Vietnam has long been known as a culinary paradise. Exploring Vietnamese food means diving into its diverse cuisine, as it not only bursts with flavor but also embodies a rich history. Here are the top 15 Vietnamese foods you must try!
Pho has served as the cultural ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine for years. It is not an exaggeration to say that making pho is a form of art, requiring complicated steps and dedicated ingredients. Those who have tried pho will admit that the hot, steaming broth is the soul of the dish, boasting many layers of flavor. To be considered a high-quality broth, it must meet three strict criteria: first, it must be clear for visual appeal; second, it should have a subtle sweetness derived from hours of slow cooking the pork bones; and third, it must have a fragrant herb aroma from cinnamon, anise, and ginger.
Pho can be found anywhere in Vietnam with a varied range of prices. To eat pho like a local, add to your bowl fresh basil, coriander leaves, and blanched bean sprouts, then squeeze in a few drops of lime juice. Get a small bowl and make a sauce by mixing soybean, chili sauce, and sauté; then dip the beef while eating. You can also order a small bowl of poached egg on the side, as locals do, for added flavor and protein.
2. Banh mi
You cannot discuss Vietnamese cuisine without mentioning the banh mi. Praised by both diners and critics, it has been described as “a symphony in a sandwich” by the late chef Anthony Bourdain.
Adapted from the French baguette, the banh mi is a crunchy bread filled with a variety of fillings, such as meat, eggs, pickled carrots, and herbs. It is highly customizable and can be found on every street corner in Vietnam. Suitable for any time of day due to its high nutritional value, a delicious and high-quality banh mi can be purchased for just 15,000 VND (less than 1 USD).
The possibilities for creating the banh mi are endless, with hundreds of variations showcasing the creative spirit of Vietnamese street vendors. To eat like a local, accompany the banh mi with a cup of ca phe sua da (coffee with condensed milk) to enhance the flavors of both.
3. Goi cuon
Fresh spring rolls, also known as goi cuon, are a street food available in both vegan and non-vegan options. Not only filling but also portable, goi cuon is convenient for eating on the go. Each roll is wrapped in rice paper and filled with green vegetables like lettuce and Vietnamese basil, rice noodles, and carrots. For meat-eaters, slices of pork and shrimp can be added to the rolls. Their colorful appearance is eye-catching and at some restaurants, you can even wrap your own rolls. To do it like a local, simply wet a sheet of rice paper with water, add the ingredients, and roll tightly.
To eat goi cuon like a local, don’t forget to dip the rolls in one of the three sauces, ranked in order of recommendation: soybean paste sauce topped with ground peanuts, sweet and sour fish sauce with pickled carrots, or fermented fish sauce seasoned with minced pineapple. This summery snack should not be missed when visiting Vietnam.
4. Bun bo Hue
In an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” on CNN, the renowned American chef declared “Hue beef noodle is the best soup in the world.” The Asian Record Organization also listed bun bo Hue among the top 100 delicious Asian dishes.
Originating from the Emperor City, Hue in Central Vietnam, the spicy beef noodle soup is characterized by its iconic red color from annatto oil and fragrant aroma from lemongrass sauté. The cooking process is time-consuming, requiring both cooking skills and patience. The noodles used are round and thicker than regular rice vermicelli, adding an extra dimension of flavor with the addition of sliced onions and Vietnamese coriander.
Locals usually accompany their bun bo Hue with vegetables such as banana flowers, bean sprouts, Vietnamese basil, and a squeeze of lime juice.
Nowadays, you can find a bowl of bun bo Hue anywhere, but for the authentic experience, visit a roadside restaurant near Trang Tien Bridge in Hue, where there are century-old, family-run eateries.
5. Mi Quang
When discussing delectable Vietnamese cuisine, mi Quang, hailing from the province of Quang Nam, which is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Hoi An Ancient Town and My Son Sanctuary, must be mentioned. This specialty dish embodies the convergence of various cultural influences, including elements of Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine.
Unlike other Vietnamese soups, the broth in mi Quang is not a hot soup filling the bowl to the rim, rather, it is a savory and fresh broth that cannot be seen from the surface. Toppings include various types of proteins, including sliced pork, shrimp, and quail eggs for a “special” bowl. A handful of green herbs and crispy “banh da,” a type of thick, cracky rice paper with sesame, complete the dish. You can also customize your bowl of mi Quang by requesting your preferred protein such as chicken, fish, or young chicken eggs.
