Think of the worst person you know. Picture her stupid, punchable face. Feel her shrill voice raking your eardrums. See her pressing the “close” button as you race towards the elevator.
Now imagine her eating a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone.
She is probably smiling — a stupid, punchable smile to be sure, but technically a smile nevertheless. She might be making small wet gurgles of happiness — annoying, but undeniably joyful. Somehow, despite her bridge-trollian nature, she becomes sympathetic — almost human, if you’re feeling particularly generous. It’s hard to hate someone who’s eating.
Food brings us together because it is one of the few universal pleasures. Everybody likes food in some form or another, even people from Canada, so long as it is covered in cheese and maple syrup. But this is not Canada — this is a different socialist republic: Vietnam. What do the people here like to eat?
Practically everything, as it turns out. There is no fish we will not pluck from the sea, no tuber we will not rip from the soil, no seed we will not grind into dust in our rapacious hunt for our next feeding. We will steal the unborn children of defenseless birds and fry them in pans. We will call this “breakfast”.
In Vietnam there are many ways to eat the diversity of nature. The number of choices can be overwhelming at times. Word cares about its readers so much that it wants to help you narrow the options to a manageable number.
Each of the following dishes holds a special place in somebody’s heart, or stomach. These are foods that excite passions — foods that inspire entire magazine snippets. The pages to come are full of stories about those foods, about why we love them, about why they are special.
I usually go for mi quang on days like tomorrow is shaping up to be — hungover. I usually wake up and play with the computer for an hour or two, hold my head for another 10 minutes, then head to my favourite specialist. It just so happens that they’re right across the street, the perfect distance for me to travel in this delicate state.
The shop in question — Mi Quang My Son, the Da Kao branch of a five-store chain — doctors their noodles in a deeper way than I’ve yet seen. It has a vaguely comforting ‘mom’s chicken soup’ thing about it. The turmeric is strong in this one.
Mi quang has a complexity about it. The eating is a sensory experience: the warmth on your face, the tingly yet wholesome smell — then the prickle of lime-accented spice, the aftertaste of fatty, slightly medicinal broth. It’s a tour de force.
Some mi quang variations don’t stress the turmeric. Even the fairly savoury scoops in The Mi Quang Song which went viral on YouTube last year don’t quite make the cut (and what’s that yellow egg doing in there?). To be honest, I’m not crazy about the Danang version — even though it’s a ways closer to Quang Nam Province, where the dish originally came from.
The Buon Ma Thuot version, on the other hand, opened my eyes to other possibilities. It was light on the turmeric-y broth, but heavy on the noodles, which were more cylindrical than flat. Doused in chilli, hiding meats in every crevice, this wasn’t the dish I was expecting.
Nor was I expecting the entire restaurant family to congregate on the two metal stools across the table from me, smiling expectantly at my poised chopsticks, pulling rank when it looked like I was going to ignore the sesame cracker that’s customarily added. I added the sesame cracker, in the same way I usually add the greens — half now, half later. One wedge of lime, and of course the whole chilli-soy mixture.
We bonded over the Lionel Messi poster on the wall, and soon the man got on his cellphone and invited another spectator to watch me eat — a round-faced girl with groceries hanging from her bike hook. She sat there smiling, as her presumptive sister cradled a baby, and the man raised his eyebrows in suggestive ways.
As the man kept saying “hotel” and winking archly, I started to appreciate all the adventures these unpredictable noodles have taken me on. And still I ate, ate to my heart’s content. — Ed Weinberg
Mi Quang My Son @ 38 Dinh Tien Hoang, Q1, HCMC — miquangmyson.com.vn
For Those in Hanoi: Try Quan Mi Quang @ 2C Quang Trung, Hoan Kiem
Mrs. Coi's Banh Cuon
The silky white and translucent rice flour sheet is lifted off of a steamer filled with boiling water by a long and flexible piece of bamboo, bringing with it a smoggy steam. Mrs. Coi’s movements are swift and professional as she ladles another layer of liquid onto the steamer, spreads it equally on the covering cloth to prepare for another sheet, then fills the cooked one with stuffing.
She rolls the sheet into a perfect shape, brushes a thin layer of liquid fat on top, and finishes the process by adding some freshly fried shallots — she looks just like a skillful street artist in her little shop in an alley across from Mo Market. Her stall is simple with only one long wooden bench, a table and a few wooden stools because she needs to make space for the alley’s residents to pass by.
