A Very Tasty Guide to Vietnamese Food

This post could as easily be called, “An Ode to Vietnamese Food”, as my love for Vietnam’s cuisine knows few bounds.

Admittedly, I’m not that well-versed in Vietnamese cuisine. While I spent a month in Vietnam indulging in every speciality I could find I a. have never lived with a Vietnamese family and b. I speak about three words of Vietnamese. (Hence why this recap won’t be as extensive as my French food coverage.) So if I make any mistakes in the following info please feel free to correct me!

But still, I LOVED Vietnamese food. And thank god I only weighed myself like twice in Asia because Vietnamese food was so hard to resist.

And it wasn’t just the phở and the coffee, although those were my daily staples; everything in Vietnam was delicious. From the grilled pork ribs to the bowls of “broken” rice, to the $2 roadside plates of chicken, rice and vegetables.

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Phở

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Oh, phở. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Phở is Vietnam’s most famous dish. It’s a rice noodles in broth, topped with either chicken or beef (I prefer beef). Variations include phở bò viên (beef meatballs), phở chín (thin, fully cooked slices of beef) and phở tái (thin slices of rare beef that cook with the soup). Phở tái was my favorite.

However you order your phở, it’s all about customization- you can garnish with chili peppers, onions, bean sprouts, Mexican coriander, Thai basil, lime, chili sauce and hoisin sauce. It took me a few weeks to really learn how to garnish and season phở- if phở ever tastes bland it’s probably because you haven’t added enough to it yet!

And plus, it’s a bargain meal at 30-50 thousand dong (about $1.50-2.50).

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The condiments, which always come free with the meal. Essential!

Noodle soup in general

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A bowl of bún riêu cua on the Mekong Delta.

Soup is a staple food in Vietnam- just see Jodi of Legal Nomad’s posts Pleading for Bun Rieu Soup in Cai Rang and Sunsets and Soup in Mui Ne, Vietnam.

One of my favorite soups was the bún riêu cua pictured above. Bún riêu cua is a crab-based soup with black pudding and tofu that is very popular in the Mekong Delta. Personally as a crab fan I feel it could taste a bit “crabbier” but it’s still a good choice.

 

Cơm tấm (Broken Rice)

In Vietnam I noticed many menus that featured “broken rice.” I had to investigate- what on earth is broken rice? And why is it so delicious?

Broken rice is a Vietnamese dish made from rice with fractured rice grains, and it is very popular in southern Vietnam.

Broken rice is usually served with grilled pork ribs, which may be why I love it so much. It is also often served with bì, thinly shredded pork mixed with thinly shredded pork skin- it’s kind of like dental floss made with bacon. Yum!

 

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Iced tea in Vietnam is complimentary, unsweetened and comes when you sit down. And as it is an herbal tea you should never put milk in it. (Something I learned from my English travel buddy!)

 

Bánh mì

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A scrumptious Bánh mì in Nha Trang.

Bánh mì is fusion food at it’s finest- a French base (baguette with pâté) with Vietnamese flair (roasted pork belly, carrot, cilantro, hot peppers).

Bánh mì is kind of like the taco of Vietnam: filling, inexpensive, tasty and sold on the street.

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The making of a Bánh mì at a street cart in Nha Trang.

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Photo credit: New York Times

Cà phê sữa đá – Iced Coffee with Milk

Black, thick, roasted in clarified butter… Vietnamese coffee is celestial. Along with Italy and Ecuador, it’s some of the best coffee on earth.

And Vietnamese coffee is inexpensive- around 20,000 dong a cup ($1). Which may be why I imbibed it at least two to three times a day.

Here’s how to drink it!

Step 1

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The coffee is served to you still filtering with the sweetened condensed milk at the bottom.

Step 2

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Once the coffee finishes filtering (around five minutes) remove the lid and stir the coffee and condensed milk together.

Step 3

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Ta-dah! Drink up. a

 Coffee is also served without ice, especially in cooler regions like the Central Highlands.

Hot Pot

Hot pot was one of my favorite meals in Vietnam.

The broth is brought out simmering with mushrooms, scallions tofu and an assortment of meat. You chat over beers are the pot cooks, and once it’s ready you fish out the contents with chopsticks and place them in your individual bowl, which is already filled with rice noodles.

Then, as always in Vietnam you season and garnish your own portion.

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Condiments!

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Garnishes!

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Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)

It’s incredible I don’t have a photo of Vietnamese spring rolls are they were my daily snack! They are gummy rice paper wrappers filled with crunchy vegetables, rice noodles and pork or shrimp. Then you dip them in peanut sauce, resulting in a salty, chewy, crunchy, fresh sensory experience.