Please note the complex ingredients in case of any allergies, and feel free to inform the restaurant of your preferred meat choice.
6. Banh xeo
Banh xeo is a popular name in the Vietnamese street food scene. The name “banh xeo” is derived from the sizzling sound made when the turmeric yellow batter is poured into a hot pan. The shape and size of banh xeo vary depending on the region, with versions in the South being thinner, larger, and less oily, whereas Central versions are more oily and crunchier.
Due to its popularity, banh xeo has been filled with various ingredients to enhance the dining experience. Traditionally, banh xeo is filled with pork belly, shrimp, bean sprouts, and mung beans. The batter, mixed with coconut milk and garlic chives, should be fried in pork fat to achieve an authentic taste. Eating banh xeo in-person, with the sizzling sounds, the scent of coconut milk and turmeric, and the lively conversation of diners, is a much more enjoyable experience than taking it to-go.
To eat banh xeo like a local, wrap it with some green herbs and wasabi leaves, dip it in sweet and sour fish sauce, and complete it with some carrot pickles from the sauce. Enjoy!
7. Nem ran
Vietnamese eating culture is centered around gathering and sharing food, which is why many of our dishes come in rolls, making them easy to share. Nem ran is one of these treats and can be found at any traditional Vietnamese celebration as an appetizer.
The filling for nem ran is not fixed, but typically includes a mixture of minced pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, chopped glass noodles, diced carrots, mushrooms, and taro, all wrapped inside a rice paper and deep-fried to achieve a caramelized look and crunchy texture. In keeping with the principle of Yin and Yang, these deep-fried dishes are always accompanied by lots of green herbs and vegetables.
If you have a seafood allergy, you can order nem ran with just pork fillings. It can be eaten as a standalone snack or appetizer, or you can top a bowl of thin rice noodles with herbs, sliced cucumber, nem ran, and season with fish sauce for a full meal.
8. Banh cuon
The name “banh cuon“ translates to “rolled cakes,” although they are not actually cakes. These thin steamed rice rolls are filled with ground pork and chopped wood-ear mushrooms and served on a bed of fresh cucumber, Vietnamese basil, and blanched bean sprouts. The preparation of banh cuon is a mesmerizing process that requires perfect timing and skill to lift it off the steamer while preserving its shape.
What sets banh cuon apart from others is the homemade cha lua (Vietnamese sausage) and dipping sauce. It’s a light dish, traditionally eaten as breakfast, but has become a popular snack enjoyed all day due to its flavor and healthfulness.
In many places, banh cuon is served alongside nem ran (also known as cha gio in the South) and banh tom (fried shrimp cakes).
9. Bun cha
Bun cha is a unique dish that consists of caramelized grilled pork and meatballs in vinegary broth. The grilled pork must be made from pork shoulders with thin layers of fat to ensure that it stays moist when grilled. The meatballs are made from minced pork. The broth is a combination of vinegar and pickled carrots and green papayas, creating a balance of sour and textured flavor. The dish is served with fresh vegetables and eaten with rice vermicelli noodles.
There are several ways to enjoy bun cha, but the most popular methods are either wrapping the grilled pork, noodles, and herbs in a large lettuce leaf and dipping it in the vinegary broth, or adding all the ingredients to a small bowl, wetting it with some of the soup, and eating directly from the bowl. Bun cha is a dish that awakens all of your senses with the balanced sweetness and sourness of the dipping sauce and the freshness of the rice vermicelli noodles and vegetables.
10. Cha ca
Cha ca is a specialty dish from Hanoi made with hemibagrus, a freshwater fish with a tasty, boneless flesh. It’s served with vermicelli, coriander, scallions, basil, and dill to create an unforgettable flavor.
The fish is coated with corn flour and lightly fried before being served hot and fresh, directly from the oven. To eat like a local, place some rice noodles, greens, and fish meat into a small bowl, then season it with fish sauce or fermented fish sauce and add crushed peanuts.
11. Cao lau
Cao lau is a unique dish from Central Vietnam. It resembles mi Quang, but has less broth, making it more like a dry noodle dish. To fully experience authentic cao lau, it is best to eat it by the Hoai River in Hoi An.
The noodles used for making cao lau are thick and ivory in color, which comes from the special tree bark ash found on Cham Island near Hoi An. The dish is served in a bowl with green baby mustard leaves, herbs, and Char Siu pork, which enhances its flavor.
