Author: Hong Thu Vo
Photo: Amachau

When visiting the port city of Hai Phong, you’re sure to be tempted by a vast array of street foods. The diverse cuisine offers a taste of the city’s sun, wind, and even the characteristics of the local people.

Hai Phong's most famous soup is as colorful as it is tasty

Everyone’s first choice: Bánh đa cua.

Just as Hanoi is known for the best pho, Hue for the best bún bò, and Saigon for the best hủ tiếu, Hai Phong is the place to enjoy bánh đa cua. Hai Phong’s version is beautifully presented with a variety of ingredients, including wide reddish-brown bánh đa noodles, a brown layer of tomalley (crab liver paste), red tomatoes, green chả lá lốt (meat wrapped in la lot leaves), golden meatballs, crisp golden fried shallots, and bright green scallions. It takes work and skill to present a perfect bowl of bánh đa cua, with a clear, hearty broth full of chewy noodles, tender la lot-wrapped meat, and a sweet crab aroma.

While the best-known spot for this Hai Phong delicacy is at Bà Cụ Bistro on Cầu Đất Street, you will find many eateries serving delicious bánh đa cua, including those on the corners of Hàng Kênh Market, and in Lửa Hồng Alley (off Tôn Đức Thắng Street).

The secret to this eye-catching summer salad lies in its special vinegar sauce

A summer delicacy: Nộm sứa đỏ

Flame jellyfish (sứa đỏ), a delicacy from the nearby sea, is a charming specialty of this region. After cleaning, the jellyfish is cut into two-knuckle-length pieces with a bamboo knife. This helps the jellyfish retain its flavor without tasting too fishy. These jellyfish appear in Hai Phong’s waters from early summer to late June, making them a rare seasonal ingredient. Calling this salad “a summer delicacy” is correct, since there’s nothing as enjoyable as eating cool slices of jellyfish in hot and humid weather.

“You can’t enjoy this salad without mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste),” one connoisseur advised me. However, in Hai Phong, fermented shrimp paste is less popular with jellyfish salad than bỗng (a type of vinegar). Also known as dấm bỗng or bỗng rượu, this sour vinegar is popular in northern Vietnam, where it is fermented from hèm (spent grains). This sauce is quite easy to make: cook sticky rice, mix in some yeast, add water, and brew the mixture into wine. The left-over rice is called hèm.

Afterward, the bỗng is boiled and seasoned with mẻ (fermented rice), ground galangal, stewed tomatoes, and other spices. Tapioca starch is added to thicken the mixture. Finally, grated coconut is sprinkled on to create an exquisite sauce for an exquisite dish – flame jellyfish salad.

No trip to Hai Phong is complete without sampling these crispy crab rolls

Nostalgia for the harbor town: Nem vuông

Thanks to the city’s seaside location, Hai Phong locals have created nem vuông (square spring rolls) – a delicious specialty full of ocean flavors. Also known as nem cua bể (crab spring rolls), this famous dish has two indispensable ingredients – mud crab and shrimp, the finest of which can be bought at Cat Hai. To retain the meat’s sweetness, real “Hai-Phong-ers” always steam the shrimp and crab for about 15 minutes. The meat is mixed with shiitake and wood-ear mushrooms, ground pork, eggs, glass noodles, bean sprouts, and pepper. This mixture is shaped into large, square pieces, wrapped in rice paper, and deep-fried in a pan.

The spring rolls must be eaten hot, or they will lose their flavor. The sauce should be light with hints of sour, savory, sweet, and spicy flavors. It should be made long before eating so that all of the ingredients, which include fish sauce, vinegar, garlic, pepper, chili, and sugar, have time to fuse together. The accompanying herbs must be fresh, clean, and well-chosen.

From preparation to eating, nem vuông is a savory and elaborate specialty. The best rolls have a thin and crispy crust that melts in diners’ mouths. The crust should not be too hard. Local connoisseurs claim that the best rice papers for this delicacy come from Chều Village in Hà Nam province, which has produced them for over 700 years. While nem vuông are now found on the menu of many restaurants in big cities, anyone who has eaten them in Hai Phong will confirm this is the best place to enjoy this specialty. Good nem cua eateries can be found in many places in Hai Phong, including at Cát Bi and Cố Đạo Markets, and Bà Cụ Bistro at Cầu Đất.