When it comes to highlights of our recent trip to Vietnam, Vietnamese cuisine was definitely one of them. We came to Vietnam looking forward to trying many of the dishes we’d heard about before, but discovered so many more unique flavor combinations and local specialties than we expected.
*This post may contain affiliate links, as a result, we may receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you) on any bookings/purchases you make through the links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Read our full disclosure
From street-side soup stalls and baguette shops to elaborate fusion restaurants that incorporate the best of Vietnamese flavors into unique dishes, this country is full of culinary delights. One of our favorite aspects of Vietnamese cuisine is the lightness of its dishes and the variety of ingredients used to create complex flavors in every dish. Everything is fresh, made to order, with many ingredients coming from local farms and local markets the morning of. It’s one of the best examples of farm-to-table we’ve seen in Asia!
Our short 2-week stay in Vietnam gave us an opportunity to sample a few of Vietnam’s best dishes. Here are our favorites!
Traveling Soon? Here is a list of our favourite travel providers and accessories to help get you ready for your upcoming trip!
The Best Vietnamese Dishes
1. Pho Bo
Pho has become internationally known and is so popular in Vietnam that some would consider it to be the Vietnamese national dish. This popular noodle soup dish originated in the northern province of Nam Dinh during the late 19th century. French colonialism had fueled a greater demand for beef, which led to an abundance of beef bones. These bones were utilized, resulting in a rich, flavourful soup that has evolved over the years.
Originally, the soup was made with water buffalo meat, which is used in many traditional Vietnamese dishes. Over time, the water buffalo was replaced with beef, the iconic vermicelli rice noodles were added, and the broth was refined. Pho chefs in South Vietnam added fresh herb garnishes and sauces, but the simpler northern pho remains a favorite among purists.
This northern specialty beef noodle soup has become ubiquitous all over Vietnam, but we found the taste of the soup to be very much of a hit or a miss. The quality of the Pho is reliant on the broth, which is made from beef bones boiled for hours with shallot, ginger, fish sauce, and a few other flavorings and spices.
We found the best Pho to be the one served to us daily at our guest house in An Bang.
2. Bun Cha
Another traditional Vietnamese cuisine that originated in the northern part of the country is Bun Cha. Closely associated with Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Bun Cha likely emerged as a street food and has become tremendously popular.
This classic Hanoi dish consists of thin vermicelli noodles with barbecued pork patties, fresh herbs, green vegetables, and a bowl of nuoc mam (fish sauce). All the ingredients are served on separate plates and are meant to be combined together at the very last minute. The explosion of flavors is unreal!
The star of this dish is the “cha,” the grilled pork patties. These flavourful patties are made of minced pork, spices, and herbs, then grilled to infuse that distinctive smoky flavor. Chewy vermicelli rice noodles serve as a bed for the pork patties, then the dish is garnished with fresh herbs like mint or coriander and vegetables like cucumber and mung bean sprouts for a cool balance to the dish. The dipping sauce adds that mouth-watering umami that makes this dish so addictive. If you get the chance, try Mam Tom, a fermented shrimp paste used as a dipping sauce for different variations of Bun.
Bun is one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes for a great reason – there are so many varieties! If you like spicy heat, try Bun Bo Hue, a spicy version that has beef and pork along with the rice vermicelli noodles and trimmings.
Bun Cha was surprisingly hard to find in Central Vietnam but was a staple on almost every menu in Hanoi. The best Bun Cha spot was Bun Cha Ta in Hanoi’s historic district.
3. Banh Mi
A simple yet delicious Vietnamese sandwich, was the cheapest street food option we came across during our time in Vietnam.
Our favorite Banh Mi was served at a street-side stall in Hoi An and consisted of a French baguette (thanks to the lingering influence of French colonialism) stuffed with grilled pork, cucumber, fresh herbs, and a fish sauce-based dressing. It cost us less than $1 and made for a perfect mid-day snack.
There are variations of Banh Mi, and you can find different meat options, including beef, chicken, fish balls, or crispy pork belly and there are also delicious vegetarian versions with fried tofu. You can find a huge variety of toppings, including pickled vegetables, chili sauce, soy sauce, and spiced mayonnaise. Creative chefs have come up with some quirky versions that incorporate dumplings, dragonfruit, and even ice cream!
4. Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Rice Pancake)
This DIY dish can look like an intimidating ensemble, but the effort is well worth it. Fresh rice paper is soaked in water and used to roll a variety of ingredients, including herbs, vegetables, eggs, and meats. The roll is then dipped into fish sauce for a kick-in flavor.
Different variations and methods can be seen, with chefs in other regions substituting the soaked rice paper with a freshly cooked crepe made with rice flour. In South Vietnam, chefs forgo the traditional pork and mung beans for seafood and a special combination of fish sauce, chilis, and crushed peanuts.
We found the best variety at the Rice Drum Restaurant in Hoi An.
5. Banh Bao Banh Vac (White Roses Dumplings)
This delicately steamed dumpling with a subtle shrimp flavor is one of Hoi An’s most unique dishes. The dumplings are shaped like flowers and decorated with sprinkles of crispy onions. They make for a perfect appetizer.
