Spring rolls and pho soup are the first things that come to most people’s minds when they think about Vietnamese food, but Vietnamese food is also so much more than that. If you want to experience the real and authentic flavors of the local kitchen, you should stay away from tourist restaurants and find food stalls crowded by local people instead. The food places targeted for foreigners might serve “local” dishes. Anyhow, sometimes the recipes have been modified for western taste and the price is at least three times more than in street kitchens.
Essential parts of an authentic Vietnamese food experience are sitting on a too small plastic chair, eating with chopsticks and watching the bustling and chaotic traffic around you.
Sometimes you might find the most mind-blowing food at the simplest food stall in a shabby side street. To find this kind of places, you don’t normally even need to walk far away from busy tourist streets. Essential parts of an authentic Vietnamese food experience are sitting on a too small plastic chair, eating with chopsticks and watching the bustling and chaotic traffic around you.
Thanks to the affordable price level, Vietnam is also a perfect destination to try fine dining in fancier restaurants. We have concentrated almost only on local food on our trip though, not only because of the price but also because of the experience. In Vietnam, you can get a filling meal for even 50 euro cents. No wonder that we spent there three months in a row! We rarely paid more than 30.000 dongs for a single meal which is 1,25 euros. During three months, we had time to try many Vietnamese delicacies. In this article, we collected some information about Vietnamese cuisine, food safety and our favorite foods. Read also the weirdest foods we have tried in Asia.
What is Vietnamese food
So how is Vietnamese food like, except those spring rolls and pho? If we have to describe Vietnamese food with a few words, we would say it is aromatic, rich with herbs and made from fresh ingredients. Rice, rice noodles, fresh herbs and veggies as well as soy and fish sauce play an essential role in Vietnamese cuisine. The secret of tasty noodle soups is their broth that is cooked with lots of time and effort. Vietnamese food is not very spicy but is served with chili paste and whole chilis so you can season your food to suit your own taste.
Noodle soups are an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine. At the first glance, they might all seem the same for foreigners. There are differences though depending on whether the broth is made from meat, chicken or fish and what kind of noodles are used. Besides chili, you can add flavor to soups with fresh lime juice and herbs. The taste and quality of the soups vary from place to place so the best soups can be found by simply trying different street food places.
As Vietnam is a big country, the cultures in the north and south are different also regarding the food. Hanoi’s most famous dishes are different than those in Saigon. Additionally, many cities have their own specialties that they are very proud of. We felt that the food in South and Central Vietnam was very good and cheap but in Hanoi, it was relatively difficult to find affordable and good food. In Southern Vietnam, you always get free ice tea with the food but in the north, you have to pay for that separately.
Vietnamese homemade food mainly consists of rice, meat, fish, vegetables, tofu and a broth cooked from vegetables. The broth is used to rinse the rest of the rice from the bowl. Rice is served in small rice bowls and other dishes are in the middle of the table in common serving plates. The food is eaten with chopsticks.
How to find the best food places
In Vietnam, you can also recognize a popular food place from piles of garbage under and around the tables.
In the beginning, it might feel difficult to find good food in Vietnam as a tourist. The best tip is to follow the basic rule that works in most countries: eat where the locals eat. The busier the food stall, the less time the food stands there and the fresher it is. In Vietnam, you can also recognize a popular food place from piles of garbage under and around the tables. This means that the vendors had no time to clean because of many customers. It probably doesn’t fit the western logic that the dirtiest food place could be the best choice but that’s how it works in Vietnam.
It’s also worth knowing the meal schedule of locals. Vietnamese are early birds so they also have breakfast early. Luch time is around the noon and dinner is late when the food stalls open after sunset and the weather gets cooler. We had problems with our random rhythm sometimes. When we tried to find lunch at 3 PM, all the food places were closed.
Eating in popular looking food places is normally a safe choice. We have noticed though that you find the best places just accidentally. Sometimes the smallest and most basic stall can surprise with world’s best noodle soup. Sometimes again, the experience might not be that tasty. Remember to negotiate the food price before eating as after that there is no space for bargaining. You might face an unpleasant surprise if the vendor adds some tourist extra to the price.
