Prepare to be amazed by Vietnam's cuisine. From street stalls to upscale dining, the country delivers a banquet of exquisite eating. Diverse landscapes blending highlands, rice paddies, mountains and coasts provide culinary variety, while centuries of contact with outsiders brings complexity.
Though Vietnam’s classics like pho and spring rolls are excellent, it's also good to explore backstreets and markets and chow down on the street with the locals. That's always where you'll often find the tastiest and most authentic food.
It’s rarely necessary to reserve a table in advance in Vietnam. Exceptions include national park restaurants (where food has to be purchased ahead), and upmarket places in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
- Local restaurants Vietnamese restaurants tend to have functional decor and may look scruffy, but if they're busy, the food will be fresh and delicious.
- International restaurants In tourist areas many restaurants serve up Western and Asian food. Often the local food is toned down and not that authentic.
- Street food Pavement kitchens offer cheap, often incredibly tasty, local grub.
- Cafes May have a snack or two available, but rarely meals.
Vietnamese palates vary from north to south, but no matter where they are, local cooks work to balance hot, sour, salty and sweet flavours in each dish.
Vietnamese food’s saltiness comes from, well, salt, but also from the fermented seafood sauces that grace the shelves of every Vietnamese pantry. The most common is nuoc mam (fish sauce), which is made from small fish (most often anchovies) that are layered with salt in large containers, weighted to keep the fish submerged in their own liquid, and left in a hot place for up to a year. As they ferment, the fish release a fragrant (some might say stinky) liquid. The first extraction, called nuoc mam cot, is dark brown and richly flavoured – essentially an ‘extra virgin’ fish sauce reserved for table use. The second extraction, obtained by adding salted water to the already fermented fish, is used for cooking. Phu Quoc Island is famous for its nuoc mam, though some cooks prefer the milder version made around coastal Phan Thiet.
Sugar’s centrality to the cuisine is best illustrated by the ever popular kho, a sweet-savoury dish of fish or meat simmered in a clay pot with fish sauce and another oft-used seasoning – bitter caramel sauce made from cane sugar. Vietnamese cooks also use sugar to sweeten dipping sauces, desserts and, of course, coffee.
Sweetness is countered with fruity tartness, derived from lime (to squeeze into noodle soups and dipping sauces) and from kalamansi (a small, green-skinned, orange-fleshed citrus fruit), the juice of which is combined with salt and black pepper as a delicious dip for seafood, meats and omelettes. In the south, tamarind is added as a souring agent to a fish-and-vegetable soup called canh chua, and to a delectable dish of whole prawns coated with sticky, sweet-and-sour sauce called tom rang me. Northern cooks who seek sourness are more likely to turn to vinegar. A clear, yellowish vinegar mixed with chopped ginger is often served alongside snail specialities such as bun oc (rice noodle and snail soup).
Vietnamese food is often described as ‘fresh’ and ‘light’ owing to the plates heaped with gorgeous fresh herbs that seem to accompany every meal. Coriander, mint and anise-flavoured Thai basil will be familiar to anyone who’s travelled in the region. Look also for green-and-garnet perilla leaves; small, pointy, pleasantly peppery, astringent rau ram leaves; and rau om (rice-paddy herb), which has delicate leaves that hint of lemon and cumin. Rau om invariably shows up atop bowls of canh chua. Shallots, thinly sliced and slowly fried in oil until caramelised, add a bit of sweetness when sprinkled on salad and noodle dishes.
Chilli & Pepper
Vietnamese cooking uses less hot chilli than Thai cuisine, though it's a key ingredient in central Vietnamese meals. Local chillies vary from the mild-flavoured, long, red, fleshy variety that appears in many southern dishes and is served chopped to accompany noodles, to the smallish pale-chartreuse specimen served as an accompaniment in restaurants specialising in Hue cuisine. Beware: the latter really packs a punch. Dried ground chillies and spicy chilli sauces are tabletop condiments in many a central Vietnamese eatery.
Vietnam is a huge peppercorn exporter, and ground black and white peppercorns season everything from chao (rice porridge) to beef stew. Wonderfully pungent, Vietnamese black peppercorns put what’s sold in supermarkets back home to shame; if your country will allow it in, a 500g bag makes a fine edible souvenir.
When it comes to fermented fish products, nuoc mam is only the tip of the iceberg. Mam tom is a violet (some would also say violent!) paste of salted, fermented shrimp. It’s added to noodle soups, smeared onto rice-paper rolls, and even served as a dip for sour fruits such as green mango. It also lends a pungent salty backbone to specialities such as bun mam (a southern fish-and-vegetable noodle soup). Mam tom has many versions in Vietnam, including ones made from crabs, shrimp of all sizes and various types of fish. Try to get past the odour and sample a range of dishes made with it: the flavour it lends to food is much more subtle than its stench might imply.
Fish flavours also come from dried seafood. Vietnamese cooks are quite choosy about dried shrimp, with market stalls displaying up to 15 grades. You’ll also find all sorts and sizes of dried fish, both whole and in fillets, and dried squid. The latter is often barbecued and sold from roving stalls.
