This Vietnamese food guide is the result of two weeks of traveleating in Vietnam. Reading this guide may give you the impression that I love Vietnamese food. I do, but that wasn’t always the case.
To be honest, Vietnamese food was never one of my favorites. I had minimal experience with the cuisine so my knowledge was limited to the ubiquitous phở and bánh mì. I’ve always preferred rice over noodles and I had never tried bánh mì made with an authentic Vietnamese baguette. Up until recently, Vietnamese food was something I would eat only when it was put in front of me, but it wasn’t something I would ever look for. All that changed after the two weeks we spent in Vietnam.
Exploring over 50 local dishes from north to south, I went to Vietnam with minimal expectations but I left a changed man. From regional specialties like chả cá lã vọng to nationwide favorites like ốc and bún thịt nướng, Vietnamese food has made a fan out of me.
WHAT IS VIETNAMESE FOOD?
If I were to use one word to describe Vietnamese food, it would be “balance“. Balance is important in all types of cuisine but it seems to be of particular importance in Vietnamese cooking. Vietnamese cuisine aims to strike a balance in different aspects of its food like taste, nutrients, and presentation, and it does so by paying attention to five elements per aspect.
In spices used for example, a balance is sought between sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty. In presentation, cooks aim to have the colors green, red, yellow, white, and black in their dishes. Vietnamese food is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world and this is due in part to a balance of nutrients like carbohydrates, fat, protein, minerals, and water.
I noticed this Yin and Yang in Vietnamese food when we ate deep-fried dishes like nem cua bể and bánh gối in Hanoi. We’re from the Philippines so I’m used to eating deep-fried spring rolls similar to nem cua bể. Back home, they’re typically served only with ketchup or vinegar so I often find them to be one-note and unctuous. Here in Vietnam however, they’re served with a dipping sauce made with water, cucumber slices, fish sauce, and other ingredients. As with many Vietnamese dishes, they’re also served with a heaping bowl of fresh greens like lettuce, coriander, perilla, and mint which you would dunk into the sauce and eat with the fried bits of food. So in spite of being deep-fried and oily, they were surprisingly refreshing, and much of that had to do with the balance of ingredients, sensations, and temperatures.
It was an eye-opening experience for me, one that gave me a better understanding and appreciation for Vietnamese food. I was a fan after that.
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF THIS FOOD GUIDE?
Ren and I are passionate about food, especially when it comes to experiencing new food. It’s important for us to find the best examples of local cuisine on our travels. If you’re reading this post, then you probably share that same passion for food as we do.
As much as we love to traveleat, I’m no expert so apart from the general overview in the previous section, the purpose of this guide isn’t to educate you on Vietnamese food. I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. Instead, my goal is to help you figure out which dishes to try depending on where you are in the country. For example, you may have heard of bún chả or chả cá lã vọng. Google either of those dishes and you’ll find many western publications singing them praises. But did you know that they’re dishes associated with Hanoi and the north? If you’ll be visiting Ho Chi Minh City, then that’s probably not the best place to look for a bún chả restaurant.
By sharing our experiences, I aim to help other travelers find the best examples of Vietnamese food no matter where they are in the country.
MUST-EAT DISHES IN VIETNAM
Vietnam’s culinary landscape is diverse. Because of differences in climate and resources, popular dishes in the north may not even exist in the south and vice versa. To help make this long list of Vietnamese dishes as easy to digest as possible, I’ve divided them by region, starting with dishes that are widely available throughout the country. All dishes have regional beginnings but the ones listed under the NATIONWIDE category have become popular throughout Vietnam, mostly through migration. The perfect example is phở. It may have its roots in Hanoi but it’s now recognized as a national dish and served in many if not all parts of the country.
After that, I’ve divided the rest to NORTHERN, CENTRAL, and SOUTHERN Vietnamese dishes. These are the dishes that are more location-specific and not as readily available in other parts of the country. I did the best I could to organize this list through research and personal experience, but if I got anything wrong, then please do let me know in the comments below. This is a list I plan on updating and refining over time so any feedback would be much appreciated. Thanks and I hope you find this guide on Vietnamese food useful!
Bạch Tuộc Nướng Sa Tế
We enjoyed this grilled octopus on Vinh Khanh Street in Ho Chi Minh City, but I believe octopus is a popular street food throughout the country, not just in the south. We didn’t know what this dish was called at the time since we just pointed at whatever looked good, but I believe it’s called bạch tuộc nướng sa tế, which is grilled octopus with satay. Fresh octopus is marinated in a garlic, satay, honey, oil, and salt mixture before being grilled. It’s served with Vietnamese mint, cucumber slices, and a dipping sauce made with satay, lemon juice, chili, pepper, and salt.
Bạch tuộc nướng sa tế is a popular street food among the Vietnamese, especially the youth. We tried it at popular Ốc Oanh restaurant along Vinh Khanh Street where many of the locals were eating it. Vinh Khanh street is known for their seafood so it’s the perfect place to try this dish in Saigon. I was watching them grill it and the octopus is barbecued over coals for just a few minutes on either side to keep it nice and tender. It’s smokey, a little sweet, and surprisingly spicy. I love cephalopods and spicy food so I really enjoyed this dish.
This was my favorite noodle soup dish in Vietnam. Bánh canh means “soup cake” and refers to a thick Vietnamese noodle that can be made either from tapioca flour or a mixture of rice and tapioca flour. The “cake” in its name refers to the thick sheet of uncooked dough from which the noodles are cut. Depending on its ingredients, there are many types of bánh canh. Bánh canh cua, for example, is made with sumptuous chunks of crab (cua) while bánh canh chả cá, a version popular in Central Vietnam, is made with pork and fish cake. That’s what we had.
We went on a private tour of My Son Sanctuary in Hoi An and our guide Turtle took us to his favorite bánh canh place in the Ancient Town called Bánh Canh Bà Quýt. It was a spur of the moment thing that turned out to be one of my favorite meals in Vietnam. I prefer thick, chewier noodles like Japanese udon and that’s exactly what bánh canh noodles are like. The broth was flavorful with sinewy chunks of pork bone, fish cakes, and lots of green onions. I think it may have had slivers of chả lụa or Vietnamese pork sausage as well. I had mine with a heaping dollop of chili sauce for more flavor and heat. It was absolutely delicious and a must-try in Hoi An.
Have you ever had those slippery rice noodle rolls served at Chinese dimsum restaurants called chee cheong fun? These are similar to that. A North Vietnamese dish that’s become popular throughout the country, bánh cuốn are rice rolls made from a thin sheet of steamed fermented rice batter filled with seasoned ground pork and wood ear mushrooms. Topped with herbs and fried shallots and served with a bowl of nước chấm (fish sauce), they’re typically served with a side of giò lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage), sliced cucumber, and bean sprouts.
