Where’s the Pho? A True Vietnamese Home-cooked Meal

As shameful as it is to admit, I have to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time on Quora (especially when I know I have very important things to do, because that’s just how a procrastinator is). I once stumbled upon this question, which I found equal parts amusing and bemusing: “My Vietnamese girlfriend can’t cook Pho. Does that mean that she’s not good at cooking?”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Phở is the most famous Vietnamese food on Earth. Another truth is that Vietnamese restaurants have popped up in every corner around the world (thanks a lot, globalization!). The consequence of that, however, is that those restaurants, and the reputation of Pho, paints a very misleading picture about what Vietnamese people actually eat at home.

Source: sbs.com

The stuff that you see on the menu at a Vietnamese restaurant, all the Pho and Pho cuon and Bun cha and Banh xeo – those are the food that we Vietnamese have when we eat out. Not everyone knows how to cook Pho, because a perfect bowl of Pho is like art. It’s something that you perfect over time, most often through generations, and it takes an immense amount of effort.

So what do Vietnamese people cook at home?

Vietnamese culture puts a heavy emphasis on balance and harmony, and that is evident in how we eat. That balance and harmony is present in the spices we use, the ingredients we pick out, the flavours of each dish. It is also present in the elements of a meal.

A complete meal should have five elements: rice, one or two savoury dishes (from meat, seafood, tofu, etc.), one vegetable dish, soup and the sauce (often fish sauce mixed with lime juice and chilly). Everything is placed at the centre of the table and is shared by everyone. Of course, people don’t have enough time and effort every day to ensure there are five dishes on the table all the time, but we at least want to make sure we are consuming rice, meat and veggies in one meal.

Source: Pinterest

The rice we use are often white rice, and the most popular types are either Vietnamese-grown rice, or Thai jasmine rice. Modern knowledge about health and carbs have steered many people towards alternatives such as brown rice or black rice if they can afford it.

As for savoury dishes, the main meats that we use are chicken, pork and beef. Seafood (clams, shellfish, fishes, etc.) and river fishes are abundant and affordable. Tofu is not a vegetarian-only sort of food (as it is often regarded in the West) but just another type of protein. We Vietnamese boil, steam, stir-fry, deep-fry, stew, braise and do just about everything under the sun to our meat. A typical dinner table probably has about two or three different cooking methods going on.

Vegetables and root plants are integral parts of Vietnamese cuisine. It started out that meat was a luxury in Vietnam, a luxury that most people couldn’t afford. Vegetables, meanwhile, was plentiful and readily available. Even now, as Vietnam is on the track of developing, vegetables and root plants remain integral elements to our meals. They balance the fat and heaviness of meat, they are a great source of vitamins and fibre, and they are healthy, so what’s not to love?

The concept of soup in Vietnamese cuisine is quite different from what you normally imagine to be soup. For us, soup in everyday meal is more of a broth with vegetables and meat, or the water from boiled vegetables. Ever tried boiled water spinach soup with tomato and a squeeze of lime? You are missing out!

Source: Blog Sinh Vien Nau An

Then last but certainly not least, is the sauce. Or to be more precise, it’s dipping sauce (nước chấm). The central element to Vietnamese dipping sauce is fish sauce, mixed with a few cut of chillies, a bit of lemon juice and a few drops of water. Depending on the dish, you can also add sugar, pepper, garlic, vinegar, etc. The sauce is an irreplaceable part of a Vietnamese meal; in many cases, it is what makes or breaks a meal!

So you see, what Vietnamese eat at home and what are sold in Vietnamese restaurants are very different things. If you have the chance to try a home-cooked meal, take it. I am sure you will not be disappointed.

Ever Heard “Wanna Go Grab a Coffee?” the Vietnamese Way?

I remembered the bewilderment I felt, during the first few months of my stay in the Netherlands, when a Dutch friend revealed to me that going to a café was very different from going to a coffee shop. A café is that place we all know, where you can enjoy a good latte (sometimes not so good) and relax in a comfy sofa. A coffee shop for the Dutch is something else entirely – it’s where you buy weed.

For some reason, that reminds me of the coffee culture in Vietnam. Wanna go grab a coffee?” (“Đi cà phê không?”) is almost like a catching phrase for us Vietnamese, but I can count on one hand the number of times I actually order a coffee when I go out with my friends. We say it so often, whenever we meet someone new, or want to catch up with our friends, or to woo that cute guy we have been staring across the classroom for some times now.

But “go grab a coffee” is not really about the coffee itself (never mind the fact that we have one of the best coffee in the world). No, it’s an excuse. It’s something used by Vietnamese when they want to have a chat that would last a few hours, jumping from one place to another. When I go to a café with my friends, I rarely order a coffee – I’m not a big fan of that bitter and dark liquid that so many people swear by.

