Vietnamese cuisine traditionally combines five fundamental flavors: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). Taking influence from both Chinese and Thai cooking styles it is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, rich in fresh ingredients and unique flavor combinations.
The basis of most meals is rice or rice noodles along with meat, seafood and plenty of herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables. Shrimp paste and fish sauce forms the foundations of most stocks and result in deep, flavorsome broths.
If you aren’t keen on trying new things then don’t worry, you won’t starve. There are plenty of fast food and tourist restaurants serving international food – at tourist prices.
If you want to fully embrace the Vietnamese lifestyle then try as much local food as you can. Eat with the locals at the side of the road and you will be rewarded with some of the tastiest (and cheapest) meals of your whole life.
You can dine like a king for $1 or $2 dollars at street food vendors or local restaurants. If you really want to treat yourself then gorge on fresh seafood, it costs slightly more than basic meals in Vietnam but still nowhere near what you would pay in the Western world.
If you are vegetarian then you are in for a treat, wholesome and delicious meat free food is available everywhere and comes in so many different forms. Vietnamese for vegetarian is ‘chay’, just say this to the vendor and they will understand. This can also be a great word to use if you are a little dubious as to what the ‘mystery meat’ on display is and think that going veggie is the safer option.
Halal restaurants are available, mainly in bigger towns and cities – check that they are displaying halal certification posters in the window if you aren’t sure.
Here are a few well-known local favorites to get you started on your culinary adventure:
01. Pho (Rice Noodle)
A delicious, rich rice noodle soup with so many varieties it’s impossible to count. It’s cheap, it’s tasty7 and even better – you can have it for breakfast. The complex, rich broth usually contains beef or chicken and is flavored with fish sauce, chili, bean sprouts, herbs and other secret ingredients that the famous Pho houses will never reveal.
Northern Pho tends to have a clear broth whereas Southern Pho has a cloudy, murky soup. You should try them both and compare!
02. Banh mi
The daddy of all sandwiches! Few are aware that Vietnam is considered to have some of the best sandwiches in the world. Banh mi translates to ‘bread’, or more specifically ‘baguette’
in Vietnamese and boy are you in for a treat.
The freshly baked baguette is stuffed with pork, sausages, pate, meatballs or fish as well as salad, cheese and mayo – anything that your heart desires! A dash of soya sauce usually completes this sandwich masterpiece. You will often find a list of sandwiches but if you can’t determine the content then pointing to what you want usually works.
Classic hot pot but with a typical Vietnamese twist. A vat of hot broth is placed in the middle of the table, usually on a heat element or hot coals to keep it hot. You then add the ingredients that you want to complete the dish. Add seafood, thinly sliced meat, vegetables and noodles then allow it to all cook together and let the flavours infuse. This dish is warm, hearty and a novel way to enjoy a meal with friends or family.
Literally translating too “salad rolls” these are the healthier, but equally tasty, equivalent of friend spring rolls. Crunchy vegetables, shrimp and meat are wrapped in little sheets of rice paper.
A moreish dish found at most food stalls, especially in Hanoi. These tiny little meat patties are like mini hamburgers. Yum!
It literally translates to ‘sizzling pancake’ and it certainly doesn’t lie! These monster-sized pancakes are packed with shrimp, meat, bean sprouts and egg. Dip them in some chili sauce to really finish the dish off.
Traditional Vietnamese rice porridge, it is cheap, thick and hearty. Great if you are feeling a little under the weather (or a little hung-over). The porridge is topped with sliced meat or offal and usually has fried dough strips on top.
If you are traveling down the coast of Vietnam then you simply can’t miss the abundance of delicious, fresh seafood that’s on offer. Wien it comes to seafood ask the locals where is best to eat, it might not be flash or aimed at tourists but you are guaranteed an incredible seafood spread.