We tried bánh cuốn at a famous shop called Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền Thanh Vân in Hanoi. I was watching them make it and one woman would ladle a scoop of the batter onto a convex metal surface where it would quickly solidify into a thin delicate sheet. Another woman would then fill it with ingredients and roll it up before cutting with scissors into bite-sized pieces. All of this happened with a quickness and fluidity of motion that was mesmerizing to watch. With all the customers streaming into this place, it had to.
Bánh Cuốn is typically made with pork (bánh cuốn nhân thịt) but this restaurant made a few other varieties as well, including one filled with shrimp called bánh cuốn nhân tôm tươi. We tried one of each and both were delicious. They were soft, slippery, and a little gummy with bits of crunchy fried shallots and fresh herbs.
Like pho, bánh mì is one of Vietnam’s most iconic and recognizable dishes. Even if you aren’t that familiar with Vietnamese food, chances are you’ve at least heard of bánh mì. It’s considered a national dish and can be found pretty much anywhere in Vietnam.
Strictly speaking, “bánh mì” is the Vietnamese word for the baguette which was introduced by the French during the colonial period. But when most people say “bánh mì”, they’re referring specifically to the baguette sandwich made with different types of meat, vegetables, and condiments. Pork is frequently used and its incorporated into the sandwich in many forms like pâté, grilled patties, Vietnamese sausage, cold cuts, terrine, and floss. Commonly used vegetables include cucumber slices, coriander, pickled carrots, and shredded radish. But like any sandwich, you can basically put whatever you want in a bánh mì so there are many varieties made with other ingredients as well like duck, egg, grilled chicken, fish cake, etc.
Bánh mì was the only dish we had everywhere we went in Vietnam. We enjoyed it so much we must have eaten it seven or eight times! No matter what you put in a bánh mì, what makes this sandwich truly special is the bread. It’s phenomenal. They make it so crusty and crunchy on the outside but soft and pillowy on the inside that it sort of crumbles in on itself when you take a bite. It’s so good.
Here’s a version called bánh mì thịt xiên made with grilled pork skewers. In Hanoi, our favorite bánh mì shops were Bánh Mì Lãn Ông and Yogurt Bar. In Hoi An, we tried it at the place Anthony Bourdain featured called Bánh Mì Phượng. And in Saigon, we had it at one of the city’s most famous shops called Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, otherwise known as Banh Mi O Moi or “lesbian banh mi”. All were fantastic.
This dish was another favorite of ours. Called bánh xèo, it’s a crispy crepe made with fried rice flour batter filled with pork belly, shrimp, green onions, and bean sprouts. The batter is poured into a hot skillet then filled with the ingredients before being folded in half like an omelette. They actually look like omelettes because of their shape and color but they aren’t made with any eggs. They get their yellowish color from turmeric mixed into the batter. The name bánh xèo literally means “sizzling cake” because of the sound it makes when the rice batter hits the hot skillet.
We took a cooking class in Hoi An and this was one of the dishes we learned how to make. Once the bánh Xèo is fried and crispy, you wrap pieces of it in rice paper (bánh tráng) with fresh herbs like coriander, mint, and perilla before dipping into nước mắm pha (or nước chấm), which is a fish-sauce-based dipping sauce. The bánh Xèo pictured below was from Morning Glory restaurant in Hoi An. Despite being fried, you don’t really notice the oiliness too much because of the fresh greens and nước mắm pha. Crisp on the outside but moist on the inside, it’s delicious and a lot of fun to eat.
By the way, if you’re starting to wonder why so many dishes have the word “bánh” in the name, it basically refers to anything made with flour.
Bún Bò Nam Bộ
This dish is somewhat deceitful. It’s name literally means “southern-style beef vermicelli” but from what I understand, it isn’t actually from the south. Kind of like “Vienna sausages” and “lumpiang Shanghai” I guess? 😆
This was one of the dishes we learned to make when we took a cooking class in Hoi An. Pictured below was the beautiful example made by our instructor. Notice all the flowers she made using vegetables? Mine didn’t look nearly as pretty. It’s a relatively simple dish made with cold vermicelli noodles topped with marinated beef, bean sprouts, fried shallots, fresh vegetables, herbs, roasted peanuts, and nước chấm. It’s a delicious dish – savory, crunchy, a little sweet, and with nice contrast between the warm beef and cold sticky noodles.
This was probably my second favorite noodle soup in Vietnam, after bánh canh. A comforting dish commonly eaten for breakfast, bún riêu is a rice vermicelli soup that’s originally from Northern Vietnam but is now enjoyed throughout the country. We had it at Bún Riêu – Hàng Bạc, which is said to be one of the best places to try bún riêu in Hanoi.
There are different types of bún riêu, but the one we tried is called bún riêu cua, which is a popular version made with crab. To make the dish, freshwater rice paddy crabs are pounded with the shell into a fine paste before being strained. The crab liquid is then used as a base for the soup along with stewed tomatoes and annatto seeds, giving the broth a wonderful tangy flavor. Whatever’s left of the crab is used to make crab cakes which are served with the soup along with rice vermicelli, green onions, and fried tofu. I’ve read how cubes of congealed pig’s blood are often added as well, but ours unfortunately didn’t come with any today.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, our bún riêu cua was served with a basket of greens like perilla, mint, lettuce, and water spinach that I would heap generously onto my bowl like a blanket of freshness. The soup was plenty flavorful to begin with, but on the counter were condiments like fermented shrimp paste, lime, and chili that you could add to the dish for even more depth of flavor. I love crab and the tanginess from tomatoes so it’s no surprise this was one of my favorite dishes in Vietnam.
This was one of the most interesting dining experiences we had in Vietnam, partly because of the unusual restaurant and the unique ingredients needed to make this dish. Originally from Hanoi, bún thang is a fussy bowl of rice noodle soup that’s often reserved for special occasions. Toppings vary but it’s typically made with shredded chicken, pork, shrimp floss, thinly sliced egg shreds, giò lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage), and fresh herbs like mint and coriander. The two ingredients that make bún thang special are gà mái dầu, which are hens of a very specific age, and cà cuống, which is a pheromone extracted from male belostomatid beetles. Yes, beetle juice.
The ideal hens used to make this dish must only be old enough to lay eggs for about a week. Any older or younger and the chicken meat isn’t ideal. As for the beetle extract, a minute amount is added to the broth via the tip of a toothpick to give it a unique fragrance. So cool! Real cà cuống is said to be expensive and difficult to come by these days so I’m not sure how often it’s still used. I didn’t notice any strange aromas in our bún thang but then again, I didn’t know to look for it at the time. Another thing that makes proper bún thang so fussy to prepare is that the toppings need to be cut into thin, matchstick-like threads, like below.
We had this deliciously fussy bowl of bún thang at Quán Bún Thang Bà Đức in Hanoi, which is somewhat of a Vietnamese street food speakeasy. Follow the link to see what I mean.
