One of the highlights of visiting a foreign country (especially in South-East Asia) is sampling the local foods. It gives you a better understanding of the country, its traditions and its people but equally important: most often it is goddamn’ tasty Make sure you try the following foods at least once when visiting Vietnam. For each dish I’ll add an address on where to have it – so you can create your own foodie-tour.
Pho is Vietnam’s signature dish. A hearty broth with rice noodles, vegetables and chicken, beef or prawns. Its everywhere in Vietnam. North, South, in fancy restaurants and in little carts on the side of the street. Typically served with a slice of lemon, fresh chili peppers and heaps of fresh cilantro (coriander leaves) this typical Vietnamese street food dish cannot be skipped.
Where: Pho is everywhere.
2. Banh Mi
Due to its French heritage, there are baguettes everywhere in Vietnam. Banh Mi is a typical breakfast or lunch dish in Vietnam. Its basically a pork sandwich, but the baguette is made with rice-flour (mixed with wheat-flour) and the bun is (typically) filled with a variety of pork-meats. Think pork liver-paté, pork belly and pork-sausages. My most common encounter with Banh Mi was as a midnight snack. Oh, and it also does wonders for a hangover.
Where: Saigon (HCMC) in district 1 at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, (26 Lê Thi Riêng, Bên Thánh)
3. Bun Cha
This North Vietnam delicacy is probably my favorite dish in the whole country. Its smokey barbequed pork served in an oily sweet-and-sour soup garnished with a lot of fresh chili peppers. The best Bun Cha is served in Hanoi and every self-respecting Hanoian chef has his own family recipe that has been handed over from generation to generation. It is commonly served with rice noodles and fresh lettuce.Be adviced that your stomach might disagree with you on eating fresh lettuce from a street stall.
Where: Hanoi, next to the Hoan Kiem lake at Bun Cha Dac Kim, (Háng Mánh 1, Hoan Kiem)
4. Fresh Spring Rolls
If you’re from Europe you’re probably familiar with the ‘Vietnamese spring rolls’ they sell in little stalls on markets everywhere. The real deal is somewhat different. The typical Vietnamese spring roll in Vietnam is a fresh one. Cooked Shrimps are rolled in ricepaper along with lettuce, mint and some herbs and served without being deep-fried. The chicken-variety does exist for those who dislike shell-fish. Commonly ordered as an appetizer and often offered free of charge before a meal in a quality restaurant. Each corner of Vietnam has its own mixture of herbs and spices so sample them often and everywhere.
5. Banh Xeo
Most often eaten in winter but it can be found in restaurants throughout the year. This savory pancake is traditionally filled with a mix of tofu, pork and shrimp, a lot of bean sprouts and a variety of vegetables. It is served with a mix of fish- and soy sauce and some freshly chopped chili peppers. Vegetarian Banh Xeo has also been served for centuries and is as authentic as its meaty brother.
Where: try vegetarian Banh Xeo in HCMC next to the Benh Than market at Phuong Mai (86F, Vo Thi Sau Street)
6. Cao Lau
This dry (contrary to most Vietnamese dishes it is not served in a soup) noodle dish can only be sampled in Hoi An. The thick noodles are made with water from a special well a few kilometers outside of town. The magic is not only in this water but also in the unique techniques used to make the flour for the noodles. It is mixed with ingredients picked by the customer and served with fresh lemongrass, mint and other herbs and spices.
Where: Hoi An, Bon Restaurant & Bar (474, Cua Dai)
7. Mekong River Fish
Obviously mostly eaten in the Mekong Delta but available throughout southern Vietnam. The best dishes are those prepared with fish that has been part of the Vietnamese cuisine for centuries, try Catfish, Snakehead-fish or Mudskippers (in the picture above). The most notable Mekong River fish dish is Can Kho To. Can Kho To is a braised fish dish traditionally prepared with Catfish or the cheaper snakehead-fish. The fish is braised and caramelized in a clay pot and served in this pot with some white rice. A good Ca Kho To melts in your mouth and leaves you craving for more.
Where: Mekong Delta, best serve I had was from a long-tail boat on the floating market of Ben Tré (obviously this boat-restaurant did not carry an official name).
8. Rau Muong (Morning Glory)
Rau Muong can also be found on menu’s as stir-fried morning glory. It is a side-dish that complements almost any meal and is available throughout Vietnam. Healthy and often the cheapest dish on the menu. The main ingredient is water-spinach which is stir-fried with lots of garlic, some fresh ginger and of course some freshly cut chili peppers.
Where: everywhere, most recommendations in this article will have it on the menu.
9. Cà Phê Trứng (egg-coffee)
The Vietnamese word for coffee is Ca Phe, and it is traditionally prepared as a slow-drip and served with soy-milk (called Ca Phe Da). Cà Phê Trứng is a Hanoian delicacy and prepared with egg-yolk. Sounds disgusting? Nothing is less true! The taste is like molten tiramisu. Delicious, soft and almost fluffy. The coffee is served in a glass that is set in a small bowl of hot water to prevent the yolk from boiling and at the same time keeping the coffee at the perfect temperature.
Where: Hanoi, try Hanoi Coffee Time overlooking the Hoan Kiem lake (39 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam)
10. Hot Vit Lon (fermented duck-egg)
Dubbed ‘eggs-with-legs’ Hot Vit Lon is the Vietnamese version of the fermented duck-embryo that can be found throughout South-East Asia. It looks disgusting and quite honestly It doesn’t taste much better. In meager years people chose to eat this as a cheap source of protein. The duck-eggs are typically incubated for 2 or 3 weeks before the egg with semi-developed embryo is boiled and served. Some variations require the egg to be buried deep under the ground for a few weeks to stimulate fermentation before it is boiled.
Where: HCMC, District 1 – a bit more expensive than the average Hot Vit Lon but a save place to get your duck-fix. Try Hot Vit Lon Cong Quynh at 43, Cong Quynh street (end of Pham Ngu Lao street)
So that’s it! 10 foods that are all considered traditional Vietnamese dishes and that are all worth the try. Of course, there are many more dishes that are delicious, authentic but did not make this list. If your craving for more.. check out ‘Hue cuisine’, try Banh Bano Banh Vac in Hoi An (white rose dumplings) or Hanoian Cha Ca (fried morsels of fish).