A country famous for its stunning natural beauty, Vietnam is also home to some of the best food on the planet. Influences from western Europe and neighboring countries have led to an exciting cuisine that is as diverse as it is delicious.
From north to south the cuisine specialties and subtleties vary by regionIn no particular order, here are a baker’s dozen of the most famous foods and drinks in Vietnam.
One of the most popular foods in Vietnamese cuisine, phở is a noodle soup containing rice noodles served in a clear beef broth that is well-seasoned and prepared over several hours. A protein is usually included such as beef or chicken.
A number of garnishes can also be added to the soup with bean sprouts, Thai basil, Thai chilies, lime, chili oil, and chili sauce being the most popular. There are two styles of phở in Vietnam with the northern style featuring wider rice noodles and a clear broth while the southern style uses a broth that is typically slightly sweeter and more generously spiced. Some of the herbs offered vary as well.
The broth is the star of the show with each restaurant or food stall having their own recipe. Generally, the broth is made using beef bones, different cuts of beef, onions, ginger, and spices. Popular spices used include cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, fennel, clove, coriander, onion, and star anise. These ingredients are simmered slowly over many hours resulting in a complex and deep flavor.
While noodle soups have likely been eaten in Vietnam for centuries, phở as it is eaten today was likely a creation of the early 20th century. Demand for beef by French colonizers in the early 1900s led to a larger availability of beef and bones used in the making of the broth.
In the 1960s many citizens of Vietnam were forced to leave their homes in large numbers as a result of the war. They then shared the soup with their new countries, resulting in phở becoming one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes around the world.
Literally translating to “wheat bread”, bánh mì is most well-known as a sandwich that features a short baguette with a variety of meats, vegetables, and condiments. One of the more popular versions called bánh mì thịt includes sliced ham, sliced pork belly, pork sausage, coriander, mayonnaise, pâté, chili peppers, cucumbers, pickled carrots, and daikon radish.
The origins of the bánh mì go back to the mid-19th century at the beginning of French colonial rule. Baguettes were introduced early on and at first, they were a luxury item that few could afford. World War I led to an increase in French soldiers and supplies coming into Vietnam, making baguettes a much more accessible food for the masses.
Today, the sandwich is often eaten at breakfast and lunch but can be found throughout the country at all hours of the day. While usually a savory food featuring pork or fish, there is no limit to the ingredients that can be used in a bánh mì with some shops even offering a dessert version featuring ice cream and peanuts.
Featured heavily throughout the country’s cuisine, nước chấm refers to the dipping sauces used as condiments in many Vietnamese dishes. It is often characterized by a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, salty, and sour flavors.
The most popular of the sauces is nước mắm pha, a fish-sauce-based condiment. It is usually made with fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar, sugar, and water. Additions of minced garlic and chili peppers add a spicy kick.
As with other Vietnamese foods, the sauce can vary by region. It is often used as a dipping sauce for chả giò, or spring rolls, and is a key ingredient in the popular rice noodle dish, bún thịt nướng.
Bún Thịt Nướng
Originating in southern Vietnam, bún thịt nướng is a popular dish featuring vermicelli noodles that are served cold with grilled pork, mint, basil, bean sprouts, chả giò, also known as spring rolls. There is also a large serving of nước mắm pha used to dress the dish.
Common additions include pickled carrots, roasted peanuts, and pork sausage. While similar, it should not be confused with the popular bún chả.
Created in Hanoi in northern Vietnam, bún chả is hugely common in its city or origin while also being enjoyed throughout the country. While it is made with vermicelli rice noodles and pork similar to bún thịt nướng, that is where the similarities end.
Bún chả does not use nước mắm pha sauce. The pork is instead marinated, barbecued, and served as a pork patty with a sauce made from water, fish sauce, vinegar, lime, shallots, garlic, chili peppers, and slices of green papaya. It is served separately from the noodles and in a bowl of the aforementioned sauce.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, bún chả is served with a side of leafy vegetables and herbs. It is most often eaten at lunchtime but can be served throughout the day.
A tasty side dish or appetizer, chả giò is a fried spring roll made from rice paper that’s filled with meat and vegetables. It’s then deep-fried until golden brown. It can be eaten on its own with a side of nước mắm pha or as a main ingredient in bún chả giò.
