Dig in to Vietnam’s culinary culture

Vietnamese food is becoming more and more popular around the world. Healthy, full of veggies, and even more full of flavor, you’ll soon find out why. Here is our foodie’s guide to Vietnamese cuisine.

Breakfast of kings and queens

The Vietnamese have a habit of getting their breakfast on the go. Often Vietnamese dishes take long to make, so it’s uncommon for people to make breakfast at home unless they prepare the evening before. Come sunrise, you’ll find countless vendor carts setting up at their usual spots, unfolding plastic stools and tables on the sidewalks. These makeshift “restaurants” often serve just one or two dishes with recipes that have been perfected over decades, garnering a loyal following.

While it’s popular for people to eat soup-based noodle dishes, one of the most popular breakfast options is a simple banh mi. A banh mi is a baguette sandwich, originally introduced by the French. Over the years, the Vietnamese have completely made it their own by adding various fillings such as grilled meats, cold cuts, fish balls, quail eggs, pickled vegetables, coriander, chillies, and the list goes on.

Banh mi sandwiches in Vietnam

The star of all of this, however? The pate. Made from ground liver, minced meat, various spices, and other ingredients. Banh mi carts display their various ingredients proudly, so all you have to do is point your way through to make your order. A typical banh mi will cost you around 15,000 VND ($0.64USD).

To go with the banh mi, ask for a ca phe sua da. This is Vietnamese coffee with a milky and sweet twist. Don’t get them to go, rather join the crowd at the stall and watch the sea of motorbikes pass by. That’s how the locals do it. If by any chance you’re up in Hanoi, try the popular egg coffee at Cafe Giang, in which an egg is cracked into the mix. It tastes like foamy tiramisu!

Another popular breakfast dish is pho, a noodle soup that is actually Vietnam’s national dish. The broth is made by simmering bones in hot water overnight with added spices, herbs, and veggies. You can find a pho to fit your taste, whether you like chicken, beef, or pork, or simply without any type of meat at all. Just say “pho chay” – chay means vegetarian. The taste of pho, however, changes from region to region.

Pho in Vietnam

Up in the north, the broth is balanced, neither sweet nor spicy. But head from Hanoi to Da Nang and the broth takes a spicier turn. Head farther south to Ho Chi Minh City and things get sweet! No matter the region however, a bowl will only cost you about 35,000 VND ($1.50 USD).

Hundreds of options for lunch

For lunch, it’s difficult to recommend just one dish. If we had to choose, we’d go for either bun cha, com tam, bun bo hue, or hu tieu. Bun cha was made popular to foreigners when the late Anthony Bourdain treated President Obama for a nice hearty bowl during his visit to Vietnam. This grilled pork noodle is a favorite, especially among northerners, and has a delicious sweet and sour taste thanks to the fish sauce-based broth. If you’re going to eat this, eat it in Hanoi.

Com tam is a popular dish, made of broken rice (fragments of rice grains) and a grilled pork chop, served with some pickled vegetables and fish sauce on the side. Simple, yet delicious, this dish can be found almost everywhere.

Bun bo Hue is the star of central Vietnamese cuisine and originates from the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue. This noodle soup is very meat-heavy and spicy. 

Bun bo Hue
Bún Bò Huế Bà Tuyết | ©Kars Alfrink/Flickr

Hu tieu Nam Vang is a pork-based dish with heavy Cambodian and Chinese influence. It is made of noodles, veggies, and pig organs, and often comes with additional ingredients like quail eggs and shrimp. All these ingredients concoct a noodle soup that is a favorite among Southerners. Ho Chi Minh City undoubtedly serves the best of these bowls.

Each of these dishes will cost you anywhere from 30,000 VND ($1.28 USD) – 60,000 VND ($2.58 USD). Not a big dent in your wallet for such a delicious experience. Make sure you eat these at the restaurant instead of getting them to go. Slurp as loud as you can as well – this indicates to your hosts that you’re enjoying your meal.

Eat family-style for dinner

For dinner, why not try a family-style meal? Family-style in Vietnam means to sit together on the floor (table is okay too), and share many different dishes with each other along with a pot of sticky rice. These dishes can include sauteed meats, stir fried veggies (morning glory is a favorite), a delicious hot pot of various ingredients, clay pot curries, soups, etc. Take a little bit of everything into your bowl and enjoy with some good conversation and perhaps some intoxicating rice wine. 

Hot pot in Vietnam

If you wish to go a la carte, banh xeo would be a good option. This crispy golden crepe comes stuffed with assorted veggies, shrimp, and meat. Wrap it within some lettuce leaves, dunk it in some fish sauce, and give your tongue a wild flavor ride. A banh xeo will only cost you around 50,000 VND ($2.15 USD). 

It’s not as simple as it looks

What’s interesting is that the flavors of these aforementioned dishes (actually, almost all Vietnamese dishes) can change immensely depending on which region you are in Vietnam. 

Northern Vietnamese cuisine is heavily influenced by the neighboring China, hence the many stir-fries, noodle-based soups, and the frequent use of soy sauce. You’ll find the dishes a little more bland up north – due to the cooler weather, certain ingredients are less available. You’ll also notice that the food is not as spicy. Instead of chilies, black pepper is used. 

As you start heading towards the central region to cities such as Hue and Da Nang, the flavors get more bold and daring. The mountainous terrain is abundant with spices, as are the dishes. They are complex, flavorful, and distinct from northern and southern Vietnamese cuisine. 

Things take a sweeter turn in the south toward Ho Chi Minh City, just like the people do. The food is influenced by neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Thailand, and even internationally. You’ll find many fusion dishes, such as ca ri, which is the Vietnamese version of curry. The food is lighter and sweeter thanks to the use of sugar and coconut milk. Southern people also love their dessert, with che being a popular option. There are hundreds of varieties of che, however the most popular is made with a mung bean base and various toppings. Make sure to give this a go!

Piumi Rajapaksha

Piumi Rajapaksha

Third-culture kid, hailing from Sri Lanka. Currently residing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and refuses to leave because of the good food. You'll probably find her wandering aimlessly through the city with a coffee in hand looking lost, but she never is.
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