Vietnam is blessed with a unique culture and heritage, amazing landscapes and very friendly locals. But what makes me proudest of my country is absolutely our varied and delicious cuisine. The fact of Vietnamese food being globally recognized is testified through countless compliments I have heard from international tourists and friends visiting the country as well as the increasing popularity of Vietnamese restaurants in many other countries I have been to. Vietnamese food has also been receiving a fair share of attention from world-renowned food critics over the last few years.
When you think of Vietnamese food, the first dish that springs to mind is most likely Pho. Yes, Pho is no doubt our national pride and the most famous food. However, there is so much more that you don’t want to miss out. So in this article I am going to walk you through my recommendations for 10 different foods other than Pho to try on your visit to my beautiful country.
Banh Bot Loc
These translucent teaspoon-sized dumplings are one of the many specialties in Central Vietnam where I grew up. I was addicted to this snack food my entire childhood and have to admit I still am! They come under two forms: either ‘naked’ – bánh bột lọc trần – or wrapped in banana leaves – bánh bột lọc lá.
The clear wrapper of bánh bột lọc is made of tapioca starch. This kind of flour comes from cassava roots, which are abundant in the Central part of Vietnam. Perhaps this explains the ready availability of bánh bột lọc in this region.
The dumplings are created by hands by adding fillings inside the wrapper. Choices for fillings can be caramelized pork belly and shrimps or seasoned mung beans for the vegetarian version. The final products will then be steamed or boiled. Bánh bột lọc is served with traditional dipping sauce made from a combination of fish sauce, garlic and chilies.
You will surely be charmed by the uniquely translucent appearance and of course the savory taste of the fillings infused in the chewy skin.
A list of Vietnamese local delicacies will be incomplete without “Banh Xeo”. This dish is also known as “Vietnamese Fried Pancake” or “Vietnamese Crepes” due to its resemblance to both. In Vietnamese cuisine, “Banh” refers to a variety of breads, cakes and other food items. Meanwhile “Xeo” is the descriptive word for the sizzling sound it makes when the dish is cooked. Banh Xeo’s shapes and sizes differ depending on regions. For example, in Northern and Central Vietnam it is generally smaller while in further South the size is bigger. There are a few things ubiquitous about this dish. It is yellow in color which comes from the turmeric powder. It must be served while hot and should be eaten with hands.
To make the dish, a batter is created out of rice flour, turmeric powder, coconut milk and sometimes beer. The mixture will be poured on to several hot skillets at the same time before thin slices of fatty pork, shrimps, bean sprouts and chopped onions are added. “Banh Xeo” is always served with a plentiful dish of green vegetables and herbs with which you use to create the wrap and dip in sweet and sour sauce.
To any Vietnamese, Banh Mi is the most widely available street food that can be found basically anywhere across the country. And it’s super inexpensive too, ranging from only 10,000 to 35,000 VND. The locals mostly have Banh Mi for breakfast. But being convenient and delicious as it is, we don’t mind having Banh Mi for lunch or dinner either. It’s crazy how popular Banh Mi has become over the years: from a super local street food to being a new addition to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011.
In Vietnamese, Banh Mi means ‘bread. It was first introduced in Vietnam by the French during their colonial period. To the uninitiated, size is the only difference between Banh Mi and its French ancestor. There are more. Banh Mi is a lot airier. It has thinner golden crackly crust and is much lighter with as well. Then there’s a whole range of varieties when it comes to the fillings inside Banh Mi. Typically they include mayonnaise, paté, chilli sauce, cucumber, pickled vegs, some fresh herbs, pork floss, either grilled pork, ham or eggs. I know, it’s like the whole world can be wrapped in such a small banh mi. When all combined together, they taste heavenly!
Looking for a snack break while you’re in Sai Gon? Then “Bot Chien” will be a perfect choice. The main ingredient to make this simple dish is rice flour mixed with some tapioca starch. The mixture is cooked and moulded into a big chunk and cut into square shaped pieces before being fried till golden brown. Eggs and diced spring onions are later added. The dish is served with pickled green papaya or carrot to make it less oily. You can easily find this yummy local dish in either mobile food carts or local restaurants in Sai Gon.
Spring roll is a very classic Vietnamese dish and one of the indispensables during the feast of Tet – the most important festival in Vietnam. In the North, it is called Nem ran. While the same food is called Cha gio in the South. Basic fillings for Nem ran include ground pork, diced wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, eggs, shredded vegetables such as carrots, taro, jícama or kohlrabi depending on the regions. All of these ingredients are seasoned and well mixed before being wrapped in rice papers and deep-fried till golden brown.
