of shrimp and pork dumplings, platters of fresh fruits, juices (bravo to passion fruit juice!), smoothies, and a vast variety of breads and pastries.
After a breakfast like that, you could probably skip lunch, but if you’re hungry, there is a casual, somewhat trendy, restaurant nor too far from the Temple of Literature called Luk Lak which is popular with tourists and locals. There, you can sample another traditional dish called bun cha, a pork dish with pork meatballs and strips of pork served with noodles, green papaya and rice.
Da Nang is a coastal city and resort town midway between Hanoi and Saigon known today for its beach resorts. It is also remembered for its history. In 1965, Da Nang was where the first US combat troops landed in Vietnam. Two thousand marines had come to protect the nearby US Air base.
Today, the beach is filled with modern hotels, swimming pools, nightclubs and restaurants. The Hyatt Regency is a world of its own with multiple eating options on the beach. The Green House serves an amazing breakfast buffet (as do most hotels in Vietnam). I can recommend the pan-seared local sea bass with a broccoli cauliflower couscous. For smaller bites, try the Terrasse, a combination bar and jazz club with a variety of pizzas (the mixed seafood was very good), pork ribs or spring rolls. (It seems like every restaurant in Vietnam serves some form of spring roll.)
For a true farm to table experience, about a half hour from Danang, in the countryside on the way to Hoi An, is the village of Tra Que known for its organic farming methods. After a foot and shoulder massage and cooking demonstration amidst the beautiful herb and vegetable gardens, lunch was served at the Tra Que Garden restaurant. There were several shrimp dishes, including a very intriguing banana flower salad with steamed shrimp wrapped in mint, coriander and basil, as well as a stir fried chicken with lemon grass and chili peppers. The Vietnamese tend to wrap foods in thin, flat rice or noodle pancakes or inside a medley of leaves and herbs. Both wraps are what we might call “finger food”.
Hoi An is one of the most charming cities in Vietnam and visiting at night is an absolute must. It is magical. The entire old town is lit up with gorgeous multi-colored lanterns, as are the boats on the river and the bridge across it.
I can recommend two places for eating. Ms Vy’s is both a restaurant and cooking school, and if you sign up for a cooking class, you eat what you make. It is a well-organized classroom setting with individual burners. The pre-chopped ingredients are placed in front of you and you simply follow the teacher’s instructions. We learned to make a variety of pork and shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice paper and a barbeque skewered chicken with lime leaves, turmeric and fish oil. We also created a gorgeous green mango and prawn salad with roasted sesame seeds and chili sauce that was served on rice crackers and garnished with mint.
Since we did not want a big dinner, we chose street food, a very popular option in Vietnam, and made a dinner of desserts at the night market. We wandered through the illuminated streets pausing at the busy stalls selling handicrafts, paper lanterns, clothing, and food. There were plenty of noodle dishes and pork, shrimp or vegetable pancakes, but instead we chose banana pancakes. Similar to a crepe, they were made while we watched and topped with our choice of chocolate sauce or nutella. The next course was equally nutritious and smoking – liquid nitrogen ice cream.
In the imperial city of Hue, I had two very imperial-like meals. The first was dinner at Les Jardins de La Carambole, an old colonial mansion near the Citadel, reputed to be one of the best restaurants in the city. It serves both traditional Vietnamese dishes and French cuisine. I ordered a mojito cocktail that was good, but very heavy on the mint. I decided to take a break from Vietnamese food and was happy to have a western style steak with mashed potatoes, mushroom sauce, and a goat cheese salad. Others chose the fish entrée, a Mediterranean sea bass with olives.
The second imperial restaurant is aptly named The Royal Park Restaurant. The set meal began with a pumpkin soup followed by grilled prawns, grilled chicken and sautéed noodles with pork and vegetables. Dessert featured a coconut sticky rice cake with mango.
For a less imperial setting, try the casual Golden Rice restaurant. The appetizer portion of shrimp rolls wrapped in rice paper was substantial and approximately $3. The menu is quite extensive, but my appetite was not.
Mekong River Delta and Can Tho
The drive from Saigon to Can Tho in the Mekong River Delta is about 4 hours and there is literally one recommended place to stop along the way, the Mekong Rest Stop. And we stopped to eat there twice—on the way to Can Tho and on the way back to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It is actually a very good restaurant and despite the name, much more elaborate than a “rest stop”. Because it’s the only game in town, it’s also very popular and quite big with an extensive menu. But the food quality did not appear to suffer. It is famous for its Mekong pancake appetizer that is a combination of shrimp, pork and coconut wrapped in a variety of greens (mustard leaves, basil and mint) and served with a variety of dipping sauces. Not to be missed is the fried sticky rice ball, a perfect sphere that the server cuts into pieces with scissors at the table. Another standout was the whole fried elephant fish served upright and family style. Once again, the server does all the work and separates the fish from the bone at the table.
In the city of Can Tho (on the Mekong River) is a restaurant called So Hom. The steamed shrimps in a mango sauce and the pumpkin flour fritters were both delicious. The side dish of zucchini with ginger was a terrific accompaniment to the main dish of steamed fish in a clay pot.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
For the traditional pho noodle soup, try Pho 2000, a casual spot directly across from the busy Ben Tahn market. While the Vietnamese tend to have pho for breakfast, it is also popular at lunchtime. It came with condiments (basil, lemongrass, scallions, and chilis) and was served with lime slices for additional flavor.
For an historic night on the town and one of the most beautiful views of the city, especially at sunset, go to the rooftop bar, Saigon Saigon Bar, at the Caravelle Hotel. This is where American journalists tended to hang out during the Vietnam War. The drink menu is vast (try the passion fruit sour) and so is the food menu with lots of American offerings, such as hamburgers & curly fries, sea bass burgers and other sandwiches and salads.
For an elegant dinner, try Hoa Tuc or Xu, two of Ho Chi Minh City’s top rated restaurants in beautiful settings. The first has a more traditional menu. The crispy featherback fish wraps in a cucumber fish sauce were wonderful and there was a terrific charred beef dish in betel leaf, as well as a sea bass sautéed with pineapple and coriander. The wines, a ganache blanc and a ganache noir, were from France.
Xu specializes in “contemporary” Vietnamese cuisine and the restaurant is modern and sleek. I had a green mango catfish salad with ginger fish sauce and steamed sea bass in banana leaf (which had been marinated in turmeric and galangal). Other options included chili prawns with mango and pomelo salad, a chicken roulade, or crispy tofu with spices.
At the upscale Annan Gourmet market (a complete grocery store) near the Madison Avenue-like shops, there is a café and bakery on the second floor that was wonderful. At midday, I had the best croquet monsieur I’ve ever had (including in Paris) for approximately $3.
June Massell is a New York based journalist and strategic communications specialist. She was a four-time Emmy award winning national television news correspondent, investigative reporter and news & documentary producer. She reported for The Newshour on PBS, for ABC Network News (Nightline, World News Tonight, Good Morning America), and NBC in New York and Chicago. She also produced for the news and documentary divisions of CBS and NBC Network News and worked on 60 Minutes. She has a strategic communications consulting practice and helps institutions “tell their story”. With a passion for travel, story telling, and food, June is a freelance travel writer who has told stories from destinations all around the world.