Vietnamese food is quite unlike any other food in Southeast Asia. It’s even quite different from China. Overall it’s a blend of Malay, Indian, French and influences and incorporates baguettes and pate from France; and curries and chilies from India.
Recently voted by health experts as the world’s healthiest food, Vietnamese cuisine mixes grilled meats, fresh vegetables, cold noodles, and all kinds of seafood dishes spiced with tamarind and chili.
Available at all hours of the day, Vietnamese food can be eaten as snacks, in street side stalls, in budget restaurants, and in hotels. In many cases only the price is the difference because often the tastiest foods come from the most basic kitchens.
As you travel up or down the country, you will notice sharp differences in both main dishes and snacks eaten by locals. Its one of the joys of traveling in the country, and it’s a good idea to ask your guide to point out interesting things to eat.
With the weather so cold for so much of the year, soups play a large part in Northern cuisine. Pho, Vietnam’s ‘chicken soup,’ is made with white vermicelli noodles, sliced beef or chicken, bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, hot broth and mint leaves that is served piping hot and at all hours of the day. Pho stalls can be found all over Hanoi (and Hanoi style Pho can be found all over Vietnam, catering to homesick Hanoians) and a bowl can cost between 5,000 and 10,000 dong, depending on the location.
Once the bowl is put in front of you, spice it up with bean sauce and chili sauce and squeeze in a few lime wedges; then dig in with a pair of chopsticks in one hand (to lift up the noodles to cool them off) and a spoon in the other (to lift the noodles to your mouth). Other soups include Chao, a kind of rice porridge, and it’s often prescribed as a remedy for common colds.
By far the favorite food in Hanoi is ‘Bun Cha’ grilled meat eaten at makeshift restaurants serving patrons on the street. It’s a great way to fill up for just a few thousand dongs, and when walking around the city it may be impossible to resist the smell.
Bia Hoi is a Hanoi invention, and ‘Bia’ comes from the English word ‘beer.’ Its freshly brewed and served in plastic jugs; its cheap, and it’s a great way to soak up Hanoi’s ambiance at night and you might even make some friends along the way.
Hanoians may be a reserved bunch, but they are downright adventurous when it comes to exotic food: fried silk worms, cobra meat, dog meat among others are eaten by people in the capital to cure sickness, increase virility or just because it’s the right season.
Most of the food eaten in Central Vietnam has some link to the imperial kitchens of the Nguyen Emperors in Hue. Many of the spices, techniques and vegetables come straight from the tables of the emperors themselves.
Imperial spring rolls are commonly eaten, as is Bun Bo Hue, a spicy beef soup that is not for the faint hearted; you may need a bottle of water nearby to wash down the chili peppers.
Perhaps the most famous is Banh Khoai, a pancake like food that is eaten with nuoc leo, a rich peanut sauce. The pancake includes eggs, shrimps and bean sprouts (much like Banh Xeo, in the south, discussed later)
A popular snack is Banh Beo, tiny ceramic dishes with a boiled rice cake topped with pork bits and eaten with a spoon; Drop a small amount of fish sauce (Nuoc Mam) on top and dig in.
A lot of seafood is eaten here as well, and boiled crabs are a specialty.
Perhaps the most exotic food eaten here is Com Hen, a cold rice dish flavored with juice from clams that live in the river near Hoi An. Other ingredients include white vermicelli noodles, chili and shrimp sauce. Its quite a difficult dish to prepare and is not for those who worry about healthy shellfish.
The South of Vietnam is considered to have the best food in the country, namely because Saigon, with its increasingly wealthy inhabitants, demand the highest quality vegetables fruits meats etc, and foreign foods (even American Fast Food giants KFC are here) are increasingly common from French to Mexican to Indian.
With the lush Mekong Delta so close, the fruit is very fresh, pineapple, mango and star fruit all come into play in dishes as they come into season.