There are some variations of spring rolls when pork is replaced by chicken or seafood. However, the traditional spring rolls remain the most popular of all. Vietnamese spring rolls are often mistaken with the Chinese egg rolls because of their looks. The biggest difference is our spring rolls are wrapped in rice papers instead of the wheat flour wrapper. Vietnamese spring rolls can be served with fresh herbs and dipping fish sauce. It can be eaten with noodles or steamed white rice in a traditional family meal.
Bun Bo Hue
Although the dish specifically mentions Huế, a central city in Vietnam where this noodle soup originated from, it has become so popular and can be easily found all across the country. What special and makes Bun bo Hue different from other Vietnamese noddle dishes is the soft fragrance of lemongrass, the unique taste of fermented shrimp paste combined with the spicy chili oil in the broth.
Bun bo Hue usually includes thin slices of beef shank, cubes of pig blood, pieces of pig legs. It is served with sliced onions, mint, basil, Vietnamese coriander and lemon wedges.
Besides the internationally recognized Pho, another excellent representative of Northern Vietnamese Cuisine and a must try is Bun cha. This food has even become more sought after than ever since President Obama’s visit to Vietnam in 2016, when he had his $6 Bun cha meal in a local eatery in Hanoi.
The dish consists of grilled pork patties and crispy cuts of grilled pork belly served in a bowl of dipping sauce mixed with pickled carrot, kohlrabi or green papaya. The main content was accompanied by one plate of cold white rice noodles and one full plate of fresh green goodies: Vietnamese balm, fish mints, lettuce, coriander and raw bean sprouts. Now that you’ve had everything, take a bit of each, dip into the sauce and enjoy! The soul of this dish lies in the pork marinate recipe and the unique taste of the dipping sauce. The meat is believed to bring out its best flavors being grilled over charcoal fire. Meanwhile, making the perfect sauce requires a great balance between the sweetness of sugar, the sour of vinegar and indispensable presence of fish sauce. The addition of pickled vegetables will also make the dish more appetizing.
Bun cha is a lunch food and the price for one portion usually varies between 25,000 to 45,000 VND. So next time when you’re in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians do, eat Bun cha for lunch and you’ll understand why of all the food Mr. President could have chosen, Bun cha was the one.
Chả cá Lã Vọng (Grilled fish with turmeric and dill) Chả cá Lã Vọng is one of the most iconic Hanoian dishes which has had a long history dating back to the early 20th century when Vietnam was still under French colonial rule.
The dish was credited to the Đoàn family, who used to live at the now 14 Chả Cá street in Hanoi Old Quarter. Chả cá means fish while Lã Vọng was the name of a famous Chinese noble whose statue was put in the Đoàn family’s house and whom the dish was named after. Similar fish dishes can be found in Hanoi under different names such as Chả cá Hà Nội, chả cá Thăng Long or just simply Chả cá.
The type of fish used for this dish is the river catfish. It doesn’t have a lot of bones and brings out better flavors than other kinds of fishes. The fishes are cut into big fillets before being marinated in different spices including galangal, turmeric, fish sauce, pepper. They will then be grilled on charcoal and put onto a frying pan with hot vegetable oil. Later, dill and spring onion are added. The dish is served while hot with rice noddle and a plate of various herbs. All of these should be dipped in a sauce uniquely made from shrimp paste mixed with fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, garlic and lime juice.
If eating Bún chả is a typical Hanoian thing to do then Cơm tấm should bring you the authentic Saigonese experience.
Although there are quite some variations nowadays, a traditional version of this Saigonese signature dish must include a combo of broken rice, a piece of grilled pork chop (sườn), a piece of egg meatloaf (chả) and a small handful of thinly shredded pork skin (bì). These are topped with scallion oil and served with some light dipping fish sauce. In some places it can also be served with a bowl of soup.
You may find it a surprise but Cơm Tấm is a very popular breakfast dish in Sài Gòn. It can be found from local food carts on the streets to expensive restaurants downtown.
When it comes to wraps and rolls Vietnamese can be very creative and know how to make the food irresistible as well. Goi cuon is a delightful and healthy dish that comes under the form of translucent rolls of rice papers stuffed with thinly sliced boiled pork, boiled shrimps, cold white rice noodles and a jumble of aromatic herbs and crunchy green vegetables. It is served with a slightly sweet, sticky sauce sprinkled with ground peanuts and fresh diced chillies.
It may sound simple but don’t be hasty to underestimate this snack food! It is listed among the world’s 50 best food according to CNN readers. So when you need a break from all the deep-fried oily food, Goi cuon is the perfect choice. One bite of this little delicacy only leaves you wanting for more.