Pho may be the country's best-known dish but the range of culinary attractions in Vietnam extends far beyond the humble noodle dish. In this Gourmet Bulletin we round up some of Vietnam's Most Memorable Dining Experiences from Hanoi, Da Nang and Saigon.
the gourmet bulletin
Address: 13 Lo Duc Street Hai Ba Trung Hanoi
Pho Thin is a Hanoian institution that serves just one dish - northern style pho with traditional condiments. A favourite dining haunt of many locals, the crowd starts to pack into its crammed dining space from the early hours of breakfast till closing time at 9pm daily. There is scantly any dining decorum here - just get in, sit down and order what you will, which usually consists of beef pho with a generous serving of herbs (scallions and coriander), poached eggs and fried curlers or quay in Vietnamese on the side. Condiments like sliced chilly and lime wedges are also indispensable when tucking into this hearty dish. True to its Hanoian roots, the broth is light and aromatic with beef slivers that are slightly stringy but flavoursome. While the bland broth may not be everyone's idea of the perfect stock, it is clear from the shop's immense popularity that this is how the locals prefer their pho. In cooler times from fall till spring a sitting here is still pleasant despite how crammed it can get. In summer the heat from both the soup and the weather might become a little bit too intense. Still, when in Hanoi, one must head to time-honoured establishments like Pho Thin for that foundational baptism in the culinary culture of this enigmatic old nation.
Quan An Ngon
Address: 18 Phan Boi Chau Hoan Kiem District Hanoi
Vietnam is a long country with very distinct regional flavours that delineate its northern, central and southern regions. As such, a reputable restaurant like Quan An Ngon conveniently assembles all its classical flavours into an extensive menu that has catered to the varied palates of both locals and tourists alike since 2005. In its menu are perennial classics like fresh and deep fried spring rolls, Hanoian staples like Bun Cha (grilled meatballs) and Cha Ca Ha Noi (fried fish with dill), and southern favourites like Banh Xeo (yellow pancakes) and com tam (broken rice). There are actually plenty more options to choose from like various hotpots, roasted pigeons and fowls and fresh seafood and fish cooked multiple ways. The restaurant at 18 Phan Boi Chau within the old quarters in Hanoi is richly decorated and cavernous, with a large alfresco garden themed dining space and an air-conditioned dining hall.
When the minders at Capella Hanoi announced that there won't be any all-day restaurant at the stunning property they really do mean it. So while Backstage fulfills its morning role as the breakfast joint (a very good one to boot, with the best Sunday brunch in town), at lunch and dinner it morphs into the capital city's most promising modern Vietnamese fine-diner where its capable chefs creatively update Vietnamese classics into inspired gourmet renditions more attuned to the fine palates of the bashful starlets coursing in and out of Backstage. Flamboyant metaphors aside, under the masterful tutelage of Vietnamese masterchef Anh Tuyet herself, the chefs here have creatively elevated Vietnamese staples such as green mango salad and spring rolls with premium ingredients like Hokkaido scallops and Sapa trout respectively. Vietnamese ingredients like Mac Khen or green pepper are also infused into old classics like roasted French Bresse chicken to stupendously delicious success. A sitting at Backstage certainly wasn't designed to offer an initiation into Vietnamese fares, but a culinary discourse on its continued evolution.
The Hudson Rooms
Another enticing gourmet establishment at Capella Hanoi is The Hudson Rooms, a culinary enclave that borrows heavily from the New York scene, from its bright and earthy rooftop bar vibes to its Fulton Fish Market Brunch concept. This is an experimental spot where Fine de Claires are washed down with Macallan from the shell, with succinct notes to take with each mollusk and malt pairing. This is also a cloistered spot for a romantic tryst over crab cakes and tenderloin, one of few establishments in Hanoi that isn't generally boisterous and uncomfortably crowded. And let it be said that not all the rooms here are accessible to all and sundry. At the risk of sounding unfashionably cryptic, seek out the key master to gain coveted access to the portal where the old spirits be.
