What makes Vietnamese food so special?
The culinary arts is a precious culture formed in the circle of life. For many countries, cuisines are not only tangible treasures of their culture, but it also reflects many aspects of people's daily life.
With a long land border of 4,550 km, Vietnam’s diverse topography consists of hills, mountains, deltas and coastline. The result is a distinctive culinary trail that spans from the North to the South of the country. Beside the famous dishes that are well-known the world over such as pho, bun bo or banh mi, there are also a bunch of other appetizing specialties for Vietnamese food lovers to savor.
Essential Vietnamese Dishes
Pho is not only the most popular dish in Vietnam but also internationally known as a symbol of Vietnamese cuisine. People eat pho everyday and is sold in every corner of the country.
Pho is a traditional soup that consists of broth, noodles, meat, and fresh herbs. As delicious as it looks, pho has a fascinating complexity of textures and flavors. Its unique flavor is made from simmering beef and bones, along with various Vietnamese spices, for hours and hours until it reaches its optimal flavor.
The best place to enjoy an appetizing bowl of pho has to be Hanoi, the city that gave this dish its golden reputation. For the best pho out there, every visitor to Hanoi must visit Pho Bat Dan, located on 49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
Bun bo Hue
Hue Cuisine has a long rich history, especially since Hue was once the nation’s capital, dating back to the Nguyen Dynasty.
Bun bo Hue, as the name suggests, is a dish that originated in the city of Hue. The name itself means Hue beef vermicelli Soup, but it also contains pork, and other variations like crab paste or pig blood curd, bringing the Hue cuisine lovers a wide variety of choices.
Bun bo Hue is best served with Vietnamese herbs and fresh vegetables. The most commonly used are lettuce, basil, coriander, shredded banana flowers, with a pinch of chopped spring onion, and of course, lemon and chilli.
It would be a mistake not to mention bun bo me keo, located by the Huong river. The bowl of vermicelli has a characteristic spicy taste, combined with rich-flavoured broth and lemongrass aroma.
If you’re planning to travel to Vietnam, the one dish you will not want to miss is the banh mi, a famous street food that could be easily found on any sidewalk in Vietnam.
Banh mi was originally brought to Vietnam from France during the colonial period in the late 1800s. It is a crispy and airy baguette stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables and sauces. Owing to the creativity and craftsmanship of Vietnamese people, banh mi has evolved to have an abundance of fillings, including different kinds of ham, grilled meat, sausage, omelettes or even fish.
There is a different variation of Banh mi in every city you go to, but it’s generally believed that banh mi from Saigon is the most renowned. The first superb banh mi you must try is banh mi Huynh Hoa – A mouthful of banh mi filled with pate, butter, ham, all mixed with bread crust that creates a unique aroma. This bakery is always crowded with tourists and even Saigonese who are always craving for a hot loaf of baguette.
Vietnamese iced coffee
Iced coffee has been Vietnam’s favorite drink for generations. In fact, we’re pretty sure that cities and towns would be empty without cafes on the streets.
Coffee culture in Vietnam has its own characteristics, which include the style of preparation. Traditional Vietnamese coffee is a bitter and intense coffee made typically from robusta. Iced coffee is made with medium to coarse Vietnamese dark roast coffee with a Vietnamese metal drip filter. Condensed milk is added and the drink is usually served in a glass full of ice.
With a harmonious combination of bittersweet flavors and an exquisite smell, Vietnamese iced coffee has won the hearts of many coffee lovers. There are many different ways to drink coffee in the world, but the way Vietnamese people enjoy a cup of the dark-hued drink is considered very unique. Sitting on a stool while chatting with friends can create the best coffee hangout moments.
Smoked buffalo jerky (Lao Cai, Northwest Vietnam)
Northwest Vietnam is well-known for not only the cultural diversity of ethnic minorities but also its extremely unique cuisine.
Thit trau gac bep or “smoked buffalo jerky,” is a specialty of the high mountains of this region. While other parts of the country also have this dish, the taste is not the same as in the Northwest because of the spices exclusively produced in the high mountains. This food was invented a long time ago, probably by Thai communities in Son La province.
Vietnamese people used to preserve buffalo meat naturally by hanging it on the kitchen attic and smoking it so it wouldn't spoil. Gradually, to achieve its taste, they concocted more spices before drying the buffalo meat, which brought its flavor to a new level.
