Armed with my Kindle, I decided to go on my own txikiteo. I was hesitant at first because it seemed like such a lonely thing to go on a solo bar crawl. But honestly, after the first glass of wine, I didn’t even care. The tip is to find just the right bar.
Vietnamese food ranks pretty up there among my favorite ethnic food. But eating out in Vietnam, and just pretty much like a lot of things in Vietnam for us, turned out to be an adventurous affair. Especially if you’re a picky eater like me.
With the combination of Vietnamese tonal language (which makes it bloody hard to learn even the simplest phrase) and lack of English among Vietnamese, it’s wise to hone up your miming (and drawing) skills before hitting the sidewalk for food.
Food was everywhere on the streets of Vietnam. Everywhere in the morning you see people sitting on little stools slurping on a bowl of noodle to the point that you couldn’t tell whether it was a small street eatery, or just a family enjoying a bowl of noodle together for breakfast on their doorstep.
So you go there and you’ve made sure you learned the word for a bowl of chicken noodle soup which was ‘pho ga’ – and what you want to ask was of course ‘Can I get a bowl of soup, please?’ But the way they look at you afterwards sometimes makes you wander if you’ve just asked to borrow the underwear they’re wearing.
(Although that’s probably what you’d look like if you’re having breakfast in front of your house and someone starts muttering intelligible things while pointing at your breakfast)
And of course it’s a lot trickier if what you’re actually trying to say was ‘Does it have chicken in it? I’m a vegetarian. Maybe you can make it without meat?’
(Yeah, good luck with that.)
Regardless, even though street food proved to be a challenge for me, we still managed to eat our way up the coast of Vietnam – from Saigon in the South to Hanoi in the North.
Which goes to show how finding good food in Vietnam, is really not that big of a problem after all.
What to eat in Vietnam – Here are some of our favorite Vietnamese food
Pho – the national food of Vietnam. A brothy bowl of rice noodle served with bean sprouts, basil and lime. Add a dash of plum sauce and spicy Sriracha sauce for full effect. Chicken and beef are the most common. The vegetarian version can be found in bigger chains such as Pho 24 and FYI, Pho 2000 in Saigon that serves the best vegetarian pho I’ve ever had.
Bánh mì – if Pho is the national food, Banh Mi should be the national snack. Stands selling these Vietnamese sandwiches can be found on a lot of street corners. The meat version can be filled with liver pate, meat, canned sardines, stringy pork floss, etc. The vegetarian version comes with fried egg and cheese – eaten with a dash of homemade mayo, pickled carrot, and cilantro – all wrapped in crunchy and airy French baguette. SO GOOD! And for less than $1, it’s definitely our snack of choice.
Mi Quang – this Da Nang region specialty consists of flat rice noodle served with boiled eggs, meat, shrimp, and basil leaves with just enough broth to keep the noodle wet. The addition of peanut and crackers distinguish this dish from other Vietnamese noodle dishes.
Banh Bao Vac, or White Rose – a type of shrimp dumpling wrapped in a translucent skin, also a Hoi An region specialty. Qualities vary so much, but we found that we like those with flavorful broth, extra crunchy fried onions, and thinner, less doughy skin.
Cao Lao – Apparently real Cao Lao can only be found in Hoi An because real Cao Lao noodle can only be made from the water from a well in Hoi An. Well, I’m not sure if any of the Cao Lao we ate in Hoi An was the real Cao Lao, but they were all good (at least that’s what my brother said): thick chewy noodle, pork slices, crunchies, in a light pork-based broth. Simplicity at its best.
Bia Hoi – places selling Bia Hoi, or locally made draught beer, are abound in Hanoi. Sipping on these 50 cent beer while munching on pumpkin seeds, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with the locals are a fun way to spend an evening. Don’t expect too much of the beer – Biere Larue is the less watery of the bunch, we think.
Some useful Vietnamese food-related keywords to learn:
Mì, Bún, and Phở: different types of noodles
Many a night we’d stroll through the old town of Saigon or Hanoi among hundreds of diners taking their place on the sidewalk, taking a peek at what everyone is eating and it made us realise that Vietnam is truly a paradise for those who are gastronomically adventurous (snake wine, anyone?).
My brother was delighted. But as for the vegetarian in me, I was secretly glad we were heading back to Thailand afterwards.
Coming to Ethiopia as a vegetarian, I knew that eating would not be a problem. I can tolerate injera – crepe like thing of the color and taste of a washcloth – which Ethiopians seem to eat with everything (they even eat injera WITH injera).
Vegetarianism itself is not such a foreign concept to Ethiopians even though they don’t necessarily call it by that name. The majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox Ethiopians and they don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. On these days, non-meat fasting food can be found easily in restaurants.
