Vietnamese food is a powerhouse mix of influences from all over the world. French, Chinese, and Japanese flavors blend with Vietnam’s own unique approach to food to create an unforgettable culinary experience.
Many Vietnamese favorites have made their way around the world (bahn mi or pho, anyone?), but experiencing these dishes in Vietnam takes them to whole new level. Planning a visit sometime soon? Here’s what to eat and where to eat it, from the North to the South.
A Vietnamese Food Guide
The Culinary Capital: Hanoi
Best Way to Sample the Food: The Street Food Tour from Awesome Travel (Book in person to negotiate the price and ask if Johnny is still a guide there!)
Northern Vietnamese Dishes
Like many Vietnamese dishes, this is a build-your-own-flavors deconstructed noodle dish. Savory grilled pork, tart pickled veggies, and fresh herbs are set next to a pile of rice vermicelli noodles. Pour on a little nuoc cham sauce, mix together, and you have a dish that kicks flavor around every corner of your mouth.
Pho Bo or Pho Ga
If you haven’t heard of this hearty and delicious noodle soup, you must be living under a rock. Thin strips of beef or chicken cook in a boiling hot broth laden with wide rice noodles. Fresh bean sprouts, chilies, and a whole mess of fresh herbs accompany the broth, so you can load the bowl to your taste preferences. The servings are huge, and I can attest to their ability to cure a hangover.
This dish really lets its Chinese influence shine. It is essentially China’s Peking Duck, adopted by the Northern Vietnamese centuries ago. Hanoi is dotted with shops that proudly hang the bright orange ducks in the window, with the delicious rich smell wafting onto the street and beckoning you inside. Once you’re there, you’re served thin slices of perfectly-cooked meat with a crispy, crackling skin. Try not to drool as you dig in. Trust me, it’ll be a challenge.
This famous Vietnamese sandwich is everywhere in Vietnam, and it’s equally popular in Hoi An and Saigon. But it technically originated with French settlers in Hanoi. This sandwich is world-famous for a reason! Crusty baguettes encase a whole host of savory fillings and spreads, crunchy fresh veggies, and a healthy hit of chili to keep everything spicy. There are a hundred ways to have this sandwich, but for me, there’s only one: Pate, barbecued pork, fresh cilantro, carrot and daikon, and a healthy dose of chili. Bahn Mi 25, an unassuming cart in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, does this particularly well.
Bia hoi is a unique Northern Vietnamese beer that is allegedly brewed in the morning and is only good to the end of the day. While that may or may not be true, you can’t beat the price of this yeasty, foamy beverage — usually $0.25USD and under! It’s cheap, but the flavor reminds me of some pricey unfiltered Belgian beers I’ve tried for 30x the price. Don’t skip the chance to sip this at the tiny plastic tables and chairs that surround Beer Corner in Hanoi.
Central Vietnamese Dishes and Drinks
For those who haven’t visited Vietnam, this may be an unfamiliar dish. But once you’ve tried it, bahn xeo will rocket to the top of your Favorite Vietnamese Meals list. It’s a distinctly Vietnamese take on a savory crepe: a crispy-crunchy rice flour and turmeric pancake wraps up minced pork and shrimp. The magical combo is topped with herbs and bean sprouts, and dipped into nuoc cham. Despite having pretty basic ingredients, it’s a meal that bewitches the most accomplished foodies in the world. Do not miss this one!
I love food with a good story, and cao lao delivers. Only water from a secret well on the outskirts of Hoi An is used to make the buckwheat noodles that are the base of this dish. Only a select few know the location of this well, and they are the noodle masters. Fortunately, this beef-and-noodle dish is readily available on street carts and menus all over Hoi An city, so the noodle masters aren’t stingy. It’s the warm blanket of Vietnamese street food — one small bowl will warm and fill you up in no time.
Hoi An Won Tons
These are almost like Vietnamese nachos. If the chips were filled pork. And the topping was a salsa made of cucumber, pineapple, onion, cilantro, bell pepper and a host of spices. It’s an appetizer that manages to strike the perfect balance between hearty, fresh, and crunchy. I love a good won ton, and Hoi An manages to take a Chinese classic to the next level.
