What to eat and drink in Vietnam

Destinations

The rich and varied cuisine of Vietnam often sneaks under the radar, but any visitor will tell you that the food here is some of the best in Asia. Vietnam’s chefs look north towards China and west towards Thailand for influences, meeting somewhere in the middle.

The resulting fusion has Southeast Asia’s zeal for herbs and spices, tempered by China’s love of clean, clear flavors. Some of the most popular food and drink in Vietnam also has subtle influences from the country’s six decades under French colonial rule. Needless to say, every trip to Vietnam is a feast.

Cookery classes, market visits, and food-themed walking tours make it easy to discover the country’s culinary heritage, but street food is where the love affair with Vietnamese food is forged – and where you’ll find the best traditional Vietnamese dishes. Combine snacking on the street with fine dining in restaurants set in imperial-era mansions and French colonial villas in cities such as Hanoi and Hoi An.

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Vietnamese food is so much more than the super-popular bowls of pho noodle soup and banh mi sandwiches. Each region has its own specialties based on local produce and local cooking techniques. If you think you know Vietnamese food, head to the tribal communities of the far northwest and you’re sure to find dishes you’ve never encountered before.

Wherever you go, eat like a local and you’ll discover the incredible culinary diversity this country has to offer. Here’s our guide to eating and drinking in Vietnam.

Try Vietnamese Pho – with bonus points from eating it at a floating market © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Feast on Vietnam’s famous noodle soups

Pho, a satisfying soup made from flat rice noodles (banh pho), broth, herbs, and beef or chicken, was invented in the north of the country, but it spread around the globe as refugees found sanctuary outside Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The exact ingredients vary from region to region and establishment to establishment, but it’s always satisfying, nourishing, and filling.

Favorite seafood soups in Vietnam include banh canh cua – a rich, thick crab soup with quail eggs and white tapioca noodles – and bun rieu cua, thin rice noodles in a crimson-hued broth made from tomatoes and pulverized crab shells, topped with crab fat that’s sautéed with shallots. In central Vietnam, seek out bun bo Hue, a spicy beef soup made with round, vermicelli-like rice noodles. Further south, the soup to sample is bun mam, a strong fish-flavored rice-noodle broth with tomatoes, pineapple and bac ha – a thick, spongy plant stem.

Where to try it: Find the best bun bo Hue in the country in the eponymous Hue; Quan Bun Bo Hue is a great place to slurp down a bowl, but they usually sell out by the early afternoon.

Eat rice, often

Rice, or com, is the bedrock of Vietnamese cooking, and it’s something you’ll be eating every day in one form or another. If a local says, an com (literally, “let’s eat rice”), it’s an invitation to lunch or dinner. Locals knock back rice by the bowlful topped with stir-fried meat, fish, and vegetable dishes at informal eateries known as quan com binh dan.

Rice also forms the basis for the popular breakfast chao (rice porridge), cooked to a soupy state and flavored with savory ingredients such as chicken, fish, eel, duck, or frog. You’ll also find rice fried with egg, vegetables, and other ingredients as com rang; and “broken” into short grains and steamed as com tam, best enjoyed with nuoc cham (a dipping sauce of sweetened fish sauce).

Vietnam’s famously fragrant jasmine rice is the mainstay, but you’ll also find glutinous (sticky) rice, colored white, red, or black. Sticky rice is mixed with pulses, corn, peanuts and sesame seeds to make the breakfast snack xoi (or ngo in central Vietnam). Many sweet and savory treats are wrapped in a layer of sticky rice and steamed inside bamboo or banana leaves to make portable snacks.

More unusual rice-based dishes include banh can, which are tiny, waffle-like rice pancakes. Also, there are banh trang tron (literally, “mixed rice paper”), a student favorite made from a tantalizing blend of dry rice paper, shredded green mango, quail’s eggs, dried shrimp, fresh herbs, crispy shallots, and roasted peanuts. It’s tossed in a dressing of soy sauce, sate sauce, and kumquat juice.

Another treat is banh beo, steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, green onion oil, and buttery croutons, with a fish sauce dressing (often sold by vendors who carry their wares on a traditional yoke). King of the rice pancakes in Vietnam is banh xeo, a crispy, savory delicacy made with rice flour and turmeric powder, stuffed with pork, prawns, and bean sprouts; banh khoai, the version served in Hue, is famous countrywide.

Where to try it: Hue makes the best rice pancakes in the country and a great place to find them is Hanh Restaurant on Pho Duc Chinh Street, where the banh khoai are crisp and delicious.