If you want to know what you are eating, it can be a good idea to learn some food words in Vietnamese. Most of the time, you can survive the situations by looking what others are eating or just by waving your hands and smiling.
Street food safety and food hygiene
The food hygiene in Vietnam is sometimes questionable and small hygiene things are “not so important”. This is not a problem only for tourists but also the Vietnamese are worried about the food safety. By choosing popular food places and eating with locals you can, anyhow, find the freshest and therefore the safest foods most of the time. We got sick only once while traveling in Vietnam and besides that, we only had some small stomach problems. We ate cheap street food all the time.
It’s good to remember that even though eating in a tourist restaurant might feel safer than street food, you don’t really know what happens in the kitchen. At street stalls, all the ingredients are visible and the food is cooked right in front of your eyes. On our trip to Southeast Asia, we have heard about more people who got sick after eating in a restaurant than after eating street food.
The riskiest ingredients for the health are salads, uncooked vegetables, unpeeled fruit, ice cubes and ice cream. First we avoided these things but eventually, we dared to eat almost everything with a good appetite. We did skip ice cream and for example strawberries though. We washed fruit with tap water but dried them before eating. When you travel for a long time, your body gets used to the local bacterias much better than on a short holiday. Therefore the shorter the trip, the more precise you should be with risky foods. For sure, nobody wants to spend a two-week holiday in Asia sick in the bed.
On the other hand, in Southeast Asia you just have to get used to the fact that the hygiene level is not the same as back home. Sometimes a relaxed attitude is better than being scared of all food because nitpicking too much about the hygiene can spoil the whole trip at its worst. Fresh herbs are an important part of Vietnamese flavors so at least we wouldn’t skip them completely. And even though the meat laying at the stall in the heat might look suspicious, remember that the meat was probably slaughtered on the same day which means it’s also fresh.
A certain thrill just seems to be a part of traveling in Southeast Asia. We have wondered many times after eating in a suspicious place if we need to rush to the toilet soon. Once we ordered sugar cane juice at a street stall and watched when the vendor cut a big piece of ice (made from who knows what kind of water) and dropped it to the ground. Then she just rinsed the ice in a water bucket (with whatever water), cut it into smaller cubes and put to our glasses. We drank our juice anyway and luckily didn’t get sick. Most of the time, we have survived well in all kind of situations.
Must try foods on your Vietnam trip
There are endlessly many different dishes to try in Vietnam. We listed here some foods that everyone should try while traveling in Vietnam. Vietnamese food often contains meat, chicken or seafood at least in the broth. The best places to find vegetarian food are Buddhist restaurants that serve vegan food. We found these places at almost every corner, especially in Da Nang. You can recognize vegetarian food by the Vietnamese word chay.
Pho bò and pho gà. Pho is one of the most famous dishes in Vietnam and it’s not hard to find this aromatic noodle soup in restaurants and food stalls around the country. At its best, pho has a mind-blowingly tasty and spicy (but not hot) broth that has a small nuance of cinnamon and star anise. At its worst, pho is a watery soup with tasteless noodles. We have tried both of these and everything in the between. You should definitely try pho many times and at different food stalls to get a proper image of how the soup is supposed to taste like.
Bún bò Huế. This noodle soup is a special dish of Hue but it is popular across the country. Besides beef slices, the soup has a pork broth seasoned with lemongrass and shrimp paste. We tried the soup also in Hue but came across the best version surprisingly in the center of Hanoi in Phu Doan street.
Bún riêu. Once again, this is a noodle soup but this time accompanied with tomato and crab broth. The soup is served with different additions like tofu, meat pate and lever. We also found the best bun rieu in the same food place in Hanoi mentioned above. It’s an incredible food place indeed!
We also had lots of other soups in Vietnam and most of them we cannot even name. The best way to find new foods is to simply give them a try. With Vietnamese prices, it’s not a big loss even if the food wasn’t the best every time. In Vietnamese, the word bun means noodles so you can expect to get either noodle soup or dry noodles with side dishes at a bun stall. The best way is to observe what the other people are eating and join them.
