I really only had two things I “knew” about Vietnamese food before I hit the ground in Hanoi.
1.) I knew a lot of people who like Pho.
2.) Vietnamese people liked cilantro… and I don't.
I can say that I now know more about Vietnamese food. I can even give some recommendations:
1.) If you are ever in Hanoi for lunch (and you eat pork), get Bún Chả. It is a bowl of heaven. A bowl broth with pork meatballs and small pieces of pork belly (uncured bacon) that have been roast over an open charcoal fire. A plate of herbs and a plate of rice noodles to dip in the broth. And of course some garlic and chilies for flavor.
Cooking up some Bún Chả pork balls.
2.) Vietnamese coffee is really yummy. Both hot and iced.
Slow drip coffee using a phin and sweetened condensed milk.
3.) I now understand why my friends like phỏ. Simple rich broth with noodles, a bit of meat, often beef or chicken, and some green onions (and in the north no cilantro!!!!) this could fit into that world of grounding foods that also work as a comfort food when you aren't feeling well.
4.) Hue has some great regional foods. Bún bò Huế is a spicy variation on phỏ that has the rich goodness of beef phỏ with an added kick. But for me the star was nem lụi. Pork skewers (kind of like a meat ball or sausage on a chopstick) with herbs, sauces, and a rice paper to wrap the whole thing up.
5.) Bánh mì is a great street food. French baguettes filled with an assortment of yumminess. Had a few of these in Saigon… not sure what was in them, but I would try any variety I could find. One had a lot of cilantro, and I didn't mind the taste of it. That is about the highest cilantro praise you will ever hear from me!
(I have pictures on my camera of Bánh mì… I'll it up soon…)
6.) The two least good meals I had were in restaurants. Most of my meals were consumed while folded on to a tiny plastic stool in the middle of sidewalk. Street food is the way to go. It occasionally does manifest in a case of Delhi belly or Montazuma's revenge or 拉肚子 (Lā dùzi… The evocative Chinese phrase: “pulling of the stomach”), it is totally worth it.