Oh, Vietnam you really blew our minds with all those tasty dishes! Pho, Cao Lau, Mi Quang, Bun Cha – just to name a few…
Fellow foodies will be in total paradise in Vietnam. It felt like one big gourmet exploration, discovering a different dish every day, with so many unique flavors and specialties.
We knew quite a bit about Vietnamese food before visiting thanks in part to the large number of Vietnamese restaurants back home in Europe. Most people will no doubt have heard of the ubiquitous Pho, but throw into the mix influences from French colonization and even a few surprises like egg coffee and you'll really start to appreciate our excitement for this destination!
This is our detailed summary of all our favorites and the tastiest traditional foods of Vietnam that we loved and think you need to discover during your visit.
How did traditional Vietnamese food originate?
Like many Asian countries, Vietnam's food has been influenced by what naturally grows in the region as well as the history of other cultures coming to a place and then leaving their mark.
Since Vietnam has been invaded/colonized by multiple countries (like China, Japan, France, and America) each one has also influenced the Vietnamese cuisine. With noodles from China and baguettes from France becoming an integral part of Vietnamese cuisine, the Vietnamese have taken these and created their own unique (and super tasty!) dishes.
Vietnamese food is also traditionally-prepared according to a set of philosophical principles, where five elements are balanced (spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet), five types of nutrients are included (powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein, and fat) and dishes should appeal to people through all five senses. Vietnamese cooks also try to have five colors in their dishes: white, green, yellow, red, and black. The food should also be balanced according to the Yin and Yang principles.
Our best advice? Just try everything – go for it: this is one super-rewarding foodie paradise begging to be discovered!
Pho (pronounced like “fur”) is the national dish of Vietnam and the number one Vietnamese food to try. It is known throughout the world and has been voted by the CNN, BBC, and many other medias as the best food to try in Vietnam.
It usually comprises of a chicken (ga) or beef (bo) broth with thin rice noodles and various herbs. Pho originated in the early 20th century in North Vietnam and spread around the world via refugees who fled during the Vietnam War years.
There's some debate over whether pho was influenced by the Chinese dish guòqiáo mĭ xiàn (crossing the bridge noodles) or the French pot-au-feu (beef stew) but there's no doubt the Vietnamese put their own spin on it. You'll see plenty of street-food stalls selling fresh pho in Vietnam. There can be many different styles of pho, but no matter where you get it it's bound to be mouthwatering!
A yummy variant of Pho is “bun bo Hue” from the Central Vietnamese city, Hu. The recipe uses rice vermicelli instead of rice noodles then it's served in a delicious shrimp and lemongrass based broth. But more about that later…
2. Banh Mi
The banh mi is a perfect example of French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, but just like with pho, the simple French baguette changed once it reached the shores of Vietnam. Banh mi looks like a French baguette, but it's made from rice flour which makes it much lighter and more crumbly than the original.
Also similar to pho, bahn mi can be found practically everywhere in Vietnam, with sandwich fillings that vary but are pretty much always delicious! The traditional filling for a banh mi usually includes pork, cucumber, pickled carrots, spring onion, coriander and hot sauce. But as we said, the fillings can vary with anything from meatballs to fish or even ice-cream in some places.
Just like pho, nowadays banh mi can be found all around the world for sale in Asian bakeries as well as anywhere you visit in Vietnam. It's ideal for a quick snack or lunch on the go while you're exploring.
3. Cao Lau
Cao lau is the signature dish from the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An and one of Stefan’s favourite traditional foods of Vietnam. The recipe for Cao Lau includes a plate of thick dark rice noodles served in small amounts of richly flavoured broth, topped with pork slices, bean sprouts, greens, herbs and deep-fried croutons.
The noodles make this dish unique because they are darkened after being soaked in ash water from a specific tree found only in the nearby Cham Islands. Cao lau noodles are also washed using water from the wells of the Cham people.
While you can recreate this dish at home it won't be exactly like the original since you won't have access to the Cham Islands. It's definitely worth the pilgrimage to Hoi An to try the authentic version of this yummy meal.
4. Mi Quang
Mi quang is another popular noodles dish originating in central Vietnam's Quang Nam province. The dish is similar to cau lao, but the noodles are flat white and then tinted yellow by the addition of turmeric. The protein source varies from beef, chicken, pork or shrimp.
To make mi quang the noodles are placed on a bed of vegetables with meat and broth. It is then topped with herbs, crushed peanuts and a hard-boiled egg. Mi quang is kind of a mix of a soup and a salad, popular in summer in Vietnam when it's too hot to just eat soup. The trick is to just have enough of the flavorful broth to keep everything wet and pull it together, but not enough for it to look like proper soup.
