The Flavour of Vietnam: What you must eat in the south

Food is my forte (correction, downfall!) However, as controversial as it is to say, despite living in Vietnam for over a year now I’ve not been a huge lover of Vietnamese food… that is until my recent trip to southern Vietnam. I’m not sure why I haven’t gelled with the cuisine before now, perhaps because it’s not overly moorish (unless laced with MSG). Since being on this trip I’ve not had a single Western meal and feel great for it – I’ve learnt a lot about the flavours of Vietnam, the classics, the accompaniments, the techniques, the freshness and understand at last why it’s becoming a food trend back home.

The flavours in southern Vietnamese food definitely steer more towards the extremes: sweeter, sourer, saltier and spicier. Whilst I’m a sucker for classic northern dishes (mmm Bun Cha), I would actually go as far as to say I prefer the taste of the South.

In Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City, here are some dishes I thoroughly enjoyed eating:


In Con Dao we relished in eating fresh sea food every day. It’s just about all you can eat on the island, and is freshly caught every day:

 

In central Vietnam there is much more of a noticeable presence of sugar. Food taste sweeter and sticker. If you are visiting Hoi An you MUST try the local speciality Cao Lau – only 20,000 VND from the market!

 

 

 

All of the dishes below are typical dishes you will find on the menu all over Vietnam, but it’s interesting noticing the differences and you travel up/down the country. These are:

  • Bun Thit Nuong – noodles, salad, slow-roasted pork in a sweet sauce covered in peanuts
  • Banh My – The classic Vietnamese sandwich (pate, meat, salad picked veg, coriander, sweet chilli sauce)
  • Pho Bo – Beef noodle soup, with spring onions and salad leaves (make sure you squeeze a lime or two in!)
  • Pho Ga – the same as above but with Chicken (personally prefer the beef i think)
  • Com Chay – My favourite way of eating in Vietnam – you are given a large portion of sticky rice and can point to which of the many toppings they have
  • Com Tam – Very similar to Com Chay except it is broken rice rather than sticky
  • Com Rang – Fried rice which usually comes with a meat or veg
  • My Xao – Stir fried egg noodles with a meat or veg
  • Nem – The Vietnamese classic deep fried spring rools

 

All of the dishes above should not cost you between 25,000-50,000 VND depending where you are. Often the rougher looking places are some of the best as they are more authentic home-cooked meals … don’t judge a book by it’s cover!

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Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

Con Dao Islands are Vietnam’s best kept secret. Occasionally surfacing in Lonely Planet’s ultimate top secret destinations, or a small mention in the travel section of newspapers, Con Dao islands are every bit as sensational as described and yet waiting to hit the big time amongst tourists who seem to bi-pass it.

While few have been, it’s certainly not exclusive (unless you stay in the Six Senses Hotel that is). So why isn’t Con Dao more popular now? Currently, getting to Con Dao is either too expensive, or a bit of a mission. A flight from Ho Chi Minh City will set you back about $150 but only take 45 minutes, whereas the bus/boat option is a 15 hour journey but will only cost $15 (for more information on this option, check out my post on Getting to/from Con Dao. Believe me though, it’s 100% worth the expense or effort.

The main island has a sleepy serenity about it which is somewhat mesmerizing. Look left and you’ll see the intimidating, jungle-covered mountains, look right and you’ll see white sandy beaches boasting bands of shades of blue all the way to the horizon – making Con Dao feel like the tropical set for Jurassic Park. The main town, Con Son, is equally as idyllic as the nature surrounding it: designed by the French, there is certainly a European feel about the tree-lined streets, colonial bungalows and landscaped promenades. As we walked through the snoozey and shady little town we realised we were the only tourists enjoying Con Dao. The locals are equally as curious of you and your foreign appearance, you almost feel like you’re the first to discover this incredible secret … but not for long!

 

Whilst Con Dao truly is heaven on earth, there’s a sinister history which is still very much present on the island. Con Dao was used as a prison island for the French during their occupation and by the Southern Vietnamese/American troops to hold northern Vietnamese during the war in the 1960’s.  Con Dao is home to the famous ‘Tiger Cages’ – cells with a caged roof to be monitored by guards, and numerous prisons which committed brutal and atrocious torture techniques on it’s prisoners. Amazingly, the Con Dao museum, French prison and American prison are all free to enter and are well worth the visit as they are harrowing ruins adjacent to blissful coastline – it’s slightly disconcerting looking over your shoulder to see what looks like a concentration camp behind you whilst you’re reclining on the beach!

