Vietnamese food is very peculiar and unique. Generally speaking it’s quite local and can be very different from north to south, but there are some exceptions like Phở soup and Bành Mi (the bread baguette “imported” by the French) that are widespread throughout the whole country.
Also, some cities have their own specialties that can be found there only!
Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest in the world, due to minimal use of dairy and oil, and reliance on vegetables and herbs including lemongrass, coriander (we truly hate coriander!) ginger and mint . That’s why it is unusual to see fat Vietnamese people!
Therefore we decided to put down this Vietnamese food guide, and divide it by region and city.
NORTH VIETNAMESE FOOD
North Vietnam’s cuisine is related to its cooler weather: less spices are available, and main dishes are based on rice, soups and fish. In northern provinces especially, as Sapa, Ha Giang and Cao Bang, each ethnic minority has its own recipes, for example Cơm Lam (Bamboo Sticky Rice) is popular in Sapa.
Hanoi signature dish is arguably Bún Chả (rice noodle with grilled marinated pork), even more emphasized after Barack Obama had it a couple of years ago during a visit to Hanoi (the place where he ate changed name to Bún Chả Obama!). A hot phở (broth, rice noodle, herbs and beef/pork/chicken meat) is always a good choice in a cold rainy day in Hanoi; Phở Gà, chicken phở, in particular is typical of Hanoi.
WHERE TO EAT IN HANOI:
- Phở Thìn Restaurant, 13 Lò Đuc, Hanoi: huge bowls of tasty phở, 50,000 Dong;
- Bún Chả Ta Restaurant, 21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hanoi: different options of Bún Chả, also vegetarian, from 80,000 VND;
- Phở Cuốn Hưng Bền, 33 Ngũ Xã, Quận Ba Đình: try Phở Rán (fried pho) and phở cuốn (fresh rice noodle rolls).
- Quán Ăn Ngon Restaurant, 18 Phan Bội Châu, Cửa Nam: every kind of Vietnamese food! Located close to Hanoi train station.
When in Hanoi, tasting some local Bia Hơi is a must, by far the most popular draft beer in Vietnam. Bia Hơi can be found at many street corners and is sometimes sold for as low as 5,000 Dong per glass, 0.25 cents!
Another peculiar drink in Hanoi is Cà Phê Trứng, a.k.a. egg coffee, a super energetic start for your day. Taste it at 13 Dinh Tien Hoang, along Hoan Kiem lake.
We only stayed for a couple of nights in Ninh Binh back in November 2017, but managed to taste its specialties: we tried some Thìt De (goat meat) and the typical Com Cháy, crispy scorched rice (if you try and speak some Vietnamese remember the different accents, because Chay means vegetarian, whilst Cháy means scorched/burnt. Same same but different!). Any local place in Ninh Binh will have these two options in their menu.
HALONG BAY CRUISE + COOKING CLASS
An experience we remember with pleasure was having a cooking class while on our cruise boat in stunning Halong Bay, where we learned how to prepare spring rolls in the Vietnamese traditional way. Most of cruises include this activity in their plan, or you can book your cooking class here.
CENTRAL VIETNAMESE FOOD
Central Vietnamese food includes a wide range of specialties, we lived there for long and recipes are so different from Hue to Da Nang and Hoi An too. What we can certainly affirm is that spices here are abundant and locals love spicy food. All of our local friends in Da Nang used to put chilly sauce literally everywhere, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, even on pasta and pizza when we made them try it! We had to remind to waiters in every restaurant we would go “please no chilly” because dishes are often very spicy!
Hue is one of those cities we mentioned earlier that has its own food, that can’t be find elsewhere. This is because Hue has been the capital of sovereign dynasties in Vietnam for centuries, and food here still reflects the influence of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine.
One of the most particular dishes in Hue is Bánh Bèo, a variety of small steamed rice cake with diverse ingredients including dried shrimps, scallions, fish sauce.
Another specialty is Bánh Khoái, and here comes the emperor sign: Bánh Khoái (khoái=happy) is a kind of Bánh Xèo that was said to be cooked exclusively under his request, and had a smile shape. Compared to Bánh Xèo, it is smaller and is filled with bigger chunks of pork meat.
Last but not least, Bún bò Huế, another royal heritage dish. Similar to a Phở soup, it features rice vermicelli, thicker than rice noodle, and has beef meat (thit bò).
WHERE TO EAT IN HUE:
- Quán bánh bèo nậm lọc Bà Đỏ, 8 Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm: the main dish is included in the place name, Bánh Bèo. Other typical dishes are served as Bánh Khoái and Nem Lụi (pork skewers). Have a walk along the riverside to get to this big nice family restaurant.
