Vietnamese food is up there with one of our favourite cuisines in the world.
Their food is best described as fresh, herby, flavourful and 80% rice noodles. Everything (almost everything) involves noodles and everything is fresh with an array of flavours from sweet to salty to spicy.
The fresh herbs of mint, cilantro and lemongrass are what Vietnamese dishes thrive of, as well as the use of rice in all forms (sticky, steamed, noodles). Tropical fresh fruits (jackfruit, papaya, mango, bananas) are found in many different forms and of course, meat, with seafood and pork being the most consumed. A typical Vietnamese meal will include one, if not all of the above in one dish.
By no means is this a definitive list. There were SO many different noodle and rice dishes to sample and we didn’t have enough time or (space!) but below we’ve listed 17 of our favourite Vietnamese dishes worth trying. I hope you’re not hungry!
Vietnamese Food Vocab:
On your travels, you won’t often find English signs or menus, so it is important to learn the basics, especially for the street food, which you must eat!
- Bánh Mì – Bread/Baguette
- Gà – Chicken
- Bò – Beef
- Cá – Fish
- Heo – Pork
- Tôm – Shrimp
- Bún – Rice/Vermicelli Noodles
- Gỏi- Salad
- Cơm – Rice
1/ Goi Cuon (Fresh Spring Rolls)
Also known as a “summer roll” or fresh spring roll. These were our go-to on so many hot days in Vietnam. They can change in flavour and size but the foundation is always the same. Rice paper dipped in hot water and filled with a variety of herbs & vegetables (carrot, lettuce, cucumbers). The vegetarian version often uses tofu, but shrimp and pork are the most popular.
We went to a restaurant in Da Lat (Goc Ha Thanh) and had a “do it yourself” spring roll plate so we could create our own spring rolls with our desired ingredients. Don’t forget to use the dipping sauces, either a peanut sauce or the all too famous Nuoc Cham (fish sauce).
2/ Banh Mi (Baguette Sandwich)
Introduced by the French during the colonial period in Vietnam, the Bahn Mi is one popular street food. You can’t go one block without seeing a “Banh Mi” stall. As with all baguettes, you can put pretty much anything inside but the quintessential “Banh Mi” is grilled pork, carrot, cucumber, radish, pate, fresh herbs, mayonnaise and chilli. So good!
3/ Pho (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)
Pho (pronounced “Fu”) is just one of many, MANY noodle soups in Vietnam. Pho for breakfast, Pho for lunch, Pho for a snack, Pho for dinner. That’s basically how it works. This dish, which takes far longer to cook than others due to the simmering of the beef bones, is one, if not the most popular dish in Vietnam. The colour of the broth changes based on the region (darker in the south than the north) but the flavours and ingredients are roughly the same. Rice noodles, beef, bean sprouts, lime & herbs (cilantro, mint, basil).
It was one of the only times I’ve been able to eat noodles for breakfast. Pho is light and extremely tasty. On the street, you can easily find this dish for less than $2 USD.
4/ Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Pancake)
A savoury crispy pancake which is also known as a “sizzling pancake” due to the noise it makes when the batter hits the oil. The pancake is made of rice flour, coconut milk, water, shallots & turmeric powder (which gives it the yellow colour). Once it’s cooked half way, it is stuffed with pork or shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts and then folded into an omelette type shape. They’re oily but pretty damn tasty.
5/ Bun Cha (Grilled Pork Patties w/ Noodles)
Our favourite Bun Cha was in Hanoi at a family-run restaurant that has been serving Bun Cha and Bun Cha only for 50 years! If you’re in Hanoi, make sure to visit 1 Hang Manh. This dish may sound similar to many others but there are small differences! Bun Cha is fatty grilled pork served with greens, on top of cold rice noodles and with a side of dipping sauce and sometimes spring rolls. Everything was presented separately and you flavoured it as you liked. If you’re unsure, they will show you the right way! Watch the chillies!
6/ Cao Lau (Thick Rice Noodles w/ Pork)
The only place you can find Cao Lau (the real Cao Lau!) is in central Vietnam in Hoi An. Why? The water used to make these noodles must come from the Bale- Well, a 1000-year-old well in the ancient old town of Hoi An and only Hoi An. The noodles are pre-soaked in the well water along with lye made from wood ash brought from one of the eight Cham Islands around 10 miles outside of Hoi An. How true this is today, we’re not sure but you definitely won’t find this anywhere else in Vietnam.
The texture of the noodles are far chewier and firmer than the classic vermicelli or rice noodles. Unlike many other dishes, Cao Lau is served with very little broth and is served with pork, bean sprouts, salad greens and crispy deep-fried croutons.
7/ Goi (Vietnamese Salads)
Don’t be confused with the word ‘salad’. These salads don’t involve any form of lettuce but instead, the base is made from a mixture of shredded vegetables and sometimes fruit such as papaya or banana flower and then smothered in the well-known sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce Nuoc Cham (a sweet & sour fish sauce) and topped with sesame seeds and peanuts. We made the above banana flower salad in our cooking class.