Mi quang was one of Sebastien’s favourite traditional foods of Vietnam and if you find this sweet lady in the Hoi An local market, her mi quangs are one of the best!
5. Bun Bo Hue
Bun bo Hue is a type of beef soup which comes from Hue, which was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. Even today Hue is referred to as the Imperial City, and it evokes the country's royal past. Imperial Hue cuisine is not like the food in the rest of Vietnam, so you need to head there to try it. And bun bo Hue is the most famous dish from the city!
Simply called bun bo when you're in the city of Hue (bun bo Hue is used outside Hue to show the origin) this is a hearty, spicy beef broth made with fermented shrimp paste, lemongrass, ginger, pork knuckle, banana blossoms, and noodles added into the mix.
The cuisine of Hue is known for being spicy and impeccably presented – a leftover from its royal past. If you want to eat like a king or queen (literally!) make sure you head to Hue and try its most famous dish.
6. Bun Cha
Bun cha is a grilled pork-based dish usually served with cold vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, vegetables, fish sauce and chopped up spring rolls. It originated in Hanoi and then spread across Vietnam. Bun cha is only served for lunch, with the delicious aromas of grilling pork starting to waft through the city around 11 am each day.
The meal is served with everything presented in separate bowls (one for the grilled pork, another for the vermicelli, another for the herbs, the chopped garlic and the pickled vegetables) and you assemble it yourself. It is not the healthiest traditional food of Vietnam but a very tasty and fun one! You can try it at fancy restaurants or street stalls alike.
Bun cha is also famous for being the meal that Barack Obama (while he was the US President) sat down to eat with Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi for an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. If it's good enough for them then it's definitely good enough for us!
7. Goi Cuon
Vietnamese spring rolls are not like the deep-fried Chinese version, although you can easily find those in the country if you prefer (look for cha gio on the menu). We preferred the fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, called goi cuon in Vietnamese. The ingredients are cooked beforehand and then wrapped in translucent rice paper and served with a dipping sauce like fish or peanut sauce. No deep frying involved here!
Originally the spring roll was brought to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants but, like with many imported foods, the Vietnamese put their own spin on it to make what is now known as Vietnamese spring rolls. Goi cuon focuses on fresh ingredients and these delicious little parcels are packed with salad greens.
As well as salad, goi cuon traditionally includes just a slither of meat and some coriander. While they have now become a popular entree at Vietnamese restaurants, they were traditionally made to be eaten by a large group of people at home. Now, make sure you share Stefan!
8. Ca Phe Trung
Vietnam is THE place for coffee lovers. It is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world (after Brazil) and boy is it good! Traditionally coffee in Vietnam is served either hot or cold and sweetened with plenty of condensed milk. The iced version makes a very refreshing snack during the humid months, particularly in the south of the country.
There is also a popular variant in Hanoi called egg coffee (ca phe trung), made with the addition of egg yolks and condensed milk. These Vietnamese egg coffees have become famous in recent years. They are frothy, fun to drink and taste kinda like tiramisu.
In fact, egg coffee could almost be called a dessert, with the creamy egg-topping resembling meringue and the scrumptious sweet flavor. According to legend the drink was invented when there was a milk shortage during war time, but however it came about, we're just glad it did!
9. Banh Xeo
Banh Xeo is basically deep-fried savory pancakes or crepes made from rice flour. Our recipe for Banh Xeo includes pork, egg, shrimp, and bean sprouts. The name Banh Xeo literally means “sizzling cake” and is so-called because of the sound the rice batter makes when it hits the pan – it sizzzzzles!
This traditional food of Vietnam is great for an afternoon snack and you'll be able to find street vendors serving it as well as on the menu at restaurants. It's often served with some delicious sauces that you can dunk your cut up pieces of banh xeo into, or just wrapped in banana leaves so you can eat it on the go.
While banh xeo was traditionally a working-class meal due to its portability, it worked it's way up to being a delicious and famous dish of Vietnam much like pho or banh mi. While you can find it in restaurants we think the versions sold by street vendors are usually the best!
10. Com Tam
Com tam (‘broken rice’) is a traditional street food snack from Saigon in southern Vietnam, made from fractured rice grains. Broken or fractured rice is usually what's left over when rice is harvested and handled so it wasn't regarded as very good quality. However, poor farmers in the Mekong Delta would use it to eat after selling their ‘good rice' as it still filled the stomach.
