Vietnamese food is the most incredible amalgamation of tangy, spicy herbs, multicultural influences and an awesome array of fresh produce. While the ubiquitous Pho can be found on any side street from the Mekong Delta to Hanoi, the rest of the Vietnamese cuisine varies quite remarkably from the South to the North. You might start a seemingly lifelong love affair with the street food of Hanoi, just to discover that you’ll never meet again as you travel further south.
In any case, we found that no matter where we were in Vietnam, we would always find a tasty bowl-of-something to satisfy our ever growing waistlines!
The most difficult part of all of this, is that many restaurants throughout the more local regions of Vietnam often don’t have descriptions, pictures or sometimes even a menu from which you can discover these taste sensations. So, because we are champions of the people, we decided to list our favourite Vietnamese dishes, foods and drinks to hopefully make your next visit to this long and wonderful country as tasty as ours!
1. Bahn Mi
The French did something right during their time in Vietnam. They introduced wonderfully crusty, fresh and properly baked bread into an already blossoming Asian cusine. So what did the Vietnamese do with this bread? They made it awesome by filling it with everything from a fried egg to pork belly, BBQ pork, liver paté, pickled vegetables, fish cakes and deliciously topped with cucumber and fresh tangy herbs. But no matter what combination of ingredients you choose (or more likely NOT choose but just have chosen for you by the Bahn Mi grandmaster chef extraordinaire) you MUST have chilli! Try it once, and you will NEVER look back!
2. Bun Cha
Bun Cha very quickly became Wade’s firm favourite dish during our time in Hanoi where it is much more common than southern Vietnam. Bun Cha is usually served up in three separate dishes. One contains the delicious chunk of pork or small pork patties soaking in a rich clear broth, the next contains a pile of rice vermicelli noodles and the last is your add-as-you-go herbs, lettuce and other Asian greens. While we were never given the exact protocol for eating this dish, we usually just added a few noodles and herbs to the meat bowl, slurped and scooped our way through, then added more and continued until all the broth and meat was gone and/or we were at exploding point from maximum noodle consumption!
3. Spring Rolls or "Nem"
Spring Rolls have never been my first choice of meal or snack but when it comes to Spring Rolls in Vietnam, it’s a different story. Vietnamese Spring Rolls can be fresh or fried, made from rice paper or Hanoi’s unique crumbly outer shell and filled with meats, seafood, vegetables or tofu. Whatever form they come in, they’re fantastic and we found the best ones were the Spring Rolls straight off the streets of Hanoi! Wherever you see a wok full of bubbling oil, you’re bound to find some delicious (if not a little indulgently greasy), “Nem”. Spring Rolls are religiously dished up with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce. Nuoc Cham is a combination of fish sauce, garlic, lime, fresh chilli and sugar…… yuuuuuuuum!
So here’s a hot tip, Pho is actually pronounced Fur or Fuh. Trust me, this will come in handy when no one in Vietnam knows what Foe is! But look, regardless of how you pronounce it, Pho is not so much a “must try” in Vietnam as a “you’ll try it whether you like it or not”…. And trust me, you’ll like it! Almost every restaurant in Vietnam will serve Pho while some simply offer no alternative!
Pho is a noodle soup that local Vietnamese will happily enjoy for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Pho from the south of Vietnam typically comes packed with bean sprouts, noodles and your choice of chicken or beef and comes with a side of extra bean sprouts herbs, lime and chili for you to add as you please. The soup also tends to be more flavoursome in the south. On the other hand Pho in the north has much more pork on offer and comes with less sides but more onion-type vegetables in the soup. Almost all tables at restaurants have soy sauce and chilli for patrons to add to their own Pho depending on your personal preference.
Average Price: 20,000 - 40,000 VND
5. Spicy Salad
This isn’t so much a single dish as it is variations on the typical salad offered throughout Vietnam however all have a few main features – Spice, Flavour and Crunch! Typical Vietnamese salads are built on a base of shredded young papaya, carrot, onion, chilli, and peanuts and then topped with your choice of meat or seafood. I’ve always been a huge fan of salad…. Yeah, I’m THAT person, but seriously these are incredible! During our stay I tried everything from Banana Flower salad to Spicy Seafood salad to Chilli Beef Papaya salad and I simply couldn’t get enough.
The flavour and freshness of these salads is undeniable however the only let down is that this often needs to be ordered at restaurants rather than any old local street side stall. That’s not so much a comment on the quality as it is the availability of these salads on menus!
Average Price: 80,000 VND
Our Favourite Spicy Salad: "Tuan Ngoc Restaurant" in Phong Nha.