Bún Thịt Nướng
Bún thịt nướng is another Vietnamese food favorite. The dish consists of cold rice vermicelli noodles topped with charcoal-grilled pork and fresh greens and herbs like basil, perilla, and mint. It’s garnished with pickled daikon and carrots, roasted peanuts, and chopped green onions before being drizzled with nước mắm pha (fish sauce). This is the basic version of bún thịt nướng but there are other varieties as well, like bún thịt nướng tôm which is made with grilled prawns, and bún thịt nướng chả giò topped with spring rolls.
We tried it at Benh Thanh Street Food Market in Saigon, but you can find this dish pretty much anywhere in Vietnam, except Hanoi where a similar dish called bún chả is king. There’s a good balance of flavor and texture to this dish that’s easy on the palate. You have smokey pork, sour and crunchy pickled vegetables, fresh greens, peanuts, and a sweet-savory fish sauce dressing over a bed of cold sticky rice vermicelli noodles. Unless you don’t eat meat, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this dish.
Càng Ghẹ Rang Muối
We had this dish of crab claws roasted with chili salt along Vinh Khanh Street in Saigon. Crab is enjoyed throughout the country and this dish seems relatively simple to prepare, so I believe it may be common in other parts of Vietnam as well.
I was watching the guy make it and he starts off by dumping a few crab claws into a deep pot over a flame. He adds copious amounts of chili, salt, and pepper, then vigorously mixes them all together until the claws are well-coated and the color of satan’s hide. I was disappointed with the level of heat at first but it gradually builds up. By the third or fourth claw, my lips were on fire. If you like crab and spicy food, then càng ghẹ rang muối is a dish you’ll probably want to try.
Giò Lụa (north) / Chả Lụa (south)
Known as giò lụa in Hanoi and chả lụa in Saigon, this is a common type of Vietnamese pork sausage that’s often served in many Vietnamese dishes like bún thang and bánh mì. It’s made by pounding pork until pasty, then seasoning it with spices and nước chấm (fish sauce). The pork can’t be chopped or ground as this would leave the meat fibrous, dry, and crumbly. Properly made chả lụa has a bouncy texture similar to fish cake which is why the pounding process is key.
After being seasoned, the mixture – now known as giò sống or raw sausage – is then wrapped tightly in banana leaves and boiled. The cylindrical banana leaf parcel is submerged vertically in boiling water and typically left to cook for about an hour. A common way to tell if the sausage is ready is to drop it onto a hard surface. If it bounces, then it’s good.
We bought chả lụa at Giò Chả Minh Châu in Saigon upon the recommendation of our AirBnB host. We were looking for delicacies to bring back home and she suggested chả lụa. The sausage is already cooked so all you have to do is slice it and pan fry before eating. If you like SPAM, then you’ll probably enjoy this. As described, it has a slightly gummy and chewy texture that’s reminiscent of fish cake. I loved it and wish we had brought back more than one parcel.
Chè is the blanket term used to describe a family of Vietnamese dessert soups, sweet beverages, or pudding. Served hot or cold, there are endless varieties of chè made with all kinds of ingredients like coconut milk, beans, tapioca, jelly, fruit, seeds, tubers, grains, cereals, and glutinous rice. Some varieties even include dumplings. Basically, if it’s sweet and comes in soup or pudding form, then it can probably be classified as chè.
Vietnam can get brutally hot so slurping down ice-cold bowls of chè is a great way to cool down. It was something we enjoyed several times in Vietnam. Pictured below is the signature chè from Lutulata Cafe in Hanoi which serves an extensive variety of dessert soups. The menu didn’t indicate what was in this chè Lutulata but it looked to have beans, taro, fruit, tapioca pearls, jelly, coconut shavings, and dried jackfruit chips. It’s served with a bowl of shaved ice that you’d scoop into your chè as you ate. Filipinos may recognize this as being similar to halo-halo.
Here’s a popular version of chè made with corn and tapioca rice pudding. It’s called chè bắp in the north and chè ngô in the south, though we actually enjoyed this one in Central Vietnam. We had it by the Thu Bon River in Hoi An, where it seems to be a hugely popular dessert snack. Ours was served warm but I believe it can be served chilled as well.
Nem Cuốn (north) / Gỏi Cuốn (south)
Known as nem cuốn in the north and gỏi cuốn in the south, these fresh spring rolls are a Vietnamese national dish. They’re traditionally made with shrimp, pork, vegetables, herbs, and rice vermicelli wrapped in bánh tráng or Vietnamese rice paper.
A popular appetizer, gỏi cuốn was the first dish we learned to make when we took a cooking class in Hoi An. To make the roll, a sheet of rice paper is dipped in water then laid flat on a chopping board. The ingredients are placed on top in a specific order for aesthetics. First goes the lettuce, then the herbs, then the pork. Spread rice vermicelli evenly over the greens and top it all off with another lettuce leaf. Fold the sides of the rice paper and roll up about 2/3 of the way. Arrange the shrimp neatly in a row, color side down, along with some chives before rolling all the way up. Pictured below is the one Ren made. Mine didn’t look as pretty but it tasted just as good. 😉
We even learned to make our own peanut hoisin dipping sauce. Gỏi cuốn is often served with other dipping sauces as well, like nước mắm pha or fish sauce. Soft, light, and savory-sweet, gỏi cuốn is delicious and refreshing. If you prefer deep-fried spring rolls, then there’s an equally popular version of this dish called chả giò (nem rán in the North).
Nem Nướng / Thịt Nướng
Nem nướng and thịt nướng are both types of skewered grilled pork. But if I understand correctly, thịt nướng refers to regular grilled pork, while nem nướng refers to grilled pork meatballs or sausages that are made with fatty pork seasoned with shallots, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, and black pepper. Both nem nướng and thịt nướng can be eaten on their own with peanut sauce or nước chấm, but they’re often used in other popular dishes as well like bún thịt nướng or bánh mì thịt xiên.
Ốc or snails are a popular delicacy in Vietnam. They come in many forms and are harvested from the ocean as well as from freshwater sources like rice paddies and lakes. Alex of Inspitrip took us to popular Ốc Oanh restaurant along Vinh Khanh Street in Saigon to get our first taste of Vietnamese snails.
One of the dishes he ordered was this plate of ốc len xào dừa, which are Mud Creeper sea snails cooked in a coconut curry sauce. “ốc len” refers to the species of snail while “xào dừa” describes the way its cooked. Using a slender two-pronged fork (which you can see peeking out from beneath the herbs below), you dig out the soft chewy snails then suck on the shells to get every drop of that rich and creamy curry sauce. The snails are served with a powdery condiment of salt, pepper, and lime (muối tiêu chanh), along with chili, nước mắm pha, and a plate of peppery Vietnamese coriander. We enjoyed ốc len xào dừa so much that we ordered it again the very next night.