Sauces, Spices & Curries
Vietnamese cooks use quite a few sauces, such as soy, oyster and fermented soybean – culinary souvenirs of China’s almost 1000-year rule over the country’s north. Warm spices such as star anise and cinnamon are essential to a good pho.
Curries were introduced to Vietnam by Indian traders; now they’re cooked up using locally made curry powder and paste packed in oil. Vietnamese curries, such as ca ri ga (chicken curry cooked with coconut milk and lemongrass) and lau de (curried goat hotpot), tend to be more aromatic than fiery.
Rice, or com, is the very bedrock of Vietnamese cuisine. In imperial Hue, rice with salt was served to distinguished guests by royal mandarins; these days locals eat at least one rice-based meal every day and offer a bowl of rice to departed ancestors.
If a Vietnamese says, ‘An com’ (literally ‘let’s eat rice’), it’s an invitation to lunch or dinner. You can also get your fill of the stuff, accompanied by a variety of stir-fried meat, fish and vegetable dishes, at specialised, informal eateries called quan com binh dan.
Cooked to a soupy state with chicken, fish, eel or duck, rice becomes chao (rice porridge); fried in a hot wok with egg, vegetables and other ingredients, it’s com rang; and ‘broken’ into short grains, steamed, topped with barbecued pork, an egg, and sliced cucumber, and accompanied by nuoc cham (a dipping sauce of sweetened fish sauce), it’s com tam. Tiny clams called hen are sautéed with peppery Vietnamese coriander and ladled over rice to make com hen.
Sticky or glutinous rice (white, red and black) is mixed with pulses or rehydrated dried corn, peanuts and sesame seeds for a filling breakfast treat called xoi (ngo in central Vietnam). It can also be mixed with sugar and coconut milk then moulded into sweet treats, or layered with pork and steamed in bamboo or banana leaves for banh chung, a Tet speciality.
Soaked and ground into flour, rice becomes the base for everything from noodles and sweets to crackers and the dry round, translucent ‘papers’ that Vietnamese moisten before using to wrap salad rolls and other specialities.
Noodles are an anytime-of-day Vietnamese meal or snack. Pho is made with banh pho (flat rice noodles), and though this northern dish gets all the culinary press, the truth is that truly fine versions, featuring a rich, carefully made broth are hard to come by. Other northern-style noodle dishes worth seeking out include bun cha, barbecued sliced pork or pork patties served with thin rice vermicelli, and banh cuon, stuffed noodle sheets that recall Hong Kong–style noodle rolls.
If you’re a noodle lover, look for dishes featuring bun, the round rice noodles that are a central element in bun bo Hue, a spicy, beef speciality from central Vietnam. Other characteristically central Vietnamese noodle dishes include my quang, a dish of rice noodles tinted yellow with annatto seeds or pale pink (if made from red rice flour) topped with pork, shrimp, slivered banana blossoms, herbs and chopped peanuts, and doused with just enough broth to moisten. It’s eaten with rice crackers (crumbled over to add crunch) and sweet hot chilli jam.
Cao lau, a noodle dish specific to the ancient port town of Hoi An, features thick, rough-textured noodles that are said to have origins in the soba noodles brought by Japanese traders. It's moistened with just a smidge of richly flavoured broth, then topped with slices of stewed pork, blanched bean sprouts, fresh greens and herbs, and crispy square ‘croutons’ made from the same dough as the noodles.
Southerners lay claim to a number of noodle specialities as well, such as the cool salad noodle bun thit nuong and bun mam, a strong fish-flavoured rice-noodle broth that includes tomatoes, pineapple and bac ha (a thick, spongy plant stem). (An identically named but significantly more challenging dish of cool rice noodles, bean sprouts and herbs dressed with straight nuoc mam is found in central Vietnam.)
Across Vietnam, keep an eye open also for banh hoi, very thin rice-flour noodles that are formed into delicate nests and eaten rolled with grilled meat in leafy greens. Chinese-style egg noodles (mi) are thrown into soups or fried and topped with a stir-fried mixture of seafood, meats and vegetables in gravy for a dish called mi xao. Mien (bean-thread noodles) made from mung-bean starch are stir-fried with mien cua (crab meat) and eaten with steamed fish.
Vietnamese will wrap almost anything in crackly rice paper. Steamed fish and grilled meats are often rolled at the table with herbs, lettuce and slices of sour star fruit and green banana, and dipped in nuoc cham. Fat goi cuon, a southern speciality popularly known as ‘salad’ or ‘summer’ rolls, contain shrimp, pork, rice noodles and herbs and are meant to be dipped in bean paste or hoisin sauce. Bo pia, thin rice-paper cigars filled with slices of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, cooked jicama (a crisp root vegetable), lettuce and chilli paste, are usually knocked up to order by street vendors with mobile carts.
Hue has its own version of the spring roll: soft, fresh nem cuon Hue, filled with sweet potato, pork, crunchy pickled prawns, water spinach and herbs. And then there’s nem ran ha noi, northern-style, crispy, deep-fried spring rolls.
