Vietnamese cuisine is a wonderful world of heady fragrances, vibrant colours, fresh produce, spices and herbs; think crunchy salads, fiery noodles, comforting broths, and juicy tropical fruits. Authentic Vietnamese food relies very little on dairy and oils and is every traveller’s dream: food that is tasty as well as healthy.
Deceptively simple on the surface, a deeper exploration of Vietnamese food reveals a rich world of traditional knowledge and cultural values. Balance and harmony are important. Every dish includes contrasting textures like crunchy and soft and embraces the five tastes representing the five elements of nature - salty, spicy, sweet, bitter and sour. Vietnamese chefs also use the principles of yin and yang to balance out the effects of food on our body - cooling foods are carefully balanced out with hot spices, and vice versa.
As any good Vietnamese food guide will explain, the two key pillars of Vietnamese cuisine are rice and fish sauce. Being an agricultural country, rice is a part of every meal, but in very creative forms - rice noodles, rice paper, rice wine, puffed rice - the same humble ingredient generates a mindboggling variety. Fish sauce is another staple. Fermented salty fish sauce forms a key part of broths, dips, noodles and so on, and comes in various versions from the extra virgin first press to the darker variety used in dressings.
Herbs and spices are also liberally sprinkled. Lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, galangal, lime leaf - an endless list of fresh herbs are added to achieve the perfect balance of flavours.
Although multiple types of fresh meats and seafood are often used, Vietnamese cuisine is also a vegetarian paradise; vegetarian versions of dishes are available aplenty. Watch out for the word ‘Chay’, which means vegetarian.
Here are some absolute must-haves, from famous Vietnamese street foods to the lesser-known gems waiting for you to try them.
Pronounced ‘Fuh’, this fragrant bowl of noodles, light flavourful broth, veggies or meats is the poster dish of Vietnamese cuisine, and rightly so. Available everywhere, pho is one of the highly nutritious and economical Vietnamese dishes available. Its wafting fragrance and rich colours entice you to taste the dish with your eyes and mind well before your tongue. You can never walk too far in Vietnam without finding a humble pho stand surrounded by hungry diners. Traditionally a breakfast dish, this dish is now consumed at any time of the day.
Where to Try: Any street-side pho stall surrounded by people on plastic stools. For the best pho, look for the stall with the most crowds around it. Alternately, head to Pho Thin and Hai Ba Trung district in Hanoi or Pho Hoa Pasteur in Ho Chi Minh City. For the best vegetarian Vietnamese food and pho specifically, visit Karma Waters, a 100% organic vegan restaurant which has some delicious veggie options for Vietnamese food in general.
The perfect palate cleanser, Vietnamese spring rolls are fresh and healthy. The nearly transparent wrappings provide delicious visual hints to the goodness underneath. Stuffed full of greens, protein (meat or seafood) and coriander, these rolls are tightly wound up and soaked in fish or peanut sauce. Some versions also include green banana or star fruit.
Famous Vietnamese food guides often mention Banh Mi as one of the well-known Vietnamese dishes, sometimes without the history behind it. Vietnamese cuisine is a flavourful fusion of French and Chinese influences owing to the colonization of Vietnam by the French and Chinese, with Banh Mi being one of the most well-known examples. The French came and left, leaving behind the baguette; the Vietnamese transformed it into a gastronomical masterpiece with stuffings that vary by region. As you bite into the crusty baguette, your tongue is met with steaming tofu, crunchy pickled as well as fresh veggies, all drenched in a delicious sauce. Each mouthful is a delight. Any combination of cheese, pickled vegetables, meats, sausage, eggs, chili sauce and more may be present.
Banh Mi is slowly turning into a global phenomenon, with many well-known Banh Mi restaurant brands now across the world.
‘Banh Mi Chay’ is a vegetarian Banh Mi, and ‘Banh Mi Trung’ is an Egg Banh Mi, use these terms to explain to the vendor what kind of Banh Mi you are looking for.
Bahn Mi also makes a feature in Chef Nandita Shamlal's top 5 eats in Vietnam blog!
Where to try: For authentic Vietnamese Banh Mi, Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An is a small family-run joint which comes highly recommended by Anthony Bourdain, so you know it’s good. Be ready for some queues though, it’s very popular and perpetually busy.
This salad is made up of slivers of grated unripe papaya, dressed with peanuts, herbs, rice vinegar, fish sauce and other ingredients. The crisp green papaya with crunchy nuts and delicate flavourings makes for great textural delight. Believed to be a good digestive aid, this can be eaten at the start or end of a meal and helps improve digestion. For vegetarians, it is just as flavourful without the fish sauce.
Where to try: Widely available in most fancy Vietnamese restaurants and food streets in Vietnam.
These are thin rice crepes steamed, stuffed and neatly rolled, especially found at breakfast time. Some versions also have egg cracked onto the rice sheet for an added layer of soft goodness. As you bite into the layers of rice rolls, you will find stuffing which includes minced mushrooms and pork.
A seafood dish that’s so popular it has an entire street named after it in Hanoi where the dish is rumoured to have originated. Fragrant white fish chunks are fried in butter with spring onion and dill and served up with a handful of crunchy peanuts and soft rice noodles.
Where to try: The ever-popular Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi is always crowded, and also slightly overpriced. Alternately, head over to Duong Than in the Hoan Klem district of Hanoi for more economical but just as mouth-watering options.
A popular lunchtime special, Bun Cha is seasoned pork morsels with rice noodles and fragrant broth.
Where to try: Bun Cha Dac Kim in Hanoi
The usually sweltering heat of Vietnam makes cold Vietnamese sweets very popular. Visualize layers of coconut milk, rice, fruit, and jelly in a bowl or a glass, and you have che, a dish perfect for a hot summer day.
Deep-fried powerhouses of flavour stuffed with mushrooms, pork and vermicelli noodles.
A vegetarian Vietnamese food special, banana flower salad lightly flavoured with chili and lime, packed full of nutrients. Vietnamese cuisine uses some great vegetarian ingredients like the banana flower, unripe banana, star fruit and more.
Once you’ve gorged on all the heavier dishes available and your stomach is crying out for some rest, the humble creamy rice porridge is what you need. Jazzed-up options are easily available with additions like fish, chicken, beef, duck, shallots and many fragrant herbs.
Where to try: Quán Cháo Cá Đoan Xồm and Hoàn Kiếm district in Hanoi
Roasted chestnuts available at any street-side vendor make for a great snack at any time of day. The wafting fragrance will remind you of your childhood.
Sticky rice with added chicken, pork, fried eggs and more, served with a delicious topping of fried shallots for a burst of flavour.
Where to try: Xoi Yen and Hoan Kien district in Hanoi
With loads of restaurants, bustling streets and hawkers in every corner, and numerous joints serving delicious Vietnamese street food, where to eat in Vietnam is never a question. What to eat in Vietnam is answered for all the foodies in this bountiful Vietnamese food guide. Try some of these local favourite dishes and share your thoughts with us!
by Holxo Travel Specialist
by Holxo Travel Specialist
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