The rice is served with grilled pork, various plates of greens, pickled vegetables, an egg, fish sauce and a small bowl with broth. Broken rice has a different, softer texture than unbroken rice and absorbs other flavors more easily. It also cooks faster which makes it ideal for rice porridges.
Like many of Vietnam's most popular traditional foods, com tam started out as ‘poor man's food' but the innovation of those poor cooks made it taste so good that it's now a preferred dish for everyone!
11. Cha Ca La Vong
You could be forgiven for thinking, based on this post so far, that traditional Vietnamese cuisine is all about pork and soup – but this dish turns that theory on its head! Cha ca La Vong is a famous dish from Hanoi which features a type of catfish grilled in a turmeric-based marinade then served with noodles. Another aspect which sets Cha ca La Vong apart from many other famous Vietnamese foods is that it's almost exclusively to be found in restaurants rather than street food stalls.
Cha ca La Vong is also unique in that its history is quite easily traced back to one family in Hanoi who made this grilled fish dish that was so popular, they were encouraged by their neighbors to open a restaurant. That restaurant is still there today, still named Cha ca La Vong and still serving just that one dish – although plenty of others have also popped up around it. The street was even renamed Cha Ca Street because of the famous dish.
Like some other Vietnamese dishes, when you head to Cha ca La Vong (you do NEED to go to the original restaurant) you will be served a hot pan and basket of ingredients so you can assemble it all together then cook it yourself. Absolutely scrumptious!
12. Rau Muong
Rau muong is the Vietnamese name for water spinach (also sometimes called morning glory), a semi-aquatic vegetable that's very easy to grow and maintain. Since it is so abundant it is also very cheap and therefore its use has always been popular in Vietnam, especially when money was scarce.
While you'll probably be able to find rau muong in restaurants, it's generally more of a simple home-cooked dish that Vietnamese people look at with a sort of nostaglia. Morning glory is very nutritious as well, with lots of vitamins and iron, which is why it was so useful during times of war or poverty.
The most popular way to prepare rau mong in Vietnam is to stir-fry it, usually with plenty of garlic, sometimes with beef and rice to make it a meal rather than a side or snack. The leaves are generally discarded as they can become rather slimy when cooked, but the rest of the plant is YUM!
13. Bun Bo Nam Bo
Bun bo nam bo translates literally to “noodles with beef from the south”. While it's not exactly clear where in the south the dish originated, it's definitely a yummy dish consisting of vermicelli noodles with beef. Bun bo nam bo is a dry noodle dish, meaning there's no broth, which makes it perfect for cooling down on a hot day.
Without any broth this dish doesn't run the risk of getting all soggy, so the vegetables are all crisp and the flavors don't get lost. The ingredients can vary in different areas of course, but the base of vermicelli noodles, stir-fried beef, bean sprouts, roasted peanuts, fried shallots, fresh herbs and vegetables are always included.
The marinade for the meat is made from a sweet and sour fish sauce with plenty of lemongrass. We found a bowl of bun bo nam bo to be a refreshing and filling meal, whether we got it from a street stall or in a restaurant.
14. Bun Thit Nuong
Bun thit nuong is a dish made with cold rice-vermicelli noodles topped with grilled pork, fresh herbs and salad. It may seem similar to bun cha, the ingredients are alike, but everything is served together and the sauce is much thicker. You're more likely to find bun cha in Hanoi, while bun thit nuong is popular throughout the rest of the country.
Like many of the dishes we've mentioned, bun thit nuong is refreshing on a hot day and you will most likely be able to find it at street stalls all over the place. It's not known exactly how it originated, but the fact that it's simple to make and satisfying to many would have played a big part.
Unlike bun cha (which is only ever a lunch meal), bun thit nuong is versatile enough to be served for breakfast or lunch and even as an afternoon snack if you need something to keep you going until dinner. Each bite is an adventure, with sweet, savory, meaty, crunchy or slippery sensations to tantalize your tastebuds!
15. Banh Cuon
Banh cuon resembles goi cuon in that they are both dishes consisting of a filling inside an almost clear wrapper, but the wrapper and fillings differ between the two dishes. Banh cuon is a type of Vietnamese rice noodle roll where the roll is made from steamed fermented rice batter whereas goi cuon rolls are made from steamed rice batter that often also includes tapioca flour.
While the fillings for goi cuon may vary slightly, banh cuon is usually the same everywhere: consisting of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots. It's usually served with fried shallots on top, Vietnamese sausage underneath and the famous Vietnamese fish dipping sauce on the side.
