Phan Thiet is the capital of Binh Thuan, a coastal province in south-central Vietnam. It is a port city with a vibrant harbor. Brightly colored boats bob in the water, waiting to carry local fishermen out to sea. Early in the morning, the catch of the day is hauled out from great wide nets and transported to the market, where animated women hustle a dizzying variety of squirming seafood from buckets over the din of haggling and gossip.
Phan Thiet is renowned for seafood of all kinds, including fish sauce, but that’s the funky liquid gold that you want to head to Phu Quoc for. As an access point to the beachy Mui Ne tourist site, many travelers simply pass right through Phan Thiet. But be sure to stop for at least a day to enjoy the many local delicacies cooked up fresh in town. Just near Tran Hung Dao bridge, a strip of seafood restaurants serves every imaginable sea creature in every imaginable way. Select dinner swimming in a fish tank and pay by weight before choosing the cooking style. Try out the spread – stewed with ginger and lemongrass, pan-fried with tamarind, or grilled with garlic – before settling on a favorite.
Though every dish is delicious, here is a guide to some of Binh Thuan’s most unmissable cuisine. Don’t pass through without giving these specialties a chance.
Banh re, or “Re cake”, is a sweet and crispy cake made from sweet potato or cassava mixed with granulated sugar. It is one of the most famous culinary specialties of Phan Thiet. Though Banh re actually originated in Ninh Thuan and is sold in Ho Chi Minh City today, it is widely acknowledged that nowhere in the country makes banh re like Binh Thuan does. People travel from all over the country to buy them in Binh Thuan and bring them back home as gifts.
The snack seems quite simple, having only a few ingredients, but it takes a great deal of skill and experience to produce truly excellent banh re. The tubers used have to be individually selected, and screened for freshness, sweetness, and age. After the tubers are chosen, they are processed and grated, mixed with sugar, and fried until they are perfectly fatty and crispy on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside.
Enjoy it as a simple snack and be sure to bring a sleeve home as a souvenir. They are sold and delicious to eat at any time of day, but the flavor and texture really shine over a glass of hot tea on a cool day.
Cha ca, or fish cakes, are a famous Vietnamese delicacy, cooked all the more divinely in Binh Thuan. They are made from different kinds of fish filets, marinated in spices, and then fried, steamed, or boiled. They are fishy and fatty in taste but with a real complexity of fragrance and flavor that is actually surprisingly delicate.
Rather than eaten on its own, cha ca is typically eaten with soup and noodle dishes. Banh canh cha ca, or fish cake soup, is the most irresistible option in Phan Thiet. The broth is made from pork bones, fish, and mushrooms, with rice noodles and additions like quail eggs eaten alongside the fish cakes. Different vendors will offer a variety of sides and fish cake options. Add fresh chilis to taste – most people in Binh Thuan like banh canh cha ca are quite spicy. Dip a piece of crispy bread into the thick broth for a truly authentic Binh Thuan lunch.
Banh Can is a southern Vietnamese specialty, sometimes described as “rice pancakes.” The difference between banh can and other similar-at-face-value dishes like banh xeo or banh beo beautifully illustrates the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine, where different regions use the same ingredients and similar cooking styles to produce completely different dishes.
Banh can are tiny, crispy rice flour pancakes. The rice flour batter is poured into a clay cooking mold like a flat cupcake tray. As the batter bakes, each cake is sprinkled with meat, shrimp, or squid as well as fried green onions which then settles into a crispy layer on top. Different restaurants serve banh can with different dipping sauces and sides, from minced star fruit and mango to braised fish and meatballs.
Though grape wine is typically thought of as a Dalat specialty – if it is associated with Vietnam at all — Phan Thiet has been carving out a name for itself as a true wine city. The Binh Thuan wine experience is centered around RD Winery, a wine castle inspired by California’s Napa Valley that stretches out over 12,000 hectares.
The castle is built with ancient European architecture and includes a huge central courtyard, a dome, and a tower with a view of the grounds. It is divided into three floors. The rooftop features a museum, a shopping area, an orchid garden, and a scenic bar and cafe. The ground floor offers wine tastings and a wine market. The basement is the exhibition space for the 20,000 different bottled wines preserved here.
The raw ingredients for the wine are imported from Napa Valley Vineyards and then processed on-site here in Phan Thiet. Guests to RD Winery will be able to watch the wine production process here, and then taste the results. Though the winemaking grapes are imported, more than 13 different grape varieties are grown here, including varieties used for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah.
During the harvest season, it’s possible to work with the gardener and collect grapes for winemaking, learning about pest control, fertilization, and the conditions that make great grapes into excellent wines. During every season, it’s lovely to stroll through the gardens of “wine country” in Vietnam.