Banh Xeo is perhaps the most famous Southern Dish, like Banh Khoai, it too is a pancake, but the dish Banh Xeo is much larger, and uses more green beans, shrimps and coconut milk. It serves more than one person, and is dipped in nuoc mam, fish sauce, after being wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves.
Freshly cooked spring rolls are famous in Saigon, but the most specialized are Goi Cuon, the fresh spring rolls combining sliced cold shrimp, mint leaves, cold vermicelli noodles, and rice paper that is dipped in nuoc mam.
Some Southern exotics include Hot Vit Lon, or fertilized duck egg, that is eaten with a spoon and is usually available in markets and street stalls.
Com (boiled rice)
In Vietnam, com is eaten at the main meals of the day (lunch and dinner). Rice is eaten together with a variety of different dishes and is made from different kinds of rice. Typically fragrant rice is used, such as Tam Thom and Nang Huong. An ordinary meal may consist of boiled rice and the following:
Mon an kho (meal without soup) consists of dishes of pork, fish, shrimp, and vegetable cooked in oil, as well as vegetables, pickles, etc.
Mon canh (meal with soup) consists of a soup made with pork or spare-ribs, crab meat, and fish.
In the past several years, people in urban centers have begun to go out for lunch at the food stalls on the street. Consequently, there has been a proliferation of temporary food stalls along many sidewalks and public spaces in the cities. Some stalls are open until early in the morning to cater to regular customers. Around noon, owners can be seen arranging tables and benches along the pavement to form makeshift shop floors. After two or three hours, when there are no more customers, they begin to remove all of their wooden furniture, so that the place resumes its former appearance. A well served lunch for one is very inexpensive.
Banh Chung (Sticky Rice Cake)
Sticky rice cakes are a Vietnamese traditional dish that must be part of Tet meals. As a matter of fact, every Vietnamese family must have sticky rice cakes among the offerings placed on the altar to their ancestors.
Bang chung is made of glutinous rice, pork meat, and green beans paste wrapped in a square of bamboo leaves, giving the rice a green colour after boiling.
According to the legend, under the reign of the Hung Kings, Prince Lang Lieu created sticky rice cakes and presented them to his father. Bang chung won high acclaims from the King who awarded the prince his throne.
Making sticky rice cakes is a very meticulous job. To obtain the best cakes, rice has to soak in water for an entire day. The pork meat must include skin and fat, the green beans must be of the same size, and the bamboo leaves must be fresh. Squaring off and tying cakes with bamboo strings requires skilful hands.
Sticky rice cakes are available at any time of the year, although one is sure to enjoy them with relatives and friends during Tet. During Tet, rice cakes are served with gio lua and hanh muoi– lean meat pie and salted sour onions.
Gio Lua (Lean Pork Pie)
Lean pork pie is available in Vietnam only and has different names in the north and south. Foreigners as well as Vietnamese are fond of lean pork pie.
Gio lua consists of pork meat wrapped in fresh banana leaves. The little bundles are then boiled. The most delicious part of lean pork pie is the top layer since it absorbs the flavour of the banana leaves.
Pho – Noodles
Pho is the most popular food among the Vietnamese population. Pho is commonly eaten for breakfast, although many people will have it for their lunch or dinner. Anyone feeling hungry in the small hours of the morning can also enjoy a bowl of hot and spicy pho to fill their empty stomachs.
Like hot green tea which has its particular fragrance, pho also has its special taste and smell. Preparations may vary, but when the dish is served, its smell and taste is indispensable. The grated rice noodle is made of the best variety of fragrant rice called Gao Te. The broth for Pho Bo (Pho with beef) is made by stewing the bones of cows and pigs in a large pot for a long time. Pieces of fillet mignon together with several slices of ginger are reserved for Pho Bo Tai (rare fillet). Slices of well done meat are offered to those less keen on eating rare fillets.
The soup for Pho Ga (pho with chicken meat) is made by stewing chicken and pig bones together. The white chicken meat that is usually served with Pho Ga is boneless and cut into thin slices. You could consider Pho Bo and Pho Ga Vietnam’s special soups. Pho also has the added advantage of being convenient to prepare and healthy to eat.
