One of the most common questions I’m asked about my RTW trip is which countries had the best food. Greece and Thailand are both pretty high on my list, and those answers usually get met with understanding nods and only occasionally the glazed eyes of someone who’s sorry they asked me about food. But most people are very surprised to hear me throw Vietnam into the conversation. Western concepts of Southeast Asian cuisine are pretty heavily dominated by Thai food, and I’ll be honest – there is some overlap. But Vietnam’s cuisine stood out to me because the food in each city I visited truly had its own character. Each city seems to have a signature dish, each better than the last. Below are a few of my favorite meals and recommendations for what to eat in Vietnam.
We’ll start off with an easy one. If you know anything about Vietnamese food, you’ve heard of pho (pronounced ‘fuh’), the country’s trademark noodle soup. Pho bo (‘fuh boh’) is made with beef while pho ga (‘fuh gah’) uses chicken. Both are delicious and can be found anywhere from Hanoi to Saigon and everywhere in between. Ask anyone what to eat in Vietnam and they will undoubtedly include pho on the list. You’ll see it at street stalls, you’ll see it at chains, and in some cases like the one pictured, you’ll see it with a host of DIY accoutrements like lime, bean sprouts, and hot peppers so you can adjust your dish to your taste.
Here’s another you surely know. Spring rolls are common in all Southeast Asian countries, and Vietnam is no exception. You can find them all over with various types of filling. They could be crispy and fried, or fresh with thin wrappers like the prawn stuffed ones seen here. If you don’t get some kind of tasty dipping sauce on the side, something has gone horribly awry and you should probably just get up and leave.
Vague? Yes. But a must do in Vietnam? Absolutely. Street food is a cornerstone of Vietnamese culture and no matter where you go in the country, you’ll see loads of stalls serving delicious dinners right on the sidewalk. Many of these spots don’t have a name beyond the dish they serve, as many specialize in just one thing. If you’re worried about cleanliness, you don’t really need to be. While, yes, the kitchen is out in the open, that affords you the chance to actually see the kitchen operation and determine for yourself how safe it is to eat there. When in doubt, seeing lots of locals in line is a good sign! There is no limit to the kind of food served at a street stall, but barbecue is quite common. This joint in Hanoi served barbecue chicken up with pickled baby mango and a sweet chili sauce. They also threw a sweet honey bread on the grill that was to die for.
Another very common street food find is banh mi (‘ban mee’). During its time as a French colony, Vietnam grew to know and love the baguette and to this day one of the most popular snacks for locals and tourists is this baguette sandwich. There are many varieties of banh mi with pork, chicken, or pate, but all have in common crunchy carrots, lightly pickled cucumber, and some combination of spicy condiments.
Ca Phe Sua Da
One last item you can find all over Vietnam – ca phe sua da (‘cah fay soo-ah dah’) or Vietnamese iced coffee. This isn’t like any iced coffee you’ll find elsewhere in the world. Ca phe sua da is very concentrated, very rich, and heavily sweetened with condensed milk. Some people don’t find it to their taste, but I loved it and ordered it whenever I was holed up in a cafe working on this blog or on a freelance project.
Bun Bo Hue
Now things start to get interesting. The city of Hue doesn’t always make it onto tourists’ itineraries, its attractions being primarily limited to Vietnam’s former imperial citadel. If you do stop by, however, you’ll have a few local specialties to try. Among them is bun bo Hue (‘boon boh hoo-eh’), which translates to Hue-style beef noodle soup. It’s quite similar to pho, but has thicker noodles.
Another local specialty of Hue is nem lui (‘nehm loo-ee’). Minced pork is seasoned and shaped onto lemongrass skewers to be grilled. Your plate comes with a few skewers, a bit of salad, a pile of rice paper wrappers, and a peanut sesame dipping sauce. You put a bit of salad onto a wrapper, place a skewer over it, roll the wrapper, pop out the lemongrass stem, dip, and enjoy. This was one of my favorite things I ate my whole time in Vietnam.
White Rose Dumplings
A little south of Hue lies the colonial outpost of Hoi An. There, the White Rose Restaurant has become famous for a trademark dumpling dish. The thin steamed wrappers, filled with pork or shrimp, are cut into a distinctive flower pattern and topped with fried shallots. The dish has become so synonymous with Hoi An that many other restaurants serve it, but I found the version I tried underwhelming. If you want to try White Rose dumplings, I’d recommend seeking out the original.
On the street food side of Hoi An dining, you’ll find cao lau (‘cow low’). The thick rice noodles in this dish are particular to cao lau and because of Hoi An’s trading post history, many people believe their uniqueness stems from the heavy Chinese and Japanese influence in the area. While the noodles are often the star, the dish isn’t complete with a pile of greens and crispy pork on top.
While Vietnam is famous for its coffee, Hanoi takes it one step farther. The egg coffee or ca phe trung (‘cah fay troong’) can only be found in Hanoi, and before you say ‘ew gross’ hear me out. The drink doesn’t taste eggy at all. The egg is whipped into a rich thick foam over a cup of very sweet coffee. If you like egg nog, you’ll love egg coffee. It’s a very rich drink perfect for ending a meal. At first I thought it would be too weird, but after I tried it, I couldn’t believe I had almost gone my trip without having one.
Have you ever been to Vietnam? What was your favorite dish?
Interested in a more hands-on experience with Southeast Asian food? Try a cooking class in Chiang Mai.