But even on non-fasting days, any restaurant can be asked to prepare Shiro (pureed chickpeas in Berber sauce) at a moment’s notice.
Eating Shiro every day does get old every day though (and after a week of it, it can start to look like… nevermind). This is where Bayenetu comes in.
Bayenetu is a collection of meat-free dishes served over a plate of big round injera. Think of a sampler plate. What those dishes are depend on the restaurant. Each prepares it slightly differently:
Some dishes regularly found on Bayenetus include:
Aterkik Alitcha – yellow peas in sauce (my favorite!)
Atkilt Wot – cabbage, carrots, potatoes in sauce
Gomen – collard green cooked to perfection with spices
Misir Wot – pureed red lentil in berbere sauce
One thing they do have in common: shiro is always one of the dishes found on a Bayenetu. So yeah, you can’t escape Shiro altogether.
By the way, a fun thing to do in Addis Ababa is to go to Habesha Restaurant for dinner. They make the best Bayenetu I had in Ethiopia which goes so well with the house’s super strong Tej. Tej is Ethiopian wine made of fermented honey. It’s often served in glass beakers that look like they should belong in a Chemistry lab. Watch out. It packs quite a punch.
But the best part of going to Habesha is that you get to see a performance of Ethiopian dances every evening. Audience participation isn’t only encouraged, it’s practically mandatory. Check out the video to get a taste to Ethiopian music.
As a very last resort, spaghetti with tomato sauce is also very commonly served in Ethiopia. Expecting a sad looking pasta drenched in ketchup like sauce, I was constantly surprised. It might be a culinary skill left by the Italians during occupation decades ago, but I had some of the best spaghetti sauce here in Ethiopia. No kidding.
The sauce is always freshly made, a little spicy, and the pasta is always al dente – the way it’s supposed to be.
Fruit wise, I wasn’t too impressed by the varieties (I guess I’m spoiled). Juice of avocado, mango, strawberry, guava can be found in many restaurants. Try a mixed version of everything. It’s colorful and it’s really good. You don’t even need to tell them not to add sugar. Which I did and got a blank look from the waiter as a result. I know what he’s thinking too – ‘Duh, it’s fruit. Why would you add sugar?’ Thank you. Exactly. Can someone tell that to South Americans?
As a vegetarian traveling in Ethiopia, you won’t starve. But the lack of varieties can get to you after awhile. Thankfully, rumor has it Addis Ababa does have a few international restaurants like Thai (unable to find it), Indian (still an uncorroborated rumor), and I even saw a sign once for a Japanese restaurant (on Haile Gebrselassie Rd towards the airport if you’re so inclined to look for it). Finding them is a different matter.
(They don’t use street numbers, you can have to go by landmarks which makes finding anything feel like a treasure hunt.)
An unexpected side-effect of too much Ethiopian food?
I woke up one day and all I could think about was how to get my hands on a basket of fish and chips. Afterwards, I drooled at the thought of Mc Donald’s Egg McMuffin and hashbrowns. Then I thought of pizzas. I don’t even like pizzas.
See, Ethiopian food seems to be so low in fat and salt that after 2 weeks I craved for something just completely the opposite. The greasier the better. Thankfully, it was easily fixed by a quick stroll to Kaldi’s Coffee (Ethiopian version of Starbucks).
French fries and tiramisu never tasted sooo good. I even went for seconds. I guess there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing after all.
The main reason we came to Arequipa was for the food, typical comida Arequipeña such as ‘rocoto relleno’, ‘chupe de camarones’, ‘chicharrones’ and more. We had never considered ourselves foodies in the slightest bit before we got to Peru. Never before being obsessed with food, I think being away from good food for months in Colombia and Ecuador finally took its toll.
We met our host in Lima, Ana, when we were volunteering in Banos, Ecuador.
When we finally were making our way to Lima and making plans to meet up with her, we told her that there are 2 things we’d like to do in the 2 days we’re in Lima:
1. See the ‘erotic pottery’ exhibition in Museo Larco
2. Eat yummy Peruvian food
And boy, like an awesome host that she is, she fulfilled both of our wishes.
Remember that day in Trujillo when we ate nothing but American chain food?
Well, it didn’t take for the guilt to sink in and we decided to make it up for our remaining 2 days in Trujillo. Well, the guilt and the price tag, really. Pizza Hut was expensive.
Everyone that we’ve met unequivocally said that Peru has the best food in the whole continent.
Well, we’re going to judge it for ourselves. We’re skipping Trujillo’s more known comida tipica: cabrito, lomo saltado, and other local delicacies and sticking to sea food, taking advantage of the fact that Trujillo is located on the coast.
