Vietnamese food is simple, yet exciting and loved by millions around the world – me especially. After the first year of travel primarily through Latin America, I felt that I should spend the majority of the second year in the country of my heritage. What I wasn’t prepared for, was that throughout the eight months of exploring the length of Vietnam, I was constantly astounded by the variation in tastes and textures: from the mild and natural flavours of the north, to the refreshing textures of the south.
Influences on Vietnamese Food
The influences on Vietnamese food can be narrowed down into three specific areas: regionality, history, and the belief in the healing properties of food. In the north, the cuisine is influenced mainly by the proximity to China as well as food that is tailored to colder climates. Further south, the use use of spices and sauces is more prevalent, such as fish sauce, also commonly used in Thai cuisine.
It is also the close proximity to the fertile regions of the Mekong that result in an abundance of fruit, vegetables and an array of herbs that make their way onto the dining table. The use of these ingredients is generally seen as bone of contention between the north and the south. In the central regions, the style of food can be seen as a fusion of both north and south.
Remnants of the French colonial occupation can be tasted throughout the cuisine. Bread and pâté are used to create their own version of a sandwich called a Banh Mi. In certain northern dishes, the inclusion of european herbs such as dill in Cha Ca la vong and Bunh Ca, add another flavour dimension to as opposed to using basil, the herb widely used in the south.
The Land of Noodle Soups
Regardless of where you go, you are never be too far from a bowl of soup. A common sight on the streets throughout the country, is the presence of a huge pot; full of a broth concocted from boiled bones and a magical mix of herbs spices that have been simmering away and ready to be poured over a bowl of noodles and thinly sliced cuts of meat.
This is how I discovered that there was more to Vietnamese food than just Pho, and that the contents of each pot became the vendor’s own personal trademark; something compelling me to roam the streets each day to discover that next bowl of soup.
Vietnamese food around the world is heavily influenced by the South, due to the number of migrants who fled during and after the war, with many eventually setting in Europe and America. As a result, traveling through Vietnam over those eight months was like a re-education on everything that I once thought was Vietnamese. Even after spending that time, traveling up and down the country, it felt like I had only scratched the surface.
This is far from an attempt to at being a comprehensive guide to Vietnamese food, but more an account of the dishes that stood out for me in the cities that I visited in Vietnam. They are dishes that will first come to mind, when I talk about Vietnamese food, and sometimes when I’m just hungry. I hope you enjoy discovering and trying them as much as I did.
Hanoi – Where Less is More
With a southern influence of in my experience with Vietnamese food, It took me a while to adjust to the flavours of food in the north. At first, I was shocked at the lack of herbs, textures and seasoning, but soon came to the realisation that northerners prefered to taste more of the primary ingredient of a dish, thus resulting in fewer ingredients within a recipe.
I can recall one occasion in Hanoi, sitting street side on a tiny plastic stool at my regular grilled meat on a stick vendor, when the owner asked me (other than trying to set me up on a date) if I preferred the food from Hanoi or Saigon? Trying to be as diplomatic as possible, I told her I liked both; to which she verbalised a stream of consciousness on how she thought the southerners ruin the food by adding herbs and spices.
I couldn’t argue with her because it was true that herbs are included, which I love, but the beauty of traveling is that you can become impartial to customs and rivalries and just appreciate food for what it is.
Bun cha is my favourite dish from Hanoi; I would happily jump on a plane from anywhere in Vietnam, just to have it again. With only grilled pork patties and smoky strips of pork belly as the primary ingredients in this simple looking dish, and served with a sweet and vinegary dipping sauce, this has become something that I regularly crave.
There is nothing special or technical in the cooking of this dish, but perhaps it’s the ceremonial grilling of the pork in the streets every morning that makes Bun Cha, the heavyweight champion of Hanoi for me. What makes it even more special is the smokey scent that is imparted into the dipping sauce. It’s something that could not be replicated in any other Bun Cha that I tasted outside of Hanoi.
Where: Dac Kim Bun Cha. 1 Hang Manh, Hanoi.
Banh Cuon is made from fermented rice flour and always made fresh, right in front of you. Minced pork and chopped wood ear mushrooms are thinly spread over a thin layer of the paste, briefly steamed, and wrapped into light and fluffy rolls as soon as the paste has set. Served with a cha lua (fishcake) and dipping sauce for breakfast, it’s the perfectly light start to the day, but also perfect if you’re in the hunger zone between meals.
Where: Thanh Van Banh Cuon, 14 Hang Ga, Old Quarter, Hanoi.
