The Vietnam Experience with Contiki
I went to Vietnam during a period of life when I was vegan. This was not the most ideal place to visit for that kind of lifestyle and I did promise myself that I would get the full Vietnamese experience while on my trip…so my vegan lifestyle went out the window while I was there! That being said, was able to try some amazing meat dishes and a lot of milk based treats. Although I think the highlight for me was still a vegan option: the juice! In this post I will chronicle my journey through the amazing Vietnamese food and beverage that I had the pleasure of experiencing along the way and let you know if it was worth it to break my path from veganism (spoiler alert, it was!).
Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh city (previously Saigon) is probably the most well known city in Vietnam. It is located in the southernmost part of the county and typically is hotter than the sun. I started my trip in this crazy city and was very much overwhelmed by so many things! My friend and I had found a cheap flight to Vietnam and that pretty much is the reason that we ended up in this amazing country and I am so glad we went!
The first few days there we had no plans and were on our own to explore (we met up with a tour group after that for the rest of the trip). With the city awaiting and an empty belly, our first food experience started with breakfast at the hotel. I always like to see different countries’ take on their style of continental breakfast. Now because I am not a huge meat eater in general (even before becoming vegan), I did not partake in very many (if any at all) breakfast meat products the whole trip. My breakfasts ended up being some combination of fruit, pastries, and something new and unusual or unfamiliar to me. That being said, my favorite discoveries were mini bananas and rice porridge. The mini bananas are basically regular bananas but just half the size. I think it was a perfect amount of banana and they were so cute! I know that doesn’t sound especially exciting, but seriously they were adorable. The rice porridge was more of a mystery to me. Initially I thought it was oatmeal but it looked way too watery/gelatinous. Basically it tastes like oatmeal but a little more savory and the consistency is not as thick. It is very comforting and I really did enjoy it for breakfast. I think it was nice to start off with kind of a mellow breakfast so that I didn’t shock my delicate vegan system. *Side note, I did eat ramen with meat in it at my layover in Japan, so technically I broke my veganism there.* I did also discover that savory breakfast is also an option. One day I had noodles, corn, and a few mysterious pot sticker like items. I still prefered my baby bananas though.
That same day I found out that condensed milk is very popular in latte type drinks and that you can survive street food if you go to the right place. Just look for places that are very populated or have a long line to order. Those are all good signs. We also stopped by a place called Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat. We came across this place on the show Somebody Feed Phil from some light Netflix research about Vietnam. Naturally we had to go because I am obsessed with chocolate and it was highly raved about…and it was walking distance from our hotel. This company is unique in the sense that they are farming their own cacao beans in Vietnam, which I guess is a newer thing? It’s supposed to have a different tasting bean than other chocolate beans. I honestly can’t remember it being life changing or that different but I think you need to have a wine palate to discern the differences. I do want to say that it was more fruit forward? Anyway it was good. We had their famous hot chocolate and tried a few different pastries. I’d rate them a 7/10. I don’t think anything will beat Angelina’s hot chocolate in France (see this post for more details), but we don’t need to compare.
Once we met with our group and started our real tour, the food got more adventurous and delicious. We started with a cruise down the Mekong Delta in a junk boat. For those who don’t know, junk boats are just sail boats. In this region, a lot of farmers live in these boats along the river. Each one has a little flag or item on posts that show what each person carries in their boat to sell, such as fish/fruit/rice/etc. We stopped at a fruit boat first and got to try the infamous durian fruit and the more popular but less discussed jackfruit. I liked the jackfruit and hated the durian. For those who don’t know, the durian fruit is the one that smells like death when you cut it open. And for once I do mean that literally. Since we were out in the open and the fruit had already been cut, the smell was not that potent. But holding it in your hand you can for sure get the odor of rotting fruit and stinky old socks. The consistency is soft and surprisingly doesn’t taste as bad as it smells, but don’t get me wrong, it was not good. It definitely is an acquired taste.
On our journey down the river we stopped at a few shops to see how they make their products and we got some background info about where all the food comes from. I found this to be super interesting. We got to see how they make sheets of rice paper, caramel from coconut, puffed rice, and a very special whiskey. The whiskey was the part that fooled me. Now our Vietnamese guide had an accent so when they were giving out samples of the whiskey to try I heard “snack whiskey” and willingly took a sip. However, what was really said was snake whiskey. Yes I said snake. Like, the long slithery thing with venom. I have no idea how they make it and I don’t want to know, but it for sure had a snake inside the jar they poured our sample from. So after that bomb was dropped on me I was pretty much done with my cute little sample of snake essence.