A Bowl of Vietnamese noodles in Hoi An, Vietnam
Noodles are a Vietnamese staple © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Eat noodles boiled, fried, or stone cold

Rice noodles are another cornerstone of Vietnamese cooking, and they crop up in everything from soups to stir fries. Characteristic central Vietnamese noodle dishes include hot or cold bun (vermicelli noodles) and my quang – pink or yellow-tinted rice noodles topped with pork, shrimp, slivered banana blossoms, herbs, and chopped peanuts, eaten with rice crackers and sweet chili jam.

In Hoi An, where many visitors learn to cook Vietnamese food, look out for cao lau, made with thick, rough-textured noodles reputedly inspired by the soba noodles brought here by Japanese traders. Further south, enjoy the clean flavors of cold salad noodle dishes such as bun thit nuong – grilled pork, fresh basil and mint and other sundries served over bun noodles and dressed with nuoc mam fish sauce.

Keep an eye out for banh hoi, very thin rice-flour noodles that are formed into delicate nests and eaten rolled with grilled meat in leafy greens. You’ll also find familiar, Chinese-style egg noodles (mi) in soups and stir-fries, and various soups and salads made with transparent bean-thread noodles, made from mung-bean starch.

Where to try it: You can’t avoid noodles in Vietnam – indeed, you may end up eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

Three piles of nem ran ha noi and goi cuon, types of stuffed spring rolls on sale in Vietnam
Mountains of spring rolls, like these, are often on sale at night markets © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Enjoy spring rolls, even if it isn’t spring

Spring rolls – an umbrella term for various stuffings rolled inside rice paper shells – take a delectable variety of forms in Vietnam. You’ll find them crispy and fried in the north as nem ran ha noi. In the south goi cuon are soft and light, stuffed with shrimp, pork, fresh vegetables, and cold bun noodles.

Also look out for delicious banh cuon – rolls of steam rice paper stuffed with morsels of pork and wood ear mushroom – and street food carts selling bo pia, thin rice-paper tubes filled with slices of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, cooked jicama root, lettuce and chili paste. Hue has its own version of the spring roll, filled with sweet potato, pork, crunchy pickled prawns, water spinach, and herbs.

Where to try it: The best introduction to Vietnamese-style spring rolls is to learn to make them yourself on a cooking course in Hoi An. Schools such as Red Bridge Cooking School will walk you through the steps, including the delicate art of preparing your own rice paper wrappers.

Enjoy grilled meats the Vietnamese way

Grilled meat – most commonly pork or chicken – is typically served with bun noodles and dipped in sweetened nuoc mam sauce. This delicious sauce also serves as a marinade for the grilled pork stuffed into breakfast sandwiches and spooned over broken rice. Chicken is another staple protein, and common in stir-fries with chili and lemongrass, or skewered and grilled and served with a sauce made from peanuts and chicken liver.

Beef is worth wolfing down where you find it. Make space for thit bo bit tet (pan-seared beefsteak), and “shaking beef” – thit bo luc lac – seared in a pan with soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, oil, and black pepper. Then there’s the otherworldly flavor of bo la lot – seasoned beef mince rolled into cylinders and grilled inside betel leaves.

In the north, track down tre thit nuong ong tre, a theatrical dish from the northern highlands, made from wild boar marinated in mountain herbs, stuffed inside a piece of bamboo, and grilled. Slice open the bamboo and inhale the amazing cloud of steam before eating with sticky rice. Don’t overlook Vietnamese sausages, from grilled nem nuong to the mortadella-like cha lua, made from pork steamed inside a banana leaf wrapper.

Where to try it: Served over thread-like bun noodles, bun cha is made from artfully seasoned barbecued pork patties; enjoy it at its best at Bun Cha 34 in Hanoi.

Buns of all kinds, from Chinese bao to French baguettes

Chinese-style bao – steamed rice-flour buns with a savory filling – are as popular in Vietnam’s best restaurants as they are on the street. More expensive ones will have a hard-boiled chicken or quail egg inside, but remember to remove the paper from the bottom before eating. Another favorite treat is ha cao – delicate, dim sum-like dumplings stuffed with shrimp, pork, or chives. You’ll spot the places selling bao and ha cao from a distance because of the clouds of steam.

