Vietnamese food values the balance of all five tastes, and its typical dishes represent this harmony very well. The bitter, sour, spicy, sweet and salty flavours merge together into delicious broth and sauces while rice comes in different shapes and textures. Many of the Vietnamese typical dishes has Chinese influence due to the Chinese occupation that lasted for about a thousand years. In parallel, it is also possible to perceive legacies of the French colonization, such as baguette bread and coffee.
Overall, Vietnam is a very interesting country to visit, however, the complex local phonetic and little spoken English brings some obstacles to get off the touristic route and get to know it truly.
Now, if you ask for advice, I encourage you to go over these challenges and immerse yourself in the Vietnamese culinary. During my trip, the more I interacted with local people, the more authentic my experiences became, which contributed greatly to understanding the culture and essence of Vietnamese cuisine.
I hope that this guide with typical Vietnamese dishes will help you to learn more about the flavours of Vietnamese food, which goes far beyond spring rolls and exotic dishes.
The most famous Vietnamese dishes
1. Bún chả
Bún Chả is thin rice noodles (Bún) with grilled pork (Chả) served in a surprisingly refreshing broth, a mix of vinegar, water, fish sauce, sugar and carrot slices with green papaya. The dish comes with a basket containing several leaves and herbs, lettuce, mint and shiso.
Bún Chả was one of the best Vietnamese dishes I tried in Hanoi and exemplifies Vietnamese cuisine very well: noodles, broths, leaves and herbs. A balance of flavours and textures served in a way that you assemble and eat as you wish.
Phở is the most famous of Vietnam’s many noodle soups. From a linguistic point of view, Phở refers to the long, flat rice noodle. In its main preparation Phở is served in an aromatic broth with pieces of meat and fresh herbs. This Vietnamese dish is so famous that when someone says Phở, the association with this noodle soup is immediate.
A cheap meal and easy to find through the streets of Vietnam. It is commonly eaten at breakfast, however, it fits well any time of day. There are several versions with different meats, seasonings and preparation techniques. The secret is in the broth, a slow cooking stew with bone-in meats.
3. Bánh xèo
Bánh xèo is the name of these yellow pancakes (looks like an omelette, but it isn’t). Feels like crispy crepes made with rice flour and turmeric, stuffed with pork, prawns and bean sprouts.
Depending on the region of the country, the size of the pancakes and the way it is served may vary. But I assure you, all are delicious!
4. Bánh bèo
Street food in the imperial city is a fancy thing! Bánh bèo was created in the city of Hue to serve the emperor, but today is street food throughout central Vietnam. It is rice and tapioca flour steamed in small ceramic bowls, which gives it the round shape.
Once cooked, comes the topping, which varies from city to city, cook to cook. The most traditional one takes ground shrimp, pieces of pork rinds and chives. The special touch is the sweet sauce served separately made with fish sauce, shrimp sauce, pepper and sugar.
5. Bánh cuốn
Bánh cuốn is most common in northern Vietnam, made with rice flour, water and a few drops of oil.
The more traditional version is served with mushroom and pork stuffing and fried onion on top. It is served with a basket of leaves and a type of sausage called Chả lụa.
6. Bò lá lốt
Ground beef wrapped in an aromatic leaf called lá lốt, also known as wild betel leaves (piper sarmentosum).
The smoky taste and herbal smell from these grilled rolls will tickle your taste buds.
7. Thịt kho
Caramelized pork belly served in the clay pot. Its version with boiled eggs (Thịt kho tàu), is one of the typical dishes widely consumed during the lunar new year, the famous Tết Festival.
One of the secrets of this tasty Vietnamese dish lies in the marinade that takes as its main ingredients coconut water, fermented fish sauce, sugar, shallots and garlic.
8. Cơm hến
Cơm hến is a rice dish with clams, peanuts and fried pork skin. The dish bears the same name as the islet where it is consumed, right in the middle of the Perfume River in Huế, central Vietnam.
This is the type of food that needs to be consumed at the source, a super authentic experience and outside the tourist circuit.
9. Bánh hỏi
Almost a work of art, rice noodles with the shape of a super delicate net. It is served with a basket of leaves and pork meat (sausages, skewers or pieces).
To eat, the process is the usual: the leaves serve as the wrap, inside the leaf goes the noodles and the pork, then you rolled it up, add some bittersweet sauce and Nhac!
10. Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc
Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc, known as White Rose, is an exclusive dish from Hoi An in central Vietnam. It is so exclusive that even today the same family supplies most restaurants in the city. Secret recipe kept under lock and key.
A translucent dumpling stuffed with shrimp, a delicacy.
11. Bánh canh
Noodle soup made with rice flour and cassava starch. This starch mixture and the thicker rounder noodle make all the difference. The soup can be made with various ingredients or a mixture of them: pork, fish cake, Vietnamese ham, crab, shrimp, tofu, etc.
The one we liked the most was the Banh Canh Cuá Tom with crab and shrimp (the coagulated pork blood always accompanies).
12. Bún bò Huế
A bowl of Bún bò Huế bubbles with harmonious flavours: spicy, sour, salty, sweet touch and lots of lemongrass. The name of the dish is practically its description: Bún (rice noodle type) + Bò (meat) + Huế = Huế noodle soup with meat.
Favourite local breakfast for a long day at work. The broth is made with meat and bones, lemongrass, fermented shrimp paste (mam tom), pepper and herbs.
13. Bánh mì
Bánh mì is a fusion of French and Vietnam flavours, inherited from the colonization period in the 1950s. There are a thousand versions, but overall it works like this: the bread is half-open, so comes the pate (made with pork liver) and mayonnaise, then meats and sausages, plenty of cilantro, pepper, vegetables like carrots and cucumbers bring crispness and to finish a bittersweet sauce.
One bite and you’re in Vietnam!
14. Bánh khọt
Mini dumplings made with rice flour (sometimes with leftover rice), cornstarch, turmeric and coconut milk topped with shrimp and chives.
It’s similar to Bánh xèo, but has the advantage of being bite-sized!
15. Kem xôi
It is impossible to talk about Vietnamese food without mentioning at least one dessert.
Sticky rice made with pandan leaves. Coconut ice cream and roasted coconut chips are added on top. A very tasty mixture of colours, smells and textures!
Bonus! Cà phê trứng
Cà phê trứng means coffee with egg, famous in Hanoi, home of the original recipe which is internationally known as egg coffee. The recipe for the egg coffee takes robusta type coffee beans, egg yolks, condensed milk and other ingredients that may vary.
This Vietnamese dessert will surprise you. Try making at home, it’s easy!
Overall, How is Vietnamese Food?
After venturing into various Vietnamese dishes, the word that best defines the basis of Vietnamese food is balance. You will hardly find a dish that will pull more for salty, bitter or overly spicy as is the case with some of its neighbours. Another feature is the fresh herbs, a faithful partner of the most diverse Vietnamese cuisine.
Read more: How to eat street food without getting sick