A Guide to the Best Food in Vietnam

“For me, a good bowl of pho will always make me happy.” – Anthony Bourdain

Never a truer word was said by Anthony Bourdain. There are very few things a bowl of pho can’t fix. In fact, many would concur that Vietnamese cuisine could single-handedly rival its’ Southeast Asian counterparts. The tapestry of diversity and complexities that is Vietnam so beautifully comes to together from the North right down to the South and would not go unnoticed by those with a sense of adventure, an appreciation for cultural diversity and a palate for an Epicurean lifestyle. The same could be said for the cuisine. Let us indulge your senses as we take you on a journey of the best food in Vietnam.

The regional food differences during your Vietnamese food journey

The climatic differences from the North to the South due to Vietnam’s expansive geographical landscape, make for favourable nuances in flavours from region to region.

The Northern region borders China and Laos bringing with it much cooler temperatures which somewhat combat the growth of chilli and spices which are more commonly found in the lower regions. What the North lacks in spices, it makes up for in complex flavours emphasized by distinctive technique. The cultural Northern region, which is one of the most ancient civilisations in Southeast Asia, and also the cradle of Vietnam’s most popular dishes, wouldn’t be the worst place to start your food journey and get your taste buds schooled for what lies ahead.

As you gradually make your way down to Central Vietnam your palate will quickly adjust to the explosive flavours of it’s surrounds. The mountainous region makes for the perfect breeding ground for all things spicy providing a clear distinction between the subtle flavours of the north and the sweeter flavours of the south.

The International Region Of The South is a fusion of Thai and  Cambodian influence giving the cuisine it’s lighter more tropical flavours. Expect your hearty noodle broths to be slightly murkier in colour from the splash of coconut milk, unlike the clear broth of the North, and the flavours to be somewhat sweeter. They say the sweetness of the food could be synonymous of the people who are distinctly friendlier and more cosmopolitan. The “international” flare could also be attributed to the French influence.

You might also be interested in Your complete guide on the best time to visit Vietnam.

Let the food journey begin

1. Phở (Vietnamese rice noodle soup), The National dish of Vietnam 

Photo credit: Hungtrancorner via Instagram

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing the locals on every street corner crouched over a bowl of steamy goodness as you go about your day. Originally a breakfast tradition, this speciality street food can now be enjoyed any time of the day. In your bigger city centres sometimes 24 hours a day. As rice is the staple ingredient in most meals, Pho consists of a hearty broth, silky rice noodles, a variety of herbs and a meat of your choice, primarily made with beef or chicken. Throw in a few condiments to your preference and you have yourself a perfect meal. North or South, Pho, the national dish of Vietnam remains a favourite across the board. The best of its kind is said to be found in Hanoi in the Old Quater, where the original Pho was born. We’ll let you make your own decision on that one.

Price (ZAR): R15 – R62

Price: (VND): 25 000 VND – 100 000 VND

Price: (USD): 1 USD – 4.50 USD

2. Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich)

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The French influence prevails with the Banh mi sandwich. Originating on the streets of Saigon, the traditional Banh mi sandwich consists of sour pickled daikon and carrot, crisp cilantro, spicy chillis, cheese spread, mayonnaise, and a cool sliver of cucumber surrounding any number of protein options from sweet minced pork to fatty pate to sardines. You’ll see locals and expats alike queuing for this breakfast favourite. If breakfast isn’t “breakfasting” without an egg, then request the Banh mi op la, literally translated “sunnyside up bread”. The Ban mi op la is a fried egg sandwich with a variety of delicious complimentary ingredients. 

Price (ZAR): R6 – R9

Price: (VND): 10 000 VND – 15 000 VND

Price: (USD): 0.43 USD – 0.65 USD

3. Bún chả (Vietnamese Grilled pork with Vermicelli)

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This celebrated Hanoi original is served with a selection of fatty pork slices (cha) and patties paired with dry rice vermicelli noodles and a selection of herbs. The dish is accompanied with a delicate mix of sweet and sour Vietnamese fish sauce with a variety of condiments including fresh garlic and chilli. Though generally only found in Hanoi, outside of Hanoi, across all regions of Vietnam, Bún thịt nướng, an equally delicious dish is served. Similarly to Bun cha. Bún thịt nướng is served with basil and mint for flavour, fresh salad, giá (bean sprouts), and chả giò (spring rolls). This might very quickly feature at the top of the list of the best food in Vietnam.

Price (ZAR): R6 – R9

Price: (VND): 35 000 VND – 55 000 VND

Price: (USD): 0.43 USD – 0.65 USD

4. Banh cuon (Vietnamese steamed rice cake)

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Another well-known favourite in the street paradise that is Vietnam is the Vietnamese steamed rice cake or Banh Cuon. It is said that the dish dates as far back as the beginning of the rice farming days in northern Vietnam, during which time it was merely a sheet of rice batter wrapped up like a crepe and dipped in fish sauce as a light snack. It has since grown to be a delicious mix of Asian ingredients. Banh Cuon is often filled with a delicate mix of ground shrimp or pork, minced wood-ear mushrooms, blanched bean sprouts, topped with crispy shallots and once again completed with the delicious sweet and sour fish sauce. While often served as a breakfast, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy Banh Cuon when the mood strikes.

