Endowed with fertile soil, rich oceans and abundant rain, Vietnam boasts one of the world’s freshest and most varied cuisines. From spicy to sweet to savoury and tart, the pantheon of dishes in Vietnamese fare is sure to please even the pickiest of palates. Although once solely regarded as a war-ravaged and struggling country, today Vietnam has grown into its own and earned a rightful reputation as a gastronomic paradise. The sheer number of restaurants, street vendors, markets and food stalls in every major city is a clear signal that this is a country that has great pride in its food and takes time to eat well.
Vietnamese food seamlessly combines deep flavours with subtle nuances using fresh herbs, seasonal ingredients and the king of all condiments — nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce). To truly experience Vietnam, one must not only see the sights and meet the people, but taste the plethora of delights as well.
While every region has its own delicacies, none has captured the hearts of the masses the way pho has. Originally a northern specialty, pho is now regarded as the country’s national dish. Pho comes in two chief varieties — pho ga (chicken) and pho bo (beef). Thin and flat rice noodles form the base of this belly-warming soup. The broth, which is poured on top, is made by slowly simmering beef or chicken bones, charred onion, and spices such as star anise and ginger.
The dish is garnished to taste with thinly sliced white onions, basil, lime juice, fresh chillies, and bean sprouts and a number of sauces including hoisin, fish, and chilli. While brisket and flank are the most common cuts of meat, adventurous gastronomes must sample pho tai sach. After getting over the initial shock of eating stomach lining, one will find that tripe is intriguingly chewy and takes on the broth’s flavour well.
Whereas pho has gained international admirers, bun rieu is still relatively unknown. Fresh vermicelli noodles and a pleasantly sour crab-based broth lay the foundation for this dish. Bun rieu can either be served with sautéed snails and crab (bun oc rieu cua) or with crab alone (bun rieu cua). Plump red tomatoes add a robust layer of tanginess to the soup.
While the crab absorbs the broth’s sour notes, the snails enhance the soup’s aroma and add textural complexity. Mam ruoc (fermented shrimp paste), lime wedges, bean sprouts, herbs, and a plethora of greens are on hand for diners to personalise their bowls of bun rieu to taste.
Foreign visitors to Vietnam often find local portion sizes meagre compared to the ones back home. Cha gio and Goi cuon, the yin and yang of Vietnamese cooking, are the perfect meal supplements. Cha gio, also known as Imperial Rolls, are Vietnam’s take on the classic Chinese egg roll. Stuffed with seasoned ground pork mixed with shrimp or crab, wood ear mushrooms, and sometimes even shredded taro root, the rolls are wrapped in thin rice paper and deep-fried to a blistering crisp. These are fabulous either eaten plain or wrapped in giant romaine lettuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham (fish sauce with lime juice, garlic, and chillies). Goi cuon are fresh spring rolls filled with slices of boiled pork and shrimp, lettuce, and herbs and dipped in either a hoisin and peanut sauce or fermented fish sauce — a healthy choice for travellers looking to eat light.
Many of the treasures of Vietnamese cuisine can be traced back to the city of Hue, which once served as the country’s imperial capital. Bun bo Hue stands out in the sea of broth and noodle dishes for its mildly spicy and lemongrass-infused beef broth. Unlike the flat and thin rice noodles found in pho and bun rieu, the noodles served in bun bo are cylindrical and thick.
Bun bo usually includes thin slices of tender beef shank and juicy pig’s knuckles that diners pick up out of the soup to gnaw clean. Although not essential, cubes of congealed pig’s blood round out the soup’s flavour. Bean sprouts, lime wedges, shrimp paste, and thinly sliced banana blossom are classic accoutrements served alongside bun bo.
Whereas most of Hue’s dishes are masterfully executed in Saigon, com hen is one that eludes southern cooks. A spicy rice dish topped with clams, peanuts, sesame seeds, crispy noodles, basil, pork rinds, and herbs, com hen is served with a delicious hot clam broth for moistening the rice or for sipping. The flavours in this dish are understated and yet wholly satisfying. Those willing to travel for a special meal must head to Hue for the absolute best renditions of this gem.