Here’s a different type of snail stir-fried with morning glory vegetables (rau muống xào tỏi). We ate snails only in Ho Chi Minh City but you can get them pretty much anywhere in the country. I remember seeing dozens of street side stalls in Hanoi serving snails of different shapes and sizes, and they were always packed with locals. I read that snails are so popular that ăn ốc, or “snail eating”, is considered a national pastime in Vietnam.
I thought this Vietnamese fondness for snails may have been a vestige of French colonial influence but as it turns out, they’ve been feasting on snails long before the French arrived. Ăn ốc is part of nhậu culture, which is the Vietnamese word for “going out, eating, drinking, and socializing”. Bite-sized and with many varieties and ways of cooking to choose from, snails go great with beer so I can understand why it’s such a popular drinking food.
These next two dishes aren’t snails, but I included them here because you’ll often find different types of shellfish served at ốc restaurants. Pictured below is sò điệp nướng mỡ hành which is scallop grilled with scallions and chopped peanuts.
It took me a while to find out this dish’s name, but I believe it’s called sò long nướng phở mai or ark clam topped with cheese sauce. It looks like an oyster but you could tell it’s a clam from its shell. Ren and I both love snails and shellfish so our meals at Ốc Oanh were some of our most memorable in Vietnam. There are still so many snail dishes to try so we’re definitely having an all-snail feast the next time we’re here. If you’d like more information on eating snails in Ho Chi Minh City, then you may want to check out this excellent guide on snails and shellfish by Vietnam Coracle. It’s loaded with useful information including all the best places to eat snails in Saigon.
Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese food. A national dish like bánh mì and gỏi cuốn, phở is a noodle soup that originated from the north but is now popular throughout the country. Regardless of where it’s from, it’s made with four basic ingredients – clear stock, rice noodles (called bánh phở), meat (typically beef or chicken), and herbs.
The origin of phở can be traced to early 20th century Nam Định Province in Northern Vietnam. The higher availability of beef due to French demand resulted in a surplus of beef bones which were then used as the base for modern phở. With the Partition of Vietnam in 1954, over a million people fled from the north to the south, bringing with them their affinity for phở. This helped popularize phở in other parts of the country, which in turn led to further development of the dish. Unconstrained by the culinary traditions of the north, variations in meat and broth appeared, as did additional garnishes like lime, bean sprouts, culantro, cinnamon basil, hoisin, and hot chili sauce.
Today, several varieties of phở exist, most notably phở bắc or “northern pho”, and phở Sài Gòn or “southern pho”. Northern phở (pictured below) tends to use wider noodles and a lot more green onions. Garnishes are generally limited only to vinegar, fish sauce, and chili sauce. Southern phở, on the other hand, has a sweeter broth and is topped with bean sprouts and a wider variety of fresh herbs.
We enjoyed phở in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and the differences were palpable. As you can see above, northern phở is loaded with green onions but nothing else. Southern phở, pictured below, did have a noticeably sweeter broth and was served with a small mountain of bean sprouts and greens. Northern phở noodles are supposed to be wider but I didn’t really notice any difference.
Pho Thin 13 Lo Duc is said to serve some of the best phở in Hanoi. Instead of simply boiling the beef, they stir-fry it with garlic before adding to the soup. In Saigon, two locals pointed us to Phở Lệ Nguyễn Trãi which serves a mean phở made with beef tendon. Both were excellent, though I preferred the Saigon version.
We had this delicious homemade yogurt at our hotel in Hanoi. Known locally as sữa chua, Vietnamese yogurt is different from traditional yogurt in that its made with sweetened condensed milk. Introduced by the French in the 1800s, there was a lack of fresh dairy in Vietnam at the time which led the Vietnamese to swap fresh milk for cans of sweetened condensed milk. This gave Vietnamese yogurt a sweeter, more caramelized taste that’s a little stickier in texture as well. It’s delicious.
Súp Bắp Cua
Súp bắp cua is Vietnamese crab and corn egg drop soup. We first heard about this dish on the Saigon episode of Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia. I love crab and egg drop soup is one of my favorite comfort foods, so this was one of the dishes I was most excited to try in Vietnam. The soup contains crab meat, shredded chicken, whole quail egg, corn, mushroom, loads of coriander, and those delicious ribbons of dropped egg in a broth thickened with tapioca starch. It’s typically served in a plastic cup and seasoned with sesame oil, pepper, and chili.
We were having a seafood feast at Ốc Oanh restaurant along Vinh Khanh Street in Saigon when a motorbike carrying some type of street food rode by and parked a few meters down the road. I didn’t notice it at first because I had my face latched onto a crab claw, but when Ren told me a sign saying “súp bắp cua” was pasted on the side of the man’s styrofoam box, I jumped up and practically flew to him. 😆 Mission accomplished!
Tàu Hủ Nước Đường
We’re from the Philippines so like many kids, we grew up eating taho which is a snack made with silken tofu, arnibal or caramel syrup, and tapioca pearls. We were pleased to find a similar dish in Vietnam called tàu hũ nước đường, but instead of arnibal, they use ginger syrup. The tofu is exactly the same and the dessert is still sweet but the ginger syrup gives it a spicy, lemony, peppery kick that’s very different from the taho we’re used to. Instead of tapioca pearls, they topped it with black and white grass jelly.
Thịt Bò Nướng Lá Lốt (Bò Lá Lốt)
Spend a few days eating in Vietnam and you’ll notice how the culinary landscape is dominated by noodles soups like phở and bún riêu. So when we saw these green finger-like cigars grilling on Luke Nguyen’s show, they naturally stood out. Thịt Bò Nướng Lá Lốt, or bò lá lốt for short, is a dish made with ground beef wrapped in wild betel leaves and grilled over charcoals.
What makes this dish special and unique are the betel leaves. Seasoned ground beef is wrapped in piper lolot leaves from the Piper sarmentosum plant, then placed over a charcoal grill to cook. Soon as the leaves are heated, they’re said to emit a unique, incense-like fragrance that’s both medicine-y and perfume-y. I stood watching the lady grill our bò lá lốt and though the smell wasn’t as pungent as I expected it to be (perhaps I was standing upwind), I did get a whiff of its distinctive aroma. It smelled pretty much how it looks, very green.
We tried bò lá lốt at Benh Thanh Street Food Market in Ho Chi Minh City, but I believe it’s something you can find throughout the country. If I understand correctly, the main regional differences lie in what spices are used to season the beef. To me, it tasted like heavily spiced hamburger meat wrapped in a smokey, peppery, aromatic leaf. It’s interesting and fun to eat and makes for great beer chow.
Xôi was a dish we found throughout Vietnam. It refers to a family of Vietnamese dishes made with glutinous or sticky rice that’s been soaked for several hours then drained and steamed dry. Like chè, there are hundreds of varieties of xôi made with a host of different ingredients, both savory (xôi mặn) and sweet (xôi ngọt).