Come with us on a 2 day tour of Peruvian food!
We found ourselves in Huaychao, a coastal village 30 min away from Trujillo. And there we had our first encounter with ceviche.
Ceviche – First encounter
I’m not a big fan of raw fish. I’m one of those people who go to the sushi restaurant and order exclusively from the fried/cooked roll sections.
So ceviche presents an interesting dilemma: it’s cooked. But not with fire. Does it count?
Regardless I decided that going to Peru without trying ceviche at least once would be a blasphemy.
When it came, my heart sank.
It looks worse than I imagined. It jiggles when I tried to spear a piece with my forks.
Jack was looking at me expectantly, camera handy. ‘Go on – you ordered it’.
I took a deep breath, ‘Ugh, whatever…Here’s one for the road’
I put a liveless, cold piece of mystery fish in my mouth and swallowed.
First impression: it was sour. Then: a little chewy, it was not so bad.
I doubt that I’d be craving it anytime soon, but I did finish the plate. But I was glad to have Jack’s chicharron de pescado (fish nuggets) as a chaser.
Chicharron de Pescado
Fried fish nuggets. They taste as good as they sound.
Then as a second chaser, this is what I ordered:
Pescado de Ajo
Now this – this is how I like my seafood: HOT (just how I like my men 🙂 ). Fried fish covered with garlic sauce, shrimps, and odds and ends of other seafood.
It was good, but a dish with garlic in the name I expected it to be a lot more garlicky.
Despite the huge lunch, we wanted more. So we walked for a couple of blocks, and ducked in into another restaurant. This time we ordered the calamari.
Calamari – Deep Fried
The aji that it came with was bomb. It was so hot.
“Senora, una Custeña negra, por favor” we managed to choke out with our burning tounge.
We were invited by our Couchsurfing host to a cevicheria. “Best ceviche! Lots of people come”
And it was true. The place was packed.
Not tempted in the slightest bit, I stayed away from the ceviche section and ordered something I knew was going to be hot.
Palahuela – Quickly a favorite
Palahuela or seafood stew is my kind of seafood: thick, filled with chunky pieces of seafood. It was delicious! It’s even better than the Pescado de Aji.
I can eat this every day. And for $4 a plate, I might actually be able to afford it.
Leche de Tigre
Or tiger’s milk. It’s basically a soup served in a cocktail glass made out of ceviche juice. It’s white and it has floaty stuff in it. It tastes strongly of lemon/lime.
And it’s cold.
Despite how it looks (only slightly better than the ceviche itself). It actually goes very well with ‘maize’ or toasted corns.
More fried stuff…
Jack decided that he hadn’t had enough fried stuff and ordered another plate of chicharron de pescado. I envy his metabolism that seems to be able to handle as much fried food as he wants.
Wha? Chinese food?
Unfortunately we had to end our gastronomy trip in Trujillo on a downward turn, in a chifa – a Chinese restaurant. The cevicheria we wanted to go to was closed for a private event.
There are so many of these ‘chifas’ in Peru serving huge plates of what you’d expect out of a Chinese restaurant – rice or noodles – but with a Peruvian twist.
Which I think simply means a blander version of Chinese food.
In the end…
Trujillo gave us 101 lesson on Peruvian seafood and it whetted our appetite for more.
As a matter of fact, the only reason we’re going to Arequipa next is to check out its supposedly varied and unique twist on Peruvian food. Yumm, can’t wait! Sorry, Colca Canyon – no offense.
The owner of the cevicheria that was closed for a private event promised us free ceviche if we ever come back. But the question is…
Would we try ceviche again?
Absolutely. As one reader suggests on our FB page, eating it with rice/chufa as chaser will help soften the acid of the lime juice.
But Peru does seem to have a lot of options when it comes to food – I’m afraid it will be awhile until I order one again.
Big cities are never quite our things.
We’ve been on the road for 4 months and the number of big cities we can safely say we’ve explored is very few. There were those 3 days we spent in Medellin. The 1 day spent in Quito.
So safe to say that for the 4 months we’ve been traveling in South America we never had the opportunity to enjoy big city stuff. Things such as concerts, museums, and the hustle bustle of a city life.
Things such as shopping malls. Western style shopping malls.
Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador
Finding a budget place to eat in Galapagos, especially if you’ve given up on cooking in hostels, was tough.
Still reeling from the price tags of the waterfront restaurants of Puerto Ayora, we stumbled across this eating place on a street called Charles Binford, 3 blocks inland.
Sharing the cramped eating space with a group of local cops and taxi drivers confirmed what our $5 lunch bill told us: This street, is the place to eat on a budget in downtown Puerto Ayora.
