I’m a hungry traveler, as you may know.
After a restless sleep on the overnight train, we finally pulled in to the Hue train station around 8 am.
We were only there for a night so, after settling in, we made our way right to the Imperial City, a walled enclosure within the citadel of Hue, Vietnam’s former capital. In 1789, Nguyễn Ánh proclaimed himself Emperor and ordered thousands of workers to construct the enclosed city and surrounding moat.
The space inside the walls was peaceful and almost eerily quiet compared to the bustling city outside. As we wandered, the light showers wore off and the afternoon got warmer – humid. We sat in one of the peaceful garden areas for a while, soaking up the ancient surroundings.
But soon, food called.
We started with a sampling of Hue’s famous “rice-cakes” – sticky rice flour creations stuffed or topped with various fillings, like shrimp, and dunked in delicious mystery sauces.
Craving more, we then wandered to a bustling place filled to the brim with locals and some other lucky travelers. The hustling server brought us plate after plate of a set menu, spouting off instructions on how to devour each dish, his forehead sparkling in sweat from the rush. One that stood out was a pork skewer cooked around lemongrass stalks which we wrapped with lettuce, a variety of veggies, and a bouquet of herbs before dunking into a peanutty sauce.
“Dip it, dip it, dip it!” the server yelled us as he brushed by our table.
After spoiling ourselves with some fancy happy hour cocktails, we scoped out a cheaper streetside spot where we met some friendly locals who gave Colby a beer and talked us into trying some mystery banana-wrapped food they bought off a street cart.
We had heard mixed thoughts on Hue – but the general vibe left me wanting a little more. It wasn’t especially pretty or unique – it just felt easy going (by Vietnam standards) and real. Besides the Imperial City, there didn’t seem to be a lot in terms of major sites but it seemed like a place you could get lost in, just chill, have a really fun night out, and of course stuff your face.
The next day we hopped on another train and headed a few hours south to Hoi An – a stark contrast to Hue. Our homestay was in the middle of “Vegetable Village” – a community garden area surrounded by fields of water buffalo and crops. It was right between the nearby beach and the old city – a picturesque riverfront town with quaint buildings in shades of yellow and lanterns strung over every alley.
Our first mission: banh mi. We had heard the legends about two place. Bahn Mi Phuong made famous by the late and great Anthony Bourdain and another, Bahn Mi Queen, which is a serious rival. Naturally, we ended up trying both.
It’s pretty hard to pick a clear winner – they both offered such different flavours. There was something about the sauce on Bahn Mi Queen’s though…
The specialty in Hoi An is cao lầu – a Japanese-inspired slow-cooked pork and noodle dish with noodles made from ash that comes from a special well in the region. Seriously. So, you can’t find these noodles anywhere else.
Our lovely AirBnb host gave us a list of awesome restaurant recommendations, ranging from holes in the wall to fine dining. Unfortunately, I either mixed up our first place or things have changed since she went because our first cao lầu experience was rather lackluster. Something was definitely missing.
Frustrated, I had to try again. Now, you can get cao lầu everywhere but we landed on a fancier place that employs youth in need. It was 3 times as expensive as the stuff you could get on the street, but alas. This was what the hype was about. Over the next few days we enjoyed some more delicious cao lầu in the standard $2-3 price range.
Topping off the culinary adventures in Hoi An was a cooking class with Green Bamboo Cooking School. After the amazing experience with Thai Secret Cooking School in Chiang Mai, my expectations were high. It did not disappoint. Each student was in charge of making one dish from an extensive menu, which had us all eating 10 dishes throughout the day. Once again, seeing the process that goes into all these foods was fascinating and showed how complex and extensive Vietnamese cuisine is.
If you’re ever in Hoi An, definitely check out Green Bamboo. Chef Van is a gem.
Saigon was a blur of motorcycles, food, and heat.
Seeing as it was Christmas Eve when we arrived and we were in Vietnam’s most international city, we treated ourselves to a little-too-large dinner at a popular Indian restaurant – Baba’s. We devoured butter chicken, lamb rogan josh, and all the fixings. Stuffed, we tried to walk it off and inevitably got caught up in the insanely packed walking street, club music and vendor blasting from every direction.
The next day we took a somber stroll through the war remnant’s museum. I’ve never been in a museum like that. Each floor told stories in great detail about the horrible suffering throughout the war – from civilians to foreign journalists who died while documenting the violence.
Afterward, we wandered through the blistering streets before hitting a famous bahn mi place where locals were lined up out the door. Once we got inside we saw the assembly line of meats stacked high, piles of baguettes, and spreads as far as the eye could see. In a matter of seconds, we had two huge sandwiches in our hand, which we brought outside to devour. 6 different varieties of pork (I think?) stuffed in a crispy baguette. Enough said.
We crawled our way back to the hotel for a few hours to prepare ourselves (and hopefully work up another appetite) for what was about to come.
There wasn’t a turkey in sight, but it was a Christmas dinner to remember.
We booked a street food tour with Saigon Adventure and started the night hopping on the back of two young ladies’ scooters. They whisked us away through the rushing river of bikes to hidden (and not so hidden) gems spread throughout the city. In the end, we devoured a total of 6 different courses. There were pork and noodle bowls, fried shrimp pancake, beef noodle soup, clams and mussels, and more.
If that isn’t the best way to see Saigon, I don’t know what is. The girls were knowledgeable, hilarious, and passionate about sharing a little of their awesome city.
On our last day and a half we enjoyed lunch at the another street food place visited by Bourdain, simply known as The Lunch Lady. We also tapped into the booming craft beer scene and scored happy hour drinks at one of the city’s hottest bars – Chill Skybar – and treated ourselves to dinner at the very trendy Propaganda Bistro.
Vietnam’s one of those places that leaves you hungry for more before you even leave. It’s a commonly held opinion among visitors, from those as seasoned as Obama and Bourdain, to newbie backpackers just getting their first taste. As I sat dreary-eyed in the back of a Grab cab to the airport at 2 am, I was already fantasizing about a return.
The good news is there’s always more to taste, more to see, more to learn.
So stay hungry.