Don’s Bistro, Ha Noi

Vietnam has seen remarkable development in the last decade, in part fueled by a tourism boom. Along with economic growth, popular western TV shows like Top Gear, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and President Obama’s 2016 visit have put Vietnam in the international media spotlight, with a particularly focus on its cuisine.

The quality of Vietnam’s restaurants have skyrocketed recently driven by competition to satiate growing tourists’ foodie demands, overseas Vietnamese returning with new knowledge and experiences and celebrity foreign chefs opening restaurants.

While Smiling Albino certainly enjoys seeking out the tiny spots serving mama’s recipes and holes in the wall known only to a few, we also enjoy including a bit of pizazz into our dining experiences. Now is a delicious time to visit Vietnam, because the food scene here is growing up – and out – in a big way.

If you want a great starter for the world of Vietnamese food, let Smiling Albino introduce you to Duc Tran, more commonly known as Chef Duc. Leaving Vietnam at 15, he spent time in a Malaysian refugee camp, rode horses in Texas, backpacked through Europe, and surfed Australia and Latin America before coming back to Vietnam to put his own twist on cooking.

His three restaurants in Hoi An are reservation only, and his recipes mix old school ingredients with modern culinary trends. Private classes are a must; as you combine the ingredients you bought on a guided trip to the local market into a world-class meal, Chef Duc educates and entertains with the techniques he uses in his kitchens every day. Mango Mango overlooking the river in Hoi An is Chef Duc’s flagship restaurant and he has recently opened a fourth in Da Nang called Fat Fish.

Moving right along, you can treat yourself to a superb meal created by Vietnam’s only Michelin-starred chef, Pierre Gagnaire, at La Maison 1888 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Da Nang. Fresh ingredients – check. Chef laser-focused on your dining experience – check. Food created inline with a vision of culinary excellence – of course. In a recent interview, the chef said, “The InterContinental and I share a vision. The menu is a link between my philosophy, my style of cooking and this country.”

And not only is the food a veritable Venn diagram of cultures and tastes, but you can soak up some pretty serious historical vibes from the setting. The architecture of La Maison 1888 honors the French colonial style; French doors and pastel stucco keep the inside cozy while ornate balustrades and sweeping views from long verandas give your regular ol’ spring rolls a touch of majesty.

For a break from local cuisine, Don’s Bistro in Ha Noi by famed Montreal-born Chef Don Berger is the place to head to. An impressive menu of international and fusion specialties is complemented with fine oysters, an extensive wine cellar and a selection of premium cigars. Overlooking West Lake, the views are only surpassed by the great personal service. Don’s a good friend of ours and we can set you up with a memorable dining experience.

In Sai Gon, Xu Restaurant serves up modern Vietnamese in a lavish contemporary setting. Opened by Bien Nguyen who started in the industry as a dishwasher at 15 years old before opening his first restaurant in Australia at the age of 23, Xu has pioneered some experimental treatments of traditional Vietnamese dishes, and has found growing acceptance and appreciation by the Vietnamese culinary world. This is a great place to enjoy a special occasion or just a great meal.

And finally, you won’t find a more authentic Vietnamese dining experience outside of the one provided by Ms. Vy. A third-generation cook raised in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An, she takes the recipes passed down through her family and serves them up in one of her four restaurants. Still not impressed by all that slicing, dicing and wrapping? What if we told you that she opened Hoi An’s first cooking school catering to foreigners, in 1994? And also how she was chosen by celebrity chef/famous grumpy person Gordon Ramsay to take him food shopping in Hoi An’s sprawling Ben Thanh Market. Clearly she’s an expert in bridging cultures with food, and Smiling Albino guests that fall under her tutelage are sure to get the special treatment, and one hell of a meal.

When it comes to Vietnam dining experiences, there is so much more to write about, but these five options give you a small taste of what’s available. From narrow back alleys to sprawling French mansions, if you’re a fan of food in all its forms, Vietnam is now the place to be. Let us show you!

(see our related blog on the rise in popularity of the humble vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi)