Wondering what to eat in Vietnam during your first visit? For first-timers, deciphering a list of Vietnamese foods can be overwhelming. Read on to find our ten Vietnam food favorites that you need to try during your trip.
Vietnamese food has achieved cult status around the world due to the global popularity of Pho, the ubiquitous noodle soup found in cities as varied as Budapest and Cape Town. However, the 90+ million people who live in the Southeast Asia country eat a lot more Vietnamese foods than just Pho.
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Our Introduction To Vietnamese Food
Ankle-high rain greeted us on our first visit to Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi. It was hot and the constant chaos of traffic drove us crazy. However, what also struck our eyes was the huge variety of Vietnamese restaurants, food stalls and street food stands with signs that, outside of the word Pho, were difficult for us to interpret.
Since that initial trip in 2016, we’ve devoted much of three years deciphering the culinary puzzle of Vietnam and the result has been amazing. We always feel a combination of awe and wonder at the food in Vietnam, not just in the big cities but all around the country.
We returned a year later to eat more Vietnamese food and later returned yet again for a third culinary tour of duty. Never bored, we loved the food in Vietnam more with each day that we were there.
What Makes Vietnamese Food Culture So Great?
Vietnam is a product of history and influence that shines through the rich flavorful broths the Vietnamese make, the creative dishes they produce and the incredibly fresh fruits and vegetables they grow. This is a country where food options run the gamut from inexpensive Vietnamese street food to fancy fine-dining.
In fact, Vietnamese cuisine features a plethora of exotic options, both sweet and savory, that will both confound and tempt first-time visitors. Despite, or perhaps due to, the many food options, the variety of traditional Vietnamese food can be confusing since Vietnam food menus are typically and unsurprisingly in Vietnamese.
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Food is a big deal in Vietnam, with most people dining out daily if not multiple times in a day. And who can blame them when flavors are so big and Vietnam food prices are so low? Though many start their day with Pho, even more choose other Vietnamese food favorites.
Savvy visitors will opt to eat with Vietnamese locals in open-air cafés, often sitting on tiny plastic chairs and sharing tables with strangers. Food travelers will adore these meals both for the food and experience, not to mention the cheap prices.
Vietnamese Food Guide | What To Eat In Vietnam
Eating in Vietnam has its challenges, and we’re not just talking about getting in and out of the tiny plastic chairs. The main challenge is narrowing down the many Vietnam food options available throughout the country. The choices for the best food to try in Vietnam can be downright overwhelming!
Whether you begin your Vietnam culinary adventure in Hoi An, Hanoi, Saigon or Da Nang, we recommend starting with these ten Vietnam food classics. Some items on our list of Vietnamese foods will be familiar and others may be new to you.
There are so many foods you must eat in Vietnam. We have our favorites and, by the end of your trip, you will too!
1. Pho (Phở)
Easily the most popular Vietnamese food in the world, Pho lives up to its vaunted reputation when eaten in its homeland. Named after the flat, fettuccine-like Pho noodles that fill the bowl, Pho in Vietnam is pure magic. Ironically, though, Vietnamese noodle soup is different depending on where you slurp it.
In Hanoi, where Pho was invented back in the early 20th century, the French-influenced broth has clear flavors developed during a simmering process that marries the protein to the liquid. Despite its apparent simplicity, Hanoi Pho is a complex, satisfying meal in a bowl.
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Surprisingly different, Pho in Saigon typically has a richer taste and often comes with a range of hot and sweet condiments along as well as a variety of leafy green herbs. Pho in Saigon and the rest of the South most resembles the Pho served in North American restaurants.
The two main Vietnamese Pho varieties are chicken (Pho Ga) and beef (Pho Bo). The best Pho vendors typically serve one or the other, ladling the soup from large vats to queues of hungry Pho fans.
Join the line on your first morning in Vietnam. You’ll always remember your first bowl of Pho in Vietnam, though it surely won’t be your last.
2. Banh Mi (Bánh Mì)
Unlike Pho which hails from northern Vietnam, the Banh Mi sandwich originates from the southern part of the country, allegedly in Saigon. Though they’re available all over the country, you will find the best Banh Mi sandwiches in Vietnam’s southern and central cities.
Most Banh Mi vendors sell the popular snack from mobile metal food carts, though more established vendors have permanent stores. Regardless of the cart or store, all Banh Mi vendors sell baguettes filled with a range of meats, paté, cucumbers and other savory ingredients.
3. Bun Cha (Bún Chả)
Always a local favorite, Bun Cha hit the international radar when President Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain rolled up their sleeves to dip rice vermicelli noodles (bún) into little bowls filled with a grilled combination of ground and whole pork drenched in Nuoc Cham (Nước Chấm), a sweet yet savory sauce made with ingredients like fish sauce, sugar and vinegar. They both loved the experience and who can blame them – eating Bun Cha is fun.
When you eat Bun Cha, be sure to add greens like lettuce, purple and green Vietnamese shiso, cilantro, bean sprouts and banana blossoms to your dipping bowl. If you’re extra hungry, you can get a side of Nem to add to the mix. These fried spring rolls are the perfect Bun Cha accompaniment and are generally value priced.
Plan to eat Bun Cha for lunch. Unlike Pho, Bun Cha is not a breakfast dish.
4. Egg Coffee (Cà Phê Trứng)
Yet another Hanoi invention, Egg Coffee is more of a dessert (think Creme Brulee) than a beverage. Made with egg yolks, sugar and condensed milk, Egg Coffee is the best drink you will eat in Vietnam.
