Vietnamese food is known to be both healthy and robust in flavour, thanks its generous combination of fresh herbs and greens, paired with rice, noodles, seafood, pork and beef. While many cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer plenty of fine-dining venues and five-star hotel restaurants decked out in extravagant settings, some of the best (and most authentic) Vietnamese delicacies are actually found at roadside eateries, vibrant street markets, and humble-looking restaurants.
A typical meal includes rice or noodles, a meat or seafood dish, a vegetable dish, soup and nuoc cham (fermented fish sauce) for dipping, each of which can easily customised according to your preference. Here’s a helpful guide on what to eat in Vietnam, most of which can be enjoyed just about any time of the day. While most are familiar with pho or spring rolls, there’s a wide range of Vietnamese dishes only available in certain regions so be sure to try them out during your visit.
Probably one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes, pho is a steaming noodle soup dish that’s traditionally eaten for breakfast. A basic bowl contains tai (beef slices), bo vien (beef meatballs) or nam (beef flank), topped with bean sprouts, lime wedges, and fresh herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro, and onions. You then add chilli, limi and hoisin sauce to taste.
Typically eaten for breakfast, pho is priced between VND 30,000 and VND 50,000 at a local restaurant or street market in Vietnam.
2. Banh Mi
Commonly well-known along with Pho, Banh Mi has attracted a growing fan base around the word. The uniqueness of Banh mi not only lies within the light and crispy baguette, but also the variation of flavors Vietnam fillings bring out the most amazing flavor.
This baguette sandwich filled with greens and a choice of fillings, including pâté and freshly made omelet, is so delicious that it’s been imitated around the world. In the north chefs stick to the basic elements of carbohydrate, fat and protein—bread, margarine and pate—but head south and your banh mi may contain a more colorful combination of cheese, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, sausage, fried egg, fresh cilantro and chili sauce.
Be prepared for long waiting lines of this popular Banh Mi store for both locals and tourists.
3. Banh Xeo (Crispy Pancake)
Similar to a crepe or pancake, banh xeo is made of rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric, which you can fill it with vermicelli noodles, chicken, pork or beef slices, shrimps, sliced onions, beansprouts, and mushrooms. Most roadside stalls, local markets, and restaurants sell a platter of banh xeo for about VND 15,000 to VND 25,000, which usually comes with a side of fresh lettuce or rice papers. Eat like a local by wrapping your banh xeo in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or rice papers together with nem lui (lemongrass pork skewers), mint leaves, basil, before dipping in fermented peanut sauce.
4. Goi Cuon (Spring Rolls)
Salad roll ranks among Vietnam’s most famous foods and is very agreeable to the taste. Each translucent spring rolls packed with greens, coriander and various combinations of minced pork, shrimp or crab. In some places they’re served with a bowl of lettuce and/or mint. A southern variation has barbecued strips of pork wrapped up with green banana and star fruit, and then dunked in a rich peanut sauce – every bit as tasty as it sounds.
5. Mi Quang (Quang noodle soups)
Quang noodles is very popular in Quang Nam and Da Nang. Easily distinguished by its yellow-coloured rice noodles, this dish is a hearty mix of bone broth seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallot, and garlic, as well as meaty ingredients such as river shrimp, boiled quails eggs, and roast pork. As with most Vietnamese dishes, mi quang also comes with a variety of herbs, including basil, peanuts, coriander, lettuce, sliced banana flowers, and sesame rice crackers.
6. Bun cha (Vermicelli Noodles With Grilled Pork)
Barack Obama made bun cha famous when he ate it on Anthony Bourdain‘s TV show. This dish comes from the capital city of Hanoi. Bun cha comprises thin vermicelli rice noodles, chopped lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled daikon, basil, chopped peanuts, and mint, topped with grilled pork shoulder. Unlike most noodle dishes, it doesn’t come in a soup or broth, but with a side of nuoc cham sauce for diners to mix into for a flavourful ensemble.
7. Com Tam (Broken Rice)
Com tam literally translate to ‘broken rice’ in Vietnamese, and is traditionally served with fried egg, diced green onions, and a variety of meats. While it’s a popular choice for breakfast or lunch, it can be enjoyed any time of the day as it is relatively inexpensive, with street markets and roadside food stalls selling for about VND 20,000 per bowl. Toppings options include suon nuong (barbecued pork chop), bi (shredded pork skin), and cha trung (steamed pork and egg patty). Com tam also comes with a side of pickled vegetables, cucumber slices, and nuoc cham Vietnamese dipping sauce.
8. Banh Cuon (Rolled Cake)
Also known as rolled cake, banh cuon is great for when you’re feeling peckish whilst sightseeing in Vietnam. A combination of ground meat (chicken, shrimp, or pork), minced wood ear mushroom, onions, Vietnamese ham (cha lua), steamed beansprouts, and cucumbers that’s wrapped in a steamed rice flour sheet, its overall taste is surprisingly mild despite the savoury ingredients. For added flavour, you can dip the banh cuon into nuoc cham sauce. Due to its popularity amongst travellers, you can easily spot plenty of roadside vendors selling banh cuon close to tourist sights and nightlife districts.
9. Cao Lau
Cao Lau is the foremost traditional Hoi An food. Visitors to Hoi An always remember Cao Lau, which was considered by Quang Nam people as a special symbol for Hoi An. Cao lau noodles are carefully made from local new sticky rice. Water used to soak rice must be taken from wells in the Ba Le Village, noodles thus will be soft, enduring and flavored with special sweet-smelling. On the Cao Lau noodles were some meat slices mixed with fat made from fried noodles served with vegetables and bean sprouts. Sharp-witted eaters would find out the specific flavor of the dish. Dry pancakes used as ingredient must be thick with much sesame on the surface. Greasy coconut quintessence and bitter green cabbage are also indispensable. The so-called genuine Cao lau Hoi An must satisfy all above requirements.
10. Ca Kho To (Caramelised Fish in Clay Pot)
Ca kho to is a must try if you’re a fan of fish, consisting of a catfish fillet that’s braised and served in a clay pot. Mostly available in cities in southern Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh, this dish is prepared by slicing a whole catfish into fillets before caramelising it in a thick gravy made with a combination of soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, shallots, garlic, and various spices and seasonings. Ca kho to is known for its intense sweet-salty flavour, so this dish is always served with a plate of white rice and fresh greens.