Does it matter? The coffee is not the point

Source: Wanderlust Tips

Vietnam as a nation is obsessed with coffee. We farm the beans, we ground them, we invent our own ways of drinking coffee. When I go out in the Netherlands, I’m always greeted with the same menu selections – Espresso, Latte, Cappuccino, Macchiato. Times like that, I miss my country’s wide array of coffee. Dark, brown, iced, or Egg Coffee, Yogurt Coffee, Coconut Coffee. Vietnamese people’s creativity with food is endless, and it is reflected in the way we drink coffee, and our numerous variations of it.

You can also say we are obsessed with coffee in the sense that we are perpetually out at a café every other day (or every day, for some people). The past few years have witnessed the bloom of milk tea establishments all over the country. The street near my house now has more than ten milk tea places. However, cafés still maintain their unique standing in the Vietnamese culture. More pop up every day, with unique designs and interesting drinks menu. People go to café for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and through the night.

What do we do there, you wonder? It’s not always about enjoying a good cup of coffee. We’re catching up with our friends, we’re sharing cute cat pictures, we’re working on the next big report.

“Wanna go grab a coffee?” is about quality time with friends and pouring our hearts out over some issues. Who knew that dark, bitter liquid has such power?

Source: Vietname Coffee Shops

So the next time a Vietnamese friend of yours ask you “Wanna go grab a coffee?”, think about the implications behind those simple words. Think about the fact that us Vietnamese tend to be rather round-about and we revel in lacing our true intentions between innocent invitations. Don’t think about how you detest coffee, because you can get anything else in the world aside from coffee, and think about how much you will enjoy your time together with your friend.

Looking for recommendations? If you’re in Hanoi, head over to Hoan Kiem Lake. On Dinh Tien Hoang street, on the second floor of a bag shop, there’s this little nest called Dinh which has the most heavenly egg coffee and a fantastic view of the lake. It’s a perfect blend of old Hanoi charm, good drinks and a chill environment.

Banh Canh Ghe – A Southern Symphony of Flavors

Often times, I’m something of a food snob – terribly exacting in the taste of my food and having high requirements for whatever I eat. I’m also a bit of a typical Hanoian in the sense that I often turn away from Southern food, criticizing it as too sweet, or too sour, or the broth not clear enough.

 During my last trip to Saigon, I was pleasantly surprised. I had one of the best noodle soups in my life, with the most amazing broth ever, at a little shop in the heart of Saigon. It was crab noodles (Banh Canh Ghe) – a delicacy of the South that had slowly migrated to the North in recent years.

 Regarding its origin, much has been debated about where Banh Canh Ghe comes from. Some say it’s from the South West provinces (or more specifically Kien Giang), other say it is the seaside provinces like Vung Tau and Phan Thiet that have created this delicacy. No matter its origin is, though, it is well-known that Banh Canh Ghe is now one of the most enjoyed noodle soups in Saigon.

 Appearance-wise, Banh Canh Ghe bears a close resemblance with Laksa noodle in Singapore. Both have that same reddish hue, thick broth and spicy taste. Having never tasted Laksa, I cannot give any comment on its taste. However, I can say that when it comes to Banh Canh Ghe, the noodle soup was a perfect blend of sweet, hearty and spicy broth, with specially-made noodles (three or four times bigger than the noodles you normally see) and a whole crab for you to finish it off. There are other garnishes to go with the soup, like crab cake, veggies and fresh herbs. Some places will also add prawns and other seafood, a slice of blood pudding or a whole egg.

 To me, this dish embodies the philosophy of Vietnamese cooking – that of seeking the perfect harmony between different flavors and spices. Here’s a dish that’s not seeking to blow your taste bud away, nor have you in tears as you eat. It’s spicy, to be sure, but it is the kind of spiciness that does not overwhelm other flavors. It enhances the richness of the crab. It circles each strand of noodle in a loving embrace. It leaves behind a slight reminder of the spice you just taste, making you hungry for more.

 One Google search of “Banh Canh Ghe Saigon” can give you numerous results. Not every restaurant will blow you away, but these 5 are guaranteed to satisfy even the harshest critics.

1. Banh Canh Ghe Ba Sach:

Address: 66 Hoa Cuc street, Phu Nhuan district.

Price: 30.000 – 70.000 VND

Opening hours: 10:00 – 22:00

2. Banh Canh Ghe Bay Lien:

Address: 778F Nguyen Kiem street, Go Vap district

Price: 50.000 – 77.000

Opening hours: 10:00 – 22:00

3. Banh Canh Ghe Cau Bong:

Address: 2 Dinh Tien Hoang Street, district 1

Price: 55.000 – 110.000

Opening hours: 15:00 – 22:30

4. Banh Canh Ghe 505:

Address: 505 Su Van Hanh street, district 10

Price: 50.000 – 100.000

Opening hours: 11:00 – 22:30

5. Banh Canh Ghe Muoi Ot Xanh:

Address: 484 Nguyen Tri Phuong street, district 10

Price: 45.000 – 75.000

Opening hours: 11:00 – 22:00

>>>Read more on Which Food in Ho Chi Minh City Should You Try.

