Dining in Central Vietnam
The northernmost destination in Central Vietnam, Hue is situated on the atmospheric Perfume River. Because Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam for 200 years, its cuisine was developed into an artform to please the discerning palates of its royal family. Among its most famous delicacies are bún bò Huế, a vermicelli noodle soup with tender beef, onions and coriander, and bánh bèo, delicate rice and tapioca flour cakes topped with dried shrimp, pork crackling and scallions, dipped in Vietnam's ubiquitous dipping sauce nước chấm. The local food can be sampled at a wide variety of restaurants and prices, from haute cuisine restaurants offering ten course tasting menus paired with tea or wine, to food stalls frequented by students near the university east of the river. As always, follow your nose and try the places filled with locals.
Passing south over the Hai Van Mountain, the traditional dividing line between north and south Vietnam, we enter the booming city of Da Nang. Vietnam's third most important city, it stands in stark contrast to the more quiet and traditional city of Hue. As you move through the city, the sign you will see most often in front of local restaurants is mì quảng, a dish of flat rice noodles, a splash of broth, turmeric, coriander and topped with peanuts. It comes with your choice of protein, which could be chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, hard-boiled egg, frog or snails. Last, add in chili peppers, soy sauce and fresh lime juice to your preference. If you're counting, that's all five elemental flavors in one bowl for the princely sum of under two US dollars.
Another meal not to be missed is nem nướng cuốn, a build-your-own spring roll as much fun to construct as it is to eat. Start with a sheet of rice paper, place onto it a generous helping of greens (lettuce, mint, basil, coriander), add some pickled carrots and radishes, then place a skewer of grilled pork on the rice paper while wrapping it firmly together. While gripping the tightly wrapped spring roll, remove the wooden skewer, dip your creation in the provided peanut sauce and enjoy. These are often accompanied by bánh xèo, a rice flour and turmeric pancake stuffed with shrimp, green onion and bean sprouts.
People here consume large amounts of local beer: Huda from Hue, or Larue from Da Nang. Although they are large-scale breweries, they are better quality than most other beers in southeast Asia, probably owing to the quality of the mountain water used. In addition, Da Nang has an excellent microbrewery that makes a beer for every taste. On a hot day, you can't go wrong with an ice cold local brew in the shade.
If you've had one too many bowl of noodles, Da Nang has a growing number of excellent international restaurants. A traveler can choose from refined French bistros, authentic Korean restaurants, decadent Indian food or legit American barbecue. With a growing community of expats, the range of dining options will continue to expand.
Less than an hour's journey south is Central Vietnam's most popular tourist destination, the ancient trading port of Hoi An. For nearly a millennium, traders from across Asia sailed here to do business and even make their homes here. Because of the mix of people, many foreign flavors found their way into the local food.
An example of this is cao lầu, a bowl of thick, udon-like rice noodles, tender pork, lettuce, mint, lemon basil and coriander, with a splash of slightly sweet broth. Because the noodles are difficult to make, this dish is difficult to find outside the area, and certainly worth seeking out while in Hoi An.
Nearly everyone who visits Vietnam will come across the famous bánh mì sandwich, which can range anywhere from tasty to dangerously addictive. To say a well-made bánh mì is merely a sandwich is like saying Borobudur is just a pile of stones. While bánh mì can be found anywhere in Vietnam as a cheap local breakfast or lunch, the abundance of tourists in Hoi An has led to many eateries offering premium versions of it. For a dollar, tuck into a warm, crispy baguette, spread generously with pâté, stuffed with tender marinated pork, pickled radish, cucumber and coriander. Better yet, customize it with chicken, beef, sausage, cheese, avocado, chili or mayonnaise. As with many dishes here, there is no wrong way to enjoy it.
As you can see, it's easy to get carried away talking about the food on offer here. A full day trying out the local food can be counted as a day well spent. But don't take my word for it, come check it out for yourself!
Tam Tinh Vien Homestay – For guests only, an excellent value tasting menu is offered, specializing in local Hue specialties, including bánh bèo and bánh bột lọc, a sticky rice and tapioca dumpling filled with shrimp or pork.