We ate here for almost all of our meals.
Give the local’s favorite, encocado de pescado (fish in coconut curry) a try. For $6, it’s not cheap by the mainland standard, but compared to everything else in Puerto Ayora, it’s a steal.
And it’s delicious.
Then again, coconut milk makes everything delicious.
Of the many restaurants there, one stood out
Our favorite restaurant is this gem called K.F. Williams.
Remember the restaurant with an identity crisis in Cartagena? Well, we might’ve found one that tops that. Check this out: the owner has murals of himself painted on the walls of the restaurant.
Not only that, when I asked for a menu, the girl pointed to the wall behind me.
He’s got the menu painted, PAINTED, on the wall of the restaurant, complete with prices. Not painted on a board that hung on a wall, but actually on the wall itself.
I imagine they probably don’t change the menu and the prices too often there.
And who do you think prepared encocado de pescado? Nobody but William himself. We recognized him right away (how could we not?). And of course we had to drag him out of his busy kitchen to take pictures.
Is it just us or is the whole thing just simply hilarious? Not to mention a great marketing stint? We can’t seem to get over it.
San Gil was a mere 2 hours away. But we decided to break the journey after a sleepless night on the nightbus and explore this colonial city, a 15 min drive away by taxi from Bucaramanga bus station.
After checking at Las Nieves, a cute hotel facing the main plaza in Giron, we went out to look for food. It must have been around the time the school was out because there were a lot of kids in school uniform walking around on the streets.
I figured we should enlist their help in finding a cheap, local place to get food.
All it took was a single ‘Hola. Hablas ingles?‘ to one of them and all of sudden we were surrounded by friendly, chattering, kids in uniform eager to know every single thing about us.
They singled out a shy kid out of the crowd as the best English speaker who didn’t look too pleased to be in the spotlight.
‘What’s your name?’, we asked in English.
‘My name is Juan.’
‘My name is Jill, and this is Jack.’
‘Thank you!’, he grinned, and melted back into the crowd.
Did you hear that? He said thank you after introducing himself! How cute.
We started walking together and the barrage of questions started.
Where are you from?
Are you married?
Where are you going?
We indicated that we’re looking for food.
They got all excited and gestured that we should follow them. And we did.
So there we were, being led through Giron with its white washed colonel-style buildings, across a park, to the non-colonial part of the town where these kids apparently live in, and in the meantime the conversations never ceased.
Sometimes multiple threads would be going on. I’d be talking to a kid about what her parents do (or trying to), and another one would grab me and start pointing at all the snacks on a stand talking slowly as if to a baby, ‘A-re-pas. Con hu-e-vo y queso. Eso es em-pa-na-das.’
Next we passed a fruit stall and the lesson continues, ‘Ba-na-na, man-za-na, ki-wi.’
They were laughing at our broken Spanish, and they were laughing when we couldn’t understand their Spanish.
I have to say, these kids were so darned charming they could charm the socks off of Kim-Jong-Il.
I personally think they were delighted to be the ones playing teachers for a chance.
Then they indicated that we’ve arrived at the restaurant of their choosing.
We were expecting your usual restaurant selling ‘set lunches’ filled with locals eating their lunch ya? Or something authentic or at least Colombian like that.
But we’d never expect them to take us to a Chinese restaurant.
Jack and I looked at each other, ‘I can’t believe they took us to a Chinese restaurant. Do you think it’s because I’m Asian?’, I wondered. Jack only shrugged.
Even though eating in a Chinese restaurant was the last thing we had in mind to do in Colombia, it was too late to back out. How could we, these kids looked mighty proud of themselves as if they’d just shown us the lost city of El Dorado.
They even helped us decide on the menu. See, we’ve mentioned somewhat in passing that we liked ‘camarones’ – shrimps. They spoke in rapid Spanish to the propietor and I heard ‘camarones’ mentioned many times. I think they were giving the owner instruction that whatever happened, we had to get our shrimp fix.
And as quick as they gathered, they shouted ‘Ciao’ with a huge smile and disappeared into different alleys towards their homes. Their good deed of the day accomplished.
So the propietor, who I’m sure was slightly confused at being invaded by two gringos and very noisy half a dozen kids, smiled awkwardly at us, pen ready.
‘Arroz con camarones? Dos?’
Here in Giron, the friendliness of the Colombian people come in pint size. But they’re potent.
And because of that, sometimes you’ll never know where a single ‘Hola’ would get you.
Where to stay in Giron: I don’t remember the name, but the hotel we stayed was right on the plaza (60000 COP).
How to get there: 15 min taxi from Bucaramanga bus station – 7500 COP