At one time, her stall had only enough space for five or six customers. But Mrs. Coi was once well-known among everyone who lived on Minh Khai Street. She was a skinny woman, in her 60s, with one leg always perched on her little wooden stool when she was making banh cuon for her customers. The rice flour sheet was made extremely thin — which is the key to the dish and requires skillful attention — the stuffing was a mix of minced pork, wood-ear mushrooms and onion, the dipping source just right, the home-made shallots always fresh and crunchy.
Eating Mrs. Coi’s banh cuon is a memory that I’ll never forget. It has been some time now since Mrs. Coi passed away, but when talking about my favourite banh cuon, hers always comes to mind.
These days, when I go for banh cuon on the weekend, I still prefer little stalls where the food is made on the spot, hot and steamy. In most alleys in Hanoi, you can find such places. But if you’re looking for a more established option, try banh cuon at Banh Cuon Hang Ga (14 Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi), Banh Cuon Ba Hoanh (66 To Hien Thanh, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi) or the less busy Banh Cuon Phuong (68 Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi). — Hoa Le
Banh Cuon Hang Ga @ 14 Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
For Those in Saigon: Aaah, banh cuon down south isn’t quite the same. For Hanoians the fish sauce is just that little bit too sweet. However, Banh Cuon Hai Nam @ 11A Cao Thang, Q3) is a winner. They’ve been going for three or four decades now, and their offering is the closest you’ll get to banh cuon from Hanoi
I can’t remember exactly when my relationship with this morsel of greasy goodness started. I may have flirted with its rich pancakey curves on my very first visit. Possibly I’ve forgotten that a more food-savvy mutual friend introduced us ages ago, or perhaps I simply sat down at the busiest street quan I could find, smiled ridiculously at everyone involved, and gestured my way into eating what everyone else was eating.
Whatever our history, it’s been a happy one, because this classic dish — which literally translates to ‘sizzling cake’ — has never let me down. It is what I call comfort food of the highest order, a little too naughty to eat every day, but when the mood strikes there’s no better food than this to turn my ‘belly frown’ upside down.
Made famous around the globe by Anthony Bourdain (and, since then, everyone with a camera and access to the internet) — the banh xeo is a pan-fried and folded savoury pancake, with an infusion of pork oil and coconut juice into the rice flour batter to give it that tropical edge. Cooked by grandmothers everywhere, it’s like a warm hug filled with pork, shrimp, saffron and bean sprouts. It’s always served with a healthy side of fresh lettuce, Thai basil and mint leaf for wrapping, an essential amount of fish sauce for dipping and of course, chilli and limes. Sometimes it even comes with rice paper to make it easier to wrap. With so much colour and texture on offer, it’s the kind of feast for the senses that has foodies waxing lyrical and using cheap platitudes like, erm…’feast for the senses’.
This all makes it a highly ‘sought after by tourists’ kinda deal, and any search of TripAdvisor brings up one of the most famous restaurants in the country — Banh Xeo 46A — the place where I eat mine, and the originator of the Saigon version of the dish. When I was there recently I met Linda and Keith from Christchurch, New Zealand. They’d travelled up and down the country trying the many variations of this dish — yes there is a healthy debate going on — but having arrived here, were happy to declare a winner.
“The banh xeo is like the country itself,” proclaimed Keith, “noisy, a little challenging, but multi-layered and rewarding — you just have to dig in and get your hands dirty.” — Jon Aspin
Banh Xeo 46A @ 46 Dinh Cong Trang, Q1, HCMC
For Those in Hanoi: TripAdvisor recommends, erm, Quan An Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem). But we think Banh Xeo Zon @ 25 Lo Su, Hoan Kiem does it better
Bun Rieu Cua
When I was a little girl I ate my first bowl of bun rieu cua. There was something about this dish, with its crabmeat, blood pudding, morning glory, spice and tomato-flavoured broth that I just loved. So obsessed was I by this noodle soup that I used to dream of having my own bun rieu stand when I was an adult.
My dream came true when I was 19. Together with my mother we decided to set up a noodle soup stand in our front garden. At the time we were living in Vung Tau and, of course, the dish we decided to sell was bun rieu.
I helped my mum cook and sell the soup. Because our house was close to the central market in Vung Tau and in a busy part of town, it was a good business. Since we opened at 6am and closed at 9am, it didn’t affect my studies — my lessons at the local tourism school were in the afternoon.
When I came home from school every day, I had to prepare things for the next morning’s show — particularly the broth. And every morning after our stand was closed, I had to go to the market to buy the ingredients for the next batch of soup. Mornings and early evenings were the busiest time of my day.
A few years ago, my husband and I went on a business trip to Hanoi and by chance stopped at a streetside bun rieu place on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Quang Trung. On small plastic stools that doubled as both seats and tables, I took one spoonful of the broth and I was entranced.