If you like your food to be as pretty as it is tasty, don’t miss White Rose. It’s a shrimp dumpling, but it’s made with such artistry and delicacy that calling it a dumpling seems sacrilegious. Nicknamed for their pretty, pale floral shape, the thin rice wrapper holds a perfect little mouthful of seasoned shrimp. It is quite possibly one of the most photogenic appetizers you’ll eat, with the added benefit of excellent flavor.
The Culinary Capital: Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City
Best Way to Sample the Food: XO Tours “The Foodie” might be the most fun. You hop on the back of a motorbike and explore hidden gems in less-touristy areas.
Southern Vietnamese Dishes and Drinks
These translucent fresh spring rolls are available all over the country, so don’t hold back if they’re on the menu anywhere. But in the south there is a version that is so delicious, it might ruin you for fresh spring rolls forever. Filled with thin strips of barbecued pork, star fruit and green banana, it’s a sweet-savory mouth explosion that will send you reeling. Dipped into some hearty peanut sauce, it reaches a new stratosphere of deliciousness.
Rice is to Southern Vietnam as noodles are to Northern Vietnam, and this “broken rice” dish is a street food staple. It’s made with rice grains that have broken during harvest, which creates a softer, slightly stickier texture. You can find com tam topped with any variety of protein and veggie combinations, but the barbecued pork and fried egg variation is the best. Bonus points if you can find one with pork cracklings!
This little pillows of perfection are found on street carts all over Vietnam. A rice bun wraps it’s airy arms around minced pork and a hard-boiled quail egg, and the result is a party for your tastebuds. One of these makes the perfect afternoon or late-night snack, and two could substitute for a full meal. The contrast of textures from the fluffy steamed rice bun and the dense meat-and-egg filling is a dining experience you won’t want to miss.
If pho is Northern Vietnam, canh is Southern Vietnam. The word canh encapsulates a whole host of tamarind-brothed sour soups famous in the south. Canh chua is a variation famous in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. It features whitefish common to the Mekong River, pineapples, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and a handful of those ever-present fresh herbs. The kicker is the tamarind essence that is added to the broth to give it that famous tangy kick.
A Recipe: Banh Xeo
Banh xeo is one of the few Vietnamese dishes that you can recreate (fairly) easily at home. Most ingredients can be found at a grocery store, and once you master the crepe, you’re home free!
For the crepe:
1 1/2 cups rice flour
2 tsp turmeric
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 can coconut milk
1 1/2 cups ice water
2 scallions, thinly sliced
For the filling:
1 lb. ground pork
12 uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined and sliced in half lengthwise
3 – 4 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 cups bean sprouts
2 – 3 Tbsp oil (peanut, vegetable, etc.)
1 large bunch Thai basil
1 large bunch cilantro/coriander (Vietnamese if you can find it)
1 large bunch mint
1 head of butter lettuce
- Whisk together the dry ingredients for the crepe mixture. Whisk in the coconut milk and ice water until well combined. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a small (8-inch) fry pan until it shimmers. Add half the shallots and cook until soft and starting to brown. Add the ground pork and fry until cooked through (you can do this in batches or in a bigger pan if you don’t mind doing more dishes). Remove from pan.
- Remove the crepe mixture from the fridge and stir in the scallions. Brush the pan with a little more oil over high heat. When the pan is hot, add a few of the remaining shallot slices and 3 – 4 halves of the shrimp. Cook for 1 – 2 minutes, until the shrimp starts to get pink.
- Slowly pour a thin layer of the crepe batter into the pan and swirl to coat the bottom. Add a small handful of bean sprouts. Cover the pan with a lid for 1 – 2 minutes, until the bean sprouts start to soften.
- Add a few tablespoons of the pork-shallot mixture to one side of the crepe, then fold it in half and press down. When the bottom half is golden and crispy, flip the crepe to toast the other side.
- Remove the toasted crepe from the pan. Cut into quarters and serve with a big handful of lettuce, fresh herbs, and nuoc cham sauce.
What Vietnamese dishes do you think should be on this list? Let me know in the comments!
About the Author: “Jetsetter” Jenn Brown is an adventurer, amateur chef, and wine-lover who has been on the move since 2012. Past adventures include swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, solo hiking the mountains of Montenegro, and apprenticing at a dairy farm in Spain. This summer she is working aboard a tourism charter boat in Southeast Alaska as their chef. You can follow her adventures at her site, JetsetterJenn.com, or on one of her many social media channels: Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.