Eating in VIETNAM with KIDS
Updated: May 6
One of the things we missed during lockdown life in Vietnam, was the food. The social distancing order that came into effect due to covid-19, meant that not only restaurants were closed, but there was also no take out or food delivery in the city of Danang for nearly 3 weeks. Finally, as of April 23rd, nationwide lockdown orders were downgraded. Life is far from normal, but as the food scene slowly re-emerges from its dormant state, there is hope and excitement in the days ahead.
Traveling through Asia, we've had our share of incredible food. Thai food was delicious even though many dishes were often too spicy for the kids. Eating in Japan was one of the highlights for Molly and Owen. And Korean food is still our go-to, when we crave for comfort and familiarity. But we have to say, Vietnamese food has now ranked among our top favourites.
What we love about eating in Vietnam is that food is usually separated into components. Perfect for kids who like to have options. Noodles, toppings, sauces, spices, greens. You get to customize your meal to your preference. The final taste is often complex, with all kinds of flavours simultaneously mingling in your mouth . Also, it's super cheap. Here are a few of our favorites.
This dish was made famous by an episode from Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown", where he and former President Barrack Obama unpretentiously dined at a local restaurant in Hanoi, and chatted over bun cha and beers. "Bun" is the vermicelli noodles that comes along side of the "cha", grilled pork meatballs submerged in a light, sweet and sour broth. Fresh greens accompanies this specialty, usually a mixture of lettuce, sprouts, and herbs. The idea is to dip your noodles, with some veggies and take a bite of one of those juicy pork morsels, all at the same time . Such a simple dish, yet so many flavours and textures all balanced to perfection. Surprisingly a big hit with our kids.
These savory pancakes are made of rice flour and a dash of turmeric, which gives it that golden yellow colour. Although it can be a touch on the greasy side, that crispy crunch makes this dish undeniably tasty. Dry rice sheets are used for wrapping, along with some greens, pickled veggies and homemade sauces for dipping. The kids weren't as thrilled with these Vietnamese crepes, but loved the pork skewers and sides.
This is the quintessential street food of Vietnam and an example of "east meets west" at its best. No two banh mi stands are the same, and finding your favourite one often takes giving a few vendors a try. The baguette may be the only familiar part of what one would expect from a traditional sandwich. The rest of the ingredients are a stretch from ordinary, with an endless array of toppings and sauces. Proteins can include pate, chicken, barbecue pork and thick, processed ham slices. Veggies such as pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber and fresh herbs like coriander, basil or mint are the usuals. Banh mi op la, with a freshly cooked egg, is a popular breakfast sandwich. Our family favorite is the grilled pork, banh mi thit nuong. Prices are as cheap as 15,000 to 25,000 vnd, under $1.50 cad.
Spring rolls - from fresh to fried, there is a huge variety in terms of outer textures and inner fillings. Yes, every asian country makes spring rolls, but I would argue that Vietnam has some of the finest. Always popular with our kids, and easy to eat with your hands.
Bánh cuốn - We tried this first in Hanoi and loved it. A very simple Northern Vietnamese dish of minced pork and wood ear mushrooms delicately encased in thin, steamed rice sheets. Usually topped with crispy onions and dipped in sweetened fish sauce, or nuoc cham.
Phở Cuốn - Our kids preferred these delicious rolls over banh cuon. Similar soft rice sheets, essentially uncut pho noodles, rolled up with a filling of beef and greens. Ideally dunked in nuoc cham prior to devourment.
For all the noodle lovers out there like myself, it doesn't get much better than Vietnam to serve you the very best. Yes, there is the famous phở that everyone has come to know and love. However, pho has taken a backseat recently and our current favorites are mi quang, cao lau and bun bo hue. The best places, are often the unassuming hole-in-the-wall local establishments. Don't let the humble exterior fool you. If you see a bunch of folks sitting on child-sized, plastic stools slurping away their noodles with loud satisfaction, it is a good sign that you won't be disappointed eating there. Prices usually range from 30,000 vnd - to 45,000 vnd ( approx $2-3 CAD)
Mì Quảng is a specialty originating from Central Vietnam, and a very popular dish in Danang. The broad, rice noodles are not meant to be swimming in soup. Rather, there is just enough turmeric-tinted broth to lightly coat the noodles with mouthwatering flavour. Usually comes with a protein, like chicken, beef or fish, and a pile of herbs on the side. Toppings can include roasted peanuts, a boiled egg, and a crunchy wedge of sesame rice cracker.
Cao lầu - If there is just ONE bowl of noodles to try in Vietnam, it is cao lầu. It is a Hoi An specialty that has become MY ALL TIME FAVOURITE as well as the kids. This dish is all about the noodles. They are slightly denser, and have a distinctly delicious chewy texture that isn't quite as light and slippery for slurping like mi quang or pho. Served with tender, marinated pork slices, fresh herbs, and topped with crispy rice croutons.
Bún bò Huế - This may look like just another bowl of noodles, but the lemongrass infused broth is what really stands out from this dish. Add a little squirt of lime and a dash of chilli sauce, and it takes this beef noodle soup to another level.
GRILLED LEMONGRASS PORK SKEWERS
The tourist town of Ninh Binh was hit and miss when it came to eating out, mainly because most restaurants were primarily catering to suit western palates. Authentic Vietnamese food was surprisingly lacking in and around Tam Coc, where we were staying. HOWEVER, we did have the BEST lemongrass pork skewers at a family-run, roadside restaurant. They were juicy, tender and full of spices and flavour. Sadly, we've not had them as good since.
Chè - These popular desserts are found everywhere on the streets of Vietnam. Among the most common ingredients are mung bean, grass jelly, fruit and coconut milk. Our family favorite was "chè trôi nước", warm, glutinous rice balls with a black sesame filling, immersed in a light, gingery syrup and coconut milk. Not too sweet, with all the flavours and textures you wouldn't expect from a dessert, but even the kids enjoyed it. Prices range from 10,000 vnd to 30,000 vnd, up to $ 2 CAD.
It may come to a surprise to some, but as a former french colony, coffee is a huge part of the Vietnamese culture. It just so happens that Vietnam is one of the world's biggest exporters of coffee beans. You don't need to go far to find a cafe; they are everywhere. Here are two specialties that we love:
Coconut coffee - (Cà phê Cốt Dừa) Made with coconut milk, the flavour is quite subtle and smooth. We enjoy the iced version, which is basically fresh, coconut ice cream mixed with coffee. Such a refreshing treat on a hot, humid day.
Egg coffee (cà phê trứng) is rich, sweet, and more like a decadent dessert than a drink. It's all about that silky layer of foam on top of a shot of expresso, whipped up from egg, milk and sugar. It is divine.
Sugar Cane juice - Nước mía found all over the streets, for 8,000 vnd to 10,000 vnd/ .50-.75 cents CAD. The kids love drinking it as much as watching the stalks get compressed down to nothing but fibrous waste.
We may be stuck in Vietnam, but the fact that we are able to eat local food again gives us a sense that we are still traveling. We are still discovering something new and different through our taste buds!