Pictured below is the incredibly hearty bowl of xôi xéo we enjoyed at Xôi Yến in Hanoi. Xôi xéo is made by mixing turmeric with water and glutinous rice. Mung beans are then peeled, steamed, pummeled, and rolled into balls before being mixed into the rice and topped with fried shallots and a tablespoon of liquid fat. As if that weren’t filling enough, we ordered the “varied” xôi xéo which was topped with a bunker’s worth of ingredients like pork floss, giò lụa, Chinese sausage, egg, roasted pork, and chicken. If you’re hungry and running low on funds, then this varied xôi xéo is a good investment. Many blogs have called it the best xôi xéo in Hanoi.
We enjoyed this xôi gà at a famous street food stall in Saigon called Xôi Gà Number One. We learned about it from Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia as well. Xôi gà is sticky rice with shredded steamed chicken.
We bought this xôi đậu đen from a street cart vendor outside an elementary school in Hoi An. Many kids were huddled around her cart during recess so we were curious to try it as well. Xôi đậu đen is sticky rice with black beans. I’m not sure if there’s a savory version of this dish but the one auntie was selling was a dessert snack topped with white sugar and crushed peanuts.
HANOI & NORTHERN VIETNAM
Because of Northern Vietnam’s colder climate, spice production in the region is limited. As a result, North Vietnamese food tends to be less spicy and more neutral in flavor compared to food from Central or Southern Vietnam. However, this hasn’t stopped the north from producing some of the country’s most iconic dishes. Nationwide favorites like phở, bún riêu, and bánh cuốn all hail from the north.
Bánh Gối / Bánh Tôm
I don’t know if there’s a collective term for these deep-fried goodies but we had both dishes at popular Quán Gốc Đa in Hanoi. The stall had trays full of different types of pre-fried dumplings. Point to whichever ones you wanted and they’d throw them into a pot of hot oil to refry and crisp up.
Of the two, the more famous it seems is the bánh gối (lower half of plate) which is like a Vietnamese empanada filled with minced pork, mushroom, glass noodles, and a quail egg. The filling is placed in the center of the pastry skin which is then folded and pinched closed in a half circle before being deep fried to a golden crisp. Bánh gối means “pillow cake” because it’s shape is said to resemble a pillow. Next to it is bánh tôm which is like a Vietnamese sweet potato shrimp fritter.
The bánh gối and bánh tôm are served with a basket of fresh greens and a dipping bowl with chili, sugar, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, cucumber slices, and water. Dunking the fried cakes into this bowl with a few greens was pure magic. Despite being deep-fried, I was surprised by how refreshing the dumplings were because of the greens and dipping sauce. There was virtually no hint of its oiliness! This experience taught me a lot about the Yin and Yang of Vietnamese food.
After wolfing down our bánh gối and bánh tôm at Quán Gốc Đa, we had these for dessert. Called bánh rán ngọt, they’re glutinous rice balls filled with a sweetened mung bean paste. Deep-fried and covered in sesame seeds, they’re basically the same thing as buchi balls served at Chinese dimsum restaurants.
This isn’t exactly Vietnamese food but it deserves a spot on this list. A favorite among locals and foreigners alike, bia hơi means “fresh (or gas) beer”, and refers to a type of Vietnamese draft beer often marketed as the “cheapest beer in the world”. It has a relatively low alcohol content of around 3% and costs anywhere between VND 3,000-7,000 a glass. At today’s exchange rate, that’s just 13-31 US cents! Brewed daily and without preservatives, freshly made batches are delivered in steel barrels (without any branding) and typically consumed that same evening.
Though it’s possible find bia hơi in other parts of Vietnam, it’s most strongly associated with Hanoi and the north. Many bars in the city serve bia hơi but the best place to have it bar none is Bia Hoi Corner. Located on the corner of Ta Hien & Luong Ngoc Quyen Streets, this busy junction becomes an electric mix of locals and foreigners chugging beers on low plastic stools by the side of the road. It’s a fun, vibrant atmosphere that’s difficult to put into words. You just have to experience it for yourself.
As for the bia hơi, it’s a light watery beer that reminded me of Coors Light or Keystone. Personally, I didn’t like it too much as I found it a little sour, perhaps even chemical-y. I switched to local bottled beer after my first glass. This is definitely something you should try though as it’s a key part of the Hanoi experience. Many people seem to enjoy it. Just know that bia hơi’s production isn’t monitored by any health agency in Vietnam so you probably shouldn’t go overboard with the stuff.
Aaah bún chả, one of Northern Vietnam’s most beloved dishes and the reason why bún thịt nướng is served everywhere in the country except Hanoi. Like bún thịt nướng, bún chả is a charcoal-grilled pork dish served with cold vermicelli noodles (bún) and fresh greens like lettuce, perilla, coriander, and mint. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is in the preparation of the meat. The pork comes in meatball patty form, along with some grilled pork belly, and served in a soupy bowl of pickled vegetables that impart acidity to the dish. Unlike the ingredients of bún thịt nướng which are served together in one bowl, the components of bún chả – pork, noodles, greens, and nước chấm – are presented separately.
We tried bún chả at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dak Kim, which is said to serve some of he best bún chả in Hanoi. As good as bún thịt nướng is, bún chả may even be better. They’re closely related dishes but there’s more going on with bún chả in terms of flavor and texture. Like phở and bánh mì, it’s one of the best examples of Vietnamese food and a must-try when in Hanoi.
Hiding behind our bowl of bún chả below is a plate of nem cua bể or fried crab spring rolls. They’re another specialty of Northern Vietnam that’s frequently eaten with bún chả as a side dish.
Cà Phê Trứng (Egg Coffee)
Like bún chả, cà phê trứng or egg coffee is quintessentially Hanoi. As its name suggests, it’s a type of Vietnamese coffee made with egg yolks, sugar, and condensed milk. Invented in Hanoi in the 1940s due to a shortage in milk, it’s prepared by vigorously beating egg yolks with condensed milk and coffee until frothy. Pour half a cup of freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee then top it with this fluffy egg mixture. What you wind up with is a frothy cup of joe that’s sweet, strong, eggy, and very rich.
I didn’t realize this at the time but Vietnam is apparently the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, behind only Brazil. Introduced by the French in the late 19th century, coffee has taken root in Vietnamese culture and you can see it everywhere you go. There’s a cafe (or two) on nearly every block in Hanoi. We tried cà phê trứng at Cafe Phương Linh, but if you want to try it at the place credited for inventing egg coffee, then make your way to Giảng Cafe. It’s still open to this day and is one of the most popular places to have cà phê trứng in the city.
Chả Cá Lã Vọng
Like bún chả, this is one of Hanoi’s most beloved dishes. Named after the restaurant that popularized it over a hundred years ago, chả cá lã vọng is a classic Hanoi specialty of grilled turmeric-marinated catfish served with a forest of fresh dill.