We had a lot of great meals in Ho Chi Minh City. For the most part we had the things you’d expect such as spring rolls, Pho, and fish in all forms. All of it was so great and would 100% recommend that you visit this city for at least the food alone. If not for the food, visit the Mekong Delta. This alone was one of the highlights of my trip. We stayed the night in a homestay off the delta! A family hosted us for the night and it was such an amazing experience to join a local family to see how they live and share a part of their culture. They sang for us, made us an amazing meal (in which some people ate rat and snake), and provided hostel like beds and clean showers! We also got to participate in catching our own food via mud fishing. This is a situation where you stand in the muddiest water of all time and dig around for fish AND CATCH THEM IN YOUR HANDS! This was a combination of gross, creepy, panic, competition, and somehow also fun. They told us that whatever we catch is what we were going to eat for dinner, so the pressure was really on. I was so close to catching a fish it was awesome! They are incredibly slippery and fast. We did end up teaming up to collectively catch fish. We got a total of 4 fish and memories of them hosing the mud off each of us off afterwards (like with a giant hose and immense water pressure, think fire hose but not strong enough to peel off your skin) to last us forever. So needless to say, dinner that night felt extra special. I got a lot of mosquito bites that stuck with me for the rest of the trip but it was such amazing and unexpected experience and was so worth the excursion.
This is a city where you just relax on the beach or party the night away. We were only here for a day and a half. No food surprises here, but we did have amazing drinks. I had this coconut cocktail out of a real and fresh coconut that was so good it was life changing. It was very creamy and the coconut flavor was not overpowering and no trace of fake coconut flavor. I wish we had more time here to relax and explore but this was not that kind of trip.
Now this city was probably one of my favorites. The vibe here was very mellow and the weather wasn’t as insanely hot. This is where my juicing infatuation really took off. I don’t know exactly what makes the juice in Vietnam better than everywhere else in the world (in my experience so far), but it is just so fresh and amazing. I basically had juice with every meal I could. My go to flavors were papaya and mango. I think they literally take a ton of fruit, juice the whole thing, and then give it to you straight up. I think the difference is that they make it fresh every time and that the fruit is locally sourced. So it’s like fresh on fresh on fresh!
One of the add-on trip options for this city was a cooking class. I obviously had to take it and I am so glad that I did. We learned how to make and assemble spring rolls, make papaya salad, and pan-fry a few different skewered meats. I had no idea that spring rolls are so easy! It was definitely an awesome experience since I was able to get first hand knowledge of how to make some Vietnamese food. We even got a special papaya peeler to take home so we can show off our new cooking skills and authentic Vietnamese recipes!
The last amazing food that we had in Hoi An was Banh Mi. Our tour guide had recommended us get a real Banh Mi fix at this restaurant that she always goes to every time she is in this city. I am so glad that she did because it was amazing. Banh Mi is basically a meat sandwich. On first look it doesn’t seem to fit into the Vietnamese cuisine but if you dig a bit deeper in the history it makes sense. There was a period of time where the French were all up in Vietnam’s business and a bunch of fighting ensued. Since I am not a historian I will not get into the gritty details…especially because there is a lot to say about that topic in general! Anyway, the French left their mark in many ways, which included their bread. Hence, the Banh Mi was created. It’s a sandwich on French bread with meat, fish paste, and a variety of veggies and other sauces. The Hoi An Banh Mi had a perfect mix of delicious meat, veggies, and had another important addition: cheese. Game changer! Cheese is always a winner in my book, so this sandwich was the winner of the trip and made me continue my journey to a heart attack!
