It’s a cliche, but Vietnamese food truly is really outstanding and we’d say it’s up there with Thai and Malaysian as one of the top Asian cuisines. There’s great variety, from North to South, and their understanding of depth of flavour – from hearty stocks in soups to delicately balanced fresh herbs, sweet, salty and spice – is pretty unrivalled. It’s all about fragrance, freshness, and the ability to personalise your meal with fresh chillies, lime and extra herbs to give it the kick you want. Then there’s all the deep fried goodness and the coffee. OH MY GOD, the coffee. We loved the informality of the eating occasion in ‘Nam, where sitting huddled on communal tables on tiny streetside stools with strangers, or in heaving cafes, always carried a certain kind of buzz. No phones, no distractions, just fully focused on enjoying and savouring the heady aromas and flavours of the food.
Here goes, the Vietnamese must haves from across the country:
1. Bahn mi
The delicious baguette (bahn meaning bread) borne out of the French-colonised era of Vietnam, this spicy sandwich is omnipresent in Vietnam and essentially consists of a base of crunchy thin baguette filled with thin slices of pickled carrot, radish and cucumber, fresh coriander, chilli sauce, mayonnaise and fresh chillies – with the addition of anything from pate, to crushed meatballs, to egg omelette, to roasted pork, pork belly, chicken or cheese. The classic variety is generally with pork and pate, or pate and some form of meat. We had so many different incarnations, from spicy meatball versions to delicious veggie ones, or some with several different kinds of sausage meat/ charcuterie. Our favourite was our first, from a streetside stall in Ho Chi Minh City, but they rarely disappointed, and we ate so many we coined the phrase ‘having some (bahn) mi time’ !
Another dish that’s found everywhere in many different guises, hearty noodle soup Pho (prounounced ‘phuh’) is a real staple, consisting of a base of fresh glutenous rice noodles (thick or thin, to your requirement), an entire plate of herbs, fresh chillies and lime, and usually fresh chicken or beef. The real killer here is the Pho broth that’s usually been cooked over the course of days, to give it a really deep meaty flavour. You can measure the quality of a cafe or stall on its broth, as some cut corners with a fairly watery broth. This is no good! A great pho, with a tasty broth, is a brilliant thing, and we got into eating this for breakfast, lunch or dinner! Especially when we travelled to the North and experienced the Vietnamese winter in minus degrees!
3. Bun thit nuong
Incredibly tasty cold noodle dish from the North that we sadly only discovered in our last days in Vietnam. Hunt it down! A combination of sliced grilled pork, cold vermicelli noodles, fresh basil, mint, pickled carrots and peanuts. It’s served with a little side dish of fish sauce/sweet chilli sauce mix, which when poured on the dish, brings the whole meal together. There’s something addictive about the flavours, I ordered this one night and ate it every night until we left the country. You must try!
4. Bun bo nam bo
Kind of like a Southern version of Bun Thit Nuong – cold vermicelli noodles are mixed with stir fried tender beef, beansprouts, fried shallots, coriander, salad and fried peanuts. The clinchers here are the beef itself is CRAZY tender – it’s kept in a huge pan on a low heat soaking in all the delicious flavours from surrounding vegetables and stock, only stirred occasionally when an order is placed. And the mix of sauce – fish sauce, sugar, lemon, and chili – is mixed to a perfect sweet/sour combination. Irresistible!
Known as spring rolls to us Westerners, these are served fried or fresh (sometimes known as Summer rolls) bursting with marinated pork, veggies and herbs. They can accompany dishes or act as a meal by themselves, with a dip of fish sauce or soy on the side. We got a bit hooked on the fresh variant, with deliciouly delicate glutinous rice paper wraps. Sometimes served as a platter of meat, herbs and beansprouts with wrappers to assemble yourself in streetside stalls.