The central coastal city of Da Nang is home to pristine beaches and a hodgepodge noodle creation called mi quang. Mi quang’s broth is orangey, mild, a bit sweet, a little spicy, and used sparingly in this uncharacteristically dry noodle dish. The noodles are wide like fettuccine and yellow due to the employment of turmeric or saffron. Banh trang (sesame rice crackers), scallions, and toasted peanuts add a variety of tastes and textures to this complex and hearty dish. Similar to most Vietnamese noodle soups, mi quang is served with a heaping pile of fresh greens and herbs for the taking.
Banh beo, banh nam, and banh bot loc are small bites that can be eaten as appetisers or light snacks. Banh beo are steamed rice flour cakes that are either served in individual-sized porcelain dishes or layered on a plate. The delicate cakes are topped with scallion oil, mung bean paste, minced shrimp, and crispy rendered pork fat and served with a sweetened fish sauce that is tempting to sip once the cakes have disappeared.
Banh nam are flat and rectangular rice cakes embedded with minced shrimp and scallions and steamed in banana leaves. The outer leaf wrapper serves as a makeshift plate while eating the cake, which dramatically cuts down on the number of dishes to wash! A few squirts of salty fish sauce, usually found tableside, offset the cake’s mildness.
Banh bot loc are translucent, almost gelatinous cakes made with tapioca flour and filled with sautéed shrimp and sliced pork belly. These can either be steamed wrapped in banana leaves like banh nam or boiled. Scallion oil, rendered pork fat, and fish sauce are ideal complements.
In addition to mi quang, the central region also makes the country’s best banh xeo, a sort of Vietnamese crepe. Unlike the giant, paper-thin specimens prepared down south, these are fried up on small griddles over large flames. The smoky environs lend a welcomed char and a wonderful crisp to the saffron beauties. The crepes are filled with grilled pork pieces, bean sprouts, and a dash of whole mung beans. The best way to enjoy banh xeo is wrapped up in mustard leaves and dipped in nuoc cham.
After slews of hot noodle dishes, there is nothing like a tall cup of che to keep the tropical heat at bay and to satisfy one’s sweet tooth. This ubiquitous dessert can be found throughout the country in numerous forms at street stalls and snack shacks from afternoon until late in the evening. Order a glass of che thap cam for a sampling of everything on hand, which usually includes a number of different beans, jellies, tapioca, coconut milk, and shaved ice. Che is evidence that with enough sugar and coconut milk, just about any characteristically savoury food can be transformed into dessert.
With Vietnam’s economic revitalisation centred in Saigon, Vietnamese from distant provinces are emigrating south to capitalise on the prosperity. As a result of Saigon’s diverse population and access to the best ingredients, many regional dishes are as delicious in the city as in their province of origin, if not even better.
Where to eat
- Pho: Pho 24, 134 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City and Pho Bac Ha, 192A Cach Mang Thang 8 Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City (15,000-25,000 Vietnamese dong)
- Bun rieu: Thanh Hai, 14/12 Ky Dong Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, +84 (0) 8 8435785 (8,000-10,000 VND)
- Cha gio and Goi cuon: Banh Xeo 46A, 46A Dinh Cong Trang Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (3,000-5,000 VND per roll)
- Bun bo Hue: Bun Bo Hue Yen Do, 252/68B Ly Chinh Thang Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City (16,000 VND)
- Com hen: 28 Truong Dinh Street, Hue and 7 Truong Dinh Street, Hue (5,000 VND)
- Mi quang: Mi Quang 1A, 1A Hai Phong Street, Da Nang and Mi Quang Com Ky Dong, 25 Ky Dong Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City (10,000-16,000 VND)
- Banh beo, Banh nam and Banh bot loc: Bun Bo Hue Yen Do, 252/68B Ly Chinh Thang St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City and Ba Dang, 59B Nguyen Thong St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City (8,000-10,000 VND)
- Banh xeo: 607 Nguyen Kiem Street, Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Hong, 19 Yen Bai Street, Da Nang (5,000 VND)
- Che: Che My, 91 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City and Che Ky Dong, 153/7 Ky Dong Street, D Ky Dong, 153/7 Ky Dong Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City (5,000-10,000 VND).