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We discovered Egg Coffee in Hanoi at Cafe Giang, the bustling, back alley, two-story cafe where the dessert drink was invented. When you visit the cafe, you can order your egg coffee hot or iced. You can even order variations with chocolate, green beans, rum and beer.
We later drank the decadent drink in other Vietnamese cities like Da Nang and Saigon. We also tried Salt Coffee, a twist on Egg Coffee that tastes surprisingly good, in Hue.
You can drink Egg Coffee directly from the cup but you’ll want to use a spoon instead. It’s that rich and decadent.
5. Bun Bo Hue
Ironically, Bun Bo Hue translates to Beef Noodle Soup from Hue even though Bun Bo broths are often made with some pork. Other ingredients like lemongrass, shrimp paste, and lime juice ramp up the flavor. Adventurous eaters can also add cubed pig’s blood for even more flavor.
Although Bun Bo Hue is easily available throughout Vietnam, the best place to slurp the spicy Vietnamese soup is in Hue where it was invented. Hue offers visitors many reasons to visit from its imperial fortress to gorgeous pagodas on the Perfume River, but we’d argue that eating Bun Bo Hue should be top on the list for food travelers.
You can find great bowls at the Hue’s Dong Ba Market or at local stands around Hue. The soup is simply called Bun Bo in nearby Central Vietnamese cities like Da Nang.
Plan to eat Bun Bo Hue for breakfast in Hue. The best soup vendors sell out well before lunchtime and sometimes as early as 9 am.
6. Seafood (Hải Sản)
Vietnam, with its huge coast along the South China Sea, is one of the great seafood centers of the world. Hai San is a common choice when groups of Vietnamese want to go out with friends for a fun dinner.
As you travel around Vietnam, you will surely see large groups of locals at Hai San restaurants eating copious amounts of seafood and toasting một hai ba, vȏ (pronounced yo) while drinking many bottles of local beer.
When you get up the nerve to join the seafood party, you will find holding tanks displaying a dizzying array of live fruit de mer including many sizes of crab, squid, monstrous shrimp, oysters, sea snails and even geoducks. Once you make your selections, you will likely choose a preparation style such as hot pot (lẩu) or grilled (nướng).
After the tough ordering decisions, all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy a seafood feast preferably with a beer. In case we weren’t clear, beer is the drink of choice at Hai San restaurants in Vietnam.
Since seafood is typically sold by weight in Vietnam, be judicious when you order to avoid an unpleasant surprise with the bill.
7. Mi Quang (Mì Quảng)
Flying under the radar by international standards, Mi Quang is wildly popular in Vietnam’s central hub of Da Nang. In Da Nang, the local favorite is cheap and available everywhere.
For those unfamiliar, Mi Quang is a rice noodle dish featuring thick wide rice noodles served with a choice of proteins like pork, chicken, shrimp, quail eggs, mussels and eel served in a soupy, beefy broth. Mi Quang typically comes with a big pile of greens on the side along with a range of condiments like chilis and fish sauce.
You’ll want to start eating your bowl of Mi Quang with chopsticks. Once the noodles are gone, you can switch to a spoon so that you get every drop of the tasty broth at the bottom of the bowl.
If your plans don’t include Da Nang, you can also find Mi Quang in Hoi An.
8. Banh Xeo (Bánh Xèo)
What’s better than regular pancakes? In Vietnam, the answer is Banh Xeo or sizzling pancakes.
Inspired by French crepes and invented in Central Vietnam, Banh Xeo are yellow pancakes filled with a mix of ingredients including pork, shrimp and vegetables. Far from fine dining, diners often sit on little chairs in casual settings where they wrap Banh Xeo in rice paper and dip them in a special pork liver and peanut sauce before crunching into the crispy treats.
Like most of the best Vietnamese food, you should be able to find Banh Xeo in any large city. Just come to dinner hungry when you try them in the center of the country where they were invented.
Don’t be alarmed by Banh Xeo’s bright yellow color. Turmeric adds both flavor and color to the sizzling pancake shells.
9. Banh Cuon (Bánh Cuốn)
Invented in Northern Vietnam but available throughout the country, Banh Cuon is a cheap, fun breakfast option for those days you’re not in the mood for soup. These steamed rice rolls come filled with a savory pork and mushroom filling as well as a bowl of sweet dipping sauce.
Don’t look for a fancy Vietnamese restaurant to eat Banh Cuon. Instead, look for a crowded Banh Cuon stand where the staff, usually women, make the rice flour rolls to order by pouring the rice flour pancake mixture on special round griddles. Banh Cuon is really cheap, making it a great “off the map” meal choice.
Though it hails from North Vietnam, you can find Banh Cuon all over the country.
10. Cau Lau (Cao Lầu)
Famous for its charming waterfront and yellow buildings, Hoi An’s greatest attraction may be the tastiest street food available at its Central Market and all over town. Popular options include white rose dumplings and banh mi sandwiches, but the best thing to eat in Hoi An is Cau Lau.
With its thick, firm, tonnarelli-like, rice noodles and crunchy, square, flat rice noodle croutons, Cau Lau is different from other Vietnamese noodle dishes. Though unique, the dish still has typical ingredients like protein (often barbecued pork) and green herbs.
What really makes Cau Lau unique is a mystery. Some say the secret ingredient is water from the city’s ancient Ba Le well but nobody is really sure except for Hoi An locals.
Try Cau Lau in Hoi An, the city where it was invented and reigns supreme.
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About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.
We purchased and ate the food featured in this article.
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Original Publication Date: August 16, 2018