6. Cau Lau
A regional dish found in (arguably) the country’s culinary capital of Hoi An in central Vietnam, this is a noodle dish that blends thick noodles (like Soba noodles, leading to the rumour it’s a hangover from the Japanese colonial era) alongside thick sliced pork, herbs and greens, peanuts, fresh lime, pork broth, and distinctive thick rice crackers that give the dish a really nice crunchy texture and added flavour as they soak up the broth. Rumour has it the dish once only contained water (in the broth) from an ancient Cham well outside of town but given the dish’s popularity today this is pretty unlikely!
7. Mi quang
Another central Vietnamese dish which we first mis-heard as ‘big one’ (!) which actually helped us remember what it was, since it’s often overloaded with ingredients. Like a turbo charged Cau Lau – the dish is similar, with rice crackers too, but usually overloaded with ingredients – chicken, shrimp, quail eggs, meaty broth, sometimes pork too, as well as plenty of fish chilli and peanuts. Mmmm.
8. Deep fried things!
The Vietnamese love a deep fried snack, and we found the largest selection of these in the sidestreets of the old down in Hanoi – including little puffy pastries stuffed with vegetables that resembled empanadas, and crab spring rolls, that we’d dip in soy for dinner. We also stumbled across many stalls selling deep fried pancakes (!) topped with spring onion and prawns / crab meat in Hoi An. Weirdly addictive.
9. Bun Cha
A delicious dish of the North (found in Hanoi primarily) consisting of grilled pork herby patties (like little burgers, grilled between two huge wire frames over an open fire) served next to various plates – a mound of vermicelli, overflowing herbs and salad, deep-fried sausage – that you combine in a bowl and pour of a hot sweet/savoury broth, the temperature of which is brought down by the salad and cold noodles, meaning you can eat the whole lot straight away. You mix the various elements and eat (normally shared with at least one other) until it’s all gone! So so good.
Any dessert ‘soup’ found in Vietnam is technically known as Che and can be served in a glass or a bowl. I’m specifically talking about the dish we found in Hanoi, which was a moreish combination of fresh chopped fruit, spherical jelly balls that seemed to melt in contact with ice, combined with condensed milk on a bed of ice shards. We ate this on the street, in the FREEZING cold, despite it being primarily made of ice! There’s something about the gooey jelly balls, combined with the fruit and sweet condensed milk, as it all melts together – that makes this super addictive. Probably the insane amount of sugar. Mmm, diabetes.
11. Coffee! Hot or cold.
Speaking of diabetes, enter Vietnamese coffee. The key difference between this and coffee found in say Thailand, is that Vietnamese people have REALLY GREAT COFFEE and they’re not afraid to put a LOT of it in their coffees! We relied on iced coffee bought from street vendors to jolt us awake ahead of hot sight-seeing days traipsing around cities, and hot coffees (dripped through traditional coffee filters) to warm us up in the cold Northern towns. Our very best coffee was found in Hanoi in a little cafe full of bird cages (the name escapes me!) – served with free hot jasmine tea, the coffee was so rich it almost tasted of chocolate/caramel, with just the right amount of condensed milk to add sweetness.
12. Bun bo hue
Basically a version of Pho that’s found in imperial city Hue, this is like a beef Pho but drizzled with a LOT of chilli oil that sits on the surface of the noodle soup as a tasty addition to the broth. Just the kick you need in this often misty, rainy town.
13. Bia hoi
Fresh, delicious beer on tap – stored in huge barrels – served in little bars on the street, where you pull up a tiny plastic chair and get down with the locals. Its about 20-30 pence a pint, so you can really full your boots even on the tightest budget! A great way to get chatting to fellow travellers, locals, and make new friends.
14. Honourable mentions
There are simply too many dishes to name in Vietnamese cuisine – but a few that we learned how to make on a cookery course, such as cashew nut chicken or stuffed squid / tofu (stuffed with fresh herb mix) stand out as particularly tasty. Basically, eat the country. You won’t go wrong. And eat on the street/markets as much as you can rather than tourist restaurants as the flavours are inevitably fresher and more daring!