Cha Ca (grilled minced fish)
Grilled minced fish has been served in Vietnam for more than 100 years. The Doan family of Cha Ca Street in Hanoi first invented this dish.
A wide variety of fish can be used in this dish including sturgeon and tuna. Tuna is low in fat, has an exquisite flavour, and few bones. The bones are separated from the meat and put into saffron water to be later used in a sauce. The fish is marinated in salt before being grilled.
What is interesting about this dish is that people can add their favourite condiments: coriander, mint, dill, shallots, and more.
Com (Grilled rice)
Grilled rice is mostly served in the fall. After collecting the rice from the fields, several steps have to be performed to obtain excellent com. After removing the grains from their hulks, the rice is wrapped in lotus leaves to keep it from drying and to allow it to absorb the lotus flavor.
Grilled rice can be found everywhere in Vietnam, but the best com is found in Vong village, 5 km from Hanoi. People in this village still use traditional secret recipes. People eat grilled rice with eggs, bananas, or sapodillas.
Banh Cuon (Rice Flour Steamed Rolls)
Eating banh cuon for breakfast is a great favorite among many Vietnamese.
Banh cuon is made of rice flour. Thoroughly selected rice is soaked overnight, then ground with a stone mortar. Food preservatives are put into the flour to make the rice sheets softer and smoother. A screen of cloth used to mold the rice sheets is fitted over the opening of a pot of boiling water. Flour is spread on the screen and covered with a lid. After a few minutes, a bamboo stick is used to strip the thin layer of flour off the screen. Then it is rolled up and sprinkled with fried onions.
A small village in a suburb of Hanoi is famous for its banh cuon. People there serve it with a dressing comprised of lean meat, shrimps, mushrooms, dried onions, fish sauce, and pepper.
All the ingredients are stir-fried and rolled into a banh cuon.
Banh cuon is delicious when it is very thin, white, and sticky. It is even tastier when dipped in a sweet, sour, and spicy sauce.
Bun (rice vermicelli)
Vietnamese vermicelli is a luxurious as well as a popular dish. There are different varieties of vermicelli depending on their shape: bun roi or stirred vermicelli, bun mam or twisted vermicelli, bun la or vermicelli paper, and bun dem tram or shreded vermicelli.
Different ingredients can be served with vermicelli: grilled pork meat, fried rice cakes, snails, fried eggs, lean meat pie, chicken, and crab soup, to name a few.
Each region and locality, even each restaurant, has its own vermicelli dishes with their own recipes.
Mien (vermicelli made of cassava)
Mien threads are very long and tough, made from a kind of tuber plant called cassava. When served, the long tiny flour threads are cut into smaller pieces. Like rice vermicelli, this kind of cassava vermicelli is used to make several different dishes, the most popular being Mien Ga (chicken cassava vermicelli), Mien Bo (beef cassava vermicelli), and Mien Luon (eel cassava vermicelli).
Cassava vermicelli is also used for different dishes which are stirred in oil, such as Mien Xao Thit (vermicelli and pork stirred in fat), Mien Xao Long Ga (vermicelli and chicken tripe stirred in fat), and Mien Xao Cua Be (vermicelli and sea crab meat stirred in fat).
Banh Tom (crispy shrimp pastry)
Although Banh Tom is available almost everywhere in the country, it is best at the Nha Hang Ho Tay (Ho Tay Restaurant) on the banks of Truc Bach Lake, close to Ho Tay (West Lake) in Hanoi. While diners await the arrival of the hot fried shrimp pastry, they can enjoy the picturesque lake and landscapes offered by the vast expanse of water from West Lake and the tree-lined Thanh Nien Road.
The dish should be eaten as soon as it arrives at the table. The fried pastry is topped with red shrimps and is eaten together with dishes of spicy vegetables mixed with sweet and sour sauce.
