10 Best Foods in Ninh Binh and Tam Coc You Have to Try
One of my favorite parts of traveling around Vietnam was seeing how each region had its own dishes and takes on Vietnamese classics. The city and province of Ninh Binh, including its well-known tourist areas of Tam Coc and Trang An, is no exception and has some very interesting food. Even if you don’t identify as an adventurous eater, you should absolutely try some of these Ninh Binh specialties and the best restaurants I ate at.
What to eat
If you taste one new and unexpected thing in Ninh Binh, it has to be goat. It’s one of Ninh Binh’s most well-known foods. Plus, the goat isn’t just your regular farm goat. It’s mountain goat.
The goat is typically steamed or grilled and paired with soy sauce or a ginger sauce. Another popular option is goat hot pot – perfect for cold days. Although goat meat is common and listed on many restaurant menus, it’s a little bit more expensive than other meats. The cheapest way to try goat is goat pho. Grilled goat dishes cost about 190,000 VND (a little less than $8 USD), while I paid 50,000 VND (a bit more than $2 USD) for a bowl of goat pho at Father Cooking Restaurant.
Goat is lean and chewy, but not tough. There is a distinct flavor to it, although it’s not unpleasant. I would say it’s most similar to lamb. Aside from its unique taste, goat is also nutritious. According to the registered dietitian Anar Allidina, “Goat meat has more iron, comparable protein and lower levels of saturated fat, calories, and cholesterol compared to beef and chicken.”
Rice crust (cơm cháy)
I think of rice crust as the instant noodle version of rice. It’s made by cooking rice, drying it in the sun, and then frying the blocks of rice in oil. The rice blocks are served with a dipping sauce or topped with chili, onion, and shredded, salted meat (also known as pork floss). You can eat rice crust as a snack or main dish.
Mountain snails are only available during the rainy season, between April and August. They’re harvested from the limestone mountains in Tam Diep town, where they munch on the plants that grow there.
If you’re in Ninh Binh or Tam Coc during this time, they’re a must-try. The snails are usually steamed or stir-fried.
Eel vermicelli (miến lươn)
If you’ve never had eel, don’t be afraid. Eel is one of my favorite fish because it’s soft and tender. In Ninh Binh, eels are caught in the rice fields and used to make eel vermicelli – a light noodle soup with fried eel and a broth stewed with eel bones. It’s finished with some lime and pepper and served with banana flowers.
Nhech fish salad (gỏi cá nhệch)
Nhech fish are similar to eels. While you can cook them in different ways, the most popular way to eat it is the Nhech fish salad. The fish is eaten raw, like sashimi. And unlike a salad, you don’t eat it with a fork.
Along with a plate of the raw fish, you’ll get a dipping sauce, rice crackers, and a variety of leaves. Take a large leaf of your choice and pile on your fish and toppings. Then, roll up the leaf and dip it into the sauce. It’s more like making your own spring roll than eating a salad.
Fermented pork roll (nem chua yên mạc)
Nem chua is a Vietnamese fermented pork sausage that’s eaten raw or grilled. Finely ground pork is mixed with spices, formed into a round or rectangular log, and wrapped in banana leaves. It’s left to ferment in a cool place for three to five days.
Different regions of Vietnam have their own way of making nem chua. One of the most famous versions of nem chua is Yen Mac, a village in Ninh Binh. Yen Mac’s fermented pork roll is a specific combination of sour, sweet, and spicy. To eat it, take a bit of the meat, wrap it in a guava leaf with herbs and vegetables, and dip it into a fish sauce.
Sticky rice with ant eggs (xôi trứng kiến)
If you come across this sticky rice dish with ant eggs, take the opportunity to try the seasonal specialty. It comes from the Tày people, an ethnic group who live in northern Vietnam. Around February and March, they harvest the eggs of black and brown ants in the mountains of Nho Quan. This is the only time when the ants lay their eggs, and it’s a painstaking process to gather the eggs and separate the ants from the eggs.
To make the dish, the eggs are cleaned and dried. Then, they’re fried with spices in chicken fat, mixed with sticky rice, and served in a fragrant banana leaf. Since it’s such a unique dish that’s only found in Ninh Binh and available once a year, daring foodies shouldn’t pass it up if you’re there during the right time.
Braised fish with gao fruit (cá kho gáo)
Gao fruit is a yellow, round fruit with soft spines – similar to a rambutan. When unripe, it’s green and slightly bitter. But when it’s ripe, the fruit has a sweet and sour taste that pairs surprisingly well with fish.
It’s a simple dish that’s made by lining a pot with slices of the fruit, placing fish on top, and alternating layers of each until the pot is filled up. Every time it’s made, the fish tastes a little diffferent depending on how ripe the gao fruit is.
Roasted field crab with guise leaves (cua đồng rang lá lốt)
The rice fields of Ninh Binh are filled with tasty creatures, including field crabs. They’re marinated and stir fried with guise leaves until everything has a satisfiying crisp. The crunchy crabs and fragrant leaves make this a must-try when you’re in Ninh Binh.