8/ Bun Thit Nuong (Cold Rice Noodle Dish w/ Grilled Pork & Fried Spring Roll)
Bun Thit Nuong is a cold noodle dish served with vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, grilled pork, peanuts and fried spring rolls. It was one of my favourite dishes to eat. It had all different textures from the cold noodles to the grilled meat to the fried spring rolls. It was a nice change from the typical noodle soups and we had our favourite one from the loveliest old lady on our Back of The Bike Tour in Ho Chi Minh City.
9/ Bun Bo Hue (Spicy Rice Vermicelli Noodles Soup w/ Beef)
Bun Bo Hue is a flavourful noodle dish with a mix of spicy, sour, salty and sweet. The predominant flavour of this dish is lemongrass. Bun Bo Hue usually involves boiled beef shank but can occasionally include congealed pig blood (don’t ask questions!). The broth is prepared by simmering beef bones and beef shank with lemongrass and then seasoned with fermented shrimp sauce, shrimp balls and sugar for taste. Towards the end, chilli oil is added.
Bun Bo is typically served with lime wedges, fresh herbs (mint, basil cilantro), green onions, mung bean sprouts, raw onions & chilli sauce.
10/ Bo La Lot (Minced Meat in Betel Leaves)
A typical street food dish that is mainly sold in the evenings. These little creations are small amounts of minced beef mixed with garlic and a variety of spices then rolled up into a wild betel leaf and put on a hot charcoal bbq to grill. They are served alongside rice or noodles with dipping sauce, fresh vegetables and sometimes rice paper rolls to roll your own. They were slightly bizarre mainly due to the betel leaf (something we had never had before) but the flavours and texture grew on us.
11/ Nuoc Cham (Sweet & Sour Fish Sauce)
This sweet and sour sauce is one of the most common sauces found in Vietnam. It can be very sweet depending on where you have it and I swear we had this with almost every meal as a dipping sauce or dressing. The sauce is made up of lime juice, sugar, chilli, garlic and fish sauce. If you don’t like the fish sauce (which is usually pretty light tasting) you can use soy sauce, however, that isn’t as common in Vietnam.
12/ Banh Cam/Banh Ran (Sesame Seed Balls)
Usually served at the markets in the morning, Banh Cam and Bahn Ran are small glutinous deep fried pieces of dough made from rice flour, stuffed with sweetened mung bean paste and covered in sesame seeds. An interesting texture that we didn’t quite grasp at first, but later found to be quite addictive – deep fried balls always are. They are very popular in the Vietnamese culture.
13/ Xoi Ga (Chicken on Sticky Rice)
A very decent serving of sticky rice topped with strips of chicken, fresh Vietnamese herbs, onion, crispy shallots with a dash of soy and sesame sauce to flavour. A little change up from the typical noodles with pork and beef. If it is too simple for you, add a spoonful of the chilli oil. Delish. A whole plate of this cost as little as $1.50 USD at the street vendors.
14/ Banh Cuon
We found this similar to that of a fresh spring roll. Easy to eat & unbelievably cheap. 10,000 VND for 1. ($0.40 USD). The outside is made from rice noodles and the inside is filled with pork, wood ear mushrooms and fresh greens. The best way to describe these is “slippery”. They weren’t our favourite. Don’t forget to dip it in the all-to-tasty dipping sauce to spruce it up a little.
15/ White Rose Dumplings
Only found in Hoi An, White Rose Dumplings are extremely delicate in flavour. The dumplings are made from small pieces of rice paper with a tiny spoonful of shrimp or pork in the centre. Once they are steamed, the edges become soft and chewy and slightly form the shape of a flower (hence the name) and sprinkled with fried shallots. There wasn’t a lot of flavour going on with these to be honest – but it’s great for a light snack.
16/ Vietnamese Coffee
Coffee is Vietnam was Jacob’s favourite. I’m not entirely sure how much coffee vs sugar is in each cup but nevertheless, they made him a happy boy each and every morning.
Whenever our hotel served breakfast, he always asked for my coffee too. There are many different ways they Vietnamese drink coffee and you cannot go ten metres down the street without seeing “Coffee” on one sign or another. Second to coffee, the most used ingredient is condensed milk. Boy, they love their condensed milk.
Here are a few different options to try:
- Hot Vietnamese Drip Coffee with Sweetened Condensed Milk (The favourite). Hot or Iced.
- Black Coffee
- Egg Coffee (Ca Phe Trung) – (The last pic)
This was one aspect of Vietnamese cuisine that was very confusing or should I say different. At every market, there were these stalls selling pots of all different sweet and some savoury ingredients. Fruit salads, jelly, kidney beans, corn, sugared bananas and gosh knows what else. In one cup, they put ice, condensed milk and then a variety of these ingredients. So interesting!
So there you have it. Some of our favourite foods to try in Vietnam. Do you have any more to add?
Vietnam was the last stop on our 8-month expedition through Asia and we’ve eaten more noodles and rice than we’ve ever done before! We’ve definitely got happy tastebuds leaving Vietnam.
Where to next? Africa! To begin our 3-week overland tour with Tucan Travel. Excited is an understatement.
Married Days Survived: 828