Experiencing Vietnam’s food scene is reason enough to visit the country. Best described as fresh, light, and local, Vietnam manages to create a variety of innovative and delicious recipes out of largely similar ingredients. The best meals are served from street vendors or small, family owned restaurants, often costing a mere $1-$2. Do be sure to ask for the price before sitting down to feast–Vietnamese are known for charging Western prices once you have finished your meal and can do little about the fee. Though we were cycling up to eight hours a day, I’m not sure my waistline saw much benefit from it. Here’s the reason why:
An Introduction to Vietnamese Cuisine
Phở is arguably Vietnam’s most famous dish worldwide. Flat rice noodles, steaming broth, shaved pieces of beef (bo) or chunks of chicken (ga), and a handful of herbs constitute this simple but savory dish. Although Phở found its beginnings in Northern Vietnam, it has long since spread throughout the country, with each region and even vendor serving up their unique variation. We ate more bowls of this noodle soup than we care to count. While locals consider it to be a breakfast dish, we often ate it for lunch and sometimes dinner as well. Just be careful—some of the best stalls in the cities will sell out before 11 am!
Finding Bún chả took us an absurd amount of time before we were successful—but man was it worth it! This dish ended up being one of our favorites in all of Vietnam. A specialty of Hanoi, think grilled pork, rice noodles, heaping piles of fresh greens, and a dipping sauce or broth. Be sure to find a vendor that is stooped over their grill, charring up the pork upon order.
Another specialty of Northern Vietnam, Bánh cuốn refers to rice rolls. To prepare the light and delicate dish, rice batter is spread out over a round cloth above boiling water. It only takes a few moments for the thin batter to cook to perfection. Rice rolls are often filled with ground pork, minced mushrooms, and shallots, and served with a light dipping sauce.
Bún bò Huế
As the name suggests, this dish comes from Hue—the former capital of Vietnam and keeper of its ancient complexes. Bún bò Huế is similar to Phở, only with a more powerful kick to it. The rice noodles are thicker and rounder (Bún) and the broth more flavorful. If you’re a food connoisseur, you might notice that lemongrass is supposedly a key ingredient; we, however, were too distracted by the chili and fresh squeezed lime to notice. This delicious dish is unfortunately only found in and around Huế.
If you’re not ambling through the silk shops for custom made clothing, then you should be eating Cao lầu. This noodle dish is a specialty of Hoi An, and was one of our favorite dishes we sampled in all of Vietnam. The mother of the tailors at Ha Na (where all our clothes were made) insisted on bringing us a fresh batch of the dish made from her own hands, and the flavor and texture of the homemade Cao lầu were far better than in any other we tried. For this dish, think wide rice noodles, thinly sliced pork, fresh lettuce and herbs, and a heaping pile of bean sprouts, topped off with crispy, deep-fried dough and fresh squeezed lime. It’s light but flavorful, with the perfect blend of crunchy, crispy, and slightly chewy.
Nem cuốn or Gỏi cuốn
In the north it’s Nem and in the south it’s Gỏi, but both refer to the ever-famous Vietnamese spring rolls. Not to be confused with their deep fried cousins, spring rolls consist of pork, shrimp, rice noodles, and greens, wrapped together in rice paper. The only problem with spring rolls is that once you have them in Vietnam, they’ll never quite compare anywhere else.
Cơm simply means rice, and is a good variation to the popular soup and noodle dishes. Often you’ll find vendors serving up their ‘rice of the day’, which consists of a heaping pile of rice, a meat, and 3-4 vegetables or tofu. The side dishes are prepared in bulk and on view behind a glass window, though not always easily identified beneath the sauces in which they lie. Eating here is really a hit or miss.
These are like deep-fried, Vietnamese-style crepes. And you guessed it—they’re lip-licking delicious. Find a vendor set up on the side of the road, frying the ‘sizzling cakes’ on the spot. The fried rice batter pancakes come served with rice paper and of course an abundant serving of greens. To look like a savvy local, hold the rice paper in one hand while using your chopsticks to fill it with the pancake and greens, roll it all up, then give it a generous dip in the peanut sauce.
A gift from the French, Bánh mì refers to baguettes. These were our breakfast of choice for our six weeks of cycling, and I’m quite happy to never know how many calories were packed into each one of them. Choose to top your bread with Laughing Cow cheese spread, tomatoes, and egg, or opt for the more Vietnamese-style sandwich with liver pâté, pork, pickled vegetables, greens, cucumbers and spices neatly wrapped in their children’s homework.
If you’re on the east coast, you can of course expect excellent local seafood. We had the most delicious fried clams with garlic and pineapple cooked Oceanside in Dong Hoi, as well as some memorable river clams (which resembled small pieces of sand more than clams) in Dong Ha. Unfortunately vendors will almost always try to charge a Western seafood price; like always, be sure to ask about cost before sitting down to a large plate of prawns.
Obsessed. That’s really the best way to describe how we feel about Sinh tố, Vietnamese smoothies. Sometimes they are blended to creamy perfection, other times fresh fruit is adorned with crushed ice and sugar syrup and you are to do the ‘blending’ with your spoon. Avocado smoothies are a local specialty and definitely not to be missed.
One of the easiest Vietnamese words to learn, Cà phê is of course ‘coffee’. It comes served in tiny metal drip containers, strong and powerful. The best way to drink Vietnamese coffee is sữa đá, coffee with a hearty spoonful of sweetened condensed milk poured over ice. Be sure to also sample Cà Phê Trứng, or coffee with egg. It’s not nearly as odd as it sounds, and the frothed egg produces a rich, whipped cream effect. It’s totally unhealthy but completely worth it.
It’s impossible to miss these sugarcane juice stalls. Large stems of sugarcane are pressed, pushed, and pulled through the machine until all the yellowy-green liquid as been extracted. Quite predictably, the juice tasted like sugar water.
Though not as famous as its coffee, Vietnamese drink quite a bit of tea. The strong brews often come complimentary at coffee shops to wash down your coffee.
Vietnam has a large drinking culture. It’s not uncommon to find small bars serving up their daily brewed draft beer to a crowded contingent of men at 10:00am. At only 25 cents a glass, these are also popular places for tourists in Hanoi and HCMC. However, the beer is very light in alcohol and often accompanied by food.
Unfortunately we were so busy eating and cycling our way through Vietnam that we didn’t have the opportunity to pick the brain’s of a local for a recipe. If you happen to have any recipes for Vietnamese cuisine you would like to share with us (or know someone who does), we would love to give it a try and feature it on our Global Kitchen segment. The only rule: it must be an original, local recipe :)
Have you ever tried Vietnamese cuisine? What’s your favorite dish? Which picture above looks most delicious?