Since Anthony Bourdain, perhaps no foreigner has brought as much global attention to Vietnamese cuisine and culture as Sonny Side, mastermind behind the viral Youtube series Best Ever Food Review Show (BEFRS). Born in Minnesota as William Sonbuchner, the cheery and intrepid midwesterner has trekked to remote mountain and jungle communities all over the world. But it’s Vietnam that Sonny chooses to call home.
In an interview with Vietcetera in July last year, Sonny said it is the mission of his BEFRS channel to hunt down and document the most unique cuisines, and through that, encourage empathy, understanding, and appreciation of different cultures. True to his words, Sonny never said “no” to any food challenge — whether it's chewing a banana leaf-wrapped squirrel, eating a grilled lizard seasoned with ant salt or helping cook a giant feast that includes stir-fried cow organs for a Black Hmong wedding celebration.
“What people eat is greatly affected by their religion, climate, geography, elevation, etc. The food that people eat often reveals something about them,” said Sonny, reiterating how inseparable food and culture are. And though he and his crew has already filmed more than 130 vlogs about Vietnam’s most unique and exciting dining scenes, the American YouTuber said he and his Vietnamese crew will never run out of food to eat and stories to document.
But then, COVID happened. The Best Ever Food Review Show team had just returned from Africa when Vietnam closed its borders in March 2020. At the time, the country had documented very few cases of coronavirus, and domestic travel wasn’t yet restricted. Sonny’s production team was still largely able to go around, visiting remote mountain towns and learning about the stories of different ethnic groups, and taking their cameras into small restaurants hidden in narrow alleyways. While the rest of the world was at a standstill, Sonny continued doing what he does best: telling stories through food.
“Life was pretty normal in Vietnam...that was awesome and super fortunate for me and my team. We shot over a hundred videos in this country, including factories, tribes, exotic foods, cheap vs expensive food, tons of different series, tons of different topics. For over a year, we were mostly able to travel within the country freely and shoot as we wish,” he says in a July 2021 vlog.
But as travel restrictions started locking down Vietnam, Sonny returned to the United States, where there’s more freedom to move around and where he was able to continue creating exceptionally mouthwatering and meaningful videos for his 7.5 million subscribers. The Best Ever Food Review Show continues, without fail, to upload at least one new vlog every week.
All things considered, it’s impressive that Sonny managed to put out 34 Vietnam-based vlogs this year alone. Here we list down our top 5 favorite vlogs by the Best Ever Food Review Show filmed in the country in 2021 to celebrate the resilient creative team that’s behind the 11-year-old YouTube channel and to showcase the endearing Vietnamese food and traditions that made Vietnam home to one of the world’s most popular food vlogs.
The Secret Foods of Vietnam’s Tay Tribe
From the gorgeous drone shots showing the marvelous mountains of Lao Cai Province in the northwestern region to the close-ups of the different ethnic tribes at the Bac Ha Market, this episode highlighting the Tay Tribe is most certainly one of the best episodes of the BEFRS.
Sonny is joined by YouTuber Andrew Fraser of tech channel Power Up as he explores and engages with Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority group, Tay. They meet with Tay couple Mrs. Luyen and Mr. Kien at the market (where Sonny gets an on-the-spot haircut) who take them to a death anniversary gathering up in Na Lo Village. Sonny and Andrew both have their own tasks: Sonny takes charge of roasting a small pig and helping prepare the main dishes, while Andrew joins a group of Tay women in making black sticky rice. After a whole day of cooking and elaborate preparations, the two YouTubers sit on mats along with more than two dozen Tay people, a heavenly feast of different traditional Tay dishes laid at the center.
It’s not just a gathering to honor the dead; it’s a celebration of the life of the Tay people who, for over the centuries, preserved their traditions, lifestyle and language. While savoring each dish, Sonny goes a little serious talking about the importance of safeguarding the Tay culture. “The key to holding on to traditions is to care and to work at it every day so it doesn’t fade away,” Sonny says.
Asia’s Bizarre Delivery Food
Saigon has some of the most interesting foods in Vietnam — stuff that westerners may find gross or icky — and they can all be delivered right to your doorstep. In this vlog, Sonny tries five of the most epically bizarre delivery food with seasonal BEFRS host Thuyen Vo, who dares to say what we’ve always wanted to tell Sonny about his appetite for the unusual and strange: “Don’t do that to yourself, Sonny!” Viewers of this channel now know there’s no stopping this American YouTuber from taking a bite of food that interests him.
The two foodies try deboned chicken feet in spicy sauce, a whole brown sugar boba pizza, deep fried fugu (this is the most poisonous edible fish, by the way), monkfish liver layered with pickled ginger, deep fried tarantulas, fried cicada fungi, and a boiled whole chicken wrapped in fried sticky rice.
