Tasting Vietnamese food can feel like a journey in itself – from the umami punch of nuoc mam fish sauce to the tang of sweet chilli - often all in one bite. But to really know this regional cuisine we advise a physical journey, and what better way to do it than on Vietnam’s famous Reunification Express Railway?
On the rails
From Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, the Reunification line will take you over 1000 miles through lush green jungle and neatly tilled rice paddies, on mountain-hugging tracks that twist above bays and beaches on the shores of the South China Sea.
Built by the French in 1936, and shut down in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into North and South, the railway was bombed, broken up and abandoned during decades of war. But in 1976 Vietnam was reunified and the railway came back to life. Today it’s a 33-hour journey from Hanoi to Saigon, but many visitors hop on and off en-route to enjoy the sights and a cornucopia of endlessly inventive Vietnamese food.
Cultured, chaotic and captivating, the Vietnamese capital is an epicurean’s dream and the perfect place to start our Tasting Tour. Start with the classic Hanoi breakfast souppho(pronounced ‘fuh’), with silky rice noodles, spring onions, chillies, coriander, and beef (pho bo) or chicken (pho ga). For a tasty variation try Pho Thin restaurant, which stir-fries its meat in garlic before adding it to the fragrant broth.
13 Lò Dúc, Ha Ba Trung District, Hanoi
Another Hanoi staple is Bun Cha – grilled pork and rice noodle soup with fresh herbs – which US President Barack Obama and food writer Anthony Bourdain enjoyed at Bún Chà Hu’ong Liên with a Vietnamese fried roll and cold Hanoi Beer (now known as the Obama Combo) for under $4.
Stop for a refreshing Vietnamese egg coffee at the extraordinary Railway Café, directly on the tracks, and chat to owner Thao about her competitive eating feats while you wait for a train to rumble perilously by.
The Railway Cafe
26, 10 Bien Bien Phu, Cua Nam, Ba Dinh, HanoiWebsite
For dinner, head to the bustling Old Quarter, and Thai Dat for a thrilling street BBQ of grilled shrimp, crab, beef, chicken and even frog. And for more street food treats, check out the Weekend Night Market, or take a tour through hidden alleyways and secret nooks around Dong Xuan Marketwith Urban Adventures.
66 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Bed down on the night train from Hanoi, and you’ll wake up to one of the most spectacular scenic stretches of coastal railway in the world between Hue and Da Nang. Alight at Da Nang and get a taxi to historic Hoi An. Once a major port of the Cham Kingdom, now a charming but lively UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An’s food culture is legendary.
Bale Well restaurant will bamboozle you with banh xeo - a Hoi An speciality of crispy crepes stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts – which are then stuffed with grilled pork satay (nem nuong) spring rolls (ram cuon) and more grilled pork (thit nuong), not to mention various splashes of sweet, hot and fishy sauce.
45/51 Tran Hung Dao St., Hoi An
The vibrant Central Market food hall has a multitude of stalls, and is a fine place to try Hoi An creations such as cao lau - a pork noodle dish with greens - and banh bao banh vac or ‘white rose’ shrimp dumplings.
Nguyen Hue and Tran Phu Streets, Hoi An
Before getting back on the train, domn’t miss an opportunity to stock up on Vietnamese baguettes or banh mi at another Anthony Bourdain haunt, Banh Mi Puong.
While less spectacular than the previous leg, the 17-hour journey from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City will keep you fed at least. A trolley does the rounds with steaming hot rice with grilled meats and sausages, plus much-needed coffee. Your final destination, Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as most locals still call it, is bustling and booming. Neon-lit skyscrapers give Saigon a Blade Runner vibe, but the food is grounded in tradition, and frequently delicious.
Vinh Khanh is a specialist seafood street full of carts and restaurants, and Oc Oanh is its highlight with its succulent grilled octopus and chilli crab.
534 Vinh Khanh, Ward 8, District 4, Ho Chi Minh City
Explore more street food with a motorbike tour, then learn how to cook the dishes yourself with Saigon Cooking Class. Alternatively, go upmarket at Quan An Ngon restaurant, and try southern Vietnamese specialities, such as mud snails in coconut milk (oc len xao due) in an ornately rennovated mansion.
Quan An Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ho Chi Minh CityWebsite
If by this stage, you need a break from all that great Vietnamese food, head for Quan Ut Ut (Restaurant Oink Oink) for an American BBQ feast of cashew-smoked pork ribs or a John Holmes Footlong Hotdog, washed down with a craft beer from Saigon’s own Pasteur Street Brewing Co (which also has three taprooms in the city).
Quan Ut Ut
168 Vo Van Kiet, Phuong Cau Ong Lanh, Ho Chi Minh CityWebsite