Planning a trip to Vietnam for the first time? Be sure to include the following on your “EAT LIST“:
1) Cha gio truyen thong (traditional style spring rolls with pork and shrimp)
My introduction to Vietnamese cuisine came 15 years ago by way of my Vietnamese friends who even taught me how to prepare cha gio. That’s why these Vietnamese spring rolls conjure up fond memories for me. Usually made with ground pork, shrimp, vermicelli (or glass) noodles, carrots and wood-ear mushrooms and wrapped in rice paper, they are then deep-fried for that definitive crunch. The rolls are served as appetizers and come with a nuoc cham dip that heightens the flavors. They’re my favorite!
2) Bánh mì
Banh mi is the general term for all types of bread in Vietnam. However, it has also become synonymous with Vietnamese-style sandwiches. These delightfully meaty, heavenly sandwiches are obviously a result of French colonization — a combination of French and Vietnamese ingredients: baguette, pâté, mayonnaise, cold cuts, cilantro, cucumber, carrots… anything, really! Just stuff it all in. I bought banh mi from a sidewalk vendor and it tasted a-m-a-z-i-n-g! The baguette‘s crisp exterior and soft, light interior held the tastiest fillings one could ever imagine. So good, I loved it.
3) Com ga tay cam
This dish is simply called chicken rice in clay pot, a palatable one-dish meal that’s as comforting as it is satisfying. What I loved about it are the mushrooms and bamboo shoots. I miss it already. This was my very first meal in Saigon and I had it plus those 2 appetizers (pickled veggies and grilled pork in steamed rice paper rolls), iced tea and dessert for only VND 78,000 [equivalent to about 160 pesos]. Great value for money!
4) Com tam
The literal translation of com tam is “cooked broken rice.” The broken rice refers to the small, imperfect grains of rice that have been left over from the milling process. Since they are hard to sell, the locals just created a dish that makes use of these imperfect rice grains. Com tam is one of the most traditional dishes in Southern Vietnam and it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Usually paired with tender grilled pork and fried egg, com tam is reminiscent of our very own tapsilog or tosilog. It is available in street eateries as well as in posh restaurants. I had really good com tam in Mojo, one of the dining outlets in the luxurious Sheraton Saigon Hotel.
5) Banh lot hat luu nuoc dua
I’m not even sure if I got the name right, but if this refreshing dessert looks familiar to you that’s because it’s very similar to our halo-halo. Only instead of evaporated milk they use coconut milk, and instead of shaved ice they use tube ice or ice cubes. But the effect is pretty much the same.
This last bit is not a food item, but when in Vietnam, one must try Vietnamese-style coffee. Vietnamese people are very passionate about and proud of their coffee — and who can blame them? Next to rice, coffee is their second largest export. It is a major industry. There are coffee shops everywhere you go in Vietnam, on every street and every corner. I’m a loyal tea drinker but during my short visit to Saigon, I also drank lots of coffee, both hot and iced. It has an intense flavor tempered only by the addition of condensed milk, but I mean, a trip to Vietnam will never be complete without experiencing its number one beverage.