Catfish caught from the rivers of Northern Vietnam are cut into matchbox-sized nuggets that are marinated in galangal, turmeric, and other spices. They’re grilled on charcoal before being brought out to pan fry on your table with heaping amounts of fresh dill and spring onions. Once ready, the nuggets of fish are served with rice vermicelli, roasted peanuts, and coriander, along with a dipping sauce made with nước chấm (fish sauce), vinegar, and garlic. If you like, you can also add a bit of Vietnamese shrimp paste (mắm tôm) mixed with lime juice. Smokey and aromatic, the fish is tender and flaky on the inside with a delicate, crisp caramelized coating. It’s seriously delicious and one of the best things we ate in Vietnam. In fact, so good is this dish that it was once included in a list of 1,000 things you must eat before you die.
The original Chả Cá Lã Vọng restaurant in Hanoi is still open, though based on its negative reviews, it may have seen better days. There are now many restaurants serving this dish in Hanoi, including the highly regarded Chả Cá Thăng Long which is where we had it. Boasting a stellar 4.5 star rating on TripAdvior, it’s about as good a place as any to try this succulent and wonderfully aromatic dish.
Chim quay is barbecued pigeon. It’s comprised of a whole pigeon seasoned with different spices then barbecued until crisp. My father used to order roast pigeon at Chinese restaurants and this dish reminded me of that. If you’ve never had pigeon before, think of it as a less fatty version of duck.
One well-known restaurant in Hanoi that serves chim quay is Bit Tet Hải Tý. Unfortunately, we couldn’t eat there because Bit Tet Hải Tý, as it turns out, isn’t a restaurant at all! It’s more like a pop up street food stall that appears on the same stretch of pavement along Hàng Giấy Street late in the afternoon. We had planned to eat there for lunch on our last day in Hanoi but it was still too early. Thankfully, we found another place not too far away called Cơm Ngon – Phở Bò Vân. They’re known more for their phở but they do offer chim quay as well.
This was another dish I was very excited to try in Vietnam. Lươn refers to any dish made with eel. Unlike Japanese unagi where the eel is grilled, eel in Vietnamese food is dried then deep-fried so it’s crispy like dried anchovies. Pictured below is a dish called mien xiao lươn which is eel with fried vermicelli. See those curly black strips on the right? That’s the eel.
There are many places that serve lươn dishes in Hanoi but we had it at highly regarded Miến Lươn Đông Thịnh in the Old Quarter. They have their eel transported daily from Nghe An Province which is about 300 km south of the capital city. Nghe An is said to be home to the best eel (and best eel dishes) in Vietnam. At Miến Lươn Đông Thịnh, there are a few eel dishes you can choose from. We ordered two – mien xiao lươn and miến lươn trộn. They’re similar dishes using virtually the same set of ingredients – glass noodles (mien), fried garlic and shallots, cucumber slices, chopped peanuts, and fresh herbs and greens. The main difference is that the mien xiao lươn (pictured below) is served dry and the noodles are fried. The miến lươn trộn, on the other hand, is served with a shallow layer of broth made from eel bones and ginger. Both are delicious.
If you like unagi, then you should definitely try lươn in Hanoi. The eel starts off really crunchy then softens up after a bit of chewing. That’s when you start getting that natural sweetness of eel. It’s so good.
We didn’t get to try this but if you’d like to try something other than deep-fried eel, then you can have this súp lươn which is soup made with fresh eel. Next time!
Nem Cua Bể
Nem cua bể is a type of chả giò or deep-fried spring roll made with crab meat. It’s a specialty of Hai Phong, a coastal province east of Hanoi. Aside from crab meat, the deep-fried rolls also contain pork, egg white, kohlrabi (cabbage), carrot, wood ear mushroom, bean sprouts, and vermicelli. As previously described, it’s often eaten as a side dish together with bún chả.
HOI AN & CENTRAL VIETNAM
I found Central Vietnam’s cuisine to be the most unique and interesting of the three. Many of the dishes we tried like cao lầu and bánh bao bánh vạc seem to be available only in that region. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but Central Vietnam’s abundance of spices is said to produce a spicier cuisine. I love spicy food so maybe that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. Being home to Huế, the capital of Vietnam’s last dynasty, the region also features highly decorative and colorful food which is a vestige of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine.
This dish was interesting. Bánh bèo means “water fern cake” and refers to a variety of small steamed rice cakes popular in Central Vietnam. They’re white in color and topped with savory ingredients like dried or fresh shrimp, scallions, roasted peanuts, mung bean paste, fried shallots, and fish sauce. I was very excited to try these because they sounded similar to a Singaporean snack we enjoyed called chwee kueh. The dish is originally from Huế though it’s also widely available in Hoi An.
There are many street food vendors in the Ancient Town selling bánh bèo, but one of the best and most popular is Aunt Bay. You can find her selling bánh bèo near the corner of the old wall on Hoàng Văn Thụ Street after 3PM everyday. She makes hers with an orange shrimp-and-pork-based sauce containing bits of local river shrimp, fried shallots, chopped chilies, and deep-fried cao lầu noodles. It’s delicious – soft and silky and loaded with umami flavor. It really is similar to Singaporean chwee kueh though it isn’t as intensely flavorful.
It isn’t certain how bánh bèo got its name but it may be because of its shape, which is said to resemble a duckweed (bèo). Round or oblong-ish I guess? Interestingly, the term bánh bèo is used as slang in modern Vietnamese to describe girls who are perceived as being too feminine, weak-willed, and high maintenance – ie soft. At least they’re delicious. 😛
This was another interesting dish. Bánh Đập is a specialty of Cẩm Nam Island in Hoi An. It means “smashing rice paper” and it gets its name from the way its prepared. Sandwiched between two sheets of supremely crisp rice cracker is a sticky, steamed rice pancake. To bind the layers together, you need to press down on them with an open palm. Doing so makes a loud cracking sound, hence the dish’s name. The cracker is wonderful to eat on its own – its crunchy, gummy, and mildly sweet – though we enjoyed it as a vessel for hen tron or minced clams. We had them at Quán Ăn Bến Tre restaurant on Cẩm Nam Island.
Banh Mi Cha Chien
We saw many street food carts around Central Market in Hoi An selling banh mi cha chien or pork toast. It’s a simple street food snack consisting of bánh mì and ground pork seasoned with salt, sugar, and garlic. There isn’t much information online about banh mi cha chien but if I understand correctly, the pork mixture is turned into a paste (with egg?) and spread onto bread before being grilled or deep-fried. From the looks of it, the one we tried was deep-fried.
