Since British passport holders currently (for a limited time) enjoy visa-free Vietnam visiting rights, I factor in a visa run to Ho Chi Minh City during my most recent long stay in Thailand. Along with imbibing some of the most interesting beer of my year (shoutout to Pasteur Street Brewing Company and especially their spice island saison), I try to devour as much food as humanly possibly during my short visit. Here are the highlights:
The location of both my first and last meal in the city, Sen Quan Chay is located right around the corner from the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao and has a unique enough menu to merit multiple visits.
Bo la lot is a Vietnamese dish consisting of seasoned beef tightly wrapped in wild pepper (lalot) leaves, which are then grilled to coax the the spicy fragrance out of the leaves. Sen Quan Chay uses slices of textured vegetable protein and mushroom in place of beef, and serves the peanut and spring onion capped parcels alongside umpteen herbs, sauces, and sides. The combination of textures and flavours ranges from bright and fruity (that soy and pineapple sauce!) to herbal and earthy.
Yes, it’s a bit of a do-it-yourself dish, perfect for those of us who take pleasure in playing with our food. From what I can tell, diners are meant to use fingers to damped dried rice paper rolls in order to wrap them around fistfuls of everything else. Step two is to tip most of the contents of the roll onto your lap before consuming the rest and trying to play it cool, only you can’t. And that’s because you also accidentally throw your chopsticks across the table and in a bid to catch them slam every piece of china together to draw yourself to the centre of the room’s attention.
Mit kho tu is caramelised jackfruit braised in sweet young coconut water and soy sauce. Imagine the flavour of caramel with a dollop of black treacle (molasses), some soy sauce, and a generous grating of pepper. This is a very rich stew that is highly recommended. If you are one of those people who doesn’t think to order rice, let this be the dish you eat it with; otherwise it is far too cloying.
Cua lot chien gion, typically a non-vegan dish of deep fried softshell crab, is made cruelty-free at Sen Quan by combining vegan crab and spring onion in a batter before frying. These tidbits are served with sweet chilli sauce and should not be counted on as a filling main (but without question they fulfill the most fundamentally important element of any good meal: something deep fried).
With a flavour slightly reminiscent of corn and a texture like celery, ngo sen xao toi are stir fried lotus stems with garlic, sprinkled with a healthy dose of black pepper. This is a mild but pleasant dish, a perfect contrast with a flavour bomb such as the previously mentioned braised jackfruit.
Fans of bitter flavours should begin their meal with a pot of lotus tea, a specialty Vietnamese product made from high quality green tea leaves that are either blended or infused with lotus flowers.
Nam rom xao me, described on the menu as “stir fried mushrooms with tamarind gravy,” is one of the nicest things I’ve consumed this year. This starch thickened sweet and sour soup is served chock-a straw mushrooms bobbing in a sea of peanuts. Vietnamese coriander (rau ram), a spicy and citrusy coriander-like herb with a mellow bitter edge, is sprinkled liberally on top. It’s one of those dishes that’s like a good wine – with every bite you can find something new. A whisper of chilli, a barely perceptible dill undertone. Eat it with the lotus tea; it’s a winning match.
Nam dong co don sot dau me is comprised of stir fried morning glory and stuffed mushrooms served in flavoursome gravy. While the menu description indicates the stuffing is soya cheese, it is in fact tofu and tiny piece of wood ear mushroom. Crunchy greens with chewy stuffed shiitakes in a salty soy sesame broth render this subtle, warming dish both texturally sound and balanced in flavour.
Vegan Banh Mi in Ho Chi Minh
Despite the two different banh mi cookbooks on my bookshelf, I still know next to nothing about these habit-forming sarnies. My banh mi experience is pointing and graciously accepting whatever a vendor passes into my hands.
But in the gutter of Vietnamese sandwich ignorance that is my brain, I appreciate that any foodstuff packed in a Vietnamese baguette is going to be edible plus plus.
Great Banh Mi and Cafe is my first sandwich stop and an unintentional find while on the way to the next banh mi stand. The sandwich is mushroom based, imparting an umami element to an already good snack. The filling also includes large chunks of rehydrated textured vegetable protein, which I leave trailing behind me on the street since eating and walking is too ambitious a task at 7am.
The sandwich I enjoy from Tuy Duyen is very noodle-centric with a good dose of chilli. I don’t remember much else because not only am I eating and walking but I’m also fighting for my life crossing roads in rush hour.
The banh mi from Chan Nhu is slathered in a cinnamon spiced pate with agar-like chunks of faux meat. Flavour wise, this is the favourite because it’s the one that’s different. The standard fixins (I lived in Texas for six months once) of noodles, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs apply.
Noir is higher-end restaurant staffed by visually impaired and blind people. Sighted diners experience their meals in a pitch-black room, challenging senses in unanticipated ways by eliminating the ability to see. There are three set menus to choose from: Eastern, Western, and vegetarian (with a vegan option).
Upon entering I’m offered a welcome drink (alcohol option? Yes, please) and then blindfolded. Unsure of what I’ve signed up for (are there dungeons?), I am expected to complete a simple puzzle that is anything but once depleted of my vision. I peek through the sliver of light at the bottom of my mask to note that I’ve made a right pig’s breakfast of what my two year old great nephew would accurately complete in a third of the time.
I order another drink and I’m lead to the dining room entrance, where I’m introduced to my server. I place my hands on his shoulders while we zigzag through blackout curtains to my table. All I can think is how much fun I would have in here with my cats. He teaches me the layout of the table, where to reach for my dinnerware (an important detail because all must be kept in the same place so staff can find it too). I’m left in a room full of unseen patrons seeping anxiety over whether or not they dropped food down themselves. Amateurs. Fortunately it’s dark so no one knows where the guffaws are coming from (hint: it’s me).
It turns out a lack of vision really does botch other perceptions, or perhaps more to the point I take for granted just how much I rely on sight to perceive smell and taste. I complete my meal, say my server’s name, and he is there to lead me out of the room. I collect my things (which are safely stored in a locker) and sit down with another guy who pulls out an iPad to show me photos of what I’ve just eaten. Noir promised to challenge by my senses, and that it did: my first course, surely a pumpkin and miso soup, contains neither of those ingredients.
I ask if I can take notes, but the request is politely denied. They don’t want current menus published in order to maintain a challenge for future guests, which makes sense.
Ask for pho at Pho Chay Nhu and a steaming bowl of noodles hits the table along with myriad extras. There are stacks of fresh herbs, chillies, lime, and alkaline AF (I only learned recently that isn’t short for “aquafaba”) fried dumplings. Incidentally I mean the metallic soapy flavour profile, not the debunked-a-thousand-times-fad-diet. Chunks of carrot and daikon radish, slippery rice noodles, cigars of yuba (dried soy milk skin), mushrooms, and chopped greens float in the soup. Best enjoyed a few hours after sundown when the city finally cools down, Pho Chay Nhu is a must if your are in the neighbourhood (which is the same part of town as Noir).
Ngoc Tho is located in the popular backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao, not far from Sen Quan Chay. The menu features a bizarre variety of mixed world cuisines but has a weighty Vietnamese food section.
The bun hue is spicy but not over the top. Aromatic with rice paddy herb and Thai basil, and tangy-sweet with pineapple and tomato, it’s a great comfort dish full of bouncy round rice noodles and fried tofu.
Along with the soup a generous portion of jackfruit and corn fritters graces the table. I’m disappointed in how unmemorable this is, but my judgement is based only on expectations of hefty flavours. The jackfruit is not discernible, but if you love corn then this starter is still a go.