Chef Jenn Louis’s Guide to Vietnam
Portland chef Jenn Louis eats and drinks her way through Vietnam.
Jenn Louis is the executive chef and co-owner of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern in Portland, Oregon. She was a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2012. Her newest cookbook, Pasta by Hand, was published this year.
I was lucky enough to be hosted by the amazing folks at Red Boat Fish Sauce on a week-long trip to Vietnam. I landed in Saigon, toured around the city for a few days, then flew to Phu Quoc, a southern island known for its production of fish sauce and bountiful harvesting of incredible seafood (for sale at their “wet market”). Cuong Pham, the owner of Red Boat Fish Sauce, and Betsy Fox, his trusty marketing and PR pro, showed me around. My accommodations were stellar; comfortable and with incredible breakfast buffets every morning, at which both Vietnamese and Western foods were served. I mostly ate fruit and Vietnamese food for breakfast, but the French influence in Vietnam showed up in crafted pastries and baguettes (banh mi). Yes, the Vietnamese coffee was stellar and addictive—and not just for breakfast.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Veranda, Phu Quoc
The Veranda is in Phu Quoc, where the fish sauce is made. It is an island resort—small, tropical and on the beach. Service is wonderful, and the spa has the best massages I have ever had. The cost was so reasonable compared to U.S. prices that I had a massage all three days I was there!
Park Hyatt, Saigon
The new Hyatt in Saigon is a very lovely luxury hotel. It is not overly expensive compared to American hotels, and the breakfast (included) is really wonderful. It is well located and only about 15 minutes from the airport by taxi.
WHERE TO EAT:
We ate a ton! Vietnam has wonderfully fresh and soulful food. The produce is colorful and with a huge variation of greens, vegetables and fruits. The fruits and vegetables are ripe, so people shop every day for the freshest ingredients. Meat and fish are plentiful, butchered daily and often in whole or large forms sold at outdoor markets. All of the butchers I saw were women and often they butchered large animals, like pigs, while sitting down.
Most meals are savory, and the Vietnamese eat all of the time. They eat soups for breakfast, and braised meats and fish with vegetables for lunch and dinner. Soups vary depending on broth (type of meat or seafood as the broth and garnishes) and the size of the noodles, which are mostly rice and rarely made of wheat.
These are some of my favorite dishes and where I ate them:
Crispy duck with wheat noodles and pickled green papaya (pictured above)
Thiem Huy Mi Gia (family restaurant in District 5), Saigon
455 Nguyen Trai Street, D5
Seafood noodle soup with mackerel broth (pictured above)
Ms. Phụng restaurant at Quarter 2, Phu Quoc
Near DinhCau market, Duong Dong Town
Delicious salad of pineapple, squid, cucumber, onion, tomato (pictured above)
Red Boat Fish Sauce Factory, Phu Quoc
Duong Dong Town
WHAT TO DRINK:
In Vietnam, you drink everywhere and it's mostly coffee, iced tea and beer—on ice. It is so very hot in Saigon and in the south of Vietnam. Most days we visited it was 95 degrees and 85 percent humidity, and I heard the weather was not as hot as usual. Any cool beverage is welcome, so numerous Vietnamese iced coffees and teas kept us lively thoughout the day. The iced coffee is usually sweetened with a choice of condensed milk or not. I prefer mine without milk. The beer is light and refreshing and complements all of the food. I almost forgot to mention we also drank snake wine. Really: distilled rice wine beverage with snakes in it. There is some lore of virility for men who drink it.
WHERE TO SHOP:
Shopping is everywhere. In Saigon there is everything you can think of to shop for: clothes, trinkets, housewares, food. All of the local (mostly outdoor) markets are intense and busy and really fun to walk through. My favorite was the "wet market" in Phu Quoc, a seafood focused market with vegetables, fruits, housewares and some prepared foods. (You can find it in the center of town beside the Duong Dong river.) A woman was frying handmade spring rolls using fresh rice paper and they were the crispiest and crunchiest fried rolls I had ever eaten. In addition to seafood, there was a stall selling live ducks and chickens, which would be killed and plucked for each purchase, and some skinned small animals on a small tray of ice. When we asked what they were, “mice” was was the answer. I am pretty sure they meant “rats.” I bought a bunch of herbs and vegetables and a few kitchen supplies there.