For as long as I can remember, I’ve always liked Vietnamese food, and I can now say with confidence that pho is hands down my most favourite food.
I am also a huge fan of the Masterchef show and of celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay. So, when I heard Gordon Ramsay claim that the best food he’s ever had in his life was Vietnamese noodles that he ate during his trip to Vietnam, I immediately made it a short-term goal to go to Vietnam for a culinary trip.
The opportunity came when a friend of mine who lives in Thailand, suggested we meet up in Hanoi because she had heard so many good things about the city. Without even doing any research to see what Hanoi was going to be like, I bought the tickets and departed. I really didn’t know what I was in for. The only one thing I was dead sure of, the only thing was that the food was going to be epic.
My first meal in Hanoi was bun bo — rice noodles eaten with raw vegetables, beef, and peanut sauce. A simple dish, but I was in heaven! All the ingredients were mixed to perfection, creating an explosion of tastes in your mouth. But still, the only meal I was really looking forward to getting my hands on was pho. Being already an ardent fan of pho, I could only imagine how good the pho could be in its native Vietnam.
To my surprise, a Vietnamese friend of my friend told us that pho is actually food you take for breakfast. Who would’ve thought of that! Vietnamese would just stop at pho places on their way to work. The friend also said that to get a taste of the authentic pho broth, you would have to come very early, because as the day goes by, the cook will just keep adding hot water to the broth, rather than cook up a new batch.
This was all new information to me, who did not have any inkling that pho was actually something consumed at breakfast. You’d also have to queue as early as 6 am to beat the breakfast crowd. But I can’t complain really. Having pho first time in the morning isn’t such a bad thing. So, my friend and I made sure that by 7 am we were already at the pho place.
To cut a long story short, yes there was already a MASSIVE queue at 7 in the morning, I had to wait around 45 minutes before getting my turn. But when I finally, finally, got to taste the pho, I really wasn’t disappointed. It even exceeded my expectations completely!
The broth was so clear, yet so savory, the noodles so smooth, and the beef was amazing. It became crystal clear to me why Gordon Ramsay, who has tasted food from all over the world, could claim that the best food he’s ever had was Vietnamese noodles in Vietnam.
Moving on from the pho (but I’m going to come back at it later if you don’t mind), I will now talk a bit about the city and trip itself. Hanoi is a fun city. That was my first impression. It has numerous bars to hang out at, and there were so many things to do and see.
I stayed in the Old Quarter, an area in Hanoi that dates back to the French colonial era. Though very messy, dirty, loud, and crowded, I loved the area! It was like the city was alive and never slept. The Old Quarter was very reminiscent of the streets of Paris; buildings were built very close to each other, roads were labyrinth-like, sidewalks were turned into open-air cafes – although in this case, by street hawkers. There was even a cathedral inspired by Paris’ Notre Dame. Just like Notre Dame, St. Joseph has two iconic spires.
Another thing Vietnam is very famous for is its coffee, and when in Vietnam, sampling egg coffee is a must. At first, I was completely grossed out by the idea of having an egg in my coffee. How could the two go together? Plus, you don’t really have to go all the way to Vietnam, as you can just pop open an egg open and mix it into your coffee anywhere. So, I was initially hesitant to try it.
But then I learned the history of how egg coffee came to be.
Why would people in their right mind, want to add an egg to their coffee? But come to think of it, it may actually be a really convenient breakfast. You don’t have to fry your eggs, make your coffee, and consume the two separately. But let’s return to history. Years ago, when the French were still occupying Vietnam, people couldn’t afford milk to drink their coffee with, so what they did was make cream from eggs. They would separate the egg whites, add some sugar to the yolk, and whisk the yolk and sugar silly until they become a frothy mousse – with a consistency very similar to custard.
I finally managed to pluck the courage and try it and boy, I don’t regret it a single bit. It was simply amazing
Another place that was also a highlight of my Vietnam trip was the Hua Lo prison. I felt that it was a very well-curated museum. The building was used by the French to imprison Vietnamese prisoners. The first thing we saw as we entered the prison were videos of interviews with prisoners who had successfully managed to escape. The hardship they went through appeared to have been well worth it because of the freedom that awaited them at the other end. The prison had a lot of statues reenacting how prisoners lived back in the French colonial era. They were given bad food, were left freezing in the winter, and had their ankles tied up so they could barely move. The guillotine was also used in prison for the death penalty, and prisoners on death row were for about a year, chained and confined to a very tiny room that had barely enough space to allow movements.
During World War II, the prison served a different purpose. The French have long left Vietnam, the government had full control of the prison and used it to imprison captured US Air Force pilots. One of the pilots imprisoned in Hua Lo was John McCain. The interesting thing there, according to the museum, was that the Vietnamese government treated those captured American pilots well during their incarceration, treating them almost like guests. The US pilots were given so much freedom in the prison that they could hold Christmas parties, do some gardening, play volleyball, and engage in other outdoor activities. The way they were treated led to the prison to earn its nickname of Hilton Hanoi.
On my second to last day in Hanoi, I decided to venture out of the city and visit the infamous Ha Long Bay. It was a very fun boat trip, but because it was foggy, the view was not as pretty as I hoped it to be. The sky was dull and grey, and we could not see the full majesty of Ha Long Bay. Nevertheless, we were lucky enough to go on a boat ride and visit one of the largest caves in the world. Very fascinating.
Once back in Indonesia, I immediately felt that I missed Vietnamese food already. I went to my usual pho restaurant to fill this sense of longing, but could sadly not even finish my meal. The pho that I used to love so much now ranked very poorly in comparison to the pho I had in Vietnam. I now found the broth to have too much seasoning, the noodles to not as soft, and the meat to be very low in quality. Having now tasted the authentic Vietnamese version, nothing here could ever compare to the original. Having tasted the real thing was a curse, rather than a blessing. So, if ever you ever get the chance to visit Vietnam, be ready for the best food of your lives, but also be prepared to be disenchanted with the taste of “Vietnamese” food cooked outside Vietnam.
Things to see and do in Vietnam:
- Hua Lo prison
- Day trip to Ha Long Bay
- Water puppet show
- Temple of literature
- Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
- And of course, the roadside pho stalls…
Written by Pramesti Widya, Associate