Cao lau is already fully seasoned, but you can always add a touch of chili if you prefer a spicier taste.
Xoi, or steamed glutinous rice, is an essential dish in Vietnamese cuisine. Every Vietnamese person has likely eaten plenty of xoi wrapped in banana leaves. There are various types of xoi, with ingredients that can vary greatly but often include natural coloring and flavoring agents like pandan leaves, gac fruit, and magenta leaves. Xoi can also be combined with different types of beans such as green beans, black beans, and peanuts.
A more nutritious version of xoi is known as xoi man, which features toppings such as pork floss, dried baby shrimp, Vietnamese sausage, salted white carrot, fried onions, quail eggs, and smashed peanuts on a bed of jasmine-scented sticky rice. Xoi is sold from large steaming pots on the sides of streets, and the sight of scented smoke rising from colorful steamers is not to be missed.
For a unique experience, it is recommended to eat xoi wrapped in banana leaves, which imparts a special flavor to the dish and complements the natural flavor of xoi.
13. Hu tieu
Hu tieu, a local delicacy of the South, is cooked with thin square noodles. It was once praised by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as the best broth he ever tasted. The broth is slow-cooked with pork bones and ribs in a beehive-coal-fueled oven to achieve an elegant and light sweetness.
When ordered, the cook blanches the hu tieu noodles in a separate pot of boiling water before presenting them in a bowl with bean sprouts, lettuce, and sliced pork. It may also be topped with minced pork, meatballs, and quail eggs, known as hu tieu Nam Vang. Each person seasons their bowl of hu tieu in their own way, but normally with a touch of lime juice and chili sauce.
In different regions, hu tieu is served with different types of pickles, such as pickled garlic or chilies. However, the original pickle served in the Mekong Delta is pickled daikon. If the restaurant serves your hu tieu with this pickle, you know you’re having an authentic bowl.
14. Ca phe sua da
Believe it or not, you are likely to encounter this drink at least once during your time in Vietnam, especially on a hot and humid day. Ca phe sua da is a popular refreshment that is made of iced black coffee mixed with condensed milk. This drink has become increasingly popular due to its sweetness and creaminess, and it still provides a good caffeine boost.
To make ca phe sua da, Robusta coffee, which is a Vietnamese coffee, is used with a small metal Vietnamese drip filter (the phin). The coffee is made by adding 1-2 teaspoons of coffee to the phin and then pouring 50-100 ml of hot water over it, which allows the phin to release drops of hot coffee into a cup. Vietnamese people, particularly those in Saigon, prefer to drink their coffee with milk instead of sugar, and they usually add 1-2 tablespoons of condensed milk.
You can adjust the amount of milk to your liking, and iced tea is often served to help balance the sweetness.
15. Ca phe trung
Everyone knows that Vietnam is the land of coffee beans and coffee shops, but we have taken coffee to the next level with ca phe trung (egg coffee) – a cup of hot black coffee topped with rich and creamy whipped egg yolks. The pairing of egg and coffee may seem strange, but it results in a harmonious balance.
You can enjoy ca phe trung throughout Vietnam, but if you’re in Hanoi, a cup of coffee at Giang Cafe is a great option to try the original taste of egg coffee.
Some may consider ca phe trung a dessert because of its rich and creamy taste, so you may want to have it after your main meal.
A little background about Vietnamese food
In Vietnam, food is not designated for specific meals like in Western countries, and can be consumed at any time of the day. However, the flavor of dishes may vary depending on the region:
- Northern Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes the balance between Yin and Yang and the Five Elements, leading to more flavorful and sophisticated dishes compared to other regions. Northern dishes typically have minimal seasoning and herbs.
- Central Vietnamese cuisine is generally saltier and spicier, with dishes such as bun bo Hue, mi Quang, and cao lau reflecting this.
- In the South, particularly in the Mekong Delta, dishes are often sweeter, reflecting the warmth and kindness of the Delta’s people.
Should you tip at a restaurant in Vietnam?
In Vietnam, there is limited “tip culture” and tipping is not mandatory. For small to medium-sized restaurants, simply paying the menu price is sufficient. However, if you wish to show appreciation, a small tip would be appreciated by the server. In larger restaurants, a service fee of 5-10% is already included in the bill, so tipping is not necessary. If a dish or service exceeded your expectations, tipping $2 (50,000 VND) is a common and acceptable practice.