One of the most common versions of chả giò is made with ground pork, mushrooms, vermicelli rice noodles, carrots, and jicama. The rolls are also served with a side of vegetables and herbs such as lettuce and coriander. They are often used to wrap the spring roll in before eating.
Gỏi cuốn, also known as fresh spring rolls, are similar to chả giò but differ in common ingredients and preparation. This one is made of meat and vegetables that are wrapped in rice paper, however, they are not fried and instead served cold.
Gỏi cuốn are often prepared with prawns, pork, and herbs such as Thai basil, perilla, mint, and coriander. They can be eaten with nước mắm pha sauce or tương đen, a sweet and salty hoisin sauce made from fermented soybean paste.
Originating in the northern part of the country, bánh cuốn is a rice noodle roll often filled with meats, vegetables and topped with fried shallots. The sheets of rice noodle are served thin alongside sides of pork sausage, cucumber, bean sprouts, and nước chấm for dipping.
The rice sheets are made from a batter of fermented rice that is steamed on a cloth placed over boiling water. The thin sheets are then often filled with ground pork and a vegetable such as minced wood ear mushroom.
The light and airy rice noodle sheets pair nicely with the crunch of the fried shallots and are a favorite among locals. The dish is most often enjoyed as a breakfast food.
Another food with potential ties to French colonial influence, bánh xèo is a thin rice pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts. It has even been referred to as a Vietnamese crêpe.
The batter for the rice pancake is made with rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric. It’s pan-fried with the additional ingredients and served with sides of greens such as lettuce, perilla leaves, mint, and basil. These can be used to wrap around a piece of the pancake before each bite.
Once again, a sauce of nước chấm is served for dipping. The fresh greens and bright sauce strike a nice balance with the fried crunch of the pancake.
A food with humble origins, cơm tấm is made from broken rice, a rice grain that has split as a result of its processing. Originally broken rice was considered undesirable and was only eaten by poor farmers who had no choice but to use the grain in their meals at home.
Over the years as economic conditions improved, the dish began to be sold on the streets of the capital, Ho Chi Minh City. It evolved over time and now has come to consist of broken rice, green onion, grilled pork, bits of pork omelet, and often a fried egg.
Cơm tấm is hugely popular in the capital and has been completely transformed from a dish born out of necessity into a beloved staple of Vietnamese cuisine.
Chả Cá Lã Vọng
In the mid-1800s the Doan family in Hanoi created a food so popular with their neighbors that they were forced to open a restaurant to meet demand. The restaurant, known as Chả Cá Lã Vọng is still open today and serves only their signature dish of the same name.
To make chả cá lã vọng, catfish is marinated in a mixture of turmeric, shrimp paste, ginger, fish sauce, and chili peppers and grilled over charcoal with dill and spring onions. It’s paired alongside vermicelli rice noodles with a side of nước chấm.
A signature dish of the city of Hội An, cao lầu is a noodle dish that has become legendary in Vietnamese cuisine. In order for the noodles to qualify as authentic cao lầu, it’s required that only water from the local Ba Le well be used in addition to using lye that is made from trees on nearby Cham Island.
This makes it so that the only place to actually get real cao lầu is the city of its creation, Hội An. The famous noodles are known for their firm yet springy texture as well as their slightly yellow hue from the use of lye.
The noodles are then added to stir-fried char siu pork and served with lettuce, bean sprouts, a variety of fresh herbs, and a splash of pork broth.
Cà Phê Sữa Dá or, Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Today, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world. The bean was introduced by a French priest in 1857 but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that coffee production skyrocketed, when Vietnamese leaders decided to make coffee production a large part of their economy.
In the early days of Vietnamese coffee culture, fresh milk was hard to come by, leading to the use of sweetened condensed milk as a substitute. The thicker, sweeter milk was combined with a dark roast coffee to balance the strong flavors and resulted in a refreshing and delicious pick-me-up.
Today traditional Vietnamese iced coffee is prepared in a similar way. First, sweetened condensed milk is poured into the bottom of a glass. Strong dark roast coffee is brewed directly over the milk by pouring hot water over coffee grounds with a phin, Vietnamese coffee filter device. It’s then stirred together after a few minutes when it’s done dripping, and the mixture is poured into a glass with ice cubes.
It’s easy to see why Vietnamese food has gained a reputation as a must-try cuisine. With an endless variety of tasty dishes and some of the kindest people you will ever meet, Vietnam is an easy choice for your next international adventure.