We all love a good Thai curry, and India's chili-packed paneers and tandoor sauces are now everywhere in the west. But what about Vietnam? This elongated nation on the eastern edge of the Indochina Peninsula is home to a truly unique and taste-bud-tingling kitchen all of its own. Packed with the tangy scents of ginger, stacks of chili, oodles of oxtail, beef broths, tropical herbs, beansprout garnishes, fried omelette, charred onions and fish sauces, it's a veritable roller-coaster ride for the budding foodie.
To help you make the most of the national treats as you travel Vietnam with LBW, we've put together this list of some of the top must-try dishes going. Enjoy…
You could be forgiven for thinking that you'd been plucked from the heady streets of Ho Chi Minh City and transported across oceans to the districts of downtown Paris as you take that first bite of banh mi. And to be fair, this crunchy filled baguette does have its roots in the French kitchen, which has had a huge part in forging Vietnamese cuisine in the modern age. There are some things that you won't find in the City of Lights though, like the spicy chili garnishes and the crunchy beansprout additions. For protein, banh mi are typically packed with pate and a fried omelet of a couple of eggs – they are perfect for soaking up beer after a night down Pham Ngu Lao!
If you only sample one authentic Vietnamese dish when travelling this great arched backbone of Indochina (and let's be honest, why on earth would you only eat one!), be sure to make it goi cuon. Why? Well because these are the single most identifiable Vietnamese eats, that's why. They are served right across the country, from the floating markets of the Mekong Delta to the sweaty food courts of Hanoi. Essentially spring rolls, they are served in gooey packets of rice paper. It's the dipping side that really brings the flavour though, with a cacophony of spicy chili and soy to alert the taste buds as you munch away!
Ah, the legendary cao lau. This regional dish originates from the charming Francophone streets and Chinese kitchens of Hoi An; one of the most amazing cities in the country, and a highlight of all LBW's tours in Vietnam. Essentially a broth packed with chopped veggies, the half-soup staple is famed for its local noodles, the recipe for which is actually a tightly-kept secret of one of Hoi An's native families. The best cao laus are also made using water from a particular well that's hidden somewhere on the outskirts of town, and the dish invariably comes with a garnish of fresh greens, fried onions and hot chili preserve. Sit on the city's UNESCO riverside and enjoy one of these in the red glow of the swinging market lanterns – perfect.
Vietnam's answer to those classic IKEA meatballs a la Stockholm, bun cha are essentially just spheres of pork which have been grilled on an open charcoal base. Tasty, juicy and super filling, they are a staple of the north, and are particularly popular in the capital of Hanoi, from where they are also have thought to have originated way back when. On the side, be sure to order a healthy serving of rice, some cold greens and chili sauce, which together make for a perfect – if very meaty – lunchtime meal! It's great before hitting the towering mausoleums and awesome museums of the big city…
While we've quite rightly chosen the aforementioned goi cuon as our supreme must-try dish for travellers to Vietnam, it’s the bubbling, broiling pots of pho soup that surely take the title of national dish. Made from rice noodles and beef or chicken cuts, a medley of tasty herbs and a rich soup-like liquid that's usually packed with the flavours of oxtail and steak, onion and tangy ginger, it's perhaps the single most commonly eaten recipe in the country. The popularity of pho doesn't end on the Indochina Peninsular either, because this spicy, soy-infused soup has been successfully exported to cities all over the globe, from New York to London, Berlin to Cape Town.
One for the backpackers heading south, to where the spreading tendrils of the Mekong River drift outwards towards the South China Sea, this tangy tamarind mashup of curry and soup is sure to get the taste buds crying out for more. It's typically made with seafood and fish as the main protein, and comes infused with everything from lemongrass to ginger, chili to garlic, which all adds up to make it one serious punch of flavour. It's the tamarind additions that give it that sour undertone – hence the name, which literally translates to, simply, 'sour soup'.
You might be surprised to see that this rice dish uses much smaller grains of rice than you're used to, and that's because it's broken rice - grains that have been half-ground during the milling process and discarded. The powderier texture of that is harnessed to give com tam a distinct feel in the mouth, which tastes perfect with the usual accompaniments of grilled pork skewers, spiced salad, or just a simple, crunchy omelet fresh from the pan.
The lone sweet dish on this list is the banh ran rice ball, which are named so (the title literally means 'orange cake') because of their tanned and spherical appearance. There's actually no orange in the little treats whatsoever, but rather a fried cluster of rice flour, a mung bean dough, and an outer shell that's peppered to kingdom come with sesame seeds (and if you don't like sesame, steer clear!). In the north, these are infused with essence of flower, while vanilla is the go-to flavour of the south. However, it’s the balance of textures that really makes the dish, between the crunchy, crispy exterior layer and the gooey, wet middle.
Are you a dedicated foodie who's tasted their way through the street stalls and food courts of Vietnam? Have you sampled everything there is to sample amidst the beaches of Mui Ne and the bustling districts of Ho Chi Minh City? Well, we'd love to hear your own additions in the comments below. Alternatively, if you're interested in getting on the road and exploring this amazing country and its kitchen, be sure to check out LBW's awesome Vietnam itineraries…
We believe that travel is not a reward for working, but the most valuable and impactful form of education for life. We aren’t just a travel company; we were built to introduce you to the rest of the world. LBW Travel is about more than taking vacation time. We connect you with people and offer experiences that will change the way you look at your world. Travel reminds us what is truly important: family, friendship, love, exploration and adventure.
Sign up for newsletter & get travel guides