10 essential Vietnamese dishes every visitor should try

Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t win any points for complexity. Many of the most popular dishes can be made just as well on the side of the road as in a top-end restaurant. But it’s precisely this simplicity, the subtle variations by region and the fresh ingredients that keep us pulling up a plastic stool for more.

Pho

Pho - the most popular dish
Pho – the most popular dish

What list of Vietnamese cuisine would be complete without pho?
It’s almost impossible to walk a block in Vietnam’s major cities without bumping into a crowd of hungry patrons slurping noodles at a makeshift pho stand.
This simple staple consisting of a salty broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and chicken or beef, features predominately in the local diet — and understandably so.
It’s cheap, tasty, and widely available at all hours.

Xoi

Xoi Xeo - breakfast of Hanoian
Xoi Xeo – breakfast of Hanoian

Savory sticky rice (xoi) is less of an accompaniment to meals in Vietnam, more a meal itself.
The glutinous staple comes with any number of mix-ins (from slithers of chicken, or pork to fried or preserved eggs), but almost always with a scattering of dried shallots on top.

Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake)

Banh xeo
Banh xeo

A good banh xeo is a crispy crepe bulging with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, plus the garnish of fresh herbs that are characteristic of most authentic Vietnamese dishes.
To enjoy one like a local, cut it into manageable slices, roll it up in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dunk it in whatever special sauce the chef has mixed up for you.

Goi cuon

These light and healthy fresh spring rolls are a wholesome choice when you’ve been indulging in too much of the fried food in Vietnam.
The translucent parcels are first packed with salad greens, a slither of meat or seafood and a layer of coriander, before being neatly rolled and dunked in Vietnam’s favorite condiment — fish sauce.
Not ready to give up on the fried ones?
In the north these parcels go by the name nem ran while southerners call them cha gio.
The crispy shell surrounds a soft veggie and meat filling.

Bun bo nam bo

Bun bo nam bo
Bun bo nam bo

This bowl of vermicelli noodles — widely popular in Hanoi — comes sans broth, keeping the ingredients from becoming sodden and the various textures intact.
The tender slices of beef mingle with crunchy peanuts and bean sprouts, and are flavored with fresh herbs, crisp dried shallots, and a splash of fish sauce and fiery chili pepper.

Bun cha

Pho might be Vietnam’s most famous dish but bun cha is the top choice when it comes to lunchtime in the capital.
Just look for the clouds of meaty smoke after 11 a.m. when street-side restaurants start grilling up small patties of seasoned pork and slices of marinated pork belly over a charcoal fire.
Once they’re charred and crispy the morsels are served with a large bowl of a fish sauce-heavy broth, a basket of herbs and a helping of rice noodles.
Bun cha sets often come with the delicious nem cua be — fried crab spring rolls.
Still not convinced? It’s what Obama ate during his night out with Bourdain.

Cao lau

Cao Lau - Speciality of Hoi An
Cao Lau – Speciality of Hoi An

One of Vietnam’s most popular dishes, cao lau combines elements from various cultures.
This pork noodle dish from Hoi An is a bit like the various cultures that visited the trading port at its prime.
The thicker noodles are similar to Japanese udon, the crispy won-ton crackers and pork are a Chinese touch, while the broth and herbs are clearly Vietnamese.
Authentic cao lau is made only with water drawn from the local Ba Le well.

Banh mi (Bread)

Vietnamese bread
Vietnamese bread

The French may have brought with them the baguette, but Vietnam takes it to a different level.
How exactly depends on what end of the country you’re in.
In the north chefs stick to the basic elements of carbohydrate, fat and protein—bread, margarine and pate—but head south and your banh mi may contain a more colorful combination of cheese, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, sausage, fried egg, fresh cilantro and chili sauce.

Bot chien

Bot chien Saigon
Bot chien Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City’s favorite streetside snack, bot chien is popular with both the afterschool and the after-midnight crowd.
Chunks of rice flour dough are fried in a large wok until crispy and then an egg is broken into the mix.
Once cooked it’s served with slices of papaya, shallots and green onions, before more flavor is added with pickled chili sauce and rice vinegar.

Ca phe trung (egg coffe)

Vietnamese “egg coffee” is technically a drink but we prefer to put it in the dessert category.
The creamy soft, meringue-like egg white foam perched on the dense Vietnamese coffee will have even those who don’t normally crave a cup of joe licking their spoons with delight.

Egg coffee - Kind of like a glass of breakfast
Egg coffee – Kind of like a glass of breakfast

In Hanoi, follow the tiny alley between the kitschy souvenir shops at 11 Hang Gai into the clearing, and up several flights of increasingly dicey stairs to pair your ca phe trung with an unbeatable view of Hoan Kiem Lake.



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