To wrap up my coverage of our four weeks in Vietnam, I, of course, had to talk about the food!
Vietnamese food was hands down my favorite cuisine of our entire trip. Street food is affordable and delicious. Street stalls tend to have limited menus, specializing in just a few dishes, which means that everything they do they do well. They buy their food fresh at the market every single morning, and that freshness comes through in the flavor of the food.
One of the smartest things we did was take a street food tour. (Actually, we took two, one in Hanoi and one in Saigon.) Trying to eat street food can be intimidating. You aren’t sure which places are good and which places might make you sick. There may or may not be a menu, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that no one will speak English. The nice thing about the food tours was that they introduced us to street stalls that were safe for tourists to eat at and gave us some vocabulary for ordering food. We went on this tour in Hanoi and this tour in Ho Chi Minh City, and I would highly recommend both.
I also recommend eating the local food as much as possible. It’s better quality and more affordable. You will always pay more for Western-style food, and with just a few exceptions, we were pretty much always disappointed when we ate non-Vietnamese food. (Trying to eat burgers in Vietnam was a HUGE mistake. Yuck!) Notable exceptions would be Ganesh (delicious Indian food) and Hola Taco (fairly good tacos) in Hoi An and Quan Ut Ut (fantastic Southern USA-style barbecue) in Ho Chi Minh City.
We ate SO much good food in Vietnam, too much for me to even talk about here. With that being said, here are some of our favorite things we ate in Vietnam.
Banh Cuon is a Northern Vietnamese dish. It consists of a kind of wrapper made from steamed rice flour batter and filled with ground pork and mushrooms. It is topped with crispy shallots and fresh herbs. There’s a dipping sauce that goes with it, though I’m not entirely sure what’s in it, other than fish sauce. We ate Banh Cuon at least 3 times while in Hanoi. It is light and incredibly delicious.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
This was possibly my favorite dish that I had in all of Vietnam. After eating it on our food tour in Hanoi, I searched the menu everywhere else that we went for the next 3 weeks but was never able to find it again. I have no idea why, but it was really disappointing. I’ve got the restaurant in Hanoi where we tried it starred in my Google Maps, and you better believe that when I make it back to Hanoi it will be my first stop. Bun Bo Nam Bo consists of beef and vermicelli noodles topped with lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled green papaya, and peanuts. They pour a sauce on top that is made from fish sauce, sugar, lemon, and chili. The sauce has a pleasant, mild sweetness that is different from other noodle dishes we ate in Vietnam. That sauce plus the interesting mix of textures is what makes this dish shine.
Cha Ca is a Hanoi-style fish dish. The particular fish we ate was called snakehead fish. It was pan-fried with turmeric, dill, and other fresh herbs. To eat it, we wrapped it in rice paper along with carrot, cucumber, herbs, vermicelli noodles, and peanuts. The garnishes were all very typical of Vietnamese cuisine, but the dill was a surprising twist.
Pho is one of the most well-known Vietnamese dishes outside of Vietnam. It’s a soup with meat and noodles. There are lots of different types of pho, but Pho Bo is beef pho. The broth is made with beef bones and lots of spices like ginger and star anise. It takes hours to make and is incredibly flavorful. I preferred my Pho Bo with just the thin strips of steak, but sometimes it also includes beef in other forms like tendon or meatballs. It is usually topped with fresh herbs. Pho is served hot, and thus is mostly popular in Northern Vietnam where the winters are cold. Pho is a popular breakfast dish. I was initially hesitant to try it as a breakfast food, but I ended up enjoying it many mornings of our 17-day homestay in Hoi An.
Okay confession: We never had “real’ Cao Lau. Cao Lau is a pork and noodle dish found only in Hoi An. It’s a bit atypical because the noodles are made with wheat instead of rice flour. It is usually topped with greens, herbs, and fried pork rind. However, our favorite restaurant in Hoi An (we probably ate there at least 10 times in 17 days), was a vegetarian restaurant. So the only Cao Lau we tried was the vegetarian version with tofu and mushrooms instead of pork. The mushroom broth was surprisingly flavorful, and I didn’t miss the meat at all. But I’m sure the pork version is fantastic as well.
Banh Beo is a dish originating from the Central Vietnamese city of Hue. It consists of a small steamed rice pancake topped with shrimp and pork rind. We ordered it from a woman who spoke absolutely no English but was kind enough to give us a demonstration of how to eat it. You spoon some sauce on top, run your spoon underneath the rice cake to loosen it from the dish, and then slide the whole thing into your mouth. For me, the crispy pork rind is what totally made the dish.
We found Banh Xeo all over Vietnam, though it originates from the South. Banh Xeo is a crispy, savory pancake made with rice flour and turmeric powder (which gives it a yellowish color). The pancake is stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. In Hanoi, we cut off pieces of the pancake and wrapped it with fresh herbs in rice paper. (That version is pictured above.) Elsewhere in Vietnam, the Banh Xeo was wrapped in lettuce leaves instead of rice paper. (See below.)
Banh Mi is probably the second most well-known Vietnamese dish in the United States after Pho. It demonstrates the influence of the French colonial period, as the French are the ones who introduced baguettes to the Vietnamese. Essentially, banh mi is a sandwich with a meat of some sort, fresh vegetables like carrots and cucumber, fresh herbs like cilantro, and chili sauce. The most typical meat seemed to be pork (and if you want to be really traditional, throw some pork pâté on there as well). However, banh mi was widely available with lots of different meats or even vegetarian (made with egg). Banh mi is absolutely delicious and probably the most affordable meal you can get in Vietnam. At our favorite banh mi spot in Hoi An, the sandwiches cost 15,000 dong each. (Converted to U.S. dollars that’s about 66 cents, meaning that our entire lunch for two cost under $2 even if we threw in some bottled water.)
Those are only a few of our favorites out of many dishes we had the opportunity to try in Vietnam. We still reminisce about how amazing Vietnamese food is on a regular basis. We’ve actually started going to a local Vietnamese restaurant here in Nashville every month or so to try to fulfill our cravings. It’s not quite the same, but it’s good enough to hold us over until we make it back across the ocean for another visit to our beloved Vietnam.
For a fantastic guide to street food in Saigon, including specific restaurant/street stall recommendations, check out the Legal Nomads Guide to Saigon Street Food. It’s a wonderful resource that we utilized during our time in Ho Chi Minh City. And also, if you’ve never thought about it before, consider going to Vietnam! You can see all of my posts about our time in Vietnam by clicking here.