Now, every time I fly up to Hanoi I frequent this little joint. The street food in the capital is fantastic, but this little nameless, makeshift place remains my favourite.
And I sometimes still cook bun rieu at home, but it’s no longer to sell to the public. These days I serve it only to my friends and family. — Duong Vy Bao
Bun Rieu Cua @ cnr. Quang Trung and Hai Ba Trung, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi. The bun rieu cua in Saigon is not as good as it is in Hanoi, but the place on the street in front of Nghia Beauty, 20 Phan Boi Chau, Q1 is probably the best
"We need to go back,” I said to my girlfriend. We were stretched out on a grassy bank beside the East River eating lunch, the Manhattan skyline hanging like a mirage on the opposite shore. It was the summer of 2013 and a record-breaking heatwave had turned New York City into a furnace.
“Back where?” she said.
I held a half-eaten goi cuon aloft and my point was made.
Prior to that day, with decent AC, Netflix on-demand, and a cracking pizzeria nearby, the basement apartment we were renting in Brooklyn had become our own little hideout, away from the heat and away from the world. We’d just finished a 12-month, round-the-world trip and staying at home had never felt so good. But it took one Sunday afternoon visit to an antiques market in Williamsburg to drag us back to reality… and back to Vietnam.
The Brooklyn Flea is home to dozens of seriously good international food vendors. That day, the choice was overwhelming. But then I saw it. Goi cuon. On what looked to be his mum’s kitchen table set out beneath a cheap plastic gazebo, a Viet Kieu guy was frantically wrapping roll after roll at the head of a very long line of people. Roaring through a stack of rice paper pancakes, he skilfully arranged the ingredients; tender slices of slow cooked pork, fresh prawns, garlic chives, rice vermicelli and plenty of leafage.
With a scoop of homemade peanut sauce, one bite was all it took to transport us back to our last night in Saigon. We’d had one final blowout feast at Nha Hang Ngon on Pasteur Street. The oil lamps were flickering, the Saigon Special was flowing and we were saying goodbye to what would become our favourite country of the trip. It was the spark we needed. Less than a year later, we were living in Vietnam. — Simon Stanley
Nha Hang Ngon @ 160 Pasteur, Q1, HCMC
For Those in Hanoi: Try Ut Thuy just over the river @ 227 Ngoc Lam, Long Bien
Banh Tam Bi
Do you know what it’s like when you’ve discovered something no-one else knows about, and you want to be its champion but you don’t exactly know how? Say it’s a food (as it is in this case). You take friends to go eat at restaurants that serve it, watch their faces as they take that first bite, make a show of enjoying it yourself, dream about it. If you’re a food writer, you write about it, and sneak in little references to its greatness in unrelated articles. Okay, I can’t hold out any longer — we’re talking about banh tam bi, and my unrelenting obsession with the Mekong-originated dish for the last 18 months.
It started out innocently enough. Chief Editor Nick had been working on our last street food issue (November 2013), and in the course of doing so discovered the dish in question. Back then it was his secret, and when three of our Hanoi colleagues came down to Saigon that same month he decided to share it.
He took us to one of the two eponymously named joints in the city, and we slurped down the silkworm-looking noodles in an orgy of discovery (the name banh tam means ‘silkworm noodle’). It seemed like we’d stumbled onto one of the rare things in cuisine — a food so extraordinarily unique that it couldn’t be from anywhere else, that it could define a region. In the shredded pork skin cuddled next to thick tapioca noodles swimming in sweet coconut milk, shreds of carrot nudging against the two, it seemed we’d found the taste of the Mekong.
In the time since, I’ve returned often, and not usually solo. And I’ve kept these addictive noodles in mind.
In California this summer, I took an old schoolmate to the top-rated Vietnamese resto in San Jose, called Vung Tau. When I saw banh tam bi on the menu, I jumped on it. Nevermind that it was the best banh tam bi I’ve yet had, what I really appreciated about it was the expression on Greg’s face — I’d shown him something he’d never known about, made him really understand one small part of my life. That damn noodle paid me back for all the faith I’d shown in its deliciousness.
One of these days, when banh tam bi is even better known than that other ‘banh’, just remember that you always knew it was going to be a star. Oh banh tam bi, I would love you even if you weren’t crazy good. — Ed Weinberg
Banh Tam Bi To Chau @ 271 Nguyen Trai, Q1, HCMC
If you’re in the US: Vung Tau Restaurant @ 535 E Santa Clara St, San Jose, CA 95112 — vungtaurestaurant.com