Bun Ca (Fish noodle soup)
If somebody told you to eat a bowl of fish noodle soup, flavoured with tomato, pineapple and garnished with dill then you’d probably tell them that they’ve lost the plot. However, when you think about Vietnamese food, is all about balance of flavours, and if you can achieve that, then odd sounding combinations can find themselves working well together.
I came across this dish by accident in an alleyway near my hostel and subsequently, returned many times after. The food there is great, but I also loved getting caught up in the local atmosphere; with other street food vendors lining the alleyway as well as locals with their front doors flung open, and vegetables or huge cuts of meat laid out on the plastic sheets to sell to the public.
The soup itself has a delicate fish taste, sweetened by simmered tomatoes and heightened with the sour notes of pineapple. Small pieces of river fish are deep fried until crispy and when added to the soup, still retain most of the firm texture.
Dill is an unusual ingredient to use, but it’s liberally used to add a fragrant peppery note to the flavours. I’ve also seen chervil used as well.
Where: Ngo Trung Yen alleyway (The 90 degree turn in the alleyway), Hanoi.
I’ve consumed this dish numerous times across many cities from the North to the South. Like, Bun Ca, it uses a tomato based broth, but the stock is concocted using pork bones, with the main proteins being crushed up rice paddy crabs and fried tofu. There are other variations that include rice paddy snails, pork and congealed blood, but I prefer the standard crab variety which is lighter. As mentioned, I’ve had it many times all over Vietnam and at each place, there seems to be a particular way of making it, with slight variations in flavours.
Where: The street food stand at the intersection of Hang Dao and Hang bo, next to the sugar cane juice lady and her cart. She’s only opened until 3pm.
Sapa – Cooking with fire
I volunteered in Sapa for three weeks and was privileged to witness life amongst the ethnic minority groups in the hillsides villages of Sapa. From attending a traditional wedding, to witnessing a bizarre shaman ceremony whilst bathing in a medicinal bath, I’d have to say, it was a surreal experience.
I will admit, the food in Sapa is quite removed from what you would experience anywhere else in Vietnam. The simplicity of life is reflected in the food where everything is sourced locally or made from scratch. However, the good intentions and welcoming spirit of the locals are no different to the many others whom I’ve met throughout the country.
Grilled meat on a stick
If you’re out at night, you’ll spot plenty of pop up stalls that will offer a plethora of meats on a stick. As the weather can drop down as low as freezing point in Sapa, cooking over fire provides a source of heat as well. The options are quite broad, with very few options for vegetarians, but it’s a very cheap way of eating in Sapa if you’re on a budget.
Where: Cau May Street next to the Sapa market. It’s a carpark during the day but you will recognise it in the evening once they are set up and the fire is roaring.
Smoked Buffalo and stir fried pickled cabbage
Buffalos are extensively used to plough the rice fields, so it’s not a surprise that they’d use as a source of meat as well. I never had much previous exposure to that variety of meat, but had a chance to make a smoked buffalo dish during a cooking class on my final day in Sapa. Thinly sliced pieces of buffalo are marinated with a hint of chilli and smoked over a woodfire for a few days until slightly dry but still has some texture to it. It’s the then thinly sliced and stir fried with pickled mustard cabbage; an ingredient that I love but have never thought to combine. Trust me to come across this gem of a combination when I was leaving town.
Where: Hill Station restaurant. 7 Muong Hoa, Sapa
Hue – The gelatinous textures of tapioca flour
Hue is the former capital once occupied by the Nguyen lords. It is said that the lords had an insatiable appetite for food, which spawned an array of dishes from the region. I obviously came for the Bun Bo Hue – aptly named after the city, but I couldn’t help but notice the range of dishes, all snackable sizes that had a soft and and gelatinous consistency, mainly from the use of tapioca flour. I’m not the largest fan of soft textures, but the use of crunchy and flavour intensive garnishes, really worked wonders.
Bon Bo Hue
After traveling the length of Vietnam, Bun Bo Hue became one of my favourite soups in Vietnam. Most visitors would be familiar with Pho, which is milder in flavour, but Bun Bo Hue is packed full of spices and flavour, with lemongrass being the dominant flavour.
The primary cut of protein used are generally beef shin or brisket, and the contents of the broth is flavoured with pork bones and beef tendons that give the broth a moorish and gelatinous stickiness on the lips. Most vendors throw their own spin on the dish, with some adding cha lua (Vietnamese steamed pork loaf) and/or huyet (Vietnamese pig’s blood cubes) depending on their local customer’s tastes. The use of spaghetti shaped rice noodles make it an extra slurpable and possibly messier dish to eat.