These soft, chewy dumplings are made with rice flour dough, and the traditional filling for the Banh Vac is a mixture of shrimp, lemongrass, garlic, and green onions. The Banh Bao version is stuffed with chopped pork and wood ear mushroom filling.
This was another excellently done dish at the Rice Drum Restaurant in Hoi An.
6. Cao Lau
This delicious noodle stir fry is another unique dish found in Central Vietnam. Made with Japanese-style noodles and seasoned with herbs, greens, and bean sprouts, this Vietnamese food is most often served with slices of roast pork or pork belly.
Cao Lau is a distinctly regional dish, originating in Hoi An. Stories surrounding the origin of the traditional Vietnamese noodle dish, the best, most authentic Cao Lau noodle must be made with water sourced from the local Ba Le Well. It is said that this specific well’s alkaline water is the secret to the distinctive chewy texture of the noodles.
The best variety was served at the small mom-and-pop shop called the Bo Bo Cafe in Hoi An
7. Nem Cuon and Goi Cuon (Spring Rolls)
Vietnamese sure know how to make spring rolls and even though each restaurant’s version of this popular appetizer is different from the next, for us, no meal was complete without a serving of rolls. Vietnamese spring rolls come in two varieties: fresh and fried. Both are made using rice paper stuffed with glass noodles, vegetables, herbs, and sometimes meat like pork and shrimp.
The fresh version is called Nem Cuon in northern Vietnam and Goi Cuon in the south. Fresh spring rolls are usually served with a variety of dipping sauces such as fish sauce and peanut sauce. Fried spring rolls are called Nem Ram in the north, or Cha Gio in the south, and can have some regional variances in the filling.
8. Stuffed Squid
Seafood dishes can take up an article of their own with many varieties grazing the pages of menus all over beachfront restaurants. Squid was a popular menu item but was often a bit of a disappointment (too dry, too rubbery, etc).
After trying a lot of varieties we fell in love with a unique take on this seafood dish served at the Purple Lantern restaurant in An Bang beach.
Here a large squid was stuffed with ground pork, cooked to perfection, and served with a side of fresh herbs and a selection of sauces. We loved it so much, we ended up going back for the same dish more than once.
9. Lau Hai San (Seafood Hot Pot)
While hotpot isn’t usually considered a Vietnamese specialty, it was recommended to us by a number of locals on An Bang Beach. We tried it at one of the local’s favorite seafood joints in Hoi An, the Canh Buom Trang Restaurant, and were pleasantly surprised by the delicious broth and the variety of seafood that ended up in our pot.
Lau Hai San can be made with any combination of seafood, such as shrimp, squid, fish, and crab. The savory broth usually has a chicken stock base and is flavored with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, mushrooms, and herbs. The recipe varies from place to place, and the seafood ingredients depend on the day’s catch.
10. Bamboo Shoot Salad
Vietnamese love their salads and, as it turned out, we do too! We ordered a salad with almost every meal, trying a great variety of combinations during our time in the country. There was a green mango salad and green papaya salad, green bean salad, and banana flower salad, but our favorite was definitely the Bamboo Shoot Salad.
The salad was made with fresh bamboo shoots, mint, coriander, peanuts, and a delicious light fish sauce. For a more substantial meal, shrimp and bits of shredded pork were sometimes added on top of the fresh vegetables.
11. Com Tam
Translating to ‘broken rice’, Com Tam is a popular Vietnamese dish that utilizes rice that was broken into fragments during the harvesting, milling, or transportation processes. This dish originated as a street food in southern Vietnam, and now there are Com Tam eateries that offer vegan and gourmet versions of this Vietnamese food. Traditional Com Tam is paired with fried egg, grilled pork chops, or fried fish patties and garnished with fresh lime, spring onions, herbs, and pickled carrots or cucumbers.
We can’t leave dessert off the list, and Che is a great one to start with. Che encompasses a family of traditional dessert soups, puddings, and drinks that can be served hot or cold. There are several different variations of these desserts, and you can find Che made with coconut milk, tapioca, fruit, seeds, and sweet corn. Cold versions of this dessert are especially refreshing on hot, humid days.
13. Banh Xoai
While Banh Xoai translates to ‘mango cake,’ there is actually no mango in this dessert. It is thought that the name comes from the shape of the soft, chewy dessert, which is somewhat like a mango or mango seed. This sweet street food has a sticky rice shell with a sugary peanut and sesame filling and is covered with powdered sugar.
Our list is by no means exhaustive. We sampled many other delicious dishes during our stay, but these ten filled our minds with the most delicious memories. Want to know our absolute time favorites?
Oksana is a huge fan of Bun Cha, and Max’s favorite Vietnamese dish was the unique Hoi An Cao Lau.
Have You Ever Been To Vietnam? What Are Some Of Your Favourite Vietnamese Dishes? Let Us Know In The Comments Below!
READ NEXT: Top Things to Do in Vietnam