Snap and upload: Peter Petracca takes a photo during a food excursion. - Photo by Emily Petsko
By Emily Petsko
Noey Neumark sits on a miniature blue stool – Hà Nội’s classic throne – admiring the bowl of bánh đa trộn (flat noodles) she ordered from a food vendor.
“Vietnamese food is just so pretty,” she says. “It’s very photogenic.”
As if on cue, she hands the bowl to her boyfriend, Peter Petracca, who stands up to photograph their meal, occasionally shifting to get the perfect angle and lighting.
Unphased by the inquisitive stares they attract, they upload the photo to Instagram, where their 5,400-plus followers can feast their eyes upon their latest culinary find. Using the Instagram handle @vietnomnom, the American couple has successfully tapped into the social media sphere by giving people the eye candy they want: colourful, mouthwatering meals, with clever captions and addresses detailing where to find the food.
The couple now hopes to hand off their Instagram account to a new successor. They recently moved to Thailand and will move back to the US later this year. But they will continue to publish new content to their Instagram account throughout March.
In Việt Nam, food-ordering websites like eat.vn and vietnammm.com have proven popular for discovering new restaurants. But street eats have largely been uncharted. Instagram has emerged as a creative crowdsourcing tool for finding food vendors by clicking and sifting through hashtags like “#Vietnamesefood” and “#feastagram”.
“For foreigners that don’t know what things mean -- all these Vietnamese words that describe the noodle type, or things that are in it, or how it’s made -- having a lookbook of all the delicious foods in any given place is nice,” said Petracca.
Hà Nội-based travel blogger Sarah Attaway, 24, said she frequently searches for “#Hanoifoodie” on Instagram to find off-the-beaten-path restaurants throughout the city. She said Instagram is an easy way for foreigners to learn the local cuisine, especially in Hà Nội, where some of the best food vendors eschew menus.
“I think that street food is kind of intimidating, especially for an expat. So it’s nice to have some kind of a reference point,” said Attaway, who hails from Arizona, the US.
“As a Westerner, you’re trained to find places that look good according to the decor, or the menu, or the vibe of the place. Which is so different from here,” she said.
While their Instagram page is popular among expats and tourists getting acquainted with Vietnamese cuisine, they have also amassed a considerable local following.
Hoàng Vãn Thái Duy, a 21-year-old law student from Châu Ðốc city in southern Việt Nam, is a fellow food Instagrammer (@hoangthaiduy) and an avid follower of vietnomnom.
“I think vietnomnom is one of the most amazing accounts I follow,” he said. "Foreigners are interesting to follow because they experience Vietnamese cuisine ’in their own style.’"
Duy said he believes Instagram is quickly becoming a trusted resource for finding delectable dishes.
“I always use Instagram for finding street food when travelling,” he said. “It can help us to find the best and most exotic street foods, wherever we go.”
Neumark and Petracca, both 26, are originally from California. They met while living in New York City. Both worked with food – Neumark in restaurant public relations, and Petracca as a restaurant photographer - and both knew they wanted to continue working in that capacity when they moved to Hà Nội in February 2015.
Accustomed to just the two options of phở or bánh mì at Vietnamese restaurants in the US, they were surprised by the diversity of dishes when they landed in Hà Nội.
"Vietnamese food tastes different in Việt Nam, too," Petracca said.
“They have to adapt to the local ingredients (in the US). Here you have all these herbs. They’re all local. And they’ve been used in the family for generations. That’s why it’s so good,” Petracca said. “In the US, they have to adapt recipes. In the same way that Mexican food in California is incredible, but different from Mexico.”
Among the couple’s favourite dishes are phở cuốn, tofu in tomato sauce, and fried pork ribs from Bia Hơi. While they enjoy most meals, silkworms and congealed blood in soups are among the few foods they are “not a fan of”, Neumark said.
The couple works in freelance marketing, writing, and video production. And they take their Instagram side project seriously, carving out several hours per week for food excursions. Much of the food they feature comes from street food stalls they stumble upon. As a rule of thumb, they scout for places crowded with Vietnamese diners. They work as a team, with Petracca taking the photos and Neumark crafting witty captions like “a bánh mì chay fit for a tây” and “grouper therapy”, describing a plate of fish.
“Vietnamese food is usually very fresh,” Petracca says. “With the street food places, it’s nice that there’s one place that makes just one thing really well.”
Neumark added, “My biggest hope for (our Instagram feed) is to show people outside of Việt Nam how beautiful and varied Vietnamese food is – just show it off.” – VNS
Oodles of noodles: A photo on the vietnomnom Instagram account showcases a bowl of bánh đa trộn from a food vendor on Lý Thường Kiệt Street. - Photo by Peter Petracca
Teamwork: Peter Petracca and Noey Neumark, originally from California and New York City, found a favourite food haven in Hà Nội. – Photo by Emily Petsko