Of course, the bread everyone is talking about is of course banh mi, a short baguette introduced by the French that forms the basis for portable breakfasts and lunches. Common fillings include chicken liver pate, grilled meats, pork meatballs, and cold cuts, often joined by pickled vegetables and various sauces (including mayo, another French contribution). You can even find vegan banh mi chay (with tofu) during the Buddhist full and half-moon celebrations.

Where to try it: Everyone has their own favorite banh mi place; we rate Hoi An’s Banh Mi Phuong and Ho Chi Minh City’s Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, both thronged by locals.

Vietnamese savory mini shrimp pancakes (Banh Khot) with herbs, eggs, shrimps and fish Sauce - Vietnamese cuisine.
Savory mini shrimp pancakes (Banh Khot) are just one of the seafood delights on sale in Vietnam © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Vietnamese seafood: the gift of a 2026-mile coastline

Besides Vietnam’s extensive coastline, there are endless miles of waterways inland, ensuring that fish, mollusks, and crustaceans are on menus everywhere. The ocean delivers generous catches of tuna, pomfret, red snapper, and sea bass, as well as prawns, lobster, crab, and clams. In Vietnam, seafood restaurants always keep their catch live in tanks or bowls, so you can be assured it’s fresh, though it can be disconcerting to walk to your table under the watchful eye of a thousand prawns unaware of their future as a starter.

Freshwater treats include well-loved ca loc (snakehead fish), enormous catfish, and the tiny crabs and shrimps that are pounded into salads and dried to sprinkle on rice dishes and soups. The paddies also yield golf-ball-sized snails called oc, served in soups, chopped with lemongrass and herbs, or steamed like French escargot, with a length of lemongrass leaf protruding from each snail shell – give it a tug to pull out the meat.
Where to find it: Ho Chi Minh city’s Oc Dao 2 in District 4 is a great place for a first taste of Vietnamese snails, served here in coconut milk. For seafood, graze on everything from grilled prawns to oysters in Phu Quoc’s busy night market.

Taste the exotic with Vietnamese beers and spirits

Vietnam has a lively drinking culture and a long history of fermenting and distilling – but drinking and eating are usually separate activities. Beer drinking became hugely popular under French rule, and today, each region of the country produces its own lager beers, with Bia Saigon and 333 dominating the south, Huda selling well in Central Vietnam, and Bia Hanoi being the default in the north.

Vietnamese spirits range from the quaffable to the extreme. Ruou (rice wine) is the spirit of choice, made from either conventional rice or sticky rice, and it also forms the basis for ruou thuoc, a broad family of medicinal spirits flavored with everything from herbs and spices to venomous snakes, scorpions, and mice.

You’ll also find all manner of local and imported whiskies and rums, and home-grown wines from the hills around Dalat or the lowland vineyards of Thap Cham in the south. For alcohol avoiders, fruit juices (including nuoc mia – sugarcane juice), French-style coffee, and tea are also popular.

Where to try it: In Hanoi, be sure to sample bia hoi – a crisp, clean-tasting low-alcohol draft beer – at Bia Hoi Corner, at the junction of Luong Ngoc Quyen Street and Ta Hien Street.

Vegans and vegetarians

The good news is that there is now more choice than ever before when it comes to vegetarian dining in Vietnam. There are Buddhist-run vegetarian com chay establishments in most towns, usually near Buddhist temples, or in city centers. Many use “mock meat”, tofu and gluten, to create meat-like vegan dishes that can be delicious, though these places are often only open for lunch.

In keeping with Buddhist precepts, many vendors and eateries go vegetarian on the 1st and 15th days of each lunar month; this is a great time to scour the markets and sample dishes that would otherwise be off-limits. Otherwise, be wary. Even vegetable dishes are likely to have been cooked with fish sauce or shrimp paste, so it can be easier to say that you are a vegetarian Buddhist to a potential cook, even if you aren’t, as most Vietnamese people will understand what this means.

A year in food

Between 19 January and 20 February
Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is a week of feasting with friends and family. Traditional dishes include banh tet (sticky rice with pork and egg) and mut (dried and sugared fruits).

March to June
Luscious mangoes come ripe in Cao Lanh in the Mekong Delta.

Mid-June to early July
Fresh lychees are sold across northern Vietnam.

June to July
Fragrant – or should that be pungent – durian is in season across the Mekong.

May to October
Fresh rambutans are popular during the rainy season.

August to November
Grapefruit-like pomelos fill the markets of central Vietnam.

Between 8 September and 7 October
Traditional moon cakes are eaten during Tet Trung Thu, the annual Full Moon Festival.

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