Quick Guide To Central Vietnamese Cuisine
Central Vietnamese cuisine is usually defined by Hue Imperial food and a few popular dishes from the pretty World Heritage-listed town of Hoi An.
But there’s so much more to discover food-wise in central Vietnam, a region that stretches from the beachy resort town of Nha Trang in the south to the former Imperial capital of Hue in the north.
Our traveling trio spent a few weeks researching central Vietnamese street food, going from Hoi Chi Minh City to Hue, stopping at Quy Nhon (a less touristy seaside town that’s near Nha Trang), Phu Yen and Hoi An.
Here’s a quick overview of what we discovered.
A range of tasty street food options are available in Quy Nhon’s “eating street”, Ngo Van So.
Our top pick was the mini bánh xèo, served with rice paper, a dish of cucumber, sprouts and herbs and a warm sesame dipping sauce.
Quy Nhon also does a great peppery bánh canh cá (fish cake soup with tapioca noodles), which is available at many stalls along Ngo Van So Street.
A cheap and cheerful eating option in central Vietnam is cơm bình dân, which translates as “popular rice”. In the same manner as Singapore’s economical rice hawker stalls, cơm bình dân has a range of dishes on display.
Com Sau Thu (121 Tran Cao Van Street) was recommended to us by our hotel in Quy Nhon as the best cơm bình dân place in town. It was so good we went there twice!
Darling Man was in charge of ordering and he did it the Vietnamese way, so we ended up with meat and vegetable dishes, side dishes (including a fermented fish gut dipping sauce) and soup.
Bún rạm is one of the local specialties of Quy Nhon, a crab noodle soup that’s usually eaten for breakfast. We tried a bowl of bún rạm and a bowl of the other local specialty, bún tôm, at a tiny shop at 120 Vu Bao in Quy Nhon.
(The bún rạm was much much tastier than the bún tôm, which was improved slightly with a spoonful of fermented fish paste.)
In Phu Yen we stayed in a government-owned one-star hotel, mainly to see what it would be like. Rather than the Stalinist severity I was expecting, Cong Doan Hotel was actually quite nice and was right across the road from the beach. The staff were as sullen as bored public servants get anywhere in the world, but for about US$15 a night we weren’t too bothered.
Here’s what the free breakfast at a Vietnamese one-star hotel looks like (not too shabby, eh?)
Phu Yen, like many places along Vietnam’s 3,444 km of coastline, is famous for its seafood. And in central Vietnam, the seafood is BIG. Don’t be afraid, try some giant seafood when you’re in central Vietnam. You should get something that looks like this.
Hoi An’s most popular dishes are the Chinese-influenced white rose dumpling and the world-famous cao lau noodle soup that is thought to be descended from the soba noodles adored by Japanese traders who used to stop in this busy port town centuries ago.
These dishes appear on the menu of just about every restaurant in town. But Darling Man and I wanted to try the authentic street versions of these dishes.
We found a great version of cao lầu in Hoi An’s central market at a stall called Ba Be Cao Lầu.
We found another little place, Thanh Cao Lầu, at 26 Thai Phien, that was also very good.
But as good as the cao lầu was, my favourite central Vietnamese dish remains mì Quảng, named after the province of Quang Nam that it originated from. (And Hoi An is in Quang Nam province).
We were given some Hoi An food tips from Lara from Grantourisimo and the best tip turned out to be Quan Hai at 6A Truong Minh. Quang Hai is owned by a Mr Hai, whose best mate, a former policeman also called Mr Hai, is the head chef.
Between them, the two Hais have developed the best mì Quảng I have ever tasted. So good I ended up eating two bowls in one sitting!
I managed to drag myself away from Quan Hai long enough to try a range of other Hoi An specialties, including the Hoi An fried wonton (hoành thánh chiên) that is topped by a very Mexican-style salsa.
For Miss M, who still hasn’t outgrown her dislike of anything spicy even though she’s nearly four, we tracked down a Hoi An chicken rice (cơm gà Hội An) stall that was rated highly by the locals. Darling Man thought this dish was great, I found the chicken a bit too tough for my Western sensibilities.
During my Taste of Hoi An tour, I discovered (among other things) a great little dessert called xí mà, a sweet paste made out of black sesame seeds.
Hoi An’s internationally-famous Banh Mi Phuong (2 Phan Chau Trinh Street) is also worth trying. The little stall’s offerings are internationally famous because they were described by Anthony Bourdain as “a symphony in a sandwich” on one of the episodes of his No Reservations TV show. They are pretty darn good. Try one with a Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with milk)!