To remind you of the local shrimping business, waiters will often tell you that the shrimps that you have ordered for your meal have just been netted in nearby West Lake. This will be a memorable meal that will ensure that you remember your stay in Hanoi.
This dish is a combination of a variety of fresh vegetables, usually used in salads in Western countries. The make-up of Nom, however, is slightly different.
The main ingredients of Nom include grated pieces of turnip, cabbage, or papaya, and slices of cucumber with grated, boiled, lean pork. Other auxiliary ingredients include grated carrot, slices of hot chilly, and roasted ground nuts. These are used to make the dish more colourful. All are mixed thoroughly before being soaked in vinegar, sugar, garlic, hot chilly, and seasoned with salt.
The presentation of the dish is also very meticulous. The mixture of ingredients is put into a dish before being covered with vegetables.
To try a mouthful of Nom is to enjoy a combination of all the tastes life has to offer, including sour, hot, sweet, salty, and fragrant tastes. The dish helps with digestion at meals and parties. It can become an addictive aid to assist the real connoisseur enjoy more food.
Nem Ran or Cha Gio (fried spring roll)
This dish is called Nem Ran by northerners and Cha Gio by southerners. In Hanoi, the introduction of Nem Ran dates back to a time when Cha Ca had not existed. Although it ranks among Vietnam’s specialty dishes, Nem Ran is very easy to prepare. Consequently, it has long been a preferred food on special occasions such as Tet and other family festivities.
Ingredients used for Nem Ran comprise of lean minced pork, sea crabs or unshelled shrimps, two kinds of edible mushroom (Nam Huong and Moc Nhi), dried onion, duck eggs, pepper, salt and different kinds of seasoning. All are mixed thoroughly before being wrapped with transparent rice paper into small rolls. These rolls are then fried in boiling oil.
Faifo Dainty (Danang)
Faifo dainty is a fairly unknown Vietnamese dish named after an old street in Hoi An.
Dainty fiber is carefully made by putting rice in water containing ashes from wood found in Cu Lao Cham. Then, the rice is ground and quickly boiled to make a fibrous mixture. Dainty can be preserved only one day, which is why it is boiled and dried. Dainty fibers have a dark-yellow colour.
The filling for dainty consists of lean pork and other condiments that are stir-fried. Then, the dainty is cut into finger-long pieces that are dried and grilled. Finally, the filling is put into the dainty. For a saltier taste, one can add fish sauce. Chicken meat cut in squares combined with small shrimps can also be added to the recipe.
Although dainty is not a popular meal in Vietnam, it is still served in certain restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tom Chua (Hue Sour Shrimp)
When Hue natives living outside the city return to their homeland, they usually have sour shrimp. Tourists also make sure to buy some jars of sour shrimp before leaving Hue.
Because of the national reputation of this dish, some cooks and merchants specialize in making sour shrimp. In the past, people made this dish at home, but now it is easier to buy it at the market.
This dish can be prepared with any kind of shrimp. The recipe includes a number of steps that must be performed in a specific order. First, the fresh, clean, and dry shrimp of approximately the same size are put in wine along with dry bamboo shoots, garlic, and chili. The ingredients are kept in a closed container at room temperature for three days. Then the container is put in a cool, dry place. After five or seven days, the sour shrimp are ready.
Com Hen (Hue Mussel Rice)
Hot white rice is part of every meal in Vietnam, but only Hue mussel rice is served cool. Hue people, after deciding that no food should be wasted, have designed this dish using leftover rice.
This dish includes Chinese vermicelli, bamboo shoots, lean pork meat, and an assortment of green vegetables (banana leaves, mint, star fruit, etc.).
The broth obtained after boiling the mussels is used to flavour the rice. Ginger, sesame, and chili are also added to the broth. This dish is very spicy and it is not rare to see people with watery eyes and sweaty faces while eating it; nevertheless, everyone congratulates the cook for such a delicious meal.