Beach Bar Hue – dine on a range of good food from western classics and seafood to Hue specialties right on the beach at this well-placed beach hideaway half an hour out of town.
Halfway between Hue and Da Nang on a massive lagoon are a number of seafood restaurants offering the daily catch to tourists and locals alike. We recommend Hải Sản Bé Thân, built on stilts over the lagoon, where you choose from a large menu including crab, prawn, fish, clam, oyster, squid and octopus prepared in a variety of delicious ways.
Mì Quảng Bà Mua – an excellent place to sample the local favorite. Choose between chicken, pork, snail, frog, shrimp, fish, eel, hard-boiled egg or a combination of everything. Wash it down with a tasty and healthy rau má (an aromatic herb and vegetable drink).
Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng – this place is always busy, and for good reason. The restaurant specializes in nem nướng cuốn (we affectionately refer to it as meat stick), served with bánh xèo.
Yuk Hae Gong BBQ – Walk around Da Nang and you'll immediately notice legions of Korean expats and tourists. More and more 한국인 are opening restaurants here, including 육해공 (Yuk Hae Gong), which grills up excellent samgyeopsal (pork belly eaten with garlic and chili paste), pajeon (seafood and veggie pancake), alongside classic bibimbap (rice topped with assorted meat, veggies and egg in a hot stone bowl), and of course unlimited kimchi. Give the makgeolli (cloudy rice wine) a try, a rare find outside of Korea.
Bếp Hên Restaurant – a stylish and leafy bistro, Bếp Hên serves a wide range of home-style classics from all over Vietnam. Some of the flavors may be a bit unusual for foreign palates, but an adventurous appetite will be rewarded with treasures including hard-boiled duck egg curry or caramelized pork belly. Bon appétit!
Nhà hàng Bà Rô – Da Nang has many overpriced seafood restaurants serving mediocre seafood to tourists. Bà Rô is not one of them. Tucked under Monkey Mountain in a quiet local neighborhood, this place is packed every lunch with the same happy locals. Specialties include hàu nướng, grilled oysters with spicy mayonnaise and crushed peanuts.
Le Bambino – With an imperial presence lasting nearly a hundred years, France has left a cultural footprint easily noticed in our time. French cuisine is still held in high esteem and Bambino is a good place to experience this for yourself. Choose from classics like escargot, foie gras or duck leg confit paired with a bottle of red from the Loire valley and all will seem right in the world.
Namaste Omar's Indian Restaurant – We're picky about the quality of Indian food. So believe me when I say we looked forward to our weekly visits here. They've got a tandoori oven and most of the classics you can imagine, including briyani, vindaloo, palak paneer, rogan josh, and an excellent value lunch thali. They will indeed make your meal spicy if you so prefer. Don't forget the mango lassi.
Eazy Pickins – A wood-smoker guru from North Carolina has set up shop in Da Nang making some of the best pork ribs, quarter chicken and chopped pork you're likely to find anywhere. Pair your choice of meat with a side of fried okra and you just might be coming back again soon.
7 Bridges Taproom – This Da Nang-based brewery has done quite all right for themselves, opening this multi-storey temple to quality beer. The friendly owner will encourage you to draw what's on tap or whatever he's been working on recently. Their Vanilla Porter and Sunset Wheat are particularly good.
Quán Cao Lầu Thanh - This unassuming local eatery doesn't look like much from the outside, but for they lack in ambience they make up for in the freshness of their ingredients in their specialty, cao lầu. Can't be beaten for authenticity and value.
Phi Banh Mi - Another hole in the wall just north of the old town, Phi Banh Mi offers several varieties of the famous sandwich on freshly-baked baguettes. Options include a few kinds of meat, avocado, cheese and house-made chili paste.
Morning Glory Original - Old Town has several good options for an upscale dining experience, but we found ourselves returning here again and again. The expansive menu offers an eclectic taste covering all of Vietnam, and it's safe to say that nothing on the menu disappoints in quality or presentation. Highlights include northern Vietnam classic bún chả (marinaded pork meatballs with rice noodles in a sweet broth) pork-stuffed squid and spicy crispy tofu.