With an unforgettable rich flavor and delightful aroma, Northwest buffalo meat has won the taste buds of diners everywhere from the mountains to the lowlands. Especially on Lunar New Year, when spring comes to the land of Northwest and everyone gathers around to eat smoked buffalo meat and celebrate.
Quang noodles (Mi Quang, Central Vietnam)
Quang noodles or mi quang is a must-try delicacy that originated in Quang Nam, a province of Central Vietnam.
Quang noodles are rice noodles with a variety of fresh Vietnamese vegetables and herbs, mixed with broth made with braised pork or chicken.
The Quang noodle can be distinguished from other kinds of Vietnamese noodle soups by its flat yellow chewy noodles and broth that does not completely submerge the noodles.
Quang noodle soup tastes best when served with a variety of herbs, such as mint leaves, cabbage, onion, and coriander. What makes Quang noodle soups unique is the richness of the broth, commonly garnished with peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers.
Hotpot with fermented fish (Mekong Delta)
When talking about delicious and famous hot pot dishes of Vietnam, it would be a mistake not to mention hotpot with fermented fish, or lau mam, a traditional dish of Vietnamese people living by the Mekong Delta.
Lau mam contains many ingredients including fresh shrimp, squid, meat and fish. The hotpot is stewed from pork bones, and of course, fish sauce and fish paste. This savoury specialty is the greatest reflection of Southwest Vietnam — the harmonious rhythms of river and tropical landscapes, always bound by the fertile delta.
Each diner is free to add whatever they like to the hotpot. The freedom to explore and to create while enjoying the food is what makes the experience of eating lau mam so unique. The art of hotpot is also reflected in the decoration of the food which combines all colors and flavors in each ingredient: white, blue, purple hue together with salty, sweet, sour and spicy.
Banh trang nuong
Another local specialty dish you don’t want to miss when travelling to Vietnam is banh trang nuong, it is like pizza, but instead of dough, we use rice paper grilled on a charcoal-stove to make the wrapper perfectly crispy, and topped with myriad of other ingredients like minced pork, egg, prawn, or various others. It is served with chilli sauce and mayo, sprinkled with a pinch of scallion and folded in half. No tableware like spoon, chopstick or dish is needed, just wrap banh trang nuong with a piece of paper and eat it anywhere you want.
There is a wide array of sweet options to choose from, including sweet che and savory che, or many other toppings eaten with the soup, containing an abundance of tropical fruits and flavored jellies. It is believed that the dish originated in central Vietnam, but today, they are widely served throughout the country and are prepared in countless variations. A popular snack often sold in plastic cups or bowls, che is something no visitor should ever miss tasting. Other variations worth trying are the three-colour chè, ginger rice ball soup (che troi nuoc) or sweet corn pudding.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” - adapt this proverb when wandering around every corner in Vietnam and you will have the best experiences ever. Sitting on stools just a meter from the busy motorcycle-flooded street and eating with bare hands are the best ways to enjoy sea snails. Foreign cuisine may consider seafood as an expensive element of the food culture, but in Vietnam, sea snails or oc is a sure feast for everyone, of any social class. Sea snails can be cooked in different ways - with coconut milk, sauteed in garlic or stir-fried. However you want it, Vietnamese “street” chefs can have it ready for you in a matter of minutes.
Here’s a tip: pair your sea snails with ice-cold beer, and you’ll have the best meal of your life.
It can be said that Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine have many things in common. Both the Chinese and the Vietnamese emphasize the importance of nutrition and the harmony of mixing spices, especially the balance between the hot/cold elements (just like yin and yang).
Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City (or Cho Lon) is a culinary complex dating back to 1778. This is where you can find the largest Chinese community in the city and indulge in Chinese food from various regions. Most famous Cantonese restaurants in Saigon must include Shang Garden (District 1) and Meiwei Restaurant (District 10)
International travellers and expats are flocking to Vietnam in increasing numbers. As a result, many vibrant cities in Vietnam are witnessing the burgeoning of Western restaurants.
Ranging from typical options like McDonald's or Domino’s Pizza, to high-end restaurants bringing the most atmospheric dining experience, Western food can be found everywhere in Vietnam. Most people enjoy Italian food, steak, and many other appetizing fusion dishes. Many chefs in Vietnam can bring Western dishes to their finest and most authentic flavour. Some Western restaurants you should give a try are Moo Beef Steak Prime (District 1) which serves excellent steak or Olé restaurant for a great Spanish feast.