Vietnam is a foodies paradise. Ask any person who has been to Vietnam what they think and the first thing out of their mouth will be “the food is amazing!” Being a lover of food, I was pretty excited to test the food out. Let me tell you, it blew every expectation I had out of the water. The food really IS that good.
What makes Vietnam incredibly special compared to a lot of other countries is their local specialties. Food in the north of Vietnam drastically differs from that in the South. Often each city will have it’s own food speciality, so if you find something you like in a city, you better eat it lots because once you move onto the next city, you may never see it again. While travelling in other areas of Asia, I quickly tire of the local food, but in Vietnam, I almost never crave western food because the food is constantly changing.
Where to Eat
Vietnam is a mecca for street food. You can’t go more than a few feet down a city block without seeing someone cooking on the street. At times, seeing meat sitting out all day or wondering about the sanitation practices had us worried but neither Tom or I got sick once in Vietnam and we ate a lot of street food. The street food is almost always superior to anything you’ll find in a restaurant and it’s about 1/4 of the price (usually about $2 a meal), so I strongly urge you to try it.
When finding a place to eat, I try to stick away from tourist spots as they are overpriced and never as good. So to find street food or a restaurant I look for these five things:
- Tiny plastic chairs – Because food is often eaten on the street or in make-shift restaurants, the Vietnamese use tiny plastic kids chairs and tables to sit on. It takes up less space than full-size chairs. Rule of thumb – if you’re sitting on a full-size chair, you’re probably at a tourist spot.
- Free Tea – Green tea is always complimentary with your meal at local places. You probably won’t get this at a street side stand but definitely in a local restaurant.
- Simple Menu – The best places have one or two things on a menu. They specialize in one thing and do it really well. If you’re at a place with a ten page menu, you’re probably not getting the best quality.
- Someone cooking out front – As I mentioned, the Vietnamese cook on the street. Even if you’re not eating directly on the street you may find a restaurant that has the “kitchen” out front that shows what they’re making and ingredients.
- Locals eating there – Take a look at who is eating there. If it looks like a bunch of tourists, you might want to just keep on walking.
What to Eat
Now I’m no expert on the food in Vietnam. There are tons of things I didn’t get to try and I don’t eat seafood (except shrimp which I apparently now like) so I skipped out on those dishes. But if I had to narrow down all the amazing food I tried, I would recommend these dishes.
Cao Lau – Only found in Hoi An and worth travelling to Vietnam for. This was without a doubt my favourite dish in Vietnam. It has thick chewy noodles, grilled pork, croutons, greens and bean sprouts. It may not sound like much but trust me, the flavour and texture combination is out of this world.
White Rose Dumpling – Another specialty of Hoi An, a pork or shrimp dumpling shaped into a rose and topped with the most incredible sauce made of shrimp broth, lemon, sugar and chiles. The combination of sweet, sour and spicy is a treat for your mouth.
Com Tam (Broken Rice) – This dish is made from the broken rice fragments and is topped with grilled pork, pork meatloaf, egg, and vegetables. It is served with fish sauce and a side of soup broth. It’s a simple dish but incredibly tasty and filling.
Bun Cha – This has always been my go-to Vietnamese meal when I order at home. Rice vermicelli with grilled pork, greens, fish sauce and usually served with spring rolls. What I didn’t know is that I’ve been eating it wrong. In Vietnam, the fish sauce is given to you in a large bowl. Sometimes the pork is in the sauce and sometimes on the side. You then dip the noodles, greens, and pork into the fish sauce and eat it, you do not cover the noodle dish with fish sauce like is commonly done at restaurants back home.
Pho Bo – If there’s one Vietnamese dish you’ve heard of, it’s Pho. A simple noodle soup dish made from broth, rice noodles, herbs, bean sprouts and meat. This tasty dish is everywhere in Vietnam but it varies by region and some areas like Hue even have their own specialty version.
Banh Xeo – A crisp pancake filled with pork, shrimp, beans sprouts that you cut into pieces and wrap into lettuce to be dipped into a specialty sauce.
What to Drink
Ca Phe Sua Da (Iced coffee with condensed milk) – Vietnamese coffee is like no other coffee in the world. It’s brewed thick and strong with sweetened condensed milk. Available both hot or iced (I loved both) but most often drank iced. Cafes are ubiquitous in Vietnam as coffee is a big part of their culture. Similar to eating, the best coffee is often found at small street side stands with plastic chairs. The mark of an authentic and local coffee place is being served Jasmine tea as a chaser to your coffee.
Bia Hoi (Fresh Beer) – Bia Hoi is draft beer brewed fresh daily and served at pubs and restaurants throughout the night for usually around 5,000 dong ($0.33) a glass though we found it as cheap as 3,000 ($0.18).
If there’s only one place you ever try Bia Hoi it has to be on Bia Hoi corner in Hanoi. There are loads of bars and restaurants in the alley-way that serve Bia Hoi. As the night goes on and it gets busier, more and more tiny plastic tables and chairs are brought out as the shop owners will do anything to have another customer. Of course the street begins to get blocked by all these tables and so about every half hour or so, the cops come down the street and to avoid a fine, the shop owners quickly make everyone stand up and stack up all the tables and chairs. Once the cops pass, the tables and chairs are brought back out and you resume your drinking or eating. It’s absolutely the most comical thing I’ve ever seen.
I was never very adventurous with my ordering Vietnamese food before but now I can’t wait to get home to venture past the Vermicelli page and see what other things are available at home (and how well their renditions of them really are).