Where: Dong Ba Market
Banh Beo are tiny little discs, made from steamed glutinous rice. It all sounds pretty simple, and the flavour itself is pretty bland and lacking in texture. However, the dipping sauces and the added toppings will smack a look of surprise onto your face. There are a variety of toppings that can be used, but the general ones are dried and crispy, with dried shredded shrimp and crushed pork crackling adding a salty crunch. It’s perfect for group sharing and part of a broader selection of meals.
Where: Banh Beo Huong Cung An Dinh, 93/9 Phan Dinh Phung
Banh Can Ca
Banh Canh literally means “soup cake” and is a thick udon like noodle soup. Made from Tapioca flour, the soup can include: fish, crab or meat, but my favourite a fish one from Hue that I stumbled upon when I was on the hunt for something else to eat.
Resembling a soup that has been over reduced, it actually feels like a proper meal, and despite being thick in consistency, it doesn’t feel stodgy to eat. Most places in Hue will prepare the noodles from scratch in front of you, that are then dunked into the mega pot of broth. The noodles act like a sponge, soaking up that rich and spicy goodness and served with a few condiments – allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves.
Where: Dong Ba Market
Bun Hen is one of my all time favourites and something that I had never heard of, until reaching well over the half way in Vietnam. Teeny tiny clams are steamed in lemongrass, and then added to vermicelli noodles, and garnished with herbs, pork crackling and peanuts. I’ve also had it with rice as well as by itself with a giant rice cracker. For something so simple, this dish would be considered a luxury back in the western world, given the number of clams and work involved in extracting them from their shell.
Where: Cnr Nguyen Cong Tru and Lane 64 Nguyen Cong Tru street.
Hoi An – Where the north meets the south
I love both Northern and Southern Vietnamese food, but I do have a personal preference (call it the Western upbringing) for textures and fresh herbs and salads in the south. For the first four months living in Hanoi, what I craved the most was tasting the crunch from fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and some nice crunchy bread. So by the time that I reached Hoi An, I was one happy camper.
Banh Mi Queen
I love Banh Mi of most incarnations, but for me, when I had my first Banh Mi from the Banh Mi queen in Hoi An, I knew that it was a sign of good things to come. I have to admit, it wasn’t the best Banh Mi that I have ever had in Vietnam, but having spent so long eating Banh Mi in Hanoi with mainly pate and a few slithers of cucumbers, I was overwhelmed by that fresh crunch and pickled flavour, mingling with all that braised pork belly deliciousness.
Where: Banh Mi Queen. 115 Trần Cao Vân. Hội An,
Com Ga (Chicken Rice)
Mention chicken rice and you’ll probably think back to Singaporean styled hawker stalls, with meticulously prepared chickens that have been poached in a master broth and served with a garlic infused rice that’s been cooked in the chicken broth. The chicken rice in Hoi An though, is completely different.
Rather than having that comfort food feeling, the Hoi An Chicken rice delivers a fresh and zingy sensation through the use of onion, pepper and Vietnamese mint. However, if you’re afraid that the pepper will be overpowering, the sticky rice acts as the perfect vessel to mellow those spices down. Finally, instead of serving the chicken whole or in pieces, the flesh is served finely hand shredded, with a bowl of nuoc mam dressing, introducing flavours of the south into this dish.
Where: Com Ga Ba Buoi. 22 Phan Chu Trinh, Hoi An.
Cao Lao noodles possess a firmer texture than the usual Vietnamese rice noodles. It is unique to the region because as legend has it, the noodles are made from a specific water well in the town. Whether it’s true or not, could be the reason why I don’t see it replicated anywhere else in Vietnam or the world.
There is a distinct Chinese/Japanese influence with the use of braised pork, common in Chinese cooking, and brown noodles resembling soba noodles, widely used in Japan. With very little soup added to the dish, the flavours pack a caramelized intensity, but is balanced by the amount of herbs on the side, requiring you to do all of the work to mix everything together and season to taste
Where: Thanh. 26 Thai Phien, Hoi An.
Banh Khoai is a fried pancake made from rice, corn and glutinous rice flour, with turmeric powder giving it a distinct yellow colour. It is similar to a larger Banh Xeo that you’ll get in Saigon, but the main difference is that banh Khoai is a lot smaller in size, similar to that of a Mexican taco. The same ingredients are used as a banh xeo: pork and prawns, with bean sprouts added once it’s finished shallow frying in a hot oil.