Imperial Hue cuisine is one of the most talked-about cuisines in Vietnam. There are Imperial Hue cuisine restaurants in just about every town and city in Vietnam. This type of cuisine is known for its beautiful presentation and small dishes.
Hue Imperial cuisine originates from reign of Emperor Tu Duc, who ruled from 1848 to 1883. Tu Duc was a royal foodie who demanded to be served 50 dishes at every meal.
We decided to get an authentic experience as possible, trying Imperial cuisine in its hometown of Hue, prepared by a descendant of the royal court, Madam Ton Nu Ha, owner of Tinh Gia Vien (Garden of Tranquility) restaurant.
We arrived well after the lunchtime crowd had left and ordered an expensive royal feast. The food was visually impressive – stunning even – but it tasted only OK.
Funnily enough, Tinh Gia Vien’s website says Imperial cuisine looks better than it tastes.
Having said that, I’d recommend a visit to this restaurant, pricey as it is (compared to the cost of our normal street food meals). The villa and the grounds are beautiful, the food looks spectacular and there’s something quite special about eating like an emperor.
* Tinh Gia Vien is a little hard to find. The address is 7K/28 Le Thanh Ton Street, Hue. It’s down a little alley in a street where the numbers don’t appear to be in order. Just keep asking for Tinh Gia Vien (or show people a piece of paper with the name of the restaurant on it) and you should eventually get there.
Our first meal in Hue was bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef noodle soup). Carrying and cajoling Miss M, we walked blocks and blocks and blocks in the mid-morning heat (Hue is considered one of the hottest places in Vietnam) to find a restaurant Darling Man remembered from a visit 10 years before.
We finally found the place and ordered a normal bowl of bún bò Huế for Darling Man and a no beef bún bò Huế for me. I thought mine was great but Darling Man was disappointed, saying the dish wasn’t as good as he remembered it. He said last time he was there, there was more beef and no crab balls in the soup.
To my great delight, I discovered one of my favourite dishes, bun thit nuong, is also a specialty of Hue. Darling Man organised a catch up with his Hue cousins at Bún Thịt Nướng Huyền Anh at 51 Kim Long Street. (Darling Man’s mother is from Hue, so there are many Hue aunts, uncles and cousins.)
Here, in this shed-like restaurant, I feel totally and utterly in love … again. This version of bún thịt nướng didn’t come with the usual nuoc cham dressing. Instead a dish of warm peanut sauce was served alongside the bowl of cold noodles and barbecued pork. Oh. My. God. I think I drank the sauce and then asked for another bowl.
The last Hue specialty we tried was the city’s range of bite-sized dishes, which I believe must be closely related to Imperial cuisine.
Bánh bèo is a simple dish, a little rice flour pancake topped with chopped prawn, ground dried prawn and a square of fried pork fat, a garnish I call the Vietnamese crouton.
Each bánh bèo is served in its own tiny dish and you can pour some dipping sauce on top and just suck a serve out of its dish or you can be slightly classier and scoop a serve out with a spoon. The beauty of this dish is the different tastes and textures in each bite – the silky softness of the pancake, the salty tang of the ground prawn, the crunch of the pork fat and the sweetness of the dipping sauce. This dish is served by the dozen because it’s just not possible to only eat one.
Another mouthful-sized Hue dish, ram ít is also delicious because of the different textures experienced in each bite. Each serve of ram ít contains a tiny prawn encased in crunchy batter, topped with a soft rice pancake and a sprinkle of ground prawn.
Bánh khoái is a fried stuffed pancake related to the southern Vietnamese version of banh xeo. It comes with a range of side dishes, including slices of tart Hue guava, lettuce, herbs and a tangy nuoc cham-like dipping sauce.
I had a bit of trouble working out how to eat this dish, as there wasn’t enough lettuce leaves to make rolls. I ended up copying Darling Man’s method of combining two or three tastes per chopstick of food.
Hue-style chả tôm is a prawn version of the fish cake that’s the key ingredient in bún chả cá (mentioned in the Quy Nhon section). It’s a tasty snack with the consistency of Thai fish cakes but with a much milder prawnier flavour. This one was a hit with Miss M.
* Try bánh bèo, ram ít, bánh khoái and chả tôm at Quan Tranh, 232 Chi Lăng, Phường Phú Hậu, Huế
There are many more fabulous dishes to try in Central Vietnam. I hope this list gives you a starting point and encourages you to get off the tourist trail and into the back streets where the best food in Vietnam is found.
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