Hue Beef Noodle Soup
One must have years of experience to cook excellent Hue beef noodle soup. This recipe mainly consists of shredded meat and rice noodles. Most restaurants and merchants in Hue do not make the rice noodles themselves; they buy them in Van Cu and Bao Vinh, two villages located near Hue.
Learning how to make a clear broth from bone and meat is also a difficult task, but cooks have the satisfaction of seeing customers enjoying a good meal. The secret of this recipe resides in the meat–this is why it must be bought directly from the slaughterhouse early in the morning. The meat is then shredded, boiled, and taken out of the water to obtain a delicious clear broth.
The amount of salt put in the recipe varies depending on the season; during summer, Hue beef noodle soup is served with soy bean, mint, and different kinds of lettuce; in the winter, the recipe is saltier and lemongrass and fish sauce are added.
Cau Mong Beef
Cau Mong beef is a specialty of Cau Mong, located 15 km from Danang, Dien Ban district, where nearly ten restaurants serve the dish. Cau Mong beef has been served for a long time and is found in many places outside Danang, such as Hoi An, Tam Ky, Vinh Dien, and Ho Chi Minh City.
The meat along with its skin is cut in thin slices, half cooked, and eaten with nem, which consists of fish sauce mixed with soy sauce, sugar, chili, garlic, lemon, star fruit, vervain, and green banana.
Hu Tieu (My Tho Noodle Soup)
My Tho seafood noodle soup is different from Chinese noodle soup, nam vang soup, and Hue beef noodle soup, because it contains soy bean, lemon, chili, and soy sauce instead of herbs and lettuce.
Back in the 1960s, a shop in My Tho, 70 km from Ho Chi Minh City, started serving this dish using a secret recipe for the rice noodles. Ever since then, its reputation has grown to become a very well known meal in Vietnam.
It is said that the most delicious noodle soup is made with Co Cat rice, from the most famous rice growing area of My Phong village, a suburb of My Tho.
The sweet aroma of the broth comes from the meat, dried squid, and special condiments.
My Tho noodle soup is a traditional dish specific to the south.
Lau Mam (Mixed Soup)
Lau mam was a popular dish among farming communities hundreds of years ago, especially in the southwestern provinces. Nowadays, lau mam is considered a delicacy and is often served to special guests. Lau designates the broth, and mam the salted fish.
The main ingredient used in the broth is marinated fish to which meat and vegetables are added. Various ingredients, such as seafood, fish, and meat, are prepared on separate plates. Guests choose and boil their meat in the broth. The meal is accompanied by several fresh vegetables and aromatic herbs.
This dish is particularly enjoyed since so many alternatives are possible, offering a wide array of delicious flavours.
Canh Chua (Fish Sour Soup)
Canh chua originated from the Mekong Region, more specifically from Dong Thap Muoi. Canh chua is a fish sour soup made with fish from the Mekong River and so dua flower. This dish is mostly served when the so dua flower first blossoms at the end of the rainy season. A feast is organized and the fish sour soup is among the delicious meals prepared for this event. Fish sour soup must be eaten very hot. It must also be eaten all at one time since the taste is altered when the soup is reheated.
Chao Tom (Grilled Shrimp Paste)
Foreigners often say that grilled shrimp paste is a very unusual dish made from very simple ingredients. The recipe consists of clean shrimps placed in coconut water. The shrimps are later grilled and ground to obtain shrimp flour. The flour is mixed with fat and sugar to finally obtain shrimp paste. This dish is served with fish sauce.
Banh Cuon Trang Bang (Rice Cakes)
Trang Bang, located 40 km from Ho Chi Minh City, is where one can find the best rice paper and rice cakes.
Both can be found everywhere, but nowhere are they better than in Trang Bang where they are made from local rice. The rice flour is roasted for four or five hours and made into thick cakes. Once the cakes are dried, they are placed into nylon bags.
These cakes can be eaten with shrimp, meat, salad, and coriander. During Tet, the cakes are served with roasted meat, eggs, and sour mustard.