Hoi An Street Dining
Hoi An in central Vietnam is an UNESCO Heritage listed town with a charming architectural façade and cultural milieu that is still drawing a throng of visitors today. This sobering fact isn't a positive evolution for a small town straddling a delicate balance between old ways and new life, but fortunately even with the commercial boom, many of Hoi An's old markets and street food scenes are still alive and well. From its erstwhile maritime trade the culinary developments of Hoi An has been heavily influenced by regional flavours, and today some of its most popular traditional fares are dishes with foreign roots. The White Rose is one such dish, a savoury fish dumpling that purportedly came from Southern China via the 'Hoa' (ethnically Chinese) people who'd settled in Vietnam. Com Gai is purportedly also an imported classics, Vietnam's own version of the region's famous Chicken Rice that is served with more than a dash of fresh herbs. Cao Lao, a rice noodle made from lye water created from local ash, seems to be the exception as traditions dictate that the water used to cook and soak the noodles should be from the Bá Le well in Hoi An. A word of caution when dining off the streets in Hoi An is to indulge in moderation as the preparation and cooking methods of local vendors have not changed for ages and the more delicate of guts may not be well prepared for inherent risks such local delicacies may harbour.
Vietnam has such historic links and ties with China that not only is its cuisine intricately linked to its northern neighbour, Chinese cuisine is also a big part of the Vietnamese dining scene. In Saigon one of the most reputable Chinese restaurant is Yu Chu, a Cantonese fine-diner with an impressive menu consisting dim sums, roasts and classical dishes. Unlike most Chinese restaurants in the region, dim sum is so popular in Vietnam they are offered for both lunch and dinner, and at Yu Chu there are over 30 dim sums to choose from in its all you can eat menus. Many of these are traditional recipes that are innovatively updated for the modern palate and packed with delectable flavours.
As far as making an impression goes, there are no restaurants in Vietnam that can match the views afforded by the giddy heights Oriental pearl is perched upon, 71 floors from the ground up to be exact. So much sass has been primed into this dining space that culinary concepts seem secondary here; operations here is clearly directed by a more is more mantra. On its a la carte menu are Vietnamese classics like pho and broken rice - but not just everyday pho but pho coaxed from wagyu beef and not so much rice made from the humble broken rice but the international prize-winning BTR39 fragrant rice. Over the weekends the restaurant serves its signature seafood buffet, an endless smorgasbord of local and international favourites made from premium seafood and local produce. Think lobster and uni pasta tossed in a pecorino wheel and a bonbon section that would make Marie Antoinette swoon.
One of Hanoi's most established Chinese fine dining restaurants, Ming is also one of the city's most popular. Its kitchen's grasp of Cantonese classics is sterling, dishing out tasty dim sums, soups and roasts over an elegant milieu with good service. The drawback of the cuisine is the generic blandness of many of the dishes here, which is principally due to the preference for 'lightness' by Hanoians. Fans of classically Cantonese cuisine might disagree with the light treatment, especially on signature soups that are traditionally more flavoursome.
La Maison 1888
Owing to historical links, French cuisine isn't quite foreign on Vietnamese soil but an establishment conceptualised by a renowned French master chef isn't quite the common occurrence (yet) in this country. Raised within the astoundingly posh and whimsical Bill Bensley designed InterContinental Da Nang, La Maison 1888 is poised as Pierre Gagnaire's only extension in Southeast Asia with seasonal 3 to 5 course menus that are classically and innovatively French. With an appetite raised for such a promise, it is a tad disappointing to find the appetiser needlessly conceptual, the main underwhelmingly bland and the dessert a curious menagerie of random artlessness. Service here could also stand to be more sophisticated and polished, despite appearances.
Another Cantonese fine dining restaurant that has a good fan base with both the Saigon gourmands and business elites, Black Vinegar is an elegantly designed restaurant with a sterling reputation for good food to boot. We sampled only its dim sum set lunch with just 4 options but can discern that both the presentation and flavours here are of upper notch quality. The most unfortunate inconvenience is the constant clamour from the lobby below with too many mass check-ins. The din is simply incongruous with the posh settings of this fine culinary address.
Kitchen by the River
Although the Saigon River meanders through the city, riverside attractions are not quite as abundant as one might expect. Thus dinner at a riverside gem like Kitchen by the River at its exclusive location can be quite an escape from the city itself, with intimate settings and lawn alfresco dining quite the departure from dense, concrete Saigon. Pity the cuisine here is just a tad too conceptual for our liking - we like our chorizo visible and the crisp of a confit should be all natural. Service, although friendly and heartfelt, can also stand to be more efficient. A 3 course dinner for one should not be a two hours affair and a single scoop of ice cream should not have taken 20 minutes to assemble and deliver.