Also I think I’m addicted to peanut sauce.

 

Beef Boiled in Vinegar (Bò nhúng dắm)

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Beef boiled in vinegar is fairly self-explanatory- beef and vegetables boiled in vinegar and then wrapped in thin rice paper, garnished with cucumber and cilantro and dipped into sauce.

I loved the bitter yet sweet flavor of the beef as well as the tang of the sauce and the fresh crunch of the vegetables.

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French-style Pastries

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Okay, I actually never tried any French pastries in Vietnam. But they were there.

Street Food

In Southeast Asia, life is lived outside. And Vietnam is no exception- much of the eating and drinking occurs on the sidewalks. So disregard the guidebook- pull up a plastic chair and eat up- Vietnamese street food is some of the cheapest and best food in the country.

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Women making street food in Dalat.

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Fried dough street food in the Mekong Delta. Not bad.

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Food from a roadside cart on the side of the highway.

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Fried quail’s eggs cooked in little clay ramekins. Dalat.

 

Night Markets

As in the rest of Southeast Asia, night markets are an essential component of local food culture; friends head to the night market and spend hours drinking, laughing and tasting the delicious offerings. See my Mekong Delta post for more info!

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The dried squid vendor? A surprisingly common site in Vietnam.

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Dirt-cheap freshwater crab. Best thing of my life.

Sugarcane Juice (Nước Miá)

In Vietnam you’ll see lots of vendors pushing sugarcane through machines to extract its sweet, delicious juice. Surprisingly, sugarcane juice isn’t overly sugary, and has a floral, subtly sweet taste.

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Beer

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In Southern Vietnam there are two main beers: Saigon Red and Saigon Green. The only difference between the beer is the alcohol content; Saigon Red is 4.9% and Saigon Green is 4.3%. And there is a slight different in taste- personally I think Saigon Red is better.

And they both usually cost 10,000 dong, or 50 cents. (Seriously.) At fancier bars they will cost up to 40,000 dong, or $2.

Vietnam also has fresh beer which must be drunk within 24 hours- here’s Travelfish’s guide on where to find it in Saigon.

The one seriously annoying thing about beer in Southeast Asia is that due to the heat it becomes lukewarm quickly- which is why you have to drink it fast!

 

Family-style Meals

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As in most of Asia, dining out at restaurants is a communal affair. You order an assortment of dishes and then share it among the diners.

From the super inexpensive meal above in the Central Highlands (I will never forget that eggplant or omelet) to the $30 swanky Saigon restaurant meal below (with the best fried tofu of my life), dining out in Vietnam is always done “family style.”

Which I think says a lot about the difference between Western and Eastern sociology. (Western- individualistic, one dish for one person and Eastern- communal, several dishes shared among many.) But I digress.

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Believe it or not, I never liked Vietnamese food before I went to Vietnam (I swear it doesn’t transfer well to other places!) but now I’m salivating over my next trip to Vietnam.

And there’s so much more I haven’t even tried…

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Who even knows what this is?

Are you a fan of Vietnamese food?

. . . . . . . . . . .

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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel blogger and freelance writer who moved to Paris at 21 and has been traveling the world ever since. She's usually in pursuit of yoga, languages and perfectly ripe cheese and her writing has been featured in National Geographic, Viator and Jetstar Australia.
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31 Comments

  1. I love all your Vietnamese food observations and photos, Ashley! You make Vietnam sound like THE best foodie destination of all times! Also, I honestly cannot wait to try that coffee someday! It looks sooo good!
    I just have one question for us vegetarians: Did you ever encounter broth made out of veggies only?
    Julika recently posted..Seven Free Geeky Things to Do in DublinMy Profile

    Reply
    • Hm… I don’t actually know! I’ve heard that being a vegetarian in Vietnam is a bit tough actually but haven’t done too much research into it. You could definitely still eat a lot of the street food though! And Vietnam has lots of omelets, greens and rice, all of which are vegetarian-friendly. And of course, the COFFEE! :)

  2. This post makes me both so happy and so sad. Vietnam definitely has the best food in Southeast Asia and even at the best Vietnamese places I’ve tried in the US and UK, it doesn’t really compare. I’d gladly eat one of anything listed here right now… I also miss 50 cent beers. A lot.

    Reply
    • That’s so true- I’ve never had Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam that was very good. If I could just have grilled pork ribs and broken rice one more time… :(

    • Hi Ashley, Outside of Vietnam, the best authentic Vietnamese foods are in Little Saigon, California USA. In Canada, try Montreal and Toronto. You will not be disappointed. Trust me I’m pretty picky about food and a good cook.

