Many of us traveling to Vietnam touch down in Hong Kong and never leave the airport. This time, I decided to stay for a few days to check out what is arguably the Manhattan of Asia. In the early 1990s I was a student here on a fellowship and haven't visited since then.
What a difference 18 years makes. Compared to back then, today's Hong Kong is super duper modern (LCD screens on skyscrapers galore), extremely clean (it's easy to find a nice restroom), people are healthy, and overall happy (waitstaff at restaurants are actually friendly and kind).
There are Viet restaurants in all the happening places in town. A while back Hong Kong-native Joel Hung sent me info about them and finally I saw them with my own eyes.
- Golden Bull in the high-end Ocean Terminal and Times Square shopping center is very very luxe (sleek, modern, cold) but the food didn't look appealing. Also, there was no Vietnamese language menu so I didn't go for it.
- Viet Hung Vien in Kowloon (on Soy Street) was so packed with hipsters inside and outside waiting that I ate the random skewered food snacks sold a few doors down.
- Nha Trang in tony Central on Wellington was ultra modern and cool, with an English/Viet menu. The rare and cooked beef pho (pho tai chin) came out nice and hot but oddly had no flavor. There was no cilantro, the scallion was left in 4-inch lengths, the onion sliced kinda thick, bean sprouts were already in the bowl, and they put the Thai basil — stem and leaf atop the bowl; it was hard to pick out and rip off the leaves. I added ALL the Thai chiles and squirted tons of lime in but there was no oomph. For the first time in my life, I didn't finish a bowl of pho (39 HKD/5USD) and left to get a bowl of shrimp wonton noodle soup (15 HKD/2USD) nearby. Other diners didn't look inspired by the food, though they were smartly dressed . . .
Vietnamese food is popular in Hong Kong as a new and emerging cuisine, just like it is in the States. These restaurants offer something different from Cantonese food, but they're not fabulous as far as Viet flavors go. One of the things is that Viet food is a bit spicier than Cantonese fare, and there are lots of raw vegetables involved — a rarity in Chinese cuisine. Given that, I can see where adaptation can be hard. On the other hand, I saw some lovely red-leaf lettuce and fresh mint at the markets.
Ingredients are available for making Viet food in Hong Kong. For example, On Graham street in Central where there's one of the remaining wet markets, there was a tiny Thai grocer where if you needed some nuoc mam, banh pho or banh trang (they only get the thick rice ones in HK), you can. There are Thai markets near the old airport and Kowloon City Plaza (in Kowloon City) that offer a good assortment of Southeast Asian ingredients. But if venturing there is too out of the way, a Hong Konger could pick up many items at one of the City Supers, which are like a combo of Whole Foods and Dean and De Lucca. (Their salt selection occupies 7 shelves and spans the globe, from Asia to Europe.)
If you visit, try venturing outside the touristy areas into the neighborhoods so get good fare at decent prices. You'll also sneak a peek at how regular people eat and shop.