6. Cao Lau
This dish a unique specialty specific to the awesome little UNESCO Listed town of Hoi An. Apparently the noodles used in this dish are soaked in the water from one specific, thousand year old well in the centre of Hoi An town. Sounds odd, but don’t let it turn you off. The truth is that the rest of Vietnam is letting the team down by not cooking this dish (I guess the well water wouldn’t stretch that far!).
The soaked noodles are topped first with a small amount of punchy broth, then flavoursome sliced pork, tangy green herbs, juicy bean sprouts and small pieces of fried pork belly. Once you’ve taken an obligatory photo of this epic meal, Cao Lau needs to be stirred well in order to mix that mysterious, delicious broth through all the noodles…. Hoi An, you had me at Cao Lau!
Our Favourite Cao Lau: Hoi An has some seriously delicious Cao Lau and almost every restaurant will have Cao Lau on their menu. A word of advice, if you love Cao Lau as much as I do, make sure you enjoy as much as you want while you're in Hoi An. Surprisingly, not many other cities make this glorious dish.
Average Price: 40,000 VND
7. Nuong Cuon or Grilled Pork Rice Paper Rolls
Once you’ve tried this taste sensation, you will regret every time you strolled past the opportunity to not only enjoy this incredible dish but also the experience that this street-side meal usually provides!
Nuong Cuon is a type of spring roll, however it is so unique and delicious that it deserves it’s own mention on this list of “Must Try’s”. Nuong refers to the grilled pork version of this dish, which is in my mind, the BEST version. You’ll know a Nuong Cuon joint by the teeny-tiny plastic stools lined up on the curb.
It all starts with the marinated grilled pork skewers being BBQ’d on the side of the road. Pop one of these into the fresh-as-a-daisy rice paper spring roll wrappers. Next add a fair share of crisp and tangy lettuce and herbs. Roll this bad boy into a tight little roll and finally dunk it head first into the thick, drinkable peanut sauce! I feel like this is an ongoing theme, but the sauce is even better with a bit of chilli!
Now obviously Rambutans are not exclusive to Vietnam, but this is definitely where we enjoyed our most plump, juicy, little morsels of natural sugar. For those who aren’t familiar with Rambutans, they’re quite similar to a lychee however they have their fair share of differences. For starters, Rambutans look like something you would want to win out of a vending machine as a child! Their thick red outer shell is covered in soft green/yellow spikes and to open this magic-box of flavour one must squeeze and twist the shell. Inside is a sweet white ball of flesh with enough Vitamin C to get you through the day and a kick arse natural sugar high to keep you exploring the streets of Vietnam all day!
Best Rambutans: Rambutan's should be firm, bright red and are best if they’re bought still on the branch. The green/yellow spikes can vary anywhere from yellow to green to red and this shouldn't affect the flavour or freshness. Avoid fruit with brown or black shell.
Average Price: 30,000 VND Per Kilo (but they’ll ALWAYS include the branches in that kilo…. Sneaky buggers!)
9. Lemongrass Chicken Skewers
When it comes to flavour and unique uses of herbs and spices, Vietnam are pretty damn innovative! When I heard Lemongrass Chicken Skewers, I imagined Chicken, marinated in lemongrass and impaled on a wooden stick. Not so, said Vietnam! How about instead, we mince up the chicken with spices that not even the Colonel has heard of, then grab a fresh stick of lemongrass and wrap some minced chicken-ey goodness straight onto our natural skewer! Then grill, fry or bake these kids and whichever you choose, the lemongrass will infuse into the chicken from the inside. Ahhh Vietnam, you’ve done it aga-am….. meh, close enough!
10. Vietnamese Coffee or Ca Phe
Coffee lovers listen up. Coffee haters, be gone! Vietnamese coffee is some of the richest, thickest coffee I’ve ever tasted. But the best part about it is that no matter how you like your coffee, almost anyone can enjoy this nectar of the Gods. No I’m no aficionado, so don’t hold me to my word here but as long as you’re not one of “those” people that orders a half strength, skinny, soy latte I reckon you’ll make a Vietnamese coffee part of your daily routine! And don’t worry about drinking hot coffee in that muggy Asian heat. If you prefer it cold, it still tastes just as good!
Traditional Vietnamese coffee goes like this - The coarsely ground coffee is placed into a cute little silver cup atop your mug where it slowly filters down and drips thick black gold into your mug. From here it’s up to you! For black coffee lovers, drink it hot or add ice – delicious! For white coffee lovers – add fresh milk and/or ice – delicious! And for sweet coffee lovers, it’s hard to beat a slug of condensed milk, some ice cubes and a good stir to enjoy the sweet, creamy taste of this morning pick-me-up!Just make sure when you’re ordering that you ask specifically for Vietnamese coffees, you don’t want to be left wincing through an instant 3-in-1 packet of poop!
Average Price: 15,000 – 45,000 Depending on where you order a good coffee can sometimes be more than your meal, but it’s still worth it!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.