Travelers to Vietnam often email me to ask for restaurant and food suggestions. Though there are a few past posts that I point them to, I’m always a bit reluctant to recommend specific spots, out of fear that they won’t like it or that the place is closed or has moved. I’m not a travel or guidebook writer and my knowledge is based on gut instinct more than a database of restaurants and street stalls.
However, I am good at researching places before I arrive. The books at the top of this post are the kinds of works that I peruse before going to Vietnam. They’re not all bonafide guidebooks but they are full of insights for your adventure. Here’s a rundown from the top of the pile:
At the top is the new edition of Lonely Planet’s Vietnam that will be released on March 1, 2012. It’s super comprehensive and filled with practical information – from how to get a visa and planning your itinerary to warnings about scams and safety issues. The paper is practically tissue thin because they writers have crammed in tons of details to create a portable, mini encyclopedia of Vietnam. Some of the gems are found in the book's sidebars.
As a developing nation, Vietnam is an ever changing country so even though Lonely Planet’s guide to Vietnam recommends restaurants and hotels, I always take their suggestions with a grain of salt. That is, I double check online and book a hotel in advance or use in-country services to secure a room before I arrive at my destination. Foodwise, the writers try to pick reliable stalwarts so I try those spots to get a benchmark. For example, here’s a "don't miss" list of good eating spots in Hanoi from the 2012 guidebook:
Vietnamese business people are not fools. They know the importance of a recommendation from a guidebook as it brings in customers and lends a certain notoriety to their establishment. On the other hand, they also realize that tourists are not going to be repeat customers so you can’t bank on them to keep your establishment open. Given that, I've found that the people at guidebook-recommended places can be indifferent or solicitous.
In addition to trying out recommended spots, I also maintain a list of foods to try when I’m in Vietnam. For the new edition of the guidebook, Lonely Planet had me contribute a list of 10 must-eats, which you’ll find in the back of the book in the “Understand Vietnam” section:
Beyond the above intro are three two-page spreads on each region; Lonely Planet has photos of most of the dishes that I name. The reason for keeping a personal food hit-list is that it keeps me flexible. When I spy a potentially good rendition, I go for it!
If you want a totally food-centric guidebook, try Lonely Planet’s World Food Vietnam. Published in 2000, it’s sadly out of print. The regular guidebook has plenty of food information but the smaller work is filled with food terms, descriptions of dishes, and color photography. Because the color photography is on nice stock, the book is heavy to carry. However, it’s worth having if your mission is to delve deeply into Vietnamese food. You can use it to show people – such as the doorman or staff of where you’re staying (hint!) -- to get solid tips; taxi drivers may take you to their “friend’s” eatery. The glossary of food terms is handy.
Novels, Essays, Cookbooks
Guidebooks like what Lonely Planet publishes serve as practical travel companions. I complement those works with resources that get me into the Vietnamese state of mind. For example, Vietnam: A Traveler's Literary Companion, edited by John Balaban and Nguyen Qui Duc contains essays, stories and poems by some of the best Vietnamese authors. They collectively paint a vivid image of Viet culture and history.
For something more recent, read Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement. It’s a well-researched novel full of intrigue. The focus of the plot is a pho maker. I mentioned Gibb’s terrific book in a post last October. Or, grasp a Vietnamese-American perspective by reading Andrew X. Pham’s acclaimed Catfish and Mandala. Dana Sach’s riveting If You Lived Here is great for those going through the process of adopting a child from Vietnam. (I thought of these later two books after snapping the photo of the books.)
If you read Vietnamese, find the fabulous 3-volume collection of essays on the country’s regional foods. The brick-red book is the northern Vietnam volume. Each volume is broken down by cities, then by specialties. It takes me about an hour to read each short essay in Vietnamese but I learn lots and practice my Vietnamese.
For food porn and recipes, check out Luke Nguyen’s The Songs of Sapa (reissued in the U.S. as My Vietnam). Luke is a Vietnamese-Australian chef, restaurateur and host of his own travel show. He’s very sweet and kind. I’ve written about hanging out with Luke in Sydney as well as his first and second books. The Songs of Sapa relates his journey from one end of the country to the other. It’s the accompaniment publication to the first season of Luke’s show, which airs in the States on the Cooking Channel.
Blogs and Cooking Classes
To compliment the books, check in with bloggers based in Vietnam or Southeast Asia. Mark Lowerson of Sticky Rice does a marvelous job of documenting Hanoi's street foods. Robin and Dave at Eating Asia frequently pop into Vietnam for a spell from their home in nearby Malaysia. Daniel Klein at The Perennial Plate is doing a little video and recipe series called "A Taste of Vietnam" based on a 2-week trip there.
Take a cooking class. Lonely Planet lists a number of programs that have been vetted.
The bottom line is this: When traveling to Vietnam, triangulate your sources of information. Do some homework and rev up your senses to prepare yourself for the total immersion experience. Once you’re there, don’t be afraid to ask for extra guidance from locals because things change. Use the information in your back pocket to let the person know that you’re serious. Then the adventure begins.
- Travel Tips to Saigon
- Travel Tips to Hanoi
- Feeding Finicky Kids in Vietnam
- Vietnam Visa Tips [update 2011: the Vietnam consulate site is easier to use. I renewed my expat visa without a hitch.]
- Safe Eating in Vietnam
- Food souvenirs worth bringing back from Vietnam
My last trip to Vietnam was in 2010. I’ll likely go again later this years. Please share your tips to update me and others on this site!