Our summer trip to the stunning country of Vietnam blended unforgettable adventure, in the form of rainy Sapa trekking, shock and disappointment, in the form of a sudden typhoon that cancelled our Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, and redemption and luxury, in the form of a last-minute detour to the tropical escape of Da Nang’s beaches. But even these seemingly disparate threads had one common denominator—they all involved some delectable Vietnamese food enjoyed throughout our entire trip!
Every single thing we consumed in Vietnam left behind a scrumptious impression (sans one stale hours-old banh mi Ben ate in a rush on our way to the Da Nang airport), making happy customers out of us. And during the hours in between meals, we whined to each other how we couldn’t wait to be hungry again so we could stuff our lumpy faces even further. From that kick-in-your-chest chili spice, to the spine-tingling sour lime and tamarind, the rootiness of lemongrass, a richer, silkier soy sauce, and, of course, the god-send staples of cilantro and garlic garlic everything—Vietnamese food had us at “Hello.”
Here’s to the food that feeds the 14th most populated country in the world and the 8th most in Asia, the Vietnamese food that nurtured us, energized us, satisfied us and comforted us. Here’s to the Vietnamese food that has our hearts and our tummies, that provided an experience equal to our other adventures during our time in Vietnam, and that will certainly tempt us back to the Southeast Asian country soon enough.
From the pho you already know, to the bun bo you should know—here’s a list of some of our favorite kinds of Vietnamese food we consumed in Vietnam!
1. Bún Bò
Bun bo was our first meal in Vietnam, and we discovered it at a small restaurant somewhere in a more local backstreet in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We had just come off the bus straight from the airport with raging tummies, having eaten nothing but a small brownie in over 13 hours. Near delirious from hunger and sleep-deprivation, we wandered around the bus stop, determined to make our first taste of Vietnamese food in its mother country a fantastic one. The pressure was on, and it took us awhile to decide. Finally, we wandered into just any odd place with enough locals to attest to its goodness, while still bearing a free space for us. We sat at an empty spot next to a couple eating a delicious-looking bowl of soup and, uncertain of what else to order, gestured that we would like to eat the same. Our steaming hot bowls of rice vermicelli noodle soup came with beef (bo) and fried tofu, as well as a side bowl of herbs, a pile of calamansi limes, and some spicy chili sauce—all accompaniments are absolutely essential in completing the dish! All together, the dish was divine, a perfect first taste of Vietnamese food in its country of origin!
2. Canh Chua Tôm
We tried this Vietnamese sour soup with prawns at a sea-side restaurant along the Hon Gai harbor as we attempted to distract ourselves from the cancellation of our Halong and Bai Tu Long bay cruise. The cruise was a bust, but this delicious soup certainly wasn’t! With a similar flavor profile to Thai cuisine’s Tom Yum Goong, Canh Chua Tôm comes from the Mekong Delta in the southern portion of Vietnam. The zest of tamarind blesses the broth of this soup with its sourness. We had it served with tomatoes and some (likely) un-traditional shiitake, topped with some thinly sliced scallions. As the first course of a five-course meal for us, the Canh Chua Tôm certainly highlighted the dinner. In fact, its only real flaw was the small size of the bowl. We would’ve happily foregone the other courses for a giant bowl of this tasty sour shrimp delight!
You can’t go to Vietnam without trying pho (pronounced “fuh”). Apart from being the most globally recognized dish of Vietnamese food, this early 20th century-originating dish is also just damn tasty! Take a gander at pho ga (chicken), pho bo (beef), or pho dau phu (tofu) at one of the seemingly infinite pho eateries that speckle the Hanoi landscape. No matter the variety, every bowl of pho will come with a special kind of flat noodle known as bánh phở and a bone-simmered broth flavored faintly with spices such as cinnamon, roasted onion and ginger, star anise, fennel seed and cloves. The best places will serve your pho with a generous side heap of bean sprouts, basil, lime, chili (sauce, pepper, or both) and hoisin sauce. Though we sampled plenty during our time in Vietnam, the best was this bowl of Saigon-style pho bo served to us at a locals’ pho-dedicated vendor we stumbled upon in Da Nang. And the other incredible part? It cost us less than a buck!
4. Goi Du Du
You can’t go wrong with seafood in Da Nang. Or at least, that’s what it seems like with the hundreds of seafood restaurants that line the street in front of the My Khe beach—some of them giant, warehouse like buildings with rows and rows of tables filling up in the evenings with locals. We had our share of squid and shrimp in the beach-side Vietnamese city, and fully recommend you do the same (if seafood is your thang). One of the most picturesque seafood moments was this plate of Goi Du Du, or Vietnamese papaya salad. Crunchy green papaya and carrot shreds tossed in garlic, vinegar, fish sauce, and lime, top a plate with juicy pink shrimp and thinly sliced chilies. The salty punch of peanuts and herbal kick of mint and basil complete the fresh dish, ideal for a hot day spent at the beach!