Since banh cuon is made from such thin and delicate rice cloths, it was traditionally regarded as a light breakfast food in Vietnam but you will also be able to sample it at other times of the day.
16. Xoi Xeo
Xoi xeo is one of the Vietnamese versions of sticky rice, although it's not a purely sweet treat. While there are plenty of xoi variations in Vietnam, xoi xeo is a very distinctive yellow one, the color comes from the turmeric used to flavor this sweet/savory sticky rice dish.
The main ingredients of xoi xeo are the glutinous rice and turmeric powder topped with mung beans and fried shallots. It was traditionally a breakfast food for workers and students because it's cheap to make, warm and easy to take with you if you're in a hurry.
We loved seeing the xoi xeo vendors with their bamboo baskets keeping the dish warm and found it to be a very comforting dish. The mix of sweet and savory flavors with the yellow coloring definitely makes the mornings seem brighter, especially if the weather is getting to be a bit chilly!
17. Banh Bot Chien
Originally coming from China, banh bot chien (or botchien) is a Vietnamese fried rice flour cake that's very popular as an after-school snack for children in the country's southern regions. It's also gained some popularity with the after-midnight crowd – trust us when we say there's nothing better to soak up some of the alcohol when you're stumbling home from the clubs!
But bot chien can also be enjoyed when you're not marinated yourself, and it's a tasty little dish that you'll be able to find at stalls hidden down many side alleys or in busy markets. It's made by frying up chunks of rice cakes in oil or lard then cracking an egg or two on top and frying that up a bit as well.
The dish is then served up with toppings like green onions, shallots, papaya and pork cracklings, with a rich sauce on the side. Deee-licious!
18. Banh Goi
Also known as ‘pillow cakes' or ‘fried pillows', banh goi are kind of the Vietnamese version of a samosa. These little parcels of minced pork, glass noodles, herbs and vegetables are folded to look like cute pillows and then deep-fried, making the pastry crispy.
Since banh goi is deep fried they are perfect as a snack or light meal on cold days. Once the pillows are deep fried they are usually served with a dipping sauce of garlic, chili, sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, and water.
If you ever find yourself in Hanoi and want to sample some delicious banh goi, head to Quan Goc Da on Ly Quoc Su Street. This unassuming shop nestles next to an ancient banyan tree near the cathedral and is known by locals as one of the best spots for banh goi, along with other deep-fried treats like salty donuts and crab spring rolls.
19. Chao Ga
Chao is the name for any kind of Vietnamese rice porridge and chao ga is chicken porridge. We know to westerners the idea of chicken porridge is a bit weird, but try to think of it more as chicken soup (with rice instead of noodles) than the porridge we know as breakfast food. Most chao dishes are perfect for when you're feeling a little under the weather, and chao ga is probably the best of the best.
Like most rice porridges, chao ga cooks for a long time making the rice super soft. With added chicken, onions, ginger and coriander, chao ga is delightfully warming on a cold day. The rice sort of disintegrates after it's been cooked long enough and the tasty chicken provides an interesting contrast.
To many Vietnamese, chao ga is seen as the ultimate comfort food; what mom would have made for you when you were sick. The base chao comes from times in Vietnamese history when food was scarce (cooking the rice this way made it stretch further) but now it's simply a yummy and warming dish for everyone.
20. Banh Kep La Dua
Vietnam's famous green pandan waffle is another perfect example of how other cultures brought foods to the country and the Vietnamese then made it their own! It's thought that the Vietnamese started using French cooking equipment (like waffle makers) during the French colonial period. However, during the Vietnam war when American soldiers were walking the streets, the Vietnamese waffle really took off.
Banh kep la dua is the Vietnamese name for pandan waffles, a type of waffle made from tapioca flour, coconut milk and pandan with coconut flakes usually added as well. The fragrant leaves of the pandan plant are a common ingredient in Asian countries, with the pandan adding sweetness and green coloring to dishes.
Pandan tastes sort of like vanilla, so the main difference between a Vietnamese waffle and the American version is that there is no need for sweet toppings like syrup or ice-cream. The waffles are already sweet enough! We often grabbed one on the go from street food vendors and since there's no toppings, they're easy to eat while you continue exploring.
For more inspiration:
- Check out our gay travel guide to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam
- Find out what it's like to grow up gay in Vietnam in our interview with local boy Quan
- How many of these interesting facts about Vietnam did you already know?
- Read about our experiences traveling through Asia as a gay couple
- And find out which are the most gay friendly countries in Asia