Not technically a dish in itself but probably the one thing you will eat most of while you are in Vietnam. It’s the sweet and spicy dipping sauce that accompanies most dishes. Every region and restaurant has their own versions of this chilli sambal so make it your mission to try as many as possible.
A delicious sweet dessert, a cross between a pudding and soup usually topped with a variety of dried or jellied fruits. It’s super sweet and super stick!
Another great choice if you have a sweet tooth. These are essentially deep friend doughnuts, crispy on the outside and filled with sweet mung bean paste and sesame seeds.
Coffee in Vietnam is an incredible experience, even for those who have never enjoyed coffee before. The rich, deep coffee is generally served in a double espresso size and sweetened with condensed milk.
Either find a little stall at the side of the road or chill out in the millions of coffee shops. Why not try the Vietnamese version of Starbucks? Trung Nguyen coffee shops are everywhere; they also offer you the chance to try the famous Kopi Luwak coffee.
Saigon beer, Hanoi beer, and Hilda (Hue Beer), are the most popular beers and are often served over ice. Beer has become very popular since its introduction in the nineties due to it’s cold refreshment on a humid day. Bottles of beer generally cost around 50 cents.
Coconuts (trai dua)
There is nothing more exotic than drinking from a freshly picked coconut. Coconut milk is nutritious and thirst quenching plus drinking straight from a coconut makes a great photo!!
Sticky Rice Wine (ruou nep cam)
Around 30% and slightly less fiery than normal rice wine, served in shots.
Vietnam boasts an abundance of fruit and you will love getting your daily fruit snack from the local stalls. On top of all the exotic fruits you can dream of here are a few more that you might have never even heard of:
- The breast milk fruit (vu sua) – It is named after the sweet milky juice inside.
- Rambutan (chom chom) – A small, ‘hairy’ red fruit that is peeled open to reveal a juicy center and hard nut. Closely related to the lychee.
- Mangosteen (mang cut) – A deep purple and not particularly attractive fruit that can be cut open to reveal a sweet translucent pulp. Believed to have cancer-curing properties.
- Custard Apple (mang cau – na) – A green, ‘scaly’ looking fruit that is either soft or hard depending on the species and ripeness.
- Green dragon (thanh long) – Known as dragon fruit, this flamboyant red fruit can be easily peeled when ripe to reveal the white gelatinous flesh dotted with tiny black seeds. The fruit is both sweet and sour.
- Jackfruit (mit) – There are lots of varieties of these large yellow fruits, ranging from small and juicy to large and crunchy.
Try if you Dare…
Raw blood soup is a traditional Vietnamese dish, typically made from the blood of ducks or geese and mixed with fish sauce before being refrigerated to encourage coagulation. Chopped and cooked duck meat is then added to a bowl before the blood is diluted with a broth and poured on top. Peanuts and coriander are then added to finish. It looks like a gruesome Pizza!
Trung vit Ion (Balut)
How do you like your eggs in the morning? Probably not like this! Balut is considered to be a protein rich delicacy in Vietnam and is widely believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
Before you rush out and buy a dozen balut eggs at a Vietnamese night market you might want to know a little more about this dish. Balut are boiled, fertilized duck eggs that are served warm and ‘ready to eat’. The duck embryos are generally around 18 days old when they are considered most delicious. Use your thumb to flick upon the top of the egg, drink the warm broth and then get chomping.
Ca phe chon (Kopi Luwak)
Now this one is a bit gross but it’s so delicious that you simply have to try it anyway! This coffee is famous for its price tag, between $120 and $600 a pound. What makes it worth the hefty cost? Well these coffee beans have already been through the digestive system of the civet cat. Don’t think too much about how the beans are collected, just know that they are washed, lightly roasted and they make the best coffee you will ever taste.
Sau rieng (Durian)
The best way to describe this fruit is ‘an acquired taste’. The best way to describe the smell of this fruit…vomit! Granted it tastes better than it smells but you either love it or you hate it, there is no in-between with the durian.