- Quán ăn Huyền Anh 52/1 號, Kim Long: the simpliest of menus with two dishes only: Bún Thịt Nướng (beef rice noodles) and Bánh Ướt (thin pancake wrapper consisting of rice noodle sheets and filled with vegetables). Very cheap local prices, dishes between 15k and 30k Dong (1 to 1.5$)
In Da Nang we fell in love with Bánh Xèo: savory fried pancakes made of rice flour and turmeric powder, stuffed with shrimps, pork meat and soy beans. To make it even more special, a sublime thick peanut sauce in which to dip your Bánh Xèo. The same plate in the south is served with thin fish sauce.
Another of our preferred dishes is common in Da Nang, Bún Thịt Nướng: grilled pork rice vermicelli, garnished with herbs and peanuts.
Then we have Mì Quảng, which takes the name of its originating Quảng Nam Province in central Vietnam: it consists of wide noodles, meat/fish and a large number of herbs, usually served with a small amount of broth.
Da Nang faces the Southern China Sea and the choice of seafood is particularly large too. The best area to eat good seafood is undoubtedly the beach-side, where restaurants rise for some kilometers.
WHERE TO EAT IN DA NANG:
- Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng, 280/23 Hoàng Diệu: the best place in town to have Bánh Xèo. Bún Thịt Nướng and Nem Lụi are also available on the simple menu.
- Quán Mì Quảng, 1 Hải Phòng: come here to taste some proper Mì Quảng.
- Hải sản Năm Đảnh, 139/59/38 Trần Quang Khải: the cheapest and freshest everyday caught seafood. This place is 100% Vietnamese run and managed, you’ll most likely have to make yourself clear with hand gestures!
- BBQ Ủn Ỉn, 379 Trần Hưng Đạo: cooking barbeque on-the-go is very popular in all of Vietnam, you will see smoke columns here and there in some places. BBQ Ủn Ỉn is our favourite place to taste some great pork ribs!
- Bé Mặn, 11 Đường Võ Nguyên Giáp: a huge seafood place where you can choose your own fish from the tanks, have it weighed and cooked as you wish.
- Mi AA Happy Bread, 14 Hùng Vương, Hải Châu: is your to go place if you fancy a Bành Mi while seating at a table. Otherwise you’re good with any Bành Mi stand around town.
Hoi An is an exception yet again. Having been an important commercial harbour from 16th to 19th centuries, it has been home to Chinese, Japanese, French and Dutch merchants.
This affected food traditions too, as a matter of fact unique Chinese recipes are still used nowadays. Among those the most notable is Cao Lầu, a dish that is said to be prepared using the water of just few special wells around Hoi An, thus it can’t be prepared elsewhere. Main ingredients are noodles, pork, fried lard, greens and a sauce, there’s no broth.
Other Chinese heritage dishes are Wonton and White Rose: the former are a crispy fried base served with a tomato sauce on top and concealing pork or shrimp inside the frying; the latter are prawn filled rice paper dumplings. They are both very good as appetizers.
Some say the best Bánh Mì in Vietnam is prepared in Hoi An, at Bánh Mì Phượng. Again this place gain visibility when popular chef Anthony Bourdain visited this place for his TV show. Yet their Bánh Mì are special indeed.
A Bánh Mì is the Vietnamese version of a sandwich and can be filled in any way you like, as long as you know how to pronounce the ingredients! Normally some sliced meat, paté, raw vegetables, different herbs, fried eggs, spreadable cheese, are available to choose from. Luckily Bánh Mì are sold in characteristic food stalls along the streets, so that you can easily point at the ingredients you want without speaking any Vietnamese.
Walking through Hoi An you can see many street food vendors, selling for example tiny mango cakes or grilled pork sticks, usually for 10,000 each.
A popular drink always available here and in Vietnam overall, very sweet, is Nước Mía (sugar cane juice), a syrup obtained by pressing sugar cane sticks. Very refreshing and energy recovering when it’s extremely hot outside.
WHERE TO EAT IN HOI AN:
- Old Garden Restaurant (Vườn Xưa), 33 Phan Châu Trinh: a nice bamboo-themed restaurant, featuring all of Hoi An specialties;
- Hồ Lô quán, 20 Trần Cao Vân: a typical family run place, very kind staff and authentic central Vietnamese food.
- Bánh Mì Phượng, 2B Phan Châu Trinh: the most famous Bánh Mì in Vietnam, better to sit down at the tables rather than standing in the long take away queue!
SOUTHERN VIETNAMESE FOOD
The warmer weather and fertile soil around the Mekong Delta lead to an even wider variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables in southern Vietnam. Sugar is added to food more than in the other regions here, and is already highly used elsewhere in Vietnam. When sweet potatoes are not available, we witnessed sugar being added to French fries! Also burger buns are often sweet, which is not really ideal when you are having a cheeseburger… Apart from this, you can get used to it, but once more a “please no sugar” is a good reminder when ordering coffee, tea, shakes or juices.
Fruit is so tasty and sweet in Vietnam that you just don’t need to add anything, and this is even more true along Mekong Delta fertile branches.
