From Australia, Ninh Binh - a small city in northern Vietnam - seems like a million miles away.
In Luke Nguyen’s Railway Vietnam, Nguyen describes Ninh Binh as being home to “some of the most majestic natural landscapes in all of South-East Asia”.
“The cast limestone scene is just truly breathtaking and as you get lost and everywhere you turn, it seems like you just get caught up in nature's wonderland. It's just absolutely stunning.”
The food of Ninh Binh takes it cues from its natural landscape - the sea, forests and mountains. Betel leaf (a type of vine), crab, goat, braised fish and rice crust with shredded meat are some of the most popular - and traditional - options.
In Ninh Binh, Nguyen uses a wok and a little sauté of garlic, lemongrass, a bit of chilli, spring onions and tosses fresh crab and betel leaves to make a quick, vibrant meal.
Not quite a million kilometres away (it’s actually 5,904km), is Perth. On paper, the two places don’t have much in common but the influences of Ninh Binh can be found in many of Perth’s Vietnamese cafes and restaurants. Enjoy the freshness of northern ingredients in signature seafood items and dishes like goat meat curry in Australia’s most isolated city.
Extremely popular with locals, this eatery, which is tucked away in the Bon Marche Arcade - one of Perth’s oldest arcades - serves up tasty and affordable meals. Their banh mi options are among the city’s most sought-after, with fresh ingredients a priority and an ever-changing menu to keep things interesting. Try the soft-shell crab banh mi for a taste of Ninh Binh and plenty of meat-free options too.
While many Vietnamese cafes and restaurants in Australia have a reputation for being affordable and quick, Lido is a more upmarket offering, although it’s far from ‘stuffy’. It’s also one of the few Vietnamese eateries in Perth that offers goat (with its Cà ri dê, or goat curry). Along with traditional dishes that populate most Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, Lido also offers some more unexpected offerings, such as stir-fried sea cucumber, cola-cooked chicken and even fried crocodile.
The physical space of this tuckshop may be quite small, but it packs in big flavour. A popular lunchtime spot, the menu - like its seating space - is compact but carries a vibrant selection of pho, rice paper rolls, banh mi and vermicelli noodle salads to transport you to a street-side meal in Vietnam.
Another Perth staple that’s popular with locals who queue to get a seat at lunchtime, Mama Tran has a big menu that focuses on noodles served every way possible - in salads, soups and even dry-style. Pick your options and pair them with braised pork, prawns, chicken or beef. There’s also a sizeable vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu, providing options for almost everyone.
A mix of traditional and modern Vietnamese, Phi Yen has a loyal following thanks to its generous servings and fresh ingredients. Get your crab fix through its asparagus and crab soup, or sweet corn and crab soup, plus there’s lots of options for scallops and other seafood. It’s worth saving some room for dessert: Banh Tet Chuoi, which is a banana and sticky rice cake served with coconut cream sauce, is a top choice.
Follow our Vietnamese food crawl from the south of Australia to the north. For an on-the-ground Vietnamese food crawl catch the new series of Luke Nguyen’s Railway Vietnam where he travels from the south to the north of the country, chatting, tasting and cooking along the way. Watch it 7:30pm on SBS and Sundays at 9pm on SBS Food from 5 2019 December to 30 January 2020 or on SBS On Demand.