Despite “why are we even doing this?” realizations in between bites, both Sonny and Thuyen are pretty proud to have survived a tough food tasting challenge. Until Sonny displays the “most agonizing symptoms” of food poisoning for the next day and a half. “Though I cannot be certain, I believe the source of my illness is the fried fugu,” Sonny says. “Sadly, I’ll never know for sure.”
Bizarre Flatfish Challenge | Japanese Chef vs Vietnamese Chef
Every culture interprets ingredients differently, and this episode perfectly exhibits the distinct ways a Japanese and a Vietnamese chef prepare and cook the exact same fish, the flatfish — wide-bodied, ray-finned fish that many people are willing to pay top dollar for.
Inside Sushi Hokkaido Sachi, Sonny closely watches a Japanese chef expertly killing (called ikejime), cleaning, scaling and cutting the flatfish, and turns it into flatfish sashimi that’s “clean, fresh and tasty”. The rest of the filleted flatfish are turned into hirame nigiri and hirame aburi nigiri.
To see a Vietnamese chef’s version of a flatfish dish, Sonny moves to a local restaurant in District 9, the Tron Vo Resto. With hundreds of locals coming into the restaurant every night, speed is a requirement: from pounding the fish to dowsing it with boiling water and making criss cross cuts to help it absorb a “secret” seasoning. The whole fish is then grilled for about 40 minutes over hot coals. While waiting, another whole flatfish is being steamed on the other side of the kitchen. The outcomes: two flavorful, straightforward fish dishes.
Considering all the pros and cons of the very different ways the two chefs prepared the flatfish — the Japanese way’s elegant but time-consuming, and the Vietnamese way’s simple and to the point — Sonny gives his vote to the Japanese chef’s interesting and melts-in-the-mouth sashimi.
The Unusual Lives of Vietnam’s Black Hmong People
After attending a Black Hmong’s wedding in the northwest mountain province of Yen Bai, Sonny’s quest in this episode is to “learn the hard way what it really means to live off the land” at a Black Hmong’s home. Teamed up with Andrew, the duo starts their day with a competition to pound the black steamed rice the fastest.
After a typical breakfast with pounded sticky rice, the pair go deep into the mountains to look for something they could bring back for dinner. Andrew takes the paddy field and runs down a couple of loaches, a relatively easy task except it requires digging a hole to drain a section of the rice field and patience to wait for the loaches to reveal themselves from the mud. On the other hand, Sonny is on a tougher mission — hunting down rodents in the mountainside.
A few hours in, they bring back their catch and voila, dinner’s served — two dishes made out of the jungle rat (soup and stir-fried), grilled loach and snake omelet. The people in this part of Vietnam believe that rat’s blood can help keep the eyesight in a perfect condition. As soon as the rats are killed, their fresh blood is then gradually dropped into a kid’s eye.
This episode contains graphic content that may be too much for sensitive viewers. However, if you’ve been a long-time fan of Sonny and his food escapades, this one’s for the books.
Vietnam $100 Street Food Challenge | Best Street Food in Danang
Vietnamese street foods are highly diverse, and the central city of Danang has a culinary identity of its own. Sonny takes his $100-challenge into the city that boasts a whole different level of traditional flavors you won’t find anywhere else.
For his first meal of the day, Sonny goes to a family-run street food joint. He gets himself sticky rice, topped with shredded chicken, herbs, braised pork, meatballs, chicken drumstick and quail eggs. That’s a lot for breakfast — and that’s not even it. Pork floss, shallots and chilis are then added to complete the serving all for just $2 or about VND 45,000.
Next stop is the Bac My An Market, where Sonny goes straight to what he’s in there for: button top snails. One can costs $1.3 or VND 30,000. While it’s cheap, Sonny admits “you have to be the most patient man in the world” to pluck out the meat from the tiny shells. He then gets blended avocado mixed with scoops of coconut ice cream and crispy dried coconut shavings for dessert, costing $0.7 or VND 15,000.
For pre-lunch meal, Sonny tries the fried fish roe, costing a little more than $3 or VND 79,000. And what better to have for lunch than a steaming bowl of noodles? Sonny gets himself banh canh ca nuc nhi — a bowl of goodness for only $1.4 or VND 30,000. Next on the menu is a jackfruit salad, costing $1.6 or VND 34,000, that has sort of become a must-taste when in Danang.
For his seventh meal of the day, Sonny shells out $1.4 or VND 30,000 for quite a strange rice cake dish in the middle of the Con Market. A fried sticky rice cracker and a sticky rice cake with shrimp clumped together, a few pieces of mung bean tapioca cakes, steamed ground beef and fried fish cake all in one plate. To complete this street food challenge is a plate of flavor-packed balut quail eggs for $1.8 or VND 40,000.
“The amount we spent today after eating eight different street foods is $13.60,” Sonny says on cam, not even faintly upset about losing the challenge. “This just goes to show that Danang [has] very affordable, very unique, awesome street food...no regrets there.”