“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.
Unfazed by the inquisitive stares they attract, they upload the photo to Instagram, where their 5,400-plus followers can feast their eyes on 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 United States later this year. But they will continue to post new content on Instagram throughout March.
In Vietnam, 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 who 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.
Hanoi-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 Hanoi, where some of the best food vendors eschew menus.
“I think 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 United States.
“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.
Hoang Van Thai Duy, a 21-year-old law student from Chau Doc city in southern Vietnam, 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, hail 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 Hanoi in February 2015.
Accustomed to just the two options of pho or banh iì at Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, they were surprised by the diversity of dishes when they landed in Hanoi.
“Vietnamese food tastes different in Vietnam, 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 pho cuon, tofu in tomato sauce, and fried pork ribs from Bia Hoi. 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 tay” and “grouper therapy”, describing a plate of fish.
“Vietnamese food is usually very fresh,” Petracca said. “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 Vietnam how beautiful and varied Vietnamese food is – just show it off.”