Bún chả. This is Hanoi’s own specialty and oh, so tasty! The dish contains charcoal grilled pork and small meat patties in a well-seasoned broth. It is served with rice noodles and fresh herbs. The herbs are mixed with pork and the noodles are then dipped in the broth.
Bánh mì. This Vietnamese stuffed baguette origins from the French colonialist era but has become an essential part of Vietnamese food culture. It’s impossible to avoid eating this bread as you can buy them at every street corner. Banh mi is a great breakfast or snack. There are lots of different toppings and you can get a sandwich for even 30 euro cents.
Bún bò Nam Bộ. Even though we just wrote that it was difficult to find good and cheap food in Hanoi, there were apparently some highlights as well. We had this beef noodle salad in the most famous restaurant in Hanoi that carries the same name as the dish. The salad topped with peanuts and dried onion was very tasty and big and also a nice chance after all the noodle soups.
Bo La Lot. We got to try this delicacy in Co Gian street in Saigon. This street has a good selection of cheap street food right next to the touristic center of District 1. The mince beef sticks are rolled in betel leaves and grilled. Then the rolls are wrapped in a rice paper with salad and herbs and eaten dipped in fish sauce. The rolls on the grill smell so good that you just have to stop by and try these! The big plate below cost only one euro. The vendor kindly advised us with eating after she saw us staring the plate like two dummies.
Bánh xèo. This Vietnamese version of omelet is a great option for breakfast. The eggs are mixed with rice flour among other ingredients. The dish is served with pickled vegetables and, surprisingly, with herbs and salad. We tried also this food in the shady small streets of Saigon.
Gỏi cuốn. Vietnamese fresh spring rolls are one of the most well known Vietnamese foods. Despite this, we didn’t actually eat them that much in Vietnam. But they are tasty indeed and a must try to cook at home too! The rolls below are filled with pork and shrimps.
Cơm. This word means rice in Vietnamese and there are plenty of rice dishes in Vietnam. It’s easy to spot rice restaurants by the com sign. We ate lots of rice especially while motorbiking across Vietnam. You normally get to choose the side dishes yourself. There are different meats, tofu, fish and vegetable dishes to choose from. The meal comes with a vegetable soup. A very big portion mostly costs 0,70-1,25 euros and keeps you going all day.
In Southern Vietnam, the food is served on a big place and the vendor puts the side dishes directly on the rice. In the north again, the food is served on common plates and you eat the rice from a small bowl. The first image below is taken in a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in Da Nang. After eating the piles of food in the second picture, we felt stuffed the rest of the day. Fried rice is also a quite popular dish in Vietnam and you can recognize it with the name Cơm rang.
Chè. From desserts, our favorite is fresh che that is a perfect solution for hot weather and sweet tooth. Che is actually a common term for sweet beverages, pudding and dessert soups. The dessert normally contains ice, different kinds of sweet beans, jelly cubes, fruit, pudding and coconut cream. Sounds weird but it tastes good! In the picture below we have che with red beans (Chè Đậu Đỏ) and che with fruit (Chè Thái).
Nước mía. Sugar cane juice is a popular drink in all Southeast Asian countries. It’s not only refreshing and tasty but it also contains lots of good minerals like calcium, magnesium and zink. It might be hard to believe that you can actually make juice out of that kind of tree trunks but you should really give it a try! One glass costs 5000-10.000 dongs which is 20-40 euro cents.
Cà phê. Vietnamese coffee is our big passion and love and something we miss maybe the most from Vietnam. If you haven’t tried Vietnamese coffee, you cannot say you have been to Vietnam. Our favorite is an iced coffee with condensed milk, in Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. You can read more about different kinds of Vietnamese coffees in our Hanoi coffee post.
This list didn’t include even nearly all the foods we had in Vietnam but with these tips, you can certainly get your Vietnam trip started. The most important thing is to be brave, eat at street food stalls among locals and try as many different foods as you can.
Are you a fan of Vietnamese food and what is your favorite dish?