Banh Khoai is usually eaten with salads and herbs condiments, but the ones that I had at Ba Le Well restaurant in Hoi An, came with grilled pork skewers and pickled vegetables alongside an assortment of salad, herbs and rice paper that would be used to wrap a part of the Banh Khoai like a rice paper roll. Literally translated as happiness cake, Banh Khoai ticks off of the happiness criteria for eating boxes for me.
Where: Ba Le Well. 45/11 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoi An
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Ho Chi Minh City – The never ending supply of food
Ho Chi Minh City (Referred to as Saigon by locals) is a city where there is always something to eat, with new discoveries to be made everyday. It’s the only place where I’ve walked to meet somebody for a meal, and have had to keep a note of all of the other tempting looking street food vendors that I caught my eye along the way. Most places also work only a certain part of the day too, which adds to the excitement of the discovery at anytime during an exploration of the city.
Banh Mi Cha Ca
I’m a massive fan of Banh Mi which traditionally has pork in it. However, my Banh Mi lady who I would visit on a regular basis, makes Banh Mi Cha Ca which is a fish cake banh mi that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in Vietnam. It’s simply made up of sliced fish cake that is lightly fried in oil, and instead of pork pate, a smokey chilli paste is lathered inside of the bread, then seasoned with pepper and vietnamese mint to accentuate the pepperiness of the roll.
Where: The Banh Mi Cart at Hem 18, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Only open morning until 10am and lunch time till 6pm’ish.
Another prawn and pork noodle soup dish that I could not find anywhere else in Vietnam except for the tourist destination of Ben Thanh Market. The centrepiece of this bowl of soup is the prawn sausage which is made from prawn mince that is gold in colour from the addition of turmeric and annatto seeds. The pork used is generally a leaner cut of meat, unlike other soups that may use fattier cuts, such as pork feet or tendons. Fresh prawns finally provide a reminder of what the hero of the dish is.
Where: Ben Thanh Market in the food section at the closest end to the Binh Thanh roundabout.
You could probably classify Mi Quang as half noodle soup and half salad. The amount of soup is quite minimal; just enough to lather every strand of noodle in a rich broth and spicy broth. It also comes with a side of baby leaf salad and shaved banana blossom that you can eat along with the dish, or mix the entire contents in. The main ingredient used tend to be the classic surf and turf combination of pork as well as prawn.
The rice noodles used are broader, slightly chewier and are infused with turmeric, adding an earthy colour and flavour. Mi Quang became my favourite noodle soup dish because of everything about it just falls into place as a dish. It’s a true case of the whole dish being greater than the sum of all the individual parts: the richness in the broth, combined with the freshness of the salad, crunch of the peanuts and rice cracker, to the hint of spice that would linger on my lips for the hour following completion of the dish.
Where: Quan Mi Quang My Son. 38 Đinh Tiên Hoàng
How does this sound? Crispy roast pork with braised eggplant, fish and squid that is served with noodles in a murky and pungent fermented fish broth. Enough to put you off yet? Trust me, this dish is well worth tasting. After eating many light and delicately tasting soups, you may want to step it up a notch and try some Bun Mam.
Gazing at the list of ingredients, you would think that it was made by somebody who just mixed together whatever leftovers were in the fridge that were beyond the expiry date. Somehow though, this is the real deal and all of the flavours just work together like a symphony. A must try dish if you love bold and powerful flavours.
Where: Bun Mam Dac San. 22 Phan Boi Chau, District 1
Ok, by now you can probably tell that I love anything with pork in it, but what’s not to love about pork? I found out about Bun Moc from Legal Nomads and would have eaten it at least once a week during my time in Saigon. The broth is made from mainly pork bones and its simplicity makes it the ultimate comfort food.
The pork balls are made of finely ground pork and finely chopped wood ear fungus and then mixed together until a fine paste is formed. That is the secret to how they become so light and airy when braised in the pork broth. The pork balls can also be fried to give them a golden colour and different texture as well. Usually served with a braised rib, it’s the dish that surprises my friends the most when I introduce them to alternative Vietnamese dishes that they haven’t heard of.
Where: Bún Mộc Thanh Mai. 14 Truong Dinh, District 1.
Crab Spring Rolls
The thought of spring rolls in the western world is unfathomable, where jamming crab meat from soft shell crabs into an entire spring roll would cost a fortune. If you want to experience the rich and sweet crab that comes in a spring roll form, then make this one of your must haves meals.
Where: Quan 94 Dac San Cua Bien. 94 Đinh Tiên Hoàng Đa Kao, District 1. There are actually two restaurants with the identical name as one is an imitation of the other. Be sure to enter the one closest to Dien Bien Phu Road (the main road)