    • I’ll have to check Little Saigon out at some point. So far I’ve only had Vietnamese in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and Paris, and Detroit was actually the best!

  3. Oh, I just love this! I used to think that Thai food won the South East Asian food contest, but it’s Vietnam to which my heart now belongs. I mean, pho for breakfast? Why hadn’t I ever thought of that before? And banh mi, boy oh boy, I just wish I could find one that is anything like ones sold on the side of the road in Vietnam. YUM!
    Caitlyn recently posted..A date with DubrovnikMy Profile

    Reply
    • Uh yes, totally the best hangover food ever. Not that I know from personal experience ;)

  4. You had me at Vietnamese food of which I love. I only got into it more recently but it is definitely one of my favorite cuisines, thankfully there are a decent number of restaurants in my city. The food all looks amazing!
    Julie recently posted..Buckwheat Crêpes with Ham & Gruyère (France)My Profile

    Reply
    • I’m so glad to hear from a fellow fan! And for the record I’m obsessed with buckwheat crepes… back in France that was my staple food!

  5. Ashley this post made me so happy! Vietnamese food is my favourite, favourite thing – I actually dream about bánh mì sometimes! When I lived on the Mekong delta fresh spring rolls and pork ribs were among my faves too, and pho was my daily staple – also, it’s the best hangover cure known to man. Glad you loved it too :)
    Clare recently posted..Welcome to MumbaiMy Profile

    Reply
    • Wow you lived on the Mekong Delta? How did I not know that! So jealous. I would literally move to Vietnam just for the food.

  6. I could comment on so much. The soups look delicious–and soup is one of my favorite things! Sugar cane brings back southern memories. Sugar cane was a favorite–we used to cut it and suck on it, also sugar is made from sugar cane, as well as many other products. I can see why you like the food, and it is interesting to have such good weather. All sounds delicious. Love, Gamma

    Reply
    • Soup is one of my favorite things too! I honestly never get sick of it. And I always love your stories of our southern childhood :). Hope you’re doing well on this cold day Gamma! Love, Ashley

  7. Awww, man, I am hungry after reading this post! I’ve always liked the versions of Vietnamese food you find in the US (especially Pho and Banh Mi), so I can only imagine how incredible they’d actually be in Vietnam.
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    Reply
  8. Luckily for us Aussies there is a huge Vietnamese community here in oz. I’m obsessed with Banh Mi. Once drove to 10 difference banh mi places over a few weeks to find my favourite one. OBSESSED
    Jimmy Dau recently posted..Having a short break from long term travellingMy Profile

    Reply
    • That is a completely reasonable thing to do, banh mis are worth it. I want to learn to make them myself but I feel like that could be very dangerous…

    • It’s possibly the best thing ever- no joke.

  9. Wow! Amazing post, Ashley! To be honest I’ve never tried Vietnamese food before but I also know absolutely nada about it. So I’m really grateful for this colorful, descriptive, and well-photographed intro to Vietnamese cuisine! It actually makes me want to visit the country what with all the cheap, fresh, exciting dishes you’ve shared here.

    The coffee you mentioned reminds me a lot of the café bombón here in Spain, which is just sweetened/condensed milk and a shot of espresso—super sweet :) I’ve never tried it with ice although café con hielo (espresso poured over ice cubes) is a custom here.

    Reply
    • That’s great! Vietnam’s such an amazing country (as is Spain) so I think you’d really enjoy it :). And I’ve never heard of cafe bombon… I’ll have to try it on my next visit!

    • As I’ve probably said way too much at this point, it’s seriously amazing! Give it a try sometime :)

  10. Such a great post! I’m obsessed with Vietnamese food and actually just found a street here in London last week that they call “Pho Mile”. It’s no Vietnam, but it’s pretty stellar compared to the stuff I’ve had in the states. Enjoy the rest of your binge for me!

    Reply
    • I will definitely check out pho mile when I’m in London in March! That sounds amazing :)

  11. The last picture is “nem” called by southern vietnamese . In the north it’s called “thịt chua”. Do not confuse when you’re in the north vietnam when you order “nem” which is “chả giò” in the south.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Thanh, for clearing that up! In France they always have nem at Vietnamese restaurants but I’ve never seen them in the U.S.!

  12. Hi , I am a vietnamese living in France . First of all , thank you for loving my country’ s cuisine . Then your pic of ” pho ” makes me homesick . My fav dish is ” banh cuon ” , a kind of steamed rice paper rolls filled with chopped meat . Best with fried onions crumbs and minced fresh herbs sprinkled on top . To be dipped in fish sauce before eating .

    Reply

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