L’Usine combines French and Vietnamese flavors. // © 2016 L’Usine
Feature image (above): In Siem Reap, Cambodia, Cuisine Wat Damnak serves unique Cambodian cuisine with local ingredients. // © 2016 Cuisine Wat Damnak
In the days leading up to my Viking cruise along the Mekong River, I pictured myself standing on an elegant wooden deck as views of the famous waterway and neighboring jungle slipped by. I daydreamed about wandering the mysterious temples of Cambodia and experiencing Vietnam’s renaissance in the dizzying street life of Saigon.
But, if I’m being honest, the real driving force behind my enthusiasm was the food. Vietnamese cuisine is, in my opinion, one of the world’s most delectable, with influences from all over Asia and France. And Cambodia’s dishes draw heavily from Thailand and India, making its underrated cuisine a serendipitous treat.
Plus, the food in these regions is headline-making: Even President Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain paid a visit to one of the following recommended spots in Hanoi this year. These are the places worthy of jumping ship for food while cruising the Mekong River.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City’s culinary scene pulses with new restaurants and flavors. For my first stop, I headed to Propaganda, a stylish hot spot for expats. The spring rolls with homemade tofu typify the restaurant’s modern take on classic Vietnamese. Another fun option is L'Usine, a local reinvention of a traditional French boulangerie. My banh mi sandwich — the ultimate fusion of French and Vietnamese flavors — was close to perfection.
After sightseeing, I visited Pasteur Street Brewing Company, the country’s first microbrewery and an eye-opening example of how trendy southern Vietnam has become. The iconic Hotel Caravelle is great to migrate to for happy hour. Sip stiff drinks as the foreign correspondents did 50 years ago and take in dramatic views that showcase the rapid transformation of the city.
For dinner, The Racha Room is a carnivore’s delight, with fresh lamb and beef flown in from Australia and New Zealand. For more traditional Vietnamese, the legendary Cha Ca La Vong serves a single, eponymous dish: delicately fried white fish and noodles with lots of dill and turmeric. I saved my street food binge for a late-night snack at Mai Xuan Canh in District 1. It is raucous and conveniently located and features eight different types of chicken pho alone.
Sa Dec, Vietnam
Upriver, the tranquil city of Sa Dec beckons with the most colorful street market I encountered during my visit to Southeast Asia. A walking tour along the riverfront is a feast for the senses. I was overwhelmed by the colorful produce, spices and scents, as well as the shockingly de-feathered fowl, and quickly realize that a full kitchen would be required to properly sample everything.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh isn’t as accessible as other stops on the river, but the adventurous foodie will be amply rewarded. I escaped the crowded bars by the river via a tuk tuk to Malis Restaurant for an exquisite introduction to Khmer cooking. I sampled the national dishes, fish amok (fresh fish in coconut curry) and fish prahok, served in tangy, fermented fish paste. At lunch the next day, Frizz on burgeoning 240th street does the trick with its banana blossom salad. The heat in Phnom Penh can be stifling, so be sure to indulge in ice cream and coconut water at Blue Pumpkin.
For the evening meal, Romdeng is an excellent choice. This eatery is a culinary school set in a colonial villa, run by Friends International, an non-governmental organization that trains disadvantaged youth.
For after-dinner drinks, Le Moon offers dizzying views of bustling streets while Elephant Bar in Raffles Hotel Le Royal provides an old-school, elegant ambiance. Case in point: The signature Femme Fatale cocktail is named after Jackie Kennedy’s visit in 1967.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
My favorite travel finds happen when one thing leads unexpectedly to another. In Siem Reap, the lunch spot that I arrived at was unfortunately closed. With time on my hands I ducked into the quirky Wa Gallery next door. Its friendly French owner recommends Mie Cafe, calls a cab and sends me to food heaven.
Set in the lush garden of Mie Cafe, I feasted on crab chowder with fresh Mekong crabmeat in a creamy coconut and pea emulsion, curried beef with pumpkin and scallop seaweed salad with palm fruit. For special occasions, Cuisine Wat Damnak is the premier spot, with an award-winning tasting menu that changes every two weeks. After such rich food, Miss Wong Cocktail Bar on The Lane is an ideal spot to enjoy a quiet cocktail while people-watching on the nearby and chaotic Pub Street.
When power duo Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain go out for a simple meal, the world takes notice. During Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam, the pair ate at Bun Cha Huong Lien to indulge in bun cha, grilled pork patties and noodles in a sweet broth.
After lunch, I recommend searching for hidden gem Cafe Pho Co, located at 11 Hang Gai. Enter through the Silklike shop, walk through the secret courtyard and climb the steep stairs to the rooftop cafe with unobstructed views of Hoan Kiem Lake. The coffee with egg whites is so creamy that it’s practically a meal.
Finally, no trip to Hanoi is complete without a visit to the five-star Metropole Hotel, where novelist Graham Greene wrote “The Quiet American” in 1951. As I sipped his signature cocktail in the colonial-era Bamboo Bar, I reflected on this delicious, vibrant corner of the world and vowed to return soon.