Vietnamese food is becoming increasingly popular worldwide now and with good reason. As with other Asian cuisines, the focus is on yin and yang, delicately balancing sweetness with sourness, and saltiness with fresh fragrant herbs.
However, the Vietnamese are experts and the rise in popularity of their food in Western culture illustrates this. Being such a long country, many of the regions have their own interpretations of the most recognised dishes, but they also have their own local specialities such as Cau Lau in Hoi An. Here’s my top 5 foods you must eat in Vietnam.
1. Pho – Noodle Soup
Possibly the dish most synonymous with Vietnam is the dish Pho (pronounced Fuh). It’s really easy to find this dish anywhere in Vietnam; and like sangria to the Spanish, it seems every vendor has their own unique recipe. Pho is the combination of soft rice noodles in a soup-like broth. This is then topped with your choice of meat which cooks in the hot soup. I usually go with rare beef, but many other varieties are available. Alongside the bowl you are provided with a plate of fresh herbs, sometimes beansprouts, chilli, lime and pickled onions (personally my favourite addition) so that you can make your Pho exactly to your taste.
Where: From street stalls to established restaurants, Pho is easy to find at any time day. The key is to look for the busy places, with plenty of local diners and you can’t go wrong. Pho 10 in Hanoi is a highly respected purveyor within the bustling old town. Grab a seat (if you can find one!), browse the menu consisting purely of Pho dishes with various meats, and enjoy!
2. Goi Cuon – Vietnamese Spring Rolls
These spring rolls usually consist of pre-cooked prawns, pork, vegetables and herbs wrapped in rice paper dampened in water. Due to the fact these rolls are not cooked and have fresh herbs such as mint and coriander within them, they are very light and fragrant and considered one of the most famous foods in Vietnam.
Where: Many places in Vietnam serve both the fresh and fried spring rolls, but for a light lunch or sharing starter the fresh version certainly packs more of a flavour punch. The best I tried was in a restaurant called Nu Eatery down a tiny side street behind the Japanese bridge in Hoi An. They were filled with big king prawns and presented beautifully.
3. Banh Mi – Vietnamese Sandwich
Banh Mi, or ‘bread’ as it translates to, is one of the things I most looked forward to before I arrived in Vietnam. The crunchy baguette was introduced by the French during its colonial period, and we have a lot to thank them for.
The Vietnamese stuff their baguettes with a variety of things depending on the time of day. For example, scrambled eggs can be included in the morning. However, my personal favourite was a ‘traditional’ Banh Mi (and I tried quite a few!), which consisted of pork pate, cream cheese, pork belly, pork floss, cured pork sausage, coriander, cucumber, pickled carrot and green mango, shallot relish and chilli sauce. YUM!
Where: EVERYWHERE! There are some incredibly famous Banh Mi stalls around Vietnam that have gained worldwide recognition through celebrity chef recommendations and word of mouth by regular customers. My tip is to look on review websites – there are plenty that purely searches for the best Banh Mi and that will give you are a good idea of where to start. Phi Banh Mi in Hoi An was my first choice!
4. Grilled Beef in Betel Leaves
This tiny green betel leaf package is packed tightly with minced beef and the most delicious Asian spices you can imagine, then grilled over hot coals to give a distinctive smokey flavour. They’re served topped with crunchy salted peanuts and 3 dipping sauces varying in their level of chilli kick.
Where: I tried these first in the Ben Thanh Street Food Market in Ho Chi Minh City, and then saw them on various street food vendors’ stalls as my trip continued. Benthanh’s food market is a foodie’s paradise, and a number of the dishes I tried there could have made my Top 5 list. However, the grilled beef in betel leaves was the most memorable. Make sure you take a few friends, look around each of the stalls to see what you fancy, and then try as many dishes, tapas-style, as possible!
5. Banh Beo – Steamed Rice Cake
I was introduced to Banh Beo after doing a Backstreet Academy class in Hue, where Banh Beo is regarded as their ‘typical dish’. We asked our guide to take us to her favourite eatery for classic Vietnamese food and we were lucky she showcased this dish. It consists of a steamed rice pancake with a dimple in the centre usually filled with savoury ingredients.
The most common filling is dried shrimp, and in our case, this was also topped with fried pork fat and crispy shallots. Typically you are also given sweet fish sauce, vinegar and chilli to again make it to your taste. Although this sounds like a strange combination, it was one of the more memorable things I tried whilst in Vietnam for all the right reasons!
Where: Bang Gia in Hue City is where we tried Banh Beo. It’s just a small family-owned restaurant specialising in all things shrimp and rice cake! It is incredibly authentic so pointing to the tiny menu of only 6 items may be the best way of communicating. Regardless of what you order you certainly won’t be disappointed by either the taste or the price – it cost us the equivalent of $7 for 3 people and a sample of every single dish they did!
Guest writer Kelly Semper travelled through Cambodia and Vietnam on a Stray Asia Tour. Her favourite aspects of travelling are tasting exotic new foods, photographing hidden wonders and getting off the beaten track.