There are two things that I believe will always help you to deeply learn about a new culture from the inside out- people and food. Books, research, and visiting monuments are all well and good, but if you want to get to the heart of a culture, talk to the people and eat their food. In fact, if you get the chance, talk to the people while you prepare and eat food together.
Now this isn’t to say that because we ate a lot and ate well in Vietnam that I am now an expert on the country. Far from it. However, I feel like through trying certain dishes, restaurants, taking a cooking class and trying to understand things about how they use ingredients and flavor, I got a more intimate glimpse into this beautiful and complex place.
One of the main things that struck me overall is the general respect of food and ingredients that people seemed to have in Vietnam. Things like herbs, sprouts and raw vegetables are always served fresh, sustaining their vibrance and crunch. Simple flavors are maximized with light sauces and texture is varied and often surprising. Meals struck me as, on the whole, incredibly healthy and it seemed as if almost everything we ate was prepared with so much care and knowledge. They seem take food straight from the earth and use it immediately- as we all should being doing, theoretically.
It made me consider the way I prepare and think about food back home. How can I bring more brightness and life to each plate that I eat? That was the thing that stood out to me; the food felt like it held life, truly giving us energy and nourishment with each bite. It is something I want to keep in mind in my own cooking- how to use and care for ingredients in order to get the most out of them in terms of both flavor and nutrients.
Once our trip was complete, both my mom and I were in agreement that the absolute best food we ate was in central Vietnam: Da Nang and Hoi An. Perhaps it was that we had done our research on the best places to go in these cities, but in general the food there just had so much complexity of flavor and a very made-with-love, home-cooked feel. I could spend weeks just eating and learning about the cuisine in Hoi An alone.
Also, as an aside, I could probably spend a lifetime drinking Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk every morning.
So without further ado, here are the best of the food and coffee places in Da Nang and Hoi An that we fell in love with and learned from:
This was our first stop after a very long journey from Paris to Ho Chi Minh City, then another flight from there to Da Nang. I had seen a recommendation for this place in a Da Nang coffee culture guide, so after wandering to the beach, we followed google maps to try to find it. We found ourselves winding through a residential area full of construction and seemingly no cafes or shops whatsoever, until suddenly we turned a corner and saw this little garden poking out behind a giant sign reading Cloud Garden Cafe. My mom said, “you are magic,” as we entered the lovely eden-like space, in awe of the fact that I had discovered this out-of-the-way cafe. I read that they have great smoothies and blended drinks, so I treated myself to an amazing strawberry matcha shake.
Among the first questions I asked our airbnb host in Da Nang was, “Where can we get the best pho in the city?” Clearly I have priorities. Without hesitation, he recommended Pho 63, a very down-home local restaurant serving the best bowl of pho I have had, complete with heaping plates of herbs and fresh bean sprouts for topping.
While this cafe seems to be a small chain in the major cities of Vietnam, the Da Nang location was our first stop and our favorite. It had a war-era, vintage style decor and looked out right over the river. For breakfast we feasted on a giant fruit plate with chili salt and a couple of croissants, but the main draw was the coconut coffee. Imagine a giant scoop of frozen coconut cream plopped into a glass with a shot or two of espresso and a little condensed milk at the bottom for sweetness. We were in love and ended up returning to the Cong Ca Phe’s in both Hoi An and in Ho Chi Minh city just for another cup.
Side Note: In Vietnam, drink as much fresh coconut water as possible because a. it’s hot and humid and you’ll probably need to rehydrate as much as I did (especially during a hike through the Marble Mountains) and b. it’s more delicious than any other coconut water I’ve ever tried.
Our Airbnb- The "Mountain House"
While every single airbnb/homestay experience that we had was wonderful, I think that the mountain house in Hoi An was my favorite for two reasons: Dinh, the lovely and welcoming host, and the food and coffee she prepared. Our first day there we were exhausted from the day spent hiking around Son Tra and the Marble Mountains, so we opted for lunch at the airbnb. Dinh made us Cao Lau, a Hoi An specialty with thick noodles and a salty-sweet sauce, and fresh spring rolls, both of which were amazing. In the morning we tried a traditional bowl of noodle soup for breakfast and loved it, but most of all we adored Dinh's coffee. There was something about the rich, chocolately-ness of her coffee that was even better than any other cafe we tried. We couldn’t help gushing over it every morning and so on our last day there, she was sweet enough to gift both of us a little bag of coffee and two Vietnamese drip filters.
“Morning Glory (rau muống) is an extremely resilient plant - a type of water spinach packed full of iron. It grows quickly and easily in moist soil, mud or water. To me it reflects the Vietnamese people in many ways - it is hardy and resilient and thrives in even the most difficult of circumstances.”
This is an excerpt from the menu, written by Ms Vy, the owner of Morning Glory and other restaurants in Hoi An, and gives you a taste of what this beautiful place is all about. I loved everything there- the food, the atmosphere, and its story. We ordered shrimp steamed dumplings, a green papaya salad, and chicken satay in a caramel-y coconut lime sauce.
While this place was 100% filled with tourists and foreigners (which is usually something I look out for when I’m traveling), it was highly recommended by several people and lived up to the hype. Modern, flavorful Vietnamese fusion food that was so good, we completely finished our dinner before I was able to snap any pictures.
There are Cocoboxes all over Hoi An, but we settled into one near the famous Japanese bridge after our super-early-morning walk around the city. Cute aesthetics, perfect people-watching, superfood smoothies, and great coffee. You can’t ask for more.
I had read about this place on a favorite travel blog, There She Goes Again, and I am so happy we discovered it. Reaching Out is an organization that runs both a crafts shop and this teahouse, helping Vietnamese people with disabilities and giving back to the community. The teahouse is a stunning serene hideaway from the noise and bustle of the rest of the old town.
This class was such an incredible experience. Visiting a local market, taking a ride downstream in a coconut boat, learning about traditional ways of hulling rice, making rice milk, and of course, cooking a large feast for ourselves from fresh, beautiful ingredients. I am not always one for organized group experiences or things aimed specifically at tourists, but this completely exceeded my expectations. We met other interesting travelers in our group and learned techniques and skills to try and take home to my Moroccan kitchen. After taking this class in Hoi An, I am inspired to try to take cooking classes in every new city I visit because, as I said in the beginning, there is almost no better way to learn about a culture than through how and what they eat.
Throughout this entire trip, I could not stop exclaiming about how everything we ate was just so good. As a food-lover, I was overwhelmed. Looking back through the photos and memories, I still felt like it was too much to take in all at once, so I decided to break up the food part of this recap into two pieces. Coming up next will be the best of the Mekong Delta + Ho Chi Minh City. In the meantime, keep eating, drinking, and keep respecting your food.
If you missed it, read about our full travel itinerary here: Vietnam Part 1.