Price (ZAR): R9 – R18

Price: (VND): 15 000 VND – 30 000 VND

Price: (USD): 0.65 USD – 1.30 USD

5. Gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese Fresh Spring Roll)

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The Vietnamese fresh spring roll, a tried and tested favourite around the world. The misconception of this popular anytime snack is that it is in fact not a spring roll. The original (Chinese) spring roll is made of a wheat-based wrapping which is then deep fried or pan fried giving it that fresh warm crispiness, whereas the Vietnamese fresh spring roll is made of thin rice paper and served fresh and cool. That said, tomato tomahto, they are equally delicious all the same. The noticeable difference, however, is that the Vietnamese fresh spring roll is commonly filled with fresh herbs, shrimp or crab, or exclusively vegetable-based mixtures, and accompanied with a sweet peanut dipping sauce. Throw in a serving of vermicelli rice noodles and you have yourself a complete meal. It’s no surprise the Vietnamese fresh spring roll is an anytime favourite. All the goodness, all the freshness.

Price (ZAR): R3 – R5

Price: (VND): 5 000 VND – 8 000 VND (per spring roll)

Price: (USD): 0.21 USD – 0.34 USD

6. Bánh xèo (Vietnamese Pancake)

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As they say, “When in Rome.” If you find yourself leaving Vietnam having not tried Banh xeo, you’re doing yourself a mischief. So, pull up a plastic chair at any local roadside store and do as the locals do. Believed to originate from France, this Vietnamese crepe-come-omelette is commonly served as a platter with an eclectic mix of pork or beef or chicken strips, shrimp, beansprouts, spring onion and mushrooms. This is usually accompanied with a fresh side of rice papers, lettuce and mustard leaves. So do as the locals do and fill your Ban xeo with the fillings of your choice, wrap it in a mustard leaf and tuck in! Don’t forget the peanut dipping sauce. The dipping sauce is always essential to get the complete experience.

Price (ZAR): R3 – R36

Price: (VND): 5 000 VND – 60 000 VND

Price: (USD): 0.22 USD – 2.60 USD

7. Bún bò Huế (Vietnamese rice noodle soup)

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Some may say “out with Pho, in with the Bun bo hue.” This spicy alternative is by no means at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to the best food in Vietnam. Named after the city of Hue in central Vietnam (the former capital), would explain why this dish is full flavoured and distinctively spicier than most. During the time of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last of the Royal family, all dishes in Hue were perfected to suit the palates of the royal family thus giving Hue the reputation of preparing the most flavoursome cuisine in all of Vietnam. Not to be confused by its name, Bun meaning noodles and bo meaning beef, Bun bo hue is in fact predominately pork with a marginal portion including beef. The vermicelli noodles are also thicker, more cylindrical in shape and have a distinct taste.

Price (ZAR): R15 – R22

Price: (VND): 25 000 VND – 35 000 VND

Price: (USD): 1 USD – 1.50 USD

Be sure to find out about your visa requirements when booking your flights to Vietnam.

Must-try beverages in Vietnam

1. Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese local coffee)

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Early mornings see locals and expats queuing for Ca Phe Sua Da, the local Vietnamese coffee. Originally a French tradition which is now a daily staple for just about anyone living in Vietnam.

*Disclaimer: your first cup might send your heart racing into a frenzy, but once you try it, there’s no turning back and you’ll wonder how you survived without it.*

The coffee is made from coarsely ground beans which are poured into a French drip filter (called a phin). The phin is placed on top of the cup, hot water is added to the phin, and then slowly the water and coffee trickle into the cup. To combat the intense bitterness the coffee is commonly served with condensed milk. Although it may sound somewhat unhealthy and over the top, it really isn’t as sweet as one would imagine. You should most certainly give it a bash at least once, but if condensed milk is not your preference Ca Phe Den Da is the black coffee alternative which is equally as good. The ca phe is served on ice as the heat in Vietnam calls for an iced coffee. Regular coffees are readily available at all coffee shops should that be your preference.

2. Nuoc mia (Sugarcane juice)

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May we just start off by saying that sugarcane juice, in fact, has more benefits than you would think. While it may sound like a sugar overload, Nuoc mia is actually packed with antioxidants and electrolytes. The juice which is widely served on every street corner is made from freshly crushed sugarcane stalks which are prepared before your eyes. Add a drop of citrusy Kumquat juice and a sprinkle of salt to bring out the flavour. Pour over ice, and voila, you have yourself a refreshing drink after a long day of sightseeing.

Price (ZAR): R3 – R6

Price: (VND): 5 000 VND – 10 000 VND

Price: (USD): 0.21 USD – 0.43 USD

3. Bia Hoi (local Vietnamese craft beer)

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If the sugarcane juice doesn’t quite quench the thirst, perhaps the local beer sounds more like a refreshing alternative. Bia Hoi has been refreshing locals since the 40s. While the popularity of craft beer and French wine is growing rapidly in Vietnam (making Vietnam one of the biggest beer producing countries in Southeast Asia), Bia Hoi still remains the beer of choice amongst the locals, particularly in Hanoi. It’s quite simple really. It’s readily available on every street corner and costs next to nothing. What more could you ask for?! Bia Hoi meaning “fresh beer”, is a draught beer produced daily which means it has to be consumed within 24 hours as it contains no preservatives. Low in alcohol (3%), crisp and clear, this local produce can quickly turn a long day into a great evening. You’ll want to get to your local brewery around 4 pm to reserve your seats.

Vietnam has quickly become the travellers choice due to its staggering beauty and all round unforgettable experiences. Now you can add the cuisine to your list of things to explore. Our food guide will be sure to give you a head start when looking for the best food in Vietnam. Now all you have left to do is book your next flight to Vietnam.

If you have already had the good fortune to travel to Vietnam, please share your food journey in the comments below.

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