5. Pho Xao
Using the same flat bánh phở noodles, the Vietnamese food dish known as pho xao leaves out the broth we typically think of as pho. Instead, pho xao stir-fries the long noodles with vegetables and meat or seafood. And man, is it delicious. This was actually the last meal we ate in Vietnam, at a local town about 25 minutes from the Noi Bai (Hanoi) Airport. We had a few hours to kill before our flight, so we hopped on the local bus 17 and got off at the first open restaurant with promise. Ben ordered the pho xao, and I, looking forward to one last bowl of broth laden noodles I know as pho, ordered a more familiar bowl of pho bo.
The Vietnamese boy at the restaurant, probably in his early twenties or late teens, started preparing Ben’s pho xao in a gigantic wok in an incredible scene. Hurling the massive pan up in the air with an easy flick of the wrist above a raging flame, he tossed the noodles in oil with fresh greens, onions, shredded carrots, tomatoes, pieces of beef, and sauces. The plate of steaming noodles came out to Ben first, my eyes widening with jealousy. I stole one bite. The tomato, juicy, hot, paired with the sauteed onions and greens and the saucy noodles—all of it together made my eyelids flutter, bringing to memory my favorite Thai noodle dish, pad kee mao. I loved it so much, I ordered a plate of pho xao for myself, and let Ben eat my (still delicious) bowl of pho. I was so enamored with the pho xao, that I forgot to take a dedicated picture of it in my haste to devour it, but you can see it peeking out blurrily behind this bowl of pho bo.
6. Bún Thịt Mọc Sườn
Another delicious testament to Hanoi’s street food and Vietnamese food at large, our bowl of bun thit moc suon made its way into our tummies at a small vendor in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. A vermicelli rice noodle soup with meatballs, chicken, tomatoes, and green onions, this piping hot dish can be customized to the spice-level and sour-level of your choice with a jar of chili sauce and bowl of calamansi limes—which for me meant as sour and spicy as possible!
7. Rau Muong Xao Toi
One of my favorite dishes in Thailand was the morning glory I’d seek nearly every day after class. The rau muong xao toi is a very similar stir-fried morning glory dish with garlic common in Vietnamese food. Vibrant green leaves and crisp stalks get sauteed in soy sauce and a generous helping of garlic and thinly sliced chili. We enjoyed this side dish all throughout Vietnam—from our first night in Hanoi, to our brief stop in Hue, and finally as an accent dish to the squid we enjoyed in Da Nang. For anyone who enjoys vegetables, you can’t go wrong! I neglected to capture any photographs highlighting the Vietnamese food in all its glory, but you can see it featured as a side in this picture.
8. Bún Bò Huế
Distinct from the Bun Bo we enjoyed in Hanoi, Bún Bò Huế features a particular regional preparation of the beef and rice vermicelli noodle soup—most notably the fragrant zing of lemongrass. In fact, the taste of the lemongrass flavored the dish so well, you almost didn’t need any lime! We enjoyed this bowl of Bún Bò Huế at a small local eatery at our first stop in Hue, with a bowl of herbs, although we did have to request chili sauce. Our bowl came with thin slices of beef, but it’s not uncommon to see the bowls of beef soup accented with oxtail chunks, pig’s knuckles, and congealed pig blood! If you’re not crazy about that, make sure to specify what will come in your bowl before you order it!
9. Banh Mi
Another classic representative of Vietnamese food, the banh mi is a kind of sandwich featuring Vietnamese ingredients mixed with the French influence lingering from the country’s French colonial days. Typical ingredients from Vietnamese food, such as pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumber, and meat (typically beef or pork), layer a crusty French-style baguette. Ben enjoyed his fair share of these eat-and-go sandwiches from street vendors, and I myself sampled a few breakfast egg varieties during our time in Vietnam to satisfy my meat-free diet. Delicious!
10. Fruits o’ Plenty
Another highlight of the culinary delights offered by Vietnam is its tropical variety of fruit! Yes, eating fruit while traveling sometimes carries a notorious rep for making the unwitting traveler get sick. I myself have never had this experience, but if your body is a little more sensitive, you might want to stay on the safe side and stick with fruit that you can peel yourself. Luckily, that will still leave tons of options—just make sure to wash the outside well before you dig in! While we were in Da Nang, we went to the local markets and picked up some papaya, avocado, dragon fruit, and fresh coconut water and enjoyed eating them on the beach—a simple and affordable treat, but a treat all the same as fruit on Jeju Island in South Korea is significantly more expensive!
Okay, maybe it’s not a food. But it’s everywhere. And at 50 cents or less a pop, you may love it. From the remarkably cheap and light bia hơi (15 cents or so) you’ll find across Vietnam, to the more regional bottled varieties, beer is a permanent feature, and a delightful (perhaps unexpected) accompaniment to Vietnamese food. Enjoy a brew on the beach, or use it to cool your mouth down from some spicy bun bo!
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