This is an oddly-named dessert snack. It’s called bánh xoài which means “mango cake“, but it doesn’t contain any mango nor is it even really a cake! It’s a powdery ball made from sticky rice with a filling consisting of peanuts and sugar. I read that it got its name because its shape is said to resemble a mango seed. I know what a mango seed looks like and it looks nothing like this. 😆 In any case, it’s a nice, cheap snack you can buy from many vendors around the Thu Bon River in Hanoi.
This rice noodle dish is perhaps the single most important Hoi An food. If you were to have just one dish in Hoi An, then this should be it. Called cao lầu, it’s a dry noodle dish made with rice flour noodles topped with cha siu pork, fresh greens, herbs, rice crackers, and fried pork rinds. Like bánh bao bánh vạc, what makes this dish so quintessentially Hoi An is that authentic cao lầu noodles need to be made with water sourced from a specific local well.
People claim that the water needed to make the noodles must be drawn from a local Cham well called the Ba Le Well. The alkaline water from this well is said to be the secret to the chewier texture of cao lầu noodles. Wood ash from trees that grow on Cham Island is mixed with the well’s alkaline water to create a lye solution used to pre-soak the noodles. This is what gives them their distinctively yellow tinge. After soaking in the lye solution, the noodles are then smoked over an ash-burning furnace to give them a smoky flavor.
It sounds like a lot of work just to prepare noodles but the results speak for themselves. Smokey and chewy, these noodles are delicious and an absolute must-try in Hoi An. Mythical stories about the Ba Le Well have made some people skeptical about its properties, but I’ve heard similar claims about the fog in San Francisco and the water in Philadelphia playing a critical role in their bread production. Folklore aside, I don’t think it’s that far-fetched. You can have cao lầu anywhere in Hoi An but we enjoyed it at Morning Glory Restaurant and Mì Quảng – Cao Lầu Bích. Both were excellent.
I used to frequent this modern Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco and the one dish I would always get is minced shrimp on sugarcane or chạo tôm. A specialty of Huế, prawns are seasoned than mashed into a paste before being wrapped around a stick of sugar cane. It’s steamed to set its shape then grilled or deep-fried. To eat, you cut the meat off the sugar cane and wrap it in lettuce with fresh herbs and some sweet chili sauce. Smokey, savory, and sweet, it’s a springy shrimp appetizer that’s always been one of my favorite Vietnamese foods. I could never keep myself from chewing on the sugar cane sticks after. 😆 We enjoyed this plate of chạo tôm at one of the many restaurants by the Thu Bon River in Hoi An.
Fried Green Sentinel Crab Cakes
Crab cakes are some of my favorite things to eat so I was looking forward to trying these. However, they weren’t what I expected. I was expecting something soft and delicate like Maryland crab cakes but these were crunchy like Filipino ukoy (deep-fried shrimp fritters).
As you can tell from the picture below, they’re made with whole green sentinel crabs which are said to be the meatiest type of sentinel crab. With their shells still intact, the crabs are dipped in corn and rice flour batter before before being deep-fried to a golden brown crisp. They’re tasty and satisfying – each cake about the size of a small plate. You can find these crab cakes at street food carts around the Central Market in Hoi An. We didn’t try it but pictured below is another type of deep-fried cake made with shrimp.
Like bánh dập, hen tron is also a specialty of Cẩm Nam Island in Hoi An. It’s a minced baby clam salad made with fresh clams that are boiled then fried with different ingredients like onion, pepper, spring onion, chili, ginger, mint, and peanuts. It’s served with a rice cracker to be used as a vessel to scoop up the clams, as well as a trio of sauces – nước chấm (fish sauce), chili, and I think soy sauce. The rice cracker is great but I suggest getting bánh dập as well. The chewiness and mild sweetness of the steamed rice pancake goes really well with the salty, briny flavor of the clams. Drizzle with some chili and fish sauce and you’re good to go. As previously mentioned, we enjoyed hen tron and bánh dập at Quán Ăn Bến Tre restaurant on Cẩm Nam Island.
Like cao lầu, mì quảng is a specialty of Quảng Nam Province in Central Vietnam. A quintessential Da Nang dish, what cao lầu is to Hoi An, mì quảng is to Da Nang. Equal parts soup and salad, mì quảng is a rice noodle dish made with chicken (or pork) broth topped with a host of proteins from chicken to shrimp to snakehead fish. It’s served with a bowl of fresh greens and herbs along with a few condiments.
Unlike cao lầu that’s served dry, mì quảng is a slightly soupier dish made with a wider type of rice noodle. Its stock is made by simmering meat (typically chicken or pork) in water or bone broth before seasoning with black pepper, fish sauce, shallots, and cu nen – a pungent, garlic-type vegetable. This creates a concentrated broth that’s more intense in flavor than a traditional noodle soup. The broth is then ladled about 1-2 cm deep into a bowl of noodles topped with different proteins like pork, shrimp, and hard-boiled quail eggs. It’s typically garnished with crushed peanuts, green onions, and chili, and served with fresh herbs, a rice cracker, whole green chilis, and lime.
Mì quảng is a Da Nang dish but you can find it everywhere in Hoi An. We tried it at Ong Hai (Mr. Hai Restaurant) and Mì Quảng – Cao Lầu Bích, both of which were fantastic. Mì quảng and cao lầu are the two dishes I’ve come to associate most with Central Vietnam and I enjoyed them both equally.
There’s a saying in Vietnamese about mì quảng that goes like this: Thương nhau múc bát chè xanh, Làm tô mì Quảng anh xơi cho cùng. The saying describes a girl from Quảng Nam province who invites her lover to drink a cup of tea and eat a bowl of mì quảng, to prove to him the depth of her love. That’s how special a dish mì quảng is in Quảng Nam province.
White Rose Dumplings (Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc)
Like cao lầu, bánh bao bánh vạc is a regional specialty available only in Hoi An. Aside from being made with the same local water used to make cao lầu noodles, the recipe for bánh bao bánh vạc or White Rose dumplings is a well-guarded secret that’s been kept in the family for three generations.
Invented and popularized by the grandfather of the owner of White Rose Restaurant, White Rose dumplings are made with translucent white dough filled with spiced minced shrimp or pork. The wrapper is bunched up to resemble flowers which is how the dumplings get their English name. They’re topped with crispy fried shallots and served with a special dipping sauce made with shrimp broth, chilies, lemon, and sugar. Walking inside the Central Market, I saw many stalls selling “White Rose Dumplings”. I thought they were knock-offs of the original but as it turns out, nearly all the white rose dumplings sold in Hoi An are supplied by White Rose Restaurant. There’s no place better than the original so I suggest trying it there.
When you take a bite of these dumplings, you may notice that the skin is firmer and chewier than traditional Chinese dumplings like har gow. I read that the dough is made with water drawn from the Ba Le Well, so that may have something to do with its chewier texture. It’s said that the water is filtered and purified 15-20 times before being mixed with the rice paste to form the airy dough. Whatever the secret is, these dumplings are delicious and a must-try in Hoi An.
