The Vietnamese take food extremely seriously. They live to eat and not the other way round, and at any given time of day you’ll catch them munching and slurping at the myriad street side eateries that line every road in every town.
It’s therefore unsurprising that their cuisine is absolutely delicious. Every new dish that we try sends our tastebuds on a journey they’ve never been on before, and I always find myself wondering how it is possible for one country to have given us so many amazing flavours.
Vietnamese cuisine is also considered to be one of the healthiest in the world, thanks to the liberal use of fresh herbs, vegetables and seafood. They also tend to utilise water and broth above oil, so it’s ridiculously easy to eat well while you’re here (unless you develop a sugar addiction thanks to their amazing coffee, but that’s a whole different story).
While the country is best known for phở bò – soup made with noodles, herbs and beef, there are many, many other dishes that you simply must try the next time you find yourself in Vietnam. Due to the sheer amount of choice, however, it can be rather daunting to know what everything is and what to select.
We’ve therefore put together a list of the 12 foods that have made the biggest impression on us during the last six weeks that we’ve spent here. We feel these offer a good introduction to the cuisine, and that after you’ve tried them you will hopefully become even more adventurous with your choices.
We’d also highly recommend doing a food tour when you first arrive here. They all generally follow the same format; you get taken around various street food stalls where you’ll get the chance to sample some of the most famous dishes while your guide gives you some insight into the cuisine and culture. It’s a fantastic way of trying new things without worrying about food poisoning, and after the tour you’ll feel so much more confident about what you order. It will also open you up to the world of street food, which is essential when you’re travelling on a budget.
So, this is your last chance to get yourself a keyboard protector; get ready to salivate and let’s delve in.
The translation for the name of this dish is ‘sizzling cake’ due to the noise the rice batter makes when it hits the hot pan. This savoury pancake consists of rice flour, water and turmeric powder – once it’s cooked, it’s then filled with fatty pork, green onion and bean sprouts. There are regional variations (for example, in the south they sometimes include coconut milk), but this is the base on which they are built. Best eaten as a snack at a street side stall while taking a break from the heat or rain, depending on what time of year you’re here.
Ah, cao lầu. This dish (as well as the one after it) has a special place in my heart because it’s only available in Hoi An, which is hands down my favourite place in Vietnam. The main ingredient is a special type of noodles that are only made in this town – they’re slightly chewier and firmer than the ones you’ll find in other Vietnamese dishes, and are made by using water drawn from ancient Cham wells that are found around Hoi An.
They are served together with salad greens, bean sprouts, thinly-sliced pork and deep fried croutons. This is utterly delicious; so much so, you’ll find yourself ordering it all the time when you’re here to the extent that you will eventually get sick of it (trust us).
Banh bao vac
Given the name ‘White Rose’ by the French because of how it looks on the plate, banh bao vac is my favourite dish in the whole wide world. I know that sounds like quite the accolade, and perhaps my OTT love of this delicate treat is in part due to the fact that other than during the very occasional times that I find myself in Hoi An I can never eat it – absence makes the heart grow fonder after all.
But it really is a delicious delight – small dumplings made from rice flour, filled with minced shrimp, steamed and then served with a sweet sauce and toasted garlic. If there’s a heaven, then they most definitely serve these up there. We specifically recommend you try them at Miss Ly’s in Hoi An – we tried many, many places but this small restaurant serves up the best of the lot.
While banh mi is the name used for all the different types of bread found here, it’s most commonly used to describe the epic Vietnamese sandwiches. The bread that is utilised is a French-type baguette, only it has a thinner crust and is airier. There are many variations to the fillings that are used, but the classic version contains various cold cuts, such as sliced pork belly, cheese, liver pate and vegetables such as pickled carrots. Yummy and dirt cheap – the typical sandwich costs $1.
After phở, Vietnamese spring rolls (also known as fresh summer rolls) are possibly the country’s most famous dish. Although there are variations to what they’re stuffed with, generally the fillings include either pork, prawns or tofu (or sometimes a combination), rice vermicelli and some vegetables. They’re wrapped in rice paper, served at room temperature, and are accompanied by a dipping sauce. They’ve made a perfect starter to many of our meals here.
The first time we tried bánh bèo was in a restaurant full to the rafters with locals in Hue – the city where the dish comes from. These small, circular steamed rice cakes are served on tiny plates but pack a punch full of taste. The rice cakes are topped with minced shrimp and pork rind, which you then top off with nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce that is typically made with fish sauce, chilli, lime, garlic and sugar) before you eat it. Part of the joy is slurping them up, one by one, and then stacking all the plates on top of the other.
Nem lui Hue
Another specialty from Hue (we have a former Emperor to thank for all the delicious food that has come out of the city – he is famed to have been a fussy eater who never wanted to have the same dish twice) is nem lui Hue, which is pork mince moulded over lemongrass skewers (genius) and then barbecued. They are then served to you while still on the skewer, alongside with some rice paper, various greens (such as lettuce and herbs like mint and basil) and a spicy peanut dip. You then take the skewer, place it on the rice paper, fill with the greens you desire, wrap it, pull the lemongrass stalk out, dip, and then lose yourself in pork heaven.
Chả giò re
These are more like the spring rolls that we know and love in the west, only in true Vietnamese style they use rice-based paper instead of wheat. Chả giò re is the less commonly found type, and utilises thin rice vermicelli woven into a sheet instead of rice paper. The stuffing is typically minced pork with diced vegetables such as carrots, and the rolls are fried and served with a dip such as nuoc cham.
This is a little something we tried during our food tour in Hoi An. Cà tim is aubergine served in a clay pot. That’s all I know about it, and Google isn’t yielding much information, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it’s delicious. I’m assuming that it’s cooked slowly, which is what sends the aubergine into an almost caramelised state. Who said that vegetarian food isn’t scrumptious?
Nộm hoa chuối
Salad can get a bad rap from those who don’t know how to make one. As someone who hails from a country of salad eaters, I know that when made well, they can be both filling and delicious. I’m happy to see that the Vietnamese also know a thing or two about salads. Step in nộm hoa chuối – banana blossom salad.
This is hands down one of my favourite things to eat here; after a day or two of heavier meals, it’s always nice to go a bit lighter and this is my dish of choice on those occasions. The combination of textures and different flavours make this one salad you certainly cannot call boring – think crunchy peanuts alongside chewy banana blossom, served with crackers. Yum.
Ahhh, pho. I like to think of this noodle soup as a big hug in a bowl. Although I’ve (luckily) never been ill when I’ve eaten it, I think it would be the perfect comfort food for those days when you’re feeling under the weather. The soup (pronounced fuuh) is probably Vietnam’s most well-known dish and that’s understandable given how tasty it is. There are a number of variants, namely beef (bo) and chicken (gà), but beef is definitely the most popular and widely found.
The soup consists of a clear beef broth, noodles and slim cuts of beef, and is served alongside a plate of greens, vegetables, herbs, as well as dipping sauces, pastes and lime. Some of the garnishes include green onions, Thai basil, chilli peppers, bean sprouts and fish sauce. You’re then left to build up your soup the way you like it, and then slurp away until your heart is content.
We barely eat desserts here, but one that we do find utterly scrumptious is dậu hũ – silken tofu with ginger sauce. While a dessert made from tofu may sound disgusting to some, I can testify that it’s far from it. The texture of the tofu is similar to that of custard (but minus the calories), and it goes down particularly well during a hot summer’s day.