I used to be one of those snarky people who said things like: "I can't imagine why anyone would travel all the way to Asia, only to eat pizza when they can get it at home." In fact, we recently met a person who said exactly that, and I finally got the chance to hear how obnoxious it sounds.
Turns out, there are lots of valid reasons to eat pizza in Vietnam. For instance, you could be intimidated by eating completely unfamiliar dishes in a foreign country, or, perhaps, you're just not much of a foodie and want something easy and familiar. Or, you could have a weak stomach or traveler's diarrhea and need something simple. Maybe, you really love pizza and are on a mission to find the best pizza in every country (which sounds awesome, so someone please start a blog about this already). You might have an eating disorder with associated food phobias. Or, you could be a long-term traveler craving a little variety and a taste of home.
We arrived in Saigon over four months ago for a year+ adventure through SE Asia, and it was all I could do not to leap out of a moving cab toward the first bánh mì stall we passed. We were in sensory overload tasting everything in-country for the first time, and it was all mind-blowingly delicious.
Over time, we've discovered our favorite, go-to dishes and can now distinguish stellar versions from not-so-great ones. In the process, we've developed taste bud fatigue. Vietnam boasts an incredible number of dishes, and while they can vary from region to region and even food stall to food stall, the flavor profile is essentially the same.
We started to crave both variety and a taste of home... a good pizza, for instance.
We've tried pizza all over Vietnam, from small towns to the capital of Hanoi, from big chains to mom and pop shops (as most businesses are in Vietnam), from tourist hotspots to the middle of nowhere.
Folks, it is a bad scene. The tomato sauce is usually intensely sweet, the cheese non-existent, and the crust. Oh... the crust. One place actually called its crust a "tortilla-like, flatbread base." I. JUST. CAN'T.
Unequivocally, the best pizza can be found at Pizza Chi in Cao Bằng, a town in the northern province of the same name. Pizza Chi broke all the rules (Western food made by a local in a non-touristy place can almost guarantee a horror show), but it was a sublime discovery.
- The crust: Call me crazy, but I don't really believe in thin crust vs. thick crust. I believe in the right crust. It should be thin enough that I get more than just a mouthful of bread with a dab of flavor, but thick enough to be a sturdy and worthy vessel for the toppings. It should have a good balance of chew and crispness, with a blackened blister or two on the bottom. This was the right crust, and made in a wood burning oven (with local wood) no less. Perfection.
- The sauce: Namely, it wasn't a sugar bomb like it often is in Vietnam. It's made daily and is pure tomato-y goodness, applied with a light hand. Also, it wasn't a sugar bomb. Did I mention it wasn't a sugar bomb?
- The cheese: A combination of mozzarella and parmesan (note: not the same as parmigiano-reggiano). This cheese is not going to take you to another plane of existence, but, again, it's applied with a perfect hand.
- The toppings: Ground beef and pineapple (the Bo Bam). It sounds odd, but the combination is better than the traditional Hawaiian ham and pineapple. Also of note was the pepperoni pizza made with local Cao Bằng sausage -- absolutely nothing like pepperoni but fusion cooking at its finest. The topping distribution here is perfect -- not so heavy as to sink the crust, but liberal enough to make every bite a good, balanced one.
- The garnishes: Pickled hot peppers and garlic, a ubiquitous add-on in Vietnam for all kinds of dishes but especially soup. The tang from the pickling liquid and the heat from the peppers makes this pizza sing.
Pizza Chi was a revelation. We ate there every night we spent in Cao Bằng and once for breakfast, though sadly we had to "settle" for other dishes, as the oven was not ready yet. The owner, who named the restaurant after his daughter, is a lovely, hardworking guy. We had a blast talking shop with him, learning about his technique, and exchanging ideas on business, life, and, of course, pizza.
I won't go so far as to say you should visit Cao Bằng just to eat this pizza. There is, after all, a stellar waterfall nearby as well as some cool caves.
Who am I kidding... go for the pizza, and tell them Wanderrlust sent you.
085 Vườn Cam
Hợp Giang, tp. Cao Bằng
Cao Bằng, Vietnam
Tel: +84 91 495 35 69
Courtney and H.J. Derr are travel junkies currently on a year+ journey motorcycling, photographing, and eating their way through SE Asia. Read about their adventures at www.wanderrlust.com, and channel your inner nomad on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr.