One major (and very understandable) allure of a South East Asian trip is the food. Every country has their own delicious dishes that are ideal for satisfying your many cravings. Vietnam has oodles of appeal when it comes to cuisine. A mash-up of flavours, influences and ingredients makes it one of the region’s most unique, too. Being a huge foodie, I was incredibly excited to sample everything and anything on my most recent trip. And I wasn’t disappointed.
From streetside vendors selling flavourful 50p noodle soups to chic rooftop restaurants, there’s no shortage of amazing places to grab a bite in Vietnam. Everywhere is cheap, so you’ll be able to fill your belly with yumminess – even if you’re young, broke and backpacking.
Planning to journey from south to north? Or maybe your route is the other way around? Here are a few absolutely unmissable Vietnamese dishes to add to your dining bucket list. And they’ll ALL cost you less than a few pounds.
Get stuck into a banh mi in Ho Chi Minh
Sandwich lovers, rejoice! The humble banh mi is hands-down one of Vietnam’s most iconic eats. It translates to ‘Vietnamese bread’ – but it’s so, so much more than that.
Banh mi features a mash-up of French and Vietnamese flavours. At its core, it’s a white baguette-style roll that’s stuffed with a combo of sliced meat (usually pork), pate, pickled veg and fresh herbs like cilantro and mint. While the original version is pretty meat heavy, you’ll find many veggie and vegan variations featuring things like tofu and avocado.
It’s a fantastic lunchtime treat, no matter where you are in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is widely regarded as the banh mi’s birthplace and I’d highly recommend popping into My Banh Mi (not far from Ben Nghe Market, another foodie hotspot) for their classic version washed down with freshly squeezed lemonade.
Savour some white roses in Hoi An
No, I’m not talking about flowers. White rose (or banh bao vac) is actually a dish that’s unique to Hoi An. Simple yet oh-so-tasty, it’s essentially a rice paper dumpling that’s stuffed with prawns, shaped into a rose and then topped with crispy onions.
You can dunk your white rose in the accompanying sweet fish sauce or enjoy them without. And the best bit? They’re usually one of the cheapest things on the menu, so you can scoff down as many as you physically can – all without breaking the bank.
Or keep cool with an iced coconut coffee
Coconut coffee (coffee infused with coconut ice cream) is a staple throughout Vietnam but it’s particularly popular in Hoi An – arguably the country’s prettiest town that’s famed for its UNESCO World Heritage buildings and colourful lanterns.
The surrounding region is dotted with dozens of palm trees, so it stands to reason that coconut coffee is a popular drink. It’s often topped with toasted coconut chips and served with crunchy coconut biscuits which are incredibly moreish. Sample it at a Hoi An café like the appropriately named Coconut Coffee or the gorgeously decorated Lanterns Cafe.
Alternatively, take a leisurely bike ride around the picturesque Cẩm Thanh rice fields and cool off with a coconut coffee at Góc Hồ Coffee: a charming local café with a huge fishpond at its heart.
Crunch down into Hue’s version of banh xeo
Banh xeo – a crispy rice pancake stuffed with meat or prawns, bean sprouts and onion – can be found throughout Vietnam. Nevertheless, Hue (Vietnam’s impressive ancient former capital) easily serves up some of the best. There, the pancakes are called banh khoai and they come stuffed with prawns, egg, pork and beansprouts (although you’ll find vegetarian versions, too).
The key difference between Hue pancakes and those found in other cities is how you eat them. Instead of tucking in straight away, rip a bit off and roll it in rice paper along with some grilled meat and/or veg. Dip it in some peanut sauce and get ready for a taste explosion like no other.
Head to Hanoi for bun cha
If there’s one dish Hanoi can claim as its own, it’s bun cha. It’s essentially Vietnam’s answer to meatballs and you’ll find it on every local restaurant menu.
To make it, pork mince, spring onion and a blend of seasonings are shaped into meatballs and grilled to perfection. They’re then served with fresh rice noodles, succulent pork belly slices and fragrant herbs. A meaty broth usually sits on the side which you can either drizzle over the entire dish or use as a dipping sauce for your meatballs.
Slurp on some pho… Everywhere
You can’t visit Vietnam without trying its most famous dish. Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’ not ‘faux’) may seem like a simple noodle soup on the surface – but there are lots of complex flavours and a lengthy cooking process behind its mouthwatering taste.
Traditionally, pho’s base is a chicken or beef broth infused with cinnamon, star anise and other fragrant spices. It’s prepared over several hours (sometimes overnight!) to really maximise its final taste. Thinly sliced meat (often beef), rice noodles, beansprouts and herbs are then added to the mix before serving.
You’ll find pho differs depending on which end of the country you’re visiting. In southern cities like Ho Chi Minh, pho features chilli and fresh coriander. In the north though, you’ll find it’s much milder and has a savoury rather than spicy flavour.
One thing is for sure: pho is a must-try dish, no matter if you’re slurping it on a street corner (one of the tastiest I tried was from a tiny street cart) or in a fancy restaurant. You could even have a go at making your own, which leads me to…
Vietnamese cooking classes
One of the best ways to really get to grips with Vietnamese food is to book a cooking class.
Hanoi had no shortage of options when I was there. I opted for the Apron Up course (the school isn’t far from Hoàn Kiem Lake) where we created a feast of five different dishes over a few hours. In fact, the pho we made was the best I tried (although maybe I’m biased)! There’s plenty of other class options too – no matter which cities you add to your itinerary.
Most Vietnamese recipes are simple, so the wannabe chefs among you will have no trouble recreating them once you’re back home. And if cooking isn’t your strong suit? You’ll just have to plan another trip to Vietnam to try its mouthwatering dishes all over again!