Like chè bắp, xi ma or black sesame sweet soup is a popular dessert snack in Hoi An. It originates from Fujian Province in China and is made with black sesame, coconut, rice flour, sugar, and pennywort – a type of Chinese herbal medicine. Served warm in small portions, it’s nutty, not too sweet, and said to be good for your health. We tried it from the same vendor selling chè bắp by the Thu Bon River.
SAIGON & SOUTHERN VIETNAM
The warmer weather and fertile soil of Southern Vietnam makes for an ideal place to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Sugar is added to food more than in the previous two regions as well. This is best illustrated when comparing northern and southern phở. Unlike northern phở which is relatively neutral in flavor and garnished only with green onions, southern phở has a noticeably sweeter broth and is served with a forest of fresh greens, bean sprouts, and herbs.
Bột chiên is a classic street food from Saigon. Luke Nguyen described how it was one of his favorite snacks growing up. It’s basically rice flour mixed with tapioca starch that’s steamed, cooled, then cut into flat squares before being pan-fried in lard with some egg and green onions until golden brown and crispy. If you’re familiar with Malaysian or Singaporean food, then you may find it similar to char koay kak in Malaysia or chai tow kueh (“carrot cake”) in Singapore. Unlike those two versions though, bột chiên isn’t made with any daikon radish.
We were on a Saigon food tour with Alex of Inspitrip and he took us to Bột Chiên Đạt Thành which is one of the best places to try bột chiên in the city. According to him, this place has been around for decades. Much crisper than Malaysian char koay kak but still chewy and gummy on the inside, it’s served with a refreshing side of green papaya salad and a thickened sweet sauce to offset the oiliness. It’s a great snack that’s fun to eat with beer.
Com Ga Hai Nam
Com Ga Hai Nam is the Vietnamese version of Hainanese chicken and rice. I was reading through a recipe for it and it seems to be pretty much the same as the Singaporean version, except for a few small differences in presentation and sauces. In Vietnam, they serve the chicken over a bed of shredded lime leaves and with only nước chấm as the dipping sauce. This is different from the Singaporean version which is served with a trio of sauces – pureed ginger, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), and chili sauce. Apart from that, the versions seem identical. I don’t cook but Ren has a recipe for Hainanese chicken rice so I’m more or less familiar with the process. We had this delicious com ga hai nam in Hoi An but like many Vietnamese rice dishes, I believe it’s a dish largely associated with the south.
Cơm Gà Xối Mỡ
Out of the 50+ Vietnamese dishes we enjoyed in our two weeks in Vietnam, this was arguably my favorite one of them all. Cơm gà xối mỡ refers to fried chicken and rice, but what makes the version at Cơm gà xối mỡ Su Su in Saigon so special is the unique way in which they fry the chicken. Nicknamed “waterfall chicken”, the owner of the restaurant invented a machine that literally fries the chicken in a waterfall of oil.
The chicken is first poached in a master stock, so it’s already cooked through by the time it goes under the waterfall frying machine. The owner leaves it under a shower of oil (about 180°C) for just a few minutes to supremely crisp up the skin. As you can see from the picture below, there’s no arguing with the results. You can tell just how delicate and crisp that skin is. And since it wasn’t deep-fried, the chicken itself isn’t too oily. This was bar none the crispiest chicken I have ever eaten in my life. It is so damn delicious.
The chicken is served with red rice and a homemade sauce that’s savory-sweet and very garlicky, kinda like soy sauce with teriyaki and oyster sauce, maybe some hoisin and other spices too. Based on what I’ve read online, people become just as enamored with this secret sauce as they do with the ingenious way of frying up the chicken. It’s a perfect combination. Luke Nguyen featured this restaurant as well and their cơm gà xối mỡ is the one dish I would definitely look for on every return trip to Saigon.
Here’s the waterfall frying machine in action. Genius!
Cơm tấm means “broken rice” and is one of Saigon’s most well-known dishes. It’s called “broken rice” because it’s made with rice grain fragments that were broken either in the field, during drying, during transport, or by milling. Because it was damaged, cơm tấm was a traditionally cheaper grade of rice which has since become more expensive as a sought after delicacy.
Alex of Inspitrip told us that one of the best places for cơm tấm in Saigon is Cơm tấm Trần Quý Cáp. According to him, both his father and grandfather have been eating there for decades. Pictured below is cơm tấm sườn nướng which is broken rice with a grilled pork chop. To be honest, I haven’t eaten cơm tấm enough to really notice the difference but it’s said to be nuttier than regular rice, almost like risotto. What I did notice however, was how delicious that pork chop was. It was savory, sweet, very tender, and perfect to eat with the broken rice. We loved it.
I love breakfast food so this was something I really wanted to try. Unfortunately, I had to go on a Cu Chi Tunnels tour that morning so Ren enjoyed all this without me. 🙁 Op La means “sunny side up eggs” and banh mi op la refers to a Vietnamese breakfast consisting of a baguette, sunny side up eggs, pate, and charcuterie.
You’d think that a breakfast with bánh mì and fried eggs would be a staple throughout Vietnam, but it seems to be largely associated with Saigon. Ren tried it at Bánh Mì Hòa Mã which was also featured by Luke Nguyen on his show Street Food Asia. Open only from 5-10AM, early risers are treated to this personal skillet filled with sunny side up eggs, onions, sausages, and pork terrine. It’s served with a side of liver pate, pickled vegetables, and a crisp toasted baguette. Ren said it was the best breakfast she had in Vietnam. 🙁 🙁
If you’ve managed to read through this entire post, then congratulations. You’re just as big a food nerd as we are. 😆
But in all seriousness, I hope this food guide helps you navigate through the incredibly diverse and colorful landscape of Vietnamese food. As long as this post already is, it’s by no means a definitive guide but I do hope it helps point you in the right direction. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Vietnamese cuisine. There’s still so much more to taste and discover in this country that we’re already planning our next visit. And with every return trip to Vietnam, I’ll continue to refine and grow this guide.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, then you can download a copy of our entire 2-week Vietnam itinerary in editable Word format from our EAT-ineraries page. It goes north to south and covers Hanoi (including Ha Long Bay), Hoi An, and Saigon.
Thanks for reading and have an awesome time traveleating in Vietnam!
Before you go, here’s a quick video I put together featuring 18 of our favorite Vietnamese dishes from this guide. Enjoy!
For travel tips to Hanoi, check out our First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Hanoi, Vietnam
For travel tips to Hoi An, check out our First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Hoi An, Vietnam
For travel tips to Ho Chi Minh City, check out our First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
JB and Renée are the Traveleaters behind Will Fly for Food, a travel blog for the gastronomically inclined. They enjoy experiencing food from different cultures so they’ve made it their mission to try every country’s national dish. Read more about them and their National Dish Quest here.