Vietnamese cuisine is one of the world’s healthiest. 

Pho, a flat rice noodle soup, is a nutritionist’s dream. The beef or chicken provide protein, the herbs and vegetables provide fibers, vitamins, minerals, and the spices, chili, or lemon provide antioxidants. If you drink the broth, that’s a good source of vitamins as well. The base of the soup is either beef bones (pho bo) or chicken bones (pho ga).

A chef makes banh xeo at Banh Xeo 46A restaurant in District 1, HCMC – PHOTO: PETER KAUFFNER

Hu tieu is also a flat rice noodle soup, but uses pork bones as a base. As a personality binary, celebrities get asked, “Pho or hu tieu?” Pho bo is the characteristic soup of the North, bun bo (rice noodle and beef) the central region, and hu tieu the South. HCMC has many signs advertising hu tieu Nam Vang – southern-style hu tieu. It’s sweeter than hu tieu My Tho, which uses chewy rice.

While pho tastes pretty much the same as good old chicken noodle soup, Vietnam does have more exciting foods. When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain arrived in HCMC, he went straight to Banh Xeo 46A, an outdoor restaurant in the Tan Dinh market area at 46A Dinh Cong Trang Street in District 1.

Banh xeo translates as rice pancake. “Banh” means cake while “xeo” means sizzle. But it isn’t a sizzling cake, at least not when it is served. The name refers to the loud sound that the dough makes when it hits the skillet.

The rice-based dough is gluten free, dairy free and egg free, and thus healthier than wheat-based alternatives. After the crepe is fried until crispy, it gets stuffed with grilled pork, bean sprouts, shrimp, red chili, and garlic. Then it is folded in half.

But rice isn’t yellow, you say. Why is the crepe yellow? The color is from turmeric, which is added to the dough. Turmeric is quite a trendy spice these days. It is promoted as having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Oxidants are associated with ageing.

Banh mi, or sandwiches, is a popular and delicious Vietnamese fast food. It is based on French bread, so there is less to be said for it nutritionally. Viette Banh Mi at 8 Nguyen Thi Nghia Street makes an outstanding “king sized” banh mi.

Bun cha, or grilled pork and rice noodles, is another you-gotta-try-this-while-you’re-in-Vietnam food.  “Bun” means rice noodle while “cha” means rolls. You dip a ball of grilled fatty pork into a “dipping sauce.” The dish is associated with Hanoi, but there are bun cha restaurants everywhere in Vietnam. Bun Cha 54 is at 54 Dinh Tien Hoang Street in District 1.

If you’ve had enough of healthy eating and Vietnamese food, HCMC has its share of rib restaurants, including Quan Ut Ut at 168 Vo Van Kiet Street and Jake’s BBQ at 50 Pasteur Street. Nothing beats the taste of barbequed ribs. These are high priced, at least by the standards of HCMC.

The Pham Ngu Lao precinct, especially the area around De Tham Street, has an impressive collection of internationally oriented restaurants, including Italian and Indian restaurants. KFC is quite popular in Vietnam. Other chains, including Lotte, McDonald’s, and Texas chicken, have made limited inroads as well.

33 De Tham Restaurant gets great reviews as a seafood restaurant. Bun rieu, or crab and tomato noodle soup, is Vietnam’s outstanding seafood.

While Japanese food often gets top honors as the world’s healthiest cuisine, Vietnam’s body mass index of 21.6 and 1% obesity is actually better than Japan’s BMI of 22.6 and 3.5% obesity. Sadly, the next generation is growing up fatter. Vietnamese aged 2 to 19 have an obesity rate of 6.8%.

A large bowl of pho is about 650 calories, banh xeo is 658 calories, a pork sandwich (banh mi thit) is 300 calories, a deep fried spring roll is 200, and a glass of ice coffee is 129. A moderately active adult woman should eat 2,000 calories a day while similar male should eat around 2,500. Nutritionists recommend staying away from spareribs and other grilled meats with dripping sauces as these are likely to contain coconut or peanut. SGT

Peter Kauffner

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