Riding a scooter through the streets of Hanoi in Vietnam is one of those things I’ve always wanted to do but was too afraid to attempt. Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2017 New Yorker profile of Anthony Bourdain described it thusly, “Bourdain told me that the only way to see Hanoi was on the back of a scooter: ‘To be anonymous, another helmeted figure in the middle of a million little dramas and comedies happening on a million bikes moving through this amazing city – every second is pure joy.’”
And pure joy is how I would describe my recent conversation with Thanh Huynh, Elsewhere by Lonely Planet's local expert in Vietnam. Along with his business partner Tuan Pham, Thanh creates food-focused itineraries that celebrate Vietnam’s diverse cuisine and culture. Read on to learn more about these unique culinary experiences.
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9 delicious days in Vietnam
Eat, learn, repeat on a food-focused trip through Vietnam crafted by local expert Thanh Huynh for Elsewhere by Lonely Planet. Here are some highlights from one of their recent trips.
1. Hop on a Vespa
On your first night in Saigon, you’ll climb on the back of a scooter and head into the city center to taste the diverse flavors of the market, like a Chinese roasted duck and a French baguette.
2. Go deep into the Mekong Delta
Enter Bên Tre Province and island-hop on a small-boat tour in the Mekong Delta, which includes a stop at an artisan workshop and lunch with a local farming family.
3. Take the slow train to Huê
This rail journey to Huê is among the most beautiful in Southeast Asia. Enjoy coastal and rural views and buy snacks from vendors who hop on along the way.
4. Spend the day (and night) on Hạ Long Bay
Cruise the glorious waters in the less-touristy area of Lan Ha Bay and take in stunning scenery. Kayak into a sea cave and sip cocktails while the sun sets.
5. Enjoy a meal with a Hanoi family
On your last night dine en famille and savor some chả cá, a freshwater fish marinated in a slew of fragrant spices that's a specialty of the city.
Read more: The best time to visit Vietnam
Ask an insider: Q&A with Thanh Huynh
Spend some time getting to know Thanh Huynh, local expert and lifelong champion of Vietnam’s culture.
When did you first get the travel bug?
I was born and raised in Vietnam. When I was 18, I just said to my family, “I’ll travel.” My family at that time was like, “What does that mean? Traveling?” And I said it means I put some of my clothes in a bag and I’m leaving.
Amazing! Where did you go?
That is when I traveled all over Vietnam. Then later I decided to move to France and started working in hospitality. The last hotel job I had there was being on the opening team of the Mandarin Oriental in Paris. I was totally convinced by the philosophy of the brand, the personalized service.
Then you moved back to Vietnam?
Yes. I thought the country had huge potential for tourism, especially in terms of food. You can travel 14 days from North to South Vietnam and not eat the same food every day. I’m very lucky being born into a foodie family, they cooked all the time. We recently hosted a home-cooked feast for 350 people. I was in charge of the sauces. This is our tradition.
Why do you think Vietnam is such a great foodie destination?
It’s family food, comfort food. My family is originally from the north, and when I go home I immediately go to the local place for a bowl of phở. This is the right time to talk about Vietnamese food. People [here] are totally foodies without knowing – it’s in our DNA.
What is specifically Vietnamese in terms of ingredients?
Like the French, we do have terroir in Vietnam. The rice from the Mekong Delta [for example], people will pay three times more to get that specific rice from a particular village. The same with teas from the north. It’s all very unique, but there hasn’t been good communication about this aspect of Vietnam.
How would you characterize the food?
It’s fusion. In Saigon, there’s a quintessential spring roll with jicama that was brought in from Mexico, Chinese sausage and sweet Thai basil. You can only find this dish in Saigon. There’s also Cantonese dim sum, but with fermented soy from the north of Vietnam instead of the usual soy sauce and vinegar. This is diversity. There is such a mix of cultures; it’s very blended.
Is it ever a little too much food?
When my friends come to visit, we eat a lot, but still get hungry. You’re not ever overly full because Vietnamese food is very light, very healthy. And always fresh.