 

Things to do:

  • Beach! There are plenty of beaches around the island, most of which are accessible by motorbike. The most famous beach is up by the airport called Dam Trau (which has sun loungers and cafes), but I wouldn’t say it was the best. Personally I prefer Nhat beach for it’s turquoise waters on the south side of the island
  • Go and spot Sea Turtles from the Historic Pier – This is a real possibility! We showed up at the rocks at the end of the pier around 5pm each evening and after a few minutes we saw the ginormous, friendly beasts come up for a gulp of air
  • The Con Dao Museum – free entry and an interesting history of Con Dao
  • Diving – it is possible to do diving and snorkelling trips for as little as $40 for the whole day

Eating Out:

In terms of eating out, come to Con Dao with a love for sea food and low expectations for swanky dining. Whilst tourism is certainly present here, the catering is definitely geared towards the Vietnamese pallet, with plenty of sea food joints and street food options. That said, the seafood is sublime at Tri Ky restaurant (I highly recommend the sweet and sour squid) or if you fancy something a little more budget/authentic head to Trần Huy Liệu street for bbq’d fish which was lip-smackingly delicious. Alternatively a quirky western-style restaurant is Infiniti Cafe & Lounge if you need a fix of home comforts or wish to sample their tasty cocktails! At lunch time locals seem to retreat to their hammocks for a long siesta, so make sure you have a hearty breakfast as lunch options are very limited! I highly recommend making the most of the delicious fruits in the market and the goregously rich coffee’s cafe’s have to offer.

Accommodation:

We stayed in two hotels while we were on the island. Red Hotel was 600,000 VND/per night for a very comfortable double bedroom in close proximity to the beach, museum and prison, whereas the Hai An hotel was a little more basic, but still very comfortable for 500,000/ per night and was adjacent to the market.

I really did just have the most incredible, and unexpected, escape in Con Dao. I am truly astonished that not more people visit the islands, as they are pure paradise, despite being a little bit out of the way. If you’re looking to avoid crowds of foreigners, strips of resorts, and prefer a more natural beach  experience then put Con Dao on your bucket list NOW!

Getting to/from Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

When investigating how to get to Con Dao islands, I was amazed at how limited and dated information and content there was online. Even travel agents in HCMC advised not taking public transport and instead promoted the  extortionate flight (4.5 million VND each way, ouch!)… However, we made it!

Here’s how to get to Con Dao:

  • Go to the Phuong Trang bus terminal on 272 Đề Thám, Quận in the backpacker area (office is on the opposite side of the street) and book a bus from HCMC to Vung Tao for 95,000 VND – buses run on the hour for most of the day
  • Arrive at the bus station 30 minutes before scheduled departure (this is important because our mini-bus arrived early!) 
  • The Phuong Trang mini-bus will take you to one of their depots round the corner and will usher you on to the correct coach when it arrives shortly after – the coach from HCMC to Vung Tao takes 2 hours 15 minutes with a 10 minute food/toilet break
  • When you arrive at the Phuong Trang bus station in Vung Tao tell the receptionist to Con Dao. They will arrange a mini bus to take you to another bus depot in Vung Tao (for free) which is about a 10 minute drive away closer to the port (it’s important to note that if you fail at getting a boat ticket to Con Dao you can return to this bus depot which has buses departing back to HCMC, Mui Ne, Da Lat and so on)
  • Once at this other depot, you will need to pay 30,000 VND for a driver to take you to the port (about another 15 minute drive) in a mini bus, alternatively you could take a taxi straight form the main Vung Tao bus station but it’s about a 20 minute drive it total which may be a little pricey if you’re on a backpacker’s budget
  • Boats to and from Con Dao leave at 5pm each day and arrive at 5-6am the next morning. A ticket will cost you 150,000 VND. Basic food and some drinks are served onboard but I would advise taking your own provisions
  • Get on board and enjoy the view! When the boat arrives there are large tuc-tuc’s to fit about 8 people in which charge 40,000 VND per person to take you to your hotel. It’s worth having one booked for when you arrive

Overall I was really impressed with the coach service and quite astonished by the quality of the overnight boat, but most of all surprised that not more people take advantage of this cheap transport method to get to the most beautiful islands in the world! It may seem like a mission but it’s definitely worth it!

One thing to note is that you are very much the only white people/person on board. If you’re a solo female traveller or in an all-girl group I’d advise being a little wary as you draw a lot of attention which you may not want. A lot of the men and women are curious about western looks as tourists are far and few between, I caught a woman filming me eating noodles which felt a bit odd… in other  words just be a little more on guard than normal.

 

Here’s how to leave Con Dao:

Leaving Con Dao Islands by boat is a similar process to arriving. However, boats fill up very quickly leaving the islands; we were caught out by a Vietnamese public holiday which meant our 3 day stay turned into a week-long trip (although I’m definitely not complaining!) As soon as you know when you would like to leave, I recommend that you go to the ticket office and book your boat. The opening hours for the Con Dao ticket office are 8.00am-10.00am every day, but there is often a queue by 9.00am so try and get there as early as possible. Return tickets also cost 150,000 VND.

When it comes to the day you depart, speak to your hotel about arranging transport to the harbour. A taxi will cost about 230,000 VND, or a small shuttle bus/tuc-tuc will cost 50,000 VND.

When you arrive into Vung Tao there are plenty of taxis ready to take you to the town centre. We took a taxi from the port to the Vung Tao bus station (address: Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh) for 130,000 VND with a Mahalin taxi. Here there are plenty of buses Ho Chi Minh and other southern destinations (Mui Ne, Da Lat, etc.), but if you find yourself with a long wait there are plenty of places to grab some food or wifi nearby.

To read more about my travel experiences in Con Dao, click here: thetravellingtapir.com/con-dao-islands-vietnam