This city was interesting for many reasons. We were heading more and more north and with that came the change in the people and the influence of the government. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was very nice and welcoming, but they practiced more conservative behavior and actions in general. We did not stay in Hue for more than 1 day so we didn’t get to see a lot. It was raining here and we were semi-rushed to get the day going. The best part of this visit here was probably the street food. Now I know you get warned about not eating street food due to the dangers of food poisoning and such, but we all made it out without explosive diarrhea…at least from what I can say for myself. We had a guided street food tour so that could possibly have made our food options safer and more guaranteed to be legit. This was a whirlwind of food. I can’t believe how much we got to try. Each place had something a little different than the other and each was really great. I had a few problems with some dishes because I hate cilantro with a passion, but otherwise it was a delicious tour. We didn’t experience anything super unusual but it was just a great variety of Vietnamese specialties. Lots of Pho and spring rolls! If you’ve ever heard of a balut, a few people partook in trying that. I withheld because it is against my morals and gag reflux. For those who don’t know what this monster of a food is, it is a fertilized bird embryo that is boiled and served like a hardboiled egg…except instead of just egg there is pieces of a baby bird inside. It’s like eating a fetus! I can’t even explain how nasty it was to watch someone eat a whole one. Like you can tell its a baby bird. There are bones and a face and everything!! I think it’s considered a delicacy but it’s only for the hardcore. This was a hard pass for me…yeah thank you, next! Only unfertilized eggs for me please!
This was last city I visited in Vietnam and it had some amazing food treasures. Since this was the last stop on my tour, we went out with a bang for sure. We took an overnight boat tour in Ha Long Bay. This is one of the classic places you see in all of the photos of Vietnam with all the rocks and blue/green water. Our group went all out and we all wore fruit themed clothes for the nighttime party. The fruit outfits are sold everywhere in the shops, like you can’t avoid them. So in my beautiful banana dress and before we got into party mode we had an amazing feast to prep us for the night of fun. We had crab, shrimp, whole fish, spring rolls, and basically enough food to put us into a coma. I’m not a huge fan of eating food that can look me in the eye, but I tried everything I could handle without gagging. It was all so fresh and tasty! So with my belly close to exploding level and a mojito in bucket size we spent the rest of the night dancing and drinking and living it up for our last few nights together. I may have vomited up some dinner in a sink later that night but don’t tell anyone…
The day after the party cruise the ship crew had prepped us an amazing hangover spread. It wasn’t what I’d call traditional Vietnamese cuisine but it for sure was the perfect meal to bring us back to life. There may have been French fries in the spread and I for sure needed them at the time.
Back on the main land in Hanoi our group said goodbye the last few days and the remnants of the crew went hunting for the last and most epic of meals of the trip. I’ve talked about this meal in a previous post but I’ll bring it up again. By recommendation of the late Anthony Bourdain, we went to the restaurant that he thought was so good that a president should try it. We went to the infamous Bun Cha Huong Lien. Bourdain took former president Barak Obama here in one of his episodes of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Since we were walking distance away, we had to make the trek there. It was so worth it. We obviously got the meal called Combo Obama, which is what Bourdain and President Obama ate while they were at the restaurant. What this meal entails is rice noodles with grilled pork pieces in a broth. It is served with a side of veggies and a crunchy seafood roll…and a beer if you partake. Now again, I don’t eat a lot of meat in general, but wow this was such a good dish. It was juicy and the flavors were so rich and amazing. I would highly recommend going here if you ever end up in Hanoi. I can barely explain what it tastes like but it’s worth breaking your meat free life for sure. I see why Bourdain took a president here. What a treat.
The rest of my time in Vietnam was spent wandering around and exploring the city. Similar to Ho Chi Minh, there are crazy drivers everywhere and crossing the street feels like walking the plank, but it is so full of life and the people are so inviting and happy. I had a really nice boba tea, a really pretty matcha latte with beautiful flower art, and ice cream shaped like a fish. I also had my last Banh Mi before I went back to being meat free. Honestly they are good in every city in Vietnam that I went to.
I loved Vietnam! I think that I had a different picture of what this country would be like before I went, and I was 100% wrong. I imagine my parents prejudice against Vietnam made it seem more dangerous. I can honestly say that Vietnam is a crazy combination of modernity, natural beauty, poverty, and ancient history. The Buddhist temples and green countryside amazed me! I was shocked/melted by the combination humidity and heat. I almost cried over the amount of trash and plastic waste everywhere and how some people still continue to suffer to various degrees since the Vietnam War. That part struck me in a way I never expected. The Vietnamese keep it real. The people I encountered were extremely nice and genuinely seemed to be happy. The food was amazing for sure but the country had so much more to offer than what went into my belly. I have so much more to say about Vietnam but I’ll save that for a later post. I think I need a spring roll now…