Seafood is also a pillar in Southern Vietnam cuisine, crab dishes featured in every single menu when we were in Nha Trang city.
We list Dalat because it was the first place in Vietnam where we stayed for few days and discovered some of its food specialties. It seemed unusual to us at first, but then we used to see all of them again throughout all the country.
Firstly, bakery shops: a heritage from the French, you can find bakeries easily in Vietnam’s cities. Their main product is bread, both filled and plain bành mi bread. Then, a lot of super sweet pastry is usually showcased, from donuts to cakes. We don’t want to sound disapproving, but they’re better to the eye rather than in taste! Before boarding our Dalat-Nha Trang bus, we saw these pizza slices calling us from a bakery shop, only to discover they were made with a sweet base!
Another food we tried for the first time in Dalat is Bánh bao: a steamed ball-shaped white bun containing pork meat and a hard-boiled quail egg inside. It looks similar to a Baozi, a brave way to start your day!
Having dinner in Dalat, we learnt about Vietnamese love for hot pots. A big boiling water pot is set in the middle of the table, and all kind of raw meat and fish are served on the side; everybody is then free to cook their own food. Especially used during celebrations and for big tables, what struck us is how shortly the meat is left boiling (some would leave it for just few seconds!) and the fact that hot-pot is often ordered at the end of a meal after having already the main course!
WHERE TO EAT IN DALAT:
- Góc Hà Thành, 53 Trương Công Định, Phường 1: a tiny local restaurant in the heart of Dalat, we suggest to go early to find a table.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and the most open to external influences, both foreign and from northern Vietnam. This affects food too, the choice is endless.
Still, Bành Mì and Phở are among the most popular foods, and one that represents proudly the south of Vietnam is Cơm tấm, a rice based dish, that is indeed often referred to as Cơm tấm Sài Gòn (Saigon-style broken rice): Cơm means cooked sticky rice, tấm translates to broken, tradition says broken refers to the “broken” leftovers that were combined to prepare this dish. It is usually served with grilled pork plus the Vietnamese dish bì (thinly shredded pork) over sticky rice, accompanied by various greens and pickled vegetables.
Bánh Xèo are also a favourite in the south, bigger in size and served with the typical Nước mắm pha, commonly known as fish sauce, that is often included with any dish in Ho Chi Minh City.
We suggest you a couple of Phở places in Ho Chi Minh City. Clearly there’s a celebrity place too! Phở 2000, because Bill Clinton went there back in year 2000…
WHERE TO EAT IN HO CHI MINH CITY:
- Nhà hàng Ngon, 160 Pasteur street: the nice place for Phở, a fine restaurant with smart decoration;
- Phở24, the budget place, actually a franchise, it may be a good approach for your first time because you can choose your own ingredients.
- if you are not picky as you shouldn’t be in Vietnam, try any Phở eatery along the streets where you’ll get a nice bowl for as low as 25,000 VND (1$).
Coffee is very important to Vietnam’s life style and economy, it’s exportation is second in numbers only to rice. If you are a coffee lover, you will have different styles of coffee to taste:
- Cà Phê Đen, strong black coffee;
- Cà Phê Đen Đá, iced black coffee, ideal when it’s very hot outside;
- Cà Phê Sữa Đá, iced milk coffee, with condensed milk used as sweetener.
As said, especially southern Vietnamese love sweet food and drinks. Some of our friends, yes, the same who put chilly sauce everywhere, used to drink heavily sugary drinks, particularly Trà Sữa (Milk Tea) and Cà Phê Sữa Đá (Iced Milk Coffee). Condensed milk is the indispensable ingredient for milk coffee in Vietnam, and it’s very thick and sugary, more closer to butter consistency rather than milk!
Trà Sữa (milk tea) is becoming more and more trendy among young people, you will see stylish bars serving nothing but milk tea, always packed of students and teenagers!
That’s it, our Vietnamese food guide ends here, we hope we got you hungry! No trip to Vietnam would be complete without trying a traditional Bành Mì and tasting an iconic Phở bowl!
HOTELS – WHERE TO STAY IN VIETNAM?
You can pre book all of your Vietnam accomodation here.
Check out our favourite hotel in Hanoi: modern rooms and excellent staff in the Old Quarter.
An example of Vietnamese homestay in Ninh Binh: a welcoming family will take care of everything you need.
Great value for money in Hoi An: 3-star hotel with swimming pool from 20$!
HOW TO GET AROUND:
You can book train, bus, ferry tickets easily online from reliable agency amt.12go.asia.
We also recently used baolau.com, a new online booking platform operating in Southeast Asia. Follow our step-by-step guide to make sure you get your ticket delivered straight to your e-mail address.
Never leave home without a reliable travel insurance. Even if you trust yourself, you can’t always trust others. Better safe than sorry! Get your quote here.