Vermicelli noodles with pork (bún chả quạt)
You can find bún chả throughout Vietnam, but it’s worth trying as you travel the country since each region has a slightly different take on it. Bún chả is one of my favorite Vietnamese foods. The springy vermicelli noodles, mouth-watering grilled pork, fresh vegetables and herbs, and sweet and sour dipping sauce come together to satisfy all your tastebuds and provide different textures.
While small pork meatballs are used in other preparations of bún chả, the meatballs are smushed together into one large piece in Ninh Binh. Another difference is how the vermicelli is served. Instead of getting a bowl of separated noodles, the noodles are formed into small blocks.
Where to eat
Aside from Ninh Binh’s specialties, you’ll find plenty of restaurants that offer cheap Vietnamese dishes and some Western options. Here are the best places I ate at when I spent five days in Tam Coc.
Ngọc Linh Restaurant
It makes me sad to think that I almost missed out on this restaurant. On my last day in Tam Coc, the owner of my homestay recommended Ngọc Linh Restaurant and their tofu dishes. I walked over with some other travelers for my last meal in Ninh Binh. Between the three of us, we each ordered a different tofu dish. I had the fried tofu with tomato sauce, and the other two ordered the fried tofu stuffed with ground pork and fried tofu with vegetables.
This was probably the best tofu I’ve ever had. It was crispy, and the tomatoes were an amazing saucy pairing. All three tofu dishes were amazing. If only I had known about Ngọc Linh sooner, I would’ve eaten here every night and worked my way through their extensive menu.
An Phong Restaurant
I ducked into this restaurant on a particularly cold day in Tam Coc, looking for something that would warm me up. Although I saw the great reviews for An Phong Restaurant on Google Maps, I questioned whether I made the right choice since the restaurant was empty. Even though I was the only one, the lady who served me was nice and attentive.
I ordered the grilled pork and meat spring rolls noodle salad. It was equally meaty and refreshing – two different flavor profiles that surprisingly work well together. Although you can find this dish all over Vietnam, this was the best one I had. The pork was nicely charred and the spring rolls were hot and crispy.
Father Cooking Restaurant
Father Cooking Restaurant is a small family-owned restaurant that’s known for its goat. This is where I had goat pho, and it was delicious. I recommend getting the goat pho or grilled goat here. The couple at the table next to me had a huge hot pot that looked extremely comforting, so that might be a good choice too.
NGON Vegan Restaurant
NGON Vegan Restaurant is a popular place that lives up to its five-star rating. Even as a non-vegan, I had a great tofu clay pot dish that filled me up. The brown, somewhat-sticky rice that they serve is a nice change from regular white rice.
NGON puts a spin on Vietnamese flavors and also serves some Western dishes, like avocado toast and various salad and rice bowls. Check it out if you’re looking to eat less meat or have a slight change from the typical Vietnamese food you’ve been eating while not straying too far.
Banh mi Hanoi
For a quick bite to eat or refreshing smoothies, head over to Banh mi Hanoi. Not only do they serve fresh banh mis, they also have smoothies and smoothie bowls, rice and noodle bowls, salads, and spring rolls. It’s a small space with some outdoor seating, and the ladies who work here are nice and friendly.
Brick Coffee Shop
One of the biggest downsides of staying in Tam Coc is the lack of coffee shops. I had gotten used to there being cafés on every street, so I was disappointed that there weren’t many places to get a latte and post up. The one exception to this is Brick Coffee Shop, a two-story, airy, and brick-walled café.
They serve all the typical espresso-based drinks, along with Vietnamese specialties like egg coffee and coconut coffee. You’ll also find tea, smoothies, a few cakes, and wifi. Brick Coffee Shop is a short walk outside the center of Tam Coc. It’s the best place to stop for a morning coffee or afternoon treat.
Monalisa Bar & Restaurant
Although I stuck to local food for the majority of my time in Vietnam, the one Western dish I had a craving for was pizza. Monalisa Bar & Restaurant satisfied that craving with its bubbly, golden-brown pizzas, which are made in a wood-fired pizza oven. While Monalisa is known for its pizza, it also has a large menu of other Western dishes.
The restaurant is right in front of Hang Mua, which is best-known for its breathtaking viewpoint that can only be reached by climbing 500 steps. I recommend stopping at Monalisa either before or after visiting Hang Mua. I got lunch here before heading to the viewpoint, and the restaurant staff were nice enough to let me leave my bike at the restaurant so I wouldn’t have to pay for parking at Hang Mua.
More resources for traveling Vietnam
- How to Get to Ninh Binh
- Ninh Binh 1 Day Itinerary: Top Sights and Activities
- 13 Best Restaurants in Tam Coc and Ninh Binh: Where to Eat
- 5 Complete Itineraries to See North Vietnam in 7 Days
- How to Solo Travel Vietnam
- 5 Best Hostels and Homestays I Stayed at in Vietnam