Eating in Vietnam: a food diary

Bun cha breakfast and spring rolls (from 27 Dao Duy Tu)

Last fall when Jasmine and I began talking about a potential Vietnam trip, I started getting excited about all the food we would eat. A big inspiration for the trip was the caving trek, but as long as I could get in a few bowls of bun cha and pho, I was down. In seven days, we did our best to sample as many dishes as we could. Here goes!
Egg coffee from Cafe Giang, the place it was purportedly invented 

It's no secret that I'm not a coffee drinker, but I'm always game to try anything when traveling, including the intriguing-sounding "egg coffee" that graces many of Hanoi's cafes. It was just the perfect drink for me, as the creaminess/custard quality of the egg masked the bitter taste of coffee beans. If you're a coffee purist, you might scoff at this creation, but it certainly provided a nice buzz of energy nonetheless. As the story goes, egg coffee came about in Hanoi during the mid-20th century when milk was scarce and egg provided a creamier (and tastier, if you ask me) alternative. It's stuck around and you can find many egg coffee cafes in Hanoi. It comes in an espresso size cup which is then placed in a slightly wider and more shallow cup filled with hot water to keep its temperature warm.

One dish of from our multi course dinner at Koto

Koto (Know One Teach One) is a social enterprise founded by a Vietnamese-Australian fellow whose aim is to empower at-risk and underprivileged youth by giving them useful training in hospitality so that they can improve their lives. We enjoyed a satisfying multi-course prix fixe meal from appetizers to dessert.

Drinks at Sofitel's Bamboo Bar, a beautiful colonial-style outdoor bar with wooden ceiling fans, dim lighting, and strong drinks

Lunch at State Run Food Shop 37 (ration tickets)

State Run Food Shop 37 models itself after the government-run restaurants during the austerity period beginning in 1976. You purchase ration coupons (as seen in the picture below) which go towards your meal. 
Clockwise from top: interior of the restaurant; the tables were made out of repurposed Singer sewing machines (!); the exterior of the restaurant 
Lunch: fried morning glory (our "birth" flower, haha), spring rolls, rice, etc.
 Beef pho and fried dough at Pho 10, a no frills, very efficient corner restaurant our Airbnb host recommend to us
Breakfast on deck on our Halong Bay cruise

We had some time to kill (before heading to the train station) after we got back to Hanoi, so we went to another place for egg coffee. Not quite as good as Cafe Giang, but still did the trick.

Next stop? Central Vietnam (Phong Nha National park area) where we spent the first night in Phong Nha town. The following day we started our two day cave trekking adventure (for more, read Jasmine's amazing account on her blog here). As we entered our first cave, it was impossible to miss the lunch spread that was laid out across a tarp. We rolled our own spring rolls, made banh mi, peeled tiny, sweet-as-can-be oranges and capped off our meal with Choco pie, a Vietnamese delicacy. ;)

Our clothes at the campsite 

At the end of the first day, we went for a quick dip in the ice cold waters at our campsite, and hung our muddy clothes to "dry" before the following day's trek. (Spoiler alert: one night in February is not nearly long (or warm) enough to render clothes dry.) We meandered around the camp site, set up our sleeping bags, and got ready for our group dinner. 


The Oxalis cooks were talented- whipping up everything from grilled meats cooked over open coals for dinner to homemade crêpes in the morning.
Video of cooking in action

Just a sampling of our amazing dinner cooked outside: homemade French fries, tofu topped with flavorful tomato sauce, rice, grilled eggplant, chicken, soup, steamed greens, delicious cabbage. They also gave us local "moonshine" aka rice wine that could knock your socks off. 

Guava with salt dip and jackfruit for dessert

Day two of trek: Breakfast consisted of fresh crêpes with lime, sugar, & banana, piping hot noodles, assorted tropical fruit, and hot ginger tea before we embarked on the more challenging trek of the two days 

A digression from the food: on day two of our trek, we awoke in our tents and set out putting on our clothes for the day. Since Jasmine and I were paranoid about leeches (from the group we met at our homestay two nights before), so  I decided to reach my hands into my muddy boots before putting them on in case there were any leftover from the previous day's muddy trek. I felt something rubbery and immediately pulled my hand out only to see a huge spider in my boot. I screamed and tossed the shoe a good 10 feet. Bao, our guide, came over and was able to knock the spider out of my boot, while remarking, "Oh yeah, that's definitely poisonous." What a fright. 
The day two trek was an experience from start to finish and it was the the perfect blend of adventure, unknowns, and challenges without seeming impossible. By the end of the second day, we were exhausted but felt like we'd accomplished so much. Back at base camp, we showered off two days worth of caked-on mud (quite possibly one of the best showers of my life) and packed up our stuff before the Oxalis van took us down the dirt road to a local family's home for one final meal as a group. We cracked open cans of refreshing cold Coke as we slurped on mi quang, a savory soup of thick noodles, tomatoes, tofu, crushed peanuts, herbs, limes, and chili. According to Bao, our jack-of-all-trades trek leader, the dish is originally from Hoi An but served in a smaller bowl there. 

(Aside: As delicious as the bowl pictured above was, it was quite likely the culprit of Jasmine's intense food poisoning which she had to endure over the course of our 10+ hr train ride back to Hanoi!!!)

A few other memorable food experiences with sadly either no pictures or address (or either):

  • Milky tea outside a random cafe in Hanoi
  • Gin and tonic on the terrace outside Tadioto, a cute bar in Hanoi
  • Beer corner (Bia corner) in Hanoi for more G and Ts
  • Delicious beef noodle soup at an makeshift place on the sidewalk near Beer Corner. No sooner than I could finish the bowl did the cops shut down the place and make the owner dismantle his impromptu "restaurant"
  • Sidewalk Banh mi at an inconspicuous food cart in Hanoi
  • Delicious strawberry smoothie across the street from said unmarked banh mi shop
  • Vietnamese coffee at Kafe village 
  • Drinks at Avalon BBQ rooftop over Hoang Kiem Lake (drinks are nothing to write home about but the view is quite pleasant)
  • Happy hour (buy one, get one free wine) during our Valentine's Day Halong Bay cruise with 60-something Europeans
  • Banana peanut butter smoothie at Bamboo Cafe in downtown Phong Nha
  • White wine in front of river at our Oxalis guesthouse in Phong Nha (not memorable but it was locally made, from Dalat)
  • Tasty BBQ dinner at Oxalis guesthouse's Expedition Cafe

A few random, non-food observations:

The address plates in Hanoi were identical to those in Paris, a random remnant of colonization? 
Constant smog and haze blanketed Hanoi's skies so that we never saw a clear day
Motorbike drivers carried the randomest of items including extremely bulky, full-size trees
Little stools are the way to go for sidewalk eating- great for a short person like me!

And finally- many streets in Hanoi are  dedicated to selling solely one item, i.e. Mirror Street (pictured above), Sunglass Street, etc.

What an adventure. Vietnam, I hope to return!


Flavio al Velavevodetto in Rome

Flavio al Velavevodetto is an experience from start to finish. The restaurant is located in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood, which was just across the river from where were staying, and the setting is beautiful. If you're dining there in the summer, I recommend the patio which is surrounded by flowers. Each of the pasta dishes we had was superb including the summery tomato one above. You won't regret their take on cacio e pepe as well.
We wanted to try a Lazio wine and the lore of "Est! Est! Est!" always intrigued me, but we were a little disappointed in the one above. The first bottle tasted corked and the servers agreed, but the second bottle wasn't much better. I'd heard that service here could be hit or miss and while some of the people were a bit stuffy, we had an enjoyable dinner. Reservations are essential so call ahead.