Many Americans are already familiar with Vietnam’s flagship dish, Pho. The flat-noodle soup is served with beef, chicken, or veggies and is more prevalent on the streets of Hanoi than Starbucks in Seattle. It is often enjoyed at breakfast by locals, but you’ll mostly find it on the street during lunch and dinner hours. Every restaurant, café, and street vendor has a little different tweak on the recipe, so don’t be afraid to pencil it in to your daily diet.
You know the lobster tanks you see in many North American restaurants, the ones where you can point to the exact one you want? Switch out the crustacean for a cobra, and you’ve got a pretty good grip on the snake-eating culture across the river from the Old Quarter in the Le Mat neighborhood of Hanoi.
Despite the fact that most locals grew up eating snake in some capacity, the experience in Le Mat is more about entertaining tourists than reproducing tradition. Groups flock and purchase a whole cobra, which is killed on the spot – literally on the floor in front of you – and made into a half-dozen dishes for the table, including soups, salads, fillets, and ribs.
The flair comes before the feast, however, when one lucky member of the party gets to shoot back the snake’s still-beating heart, which is served in a shot of alcohol. Locals we talked to about their experience say that their families always eat the heart when cooking snake at home, but it is usually the father or oldest male who throws it back due to a belief that it is an aphrodisiac.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Given the high temperatures you will encounter during a trip to Vietnam in the summer, it is understandable if you begin to sour on soupy Pho. When you’re craving noodles but not a bowl full of broth, try the local dry noodle dish, Bun Bo Nam Bo. In its basic form, it combines beef with vermicelli, fish sauce, chili, and lemon, but versions vary from place to place. At this restaurant, we got tastes of peanuts, ginger, carrots, and roasted garlic. There is a small amount of broth at the bottom of the bowl, and we recommend mixing it all together before you dig in.
Gasp! Many people around the world will no doubt have a bone to pick with this culinary offering. Nevertheless, it is indeed a long-standing dish of the Vietnamese people. Similar to pork in its texture, flavor, and fat content, it is eaten steamed, grilled, or fried and typically paired with rice wine. It is more popular in the winter when temperatures are cooler, although you can easily find it all year round.
Most locals grew up eating dog in some capacity, but many young people today have turned against its consumption due to the rise of dogs as the world’s most beloved pet. Although the consumption of dog is traditionally limited to a single breed, much of the controversy has risen out of the increasing number of dogs that are stolen and sold for meat.
If you want to try dog meat while you’re in town, look for restaurants, cafes, and street vendors advertising “Thit Cho.” If nothing else, we suggest investigating and talking to people about this aspect of Vietnam on your visit, as it is obviously a cultural aspect you will never encounter in North America. It also forces you to think about why you feel the way you do towards certain animals, specifically the justifications we all have for eating some and not others.
[Photos: Will McGough]