When people ask me about the favorite places I’ve been (and they ask me that a lot), I tend to vary my answer, but without fail Vietnam is on the list.
There are many reasons for this, but here’s the biggest: Vietnam has some of the most wonderful, diverse, and cheap food of anywhere on earth. There is a reason it’s Anthony Bourdain’s favorite country.
Vietnam’s food is highly regional and hugely diverse. Some dishes, like banh mi and pho you may already be familiar with. Others will take you by surprise. Here are some tips for experiencing all the culinary delights the country has to offer.
Part of what makes Vietnamese food so distinctive is the unique cultural mishmash of the country. You will find strong Chinese, Khmer and French influences. In particular, over 100 years of French occupation led to the adoption of many French cooking styles and ingredients. You will see the influence pop up all over: in the coffee culture, Vietnamese crepes, beef soups and more.
This is easiest to see in the classic banh mi sandwich: classically French ingredients like pate and baguettes are given a unique Vietnamese spin thanks to pickled vegetables and cilantro. Even the baguette itself has been slightly altered- it’s made with rice flour, not wheat.
Vietnamese food often follows a few principles: very fresh ingredients, a balance of sweet, salty, crunchy and spicy. Salty fish sauce features prominently as does rice. Garlic, cilantro, mint, lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon and of course fresh chilies are all used liberally.
Vietnam doesn’t look very big on the map, but it’s quite a large place with cities stretched far apart. With a population of 70 million people and a really complicated history, it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to agree on a universal pho recipe.
Southern Vietnam is tropical, and the food is often fresh and full of herbs and greens. Thanks to the history of colonialism, you will see plenty of multicultural influence from the French, the Cambodians and the Thais.
Most of the Vietnamese food you may have sampled in the United States will be Southern Vietnamese in origin. This is due to the exodus of southern Vietnamese democracy-supporters during and after the Vietnam War (or American War, depending on where you’re standing).
Northern Vietnamese food is more traditional, and this is where you will find many of Vietnam’s authentic signature dishes like pho and bun cha. There is more of an influence from China up here, and you’ll see more stir fries and noodle soups.
Central Vietnam has its own, entirely separate thing going on. This is where you will find imperial cuisine, as well as lots of specialties that only exist in one city or area, like bun bo hue (in Hue) or cao lau (in Hoi An).
Eat the Street Food
If I can give you just one tip for experiencing the food culture of Vietnam it is simply this: Eat low to the ground. I mean literally, low to the ground. If you are perched, knees aching, on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk, eating a bowl of soup while motorcycles whiz by, you are doing it right. It’s the quintessential Vietnam experience.
Seriously, eat the street food. Eat it even if you aren’t sure what it is. If you’re worried about getting sick check out Jodi’s article on safely eating street food.
Stupid Myths: Yes, it’s true there are a few places in Vietnam that eat dog, but no you are not going to accidentally find yourself dining on Fido. Like in China, dog is a somewhat obscure delicacy. Anywhere that sells dog meat is charging a lot for it, so they are not going to secretly slip it to you for free.
Some Must-Try Dishes
This is not a definitive guide- Vietnamese food is incredible diverse and there are literally thousands of different dishes you might stumble upon. I could never even hope to put together a comprehensive list.
Here however, area few things to get you started:
One thing that surprised me in Vietnam- soup is a popular breakfast choice! It felt weird at first but what better way to warm up on a cold morning?
There are hundreds of different Vietnamese soups, many of which are regional based on the area’s local ingredients. But here are a couple biggies:
Pho– You’ve probably heard of pho- the delicious meaty soup that is everywhere in Seattle at least. It’s a fairly simple soup of rich broth, chicken or beef, rice noodles and herbs. In Vietnam the meat is usually served raw and it cooks in the boiling broth, so you may want to wait a few minutes before diving in. Oftentimes pho is served with a side plate of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeno so you can customize it to your taste.
Bún riêu– a noodle soup with a tomato broth and a refreshing sour taste. Popular with crab (Bún riêu cua) but there are other versions too.
Lẩu– Vietnamese hot pot. You cook assorted meats (anything from beef to frogs) and veggies in the broth.
Snacks and Light Meals
Banh mi- Aside from pho, probably the most famous Vietnamese crossover. Banh mi are a classic Vietnamese sandwich served on a fluffy rice baguette. Ingredients usually include pate, pickled veggies, cilantro and some kind of meat or tofu. They are an exceptionally delicious product of French and Vietnamese fusion.
Bánh Cuốn– these steamed rice cakes are kind of a weird texture for westernized palates, but they are usually served with crunchy fried shallots, pickled carrots and shrimp or sausage.
Goi Cuốn– fresh spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls or salad rolls. These babies are filled with greens and sometimes shrimp or pork. Refreshing and filling.
Cha gio– Small fried spring rolls, filled with veggies and pork and usually dipped in salty fish sauce.
Bò Lúc Lắc- Sometimes called “shaking beef” in the US. This is basically just deliciously spiced stir fried beef cubes. Good for picky eaters.
Gà nướng sả OR Bo nướng sả– Lemongrass chicken or beef.
Com tam– Also called broken rice, this dish is made from fractured rice grains and is very popular around lunchtime. Usually topped with chicken, pork chops or some other yummy grilled meat.
Bun Cha– vermicelli noodles served with veggies, herbs and some sort of meaty topping- often grilled pork, meatballs or even spring rolls.
Banh xeo- A Vietnamese twist on crepes. Ban xeo is a chewy rice crepe, usually with pork and shrimp and bean sprouts. You wrap a portion of the crepe, some fresh veggies in rice paper and dip it in the sweet sauce.
Bia hoi– Fresh beer. Locally brewed, light, refreshing and cheap.
Iced Coffee– Vietnamese iced coffee is legendary. It’s usually served at your table with a tiny little drip filter, and sweetened with condensed milk.
Vietnam is also a place where you can sample more challenging foods- everything from barbecued cobra to scorpions. A classic street food in Vietnam and other parts of South East Asia is balut- fertilized duck egg. Here’s a video of Mike eating balut.
More resources on eating in Vietnam: