It was on the second day of our Vietnam trip last month when S and I admitted that we didn’t like Vietnamese food. After having heard so much about Vietnamese cuisine, our expectations from the food were high. But the meals we’d had were disappointing, mostly due to lack of flavour and finesse (except the breakfast we had at our Hanoi hotel- Essence Palace).
We finally resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps Vietnamese cuisine wasn’t right for us. Or was overrated.
But on the third day of our trip, we took a flight to Dong Hoi and headed to Phong Nha, home to the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. That’s when our luck with Vietnamese food turned.
Magical Meal One: DIY Vietnamese spring rolls in Phong Nha
In Phong Nha, we spent the morning at Paradise Cave (stunning!) and then headed with our group to the Dark Cave restaurant for lunch. The meal there consisted of spring rolls. Yep, just spring rolls. Simple meal, yet strangely satisfying. We were served a giant platter with spring roll stuffings and the paper, and we had to build and roll our own spring rolls.
This is what the non-vegetarian and vegetarian platters looked like:
And my vegetarian spring roll with tofu:
I shared the vegetarian platter of tofu, vegetables, dip and sticky rice with a French girl, and we ate several rolls before wrapping up (pun intended) and heading to the Dark Cave for a fun-filled afternoon.
Magical Meal Two: Traditional dishes at Sapa
Sapa Town is a hillside town, teeming with hundreds of tourists who come for trekking in the valley and beyond. And because its economy is largely tourist-driven, there are dozens of restaurants serving all possible cuisines. But like any capitalist will tell you, the more the market players, the merrier. The customers usually wins with so many options. So after wandering about town and debating where to eat, S and I finally headed to Sapa Village restaurant. Great staff, but our food took a while to come. But when our dishes arrived, we knew the wait was totally worth it.
These are the curries we had (vegetables and chicken):
The curries had been cooked in tender coconut, and the warm aroma of spices with the rustic texture and delicious curry had us reaching for our spoons already. This delightful meal, cooked with excellent flavours, fresh ingredients and the chef’s love (we hope!) was just what we needed after a long day.
Magical Meal Three: Modern Vietnamese in Hanoi
We didn’t know that Gia Ngu restaurant in our hotel served such excellent food till we found raving reviews online. The small and chic restaurant serves a Vietnamese cuisine with a modern touch, with equal focus on taste, presentation, service and concept. S reported that their breakfast pho was excellent, and so we gave it a go for dinner one evening.
The food was so good we ended up having two meals there, and we enjoyed both times. But the hands-down winner was the steamed fish.
The chefs have stuck to local seasonings and flavours for their dishes, but the concepts are western. For instance the grilled chicken may seem to be cooked and served the “western” way, but the flavours were definitely Vietnamese.
Vietnam is a beautiful country with a cuisine and both must be explored, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegetarian like me. Despite our rocky start with local food, we flew back home with excellent food memories. And no, Vietnamese food isn’t overrated.