Phu Quoc – The Black Pearl of South Vietnam

How many places in the world can you watch the sunrise and sunset in the same spot?

The answer is not many. The popular (and perhaps much commercialized choice) would be Kanyakumari beach, located in the southern-most part of mainland India. Here, two seas and one ocean meet, creating a point of great geographical significance.

But did you know that there’s also a place in Vietnam where you can enjoy such spectacular view?

Ông Đội point
Source: Sun Group

That’s right! It’s situated in Phú Quốc island in Southern Vietnam, at Ông Đội Point. Only 45 minutes by plane from Hồ Chí Minh City and 2 hours and 10 minutes from Hà Nội, Phú Quốc has quickly evolved from a relatively unknown and often overlooked island to one of the most popular holiday destinations in Vietnam. Yet, despite the flocks of tourists and the many luxurious resorts built over the past few years, the island still retains its original charm and natural beauty.

Phú Quốc was first discovered in the 17th century by a Chinese family from Guangzhou, who later pledged loyalty to the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam. It is the biggest island of Vietnam, boasting its own fresh water source and diverse terrains – including mountains, tropical jungles, pristine beaches, lagoons and barrier reefs.

Ông Đội point, where you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset in the same spot, is only one in the many fantastical scenery Phú Quốc has to offer. So what else can you do when you’re here?

1. Visit pepper farms and fish sauce factory:

The island is most famous for its peppers and fish sauce. Trust me, both of these are out of this world.

Phú Quốc pepper farm
Source: thegioihoinhap.vn

You can select tours that will take you to pepper farms, where you’ll learn everything you need to know about pepper trees and just about every type of peppers that has ever existed in this world. There are black peppers, grey peppers, white peppers and green peppers, to name a few. Phú Quốc peppers have forever ruined me from enjoying peppers at anywhere else.

Source: bookingphuquoc.com

Often included in these tours are there visits to traditional warehouses where the islanders make and store fish sauce in large barrels. You’ll get to drink fish sauce straight from the tap and learn the process of making fish sauce from the masters themselves. Fish sauce is the nectar of the gods and these islanders have perfected the art of creating it.

2. Enjoy amazing seafood at Dinh Cậu Night Market:
Source: Hanoi Tours

It’s not Vietnam if there’s no night market at some point. I have been to many night markets in different cities in Vietnam, from those high up in the mountains, or nestled in the midst of bustling metropolises, to those situated in charming seaside towns; however, none has yet to surpass the one I visited in Phú Quốc (with perhaps the exception of Đà Lạt, but that’s another story altogether.)

Located in the heart of Dương Đông Town on Võ Thị Sáu Street, Dinh Cậu Market only operates from 19h00 to 23h00. It is easily accessible and the best part is that you don’t have to remember the address or trying (hopelessly) to look it up on Google map. Just tell the taxi driver where you want to go and you’ll be there in the blink of an eye.

Now, if you’re a seafood fanatic like I am, then this will be a heaven for you. The stalls at this market boast a range of every imaginable seafood, from fishes, prawns, lobsters, crabs, to exotic looking creatures that might look dubious at first glance but will be sure to blow your mind. Everything is made fresh and perfectly seasoned. Grab a table, enjoy the food and have a few beers to go with it – you know you deserve it 😉

3. Swim on some of the best beaches in the world:

Okay, I digress – I might be a tad biased when it comes to this, but it certainly feels like some of the best beaches in the world to me. The good thing about Phú Quốc is that since it is a huge island, it has not only one but several beaches that you can visit, all unique in their own ways.

source: dulich24

Located 25km away from Dương Đông Town is Bãi Sao Beach, arguably Phú Quốc’s best. It has pristine white sand that stretches on for miles in a half-moon curve, jaggy rock formation rising towards the sea and a myriad of activities like kayaking, surfing or diving.

If you prefer somewhere more quiet and less popular, you can head to Bãi Khem, nestled deep between the jungle of Phú Quốc. Here, you can visit a fishing village, sign up on a night trip to fish squid out in the sea or just enjoy a nice afternoon in the sun. Did I mention that Ông Đội point is right close by?

Another place you can consider for a visit is the beach on Hòn Móng Tay, a small island 14km away from Phú Quốc. It’s dubbed as the Maldives of Vietnam, only less commercialized and touristy. You can catch a canoe to this island from An Thới port in Phú Quốc.

So these are three of the things that you can do when you visit Phú Quốc. The island is easily accessible by plane from Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh city, as well as by ferry from Kiên Giang province. Phú Quốc is also only less than two hours away from Singapore, Bangkok and other Southeast Asian cities, making it a perfect location for either a long weekends, or a short holidays.

It is well-worth a visit, so what are you waiting for?