Meat, Fish & Fowl
Chicken and pork are widely eaten. In the mornings, the tantalising aroma of barbecuing nuoc mam–marinated pork, intended to fill breakfast baguette sandwiches and top broken rice, fills the air of many a city street. Beef is less frequently seen but does show up in bowls of pho, in kho bo (beef stew with tomato), in thit bo bit tet (Vietnamese pan-seared beefsteak), and wrapped in la lot (wild pepper leaves) and grilled. Other sources of protein include goat (eaten in hotpots with a curried broth) and frogs.
Thanks to Vietnam’s long coastline and plentiful river deltas, seafood is a major source of protein. From the ocean comes fish such as tuna, pomfret, red snapper and sea bass, as well as prawns, crabs and clams. In Vietnam, seafood restaurants always keep their catch live in tanks or bowls, so you can be assured it's ocean fresh.
Flooded rice paddies yield minuscule crabs and golf-ball-sized snails called oc. In northern Vietnam, the former go into bun rieu cua, thin rice noodles in a crimson-hued broth made from tomatoes and pulverised crab shells; on top floats a heavenly layer of crab fat sautéed with shallots.
Snails can be found in bun oc, or chopped with lemongrass and herbs, stuffed into the snail shells and steamed, for oc nhoi hap la xa (a sort of Vietnamese escargot). A length of lemongrass leaf protrudes from each snail shell – give it a tug to pull out the meat.
Other favourite freshwater eats include the well-loved ca loc (snakehead fish), catfish, and, along the central coast, hen (small clams). The latter are eaten with rice in hen com, in broth with noodles, or scooped up with rice crackers (banh da).
Vegetables & Fruit
Vegetables range from the mundane – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants (delicious grilled and topped with ground pork and nuoc mam), cucumbers, asparagus – to the exotic. Banana blossoms and lotus-flower stems are made into goi (salads), a thick, spongy plant stem called bac ha is added to soups, and thien ly, a wild plant with tender leaves and fragrant blossoms, is eaten stir-fried with garlic. Bunches of sunshine-yellow squash blossoms are a common sight in southern markets; locals like them simply stir-fried with garlic.
All sorts of delicious wild mushrooms sprout on forest floors during the rainy season, and if you’re off the beaten track, then you might also be treated to tender fern tips, which, like the more common rau muong (water spinach), get the stir-fry treatment. Especially loved are leafy greens such as lettuce, watercress and mustard, which Vietnamese use to wrap banh xeo (crispy pork and shrimp pancakes) into bite-sized parcels suitable for dipping in nuoc mam.
If you’re a fruit lover you’ve come to the right place. Depending on when you’re travelling, you’ll be able to gorge on mangoes, crispy and sour green or soft and tartly floral pink guavas, juicy lychees and longans, and exotic mangosteen, passionfruit and jackfruit. Hue cooks treat young jackfruit as a vegetable, boiling the flesh (which tastes like a cross between artichoke and asparagus), shredding it, dressing it with fish sauce, scattering the lot with sesame seeds, and serving the dish (called nom mit non) with rice crackers. Tamarind is a typically southern ingredient; it also sauces shelled or unshelled prawns in tom rang me – a messy but rewarding sweet-tart dish.
Do ngot (Vietnamese sweets) and do trang mieng (desserts) are popular everywhere, and are especially prevalent during festivals when you'll encounter sweet varieties of banh (traditional cakes). Rice flour is the base for many desserts, sweetened with sugar and coconut milk and enriched with lotus seeds, sesame seeds and peanuts. Yellow mung beans are also used, while the French influence is evident in crème caramel. Cold sweets, like kem (ice cream), thach, lovely layered agar-agar jellies in flavours like pandan and coffee-and-coconut, and locally made sweetened yoghurt sold in small glass pots, hit the spot on steamy days.
Che are sweet ‘soups’ that combine ingredients such as lotus seeds or tapioca pearls and coconut milk. They’re also a scrumptious shaved-ice treat, for which a mound of ice crystals with your choice of toddy palm seeds, bits of agar-agar jelly, white or red beans, corn, and other bits is doused with coconut milk, condensed milk, sugar syrup or all three. The combination of beans, corn and sweet liquid might sound strange, but in addition to being delicious, che is surprisingly refreshing.
Vegetarians & Vegans
The good news is that there is now more choice than ever before when it comes to vegetarian dining. The bad news is that you have not landed in Veg Heaven, for the Vietnamese are voracious omnivores. While they dearly love vegies, they also adore much of what crawls on the ground, swims in the sea or flies in the air.
However, if you are willing to seek out small eateries where no English is spoken, it is actually quite possible to travel in Vietnam eating just meat-free Vietnamese dishes. There are vegetarian (com chay) establishments in most towns, usually near Buddhist temples, or in city centres. Often these are local, simple places popular with observant Buddhists. Many use ‘mock meat’, tofu and gluten, to create meat-like vegan dishes that can be quite delicious. More places put on lunch buffets then close after that.
In keeping with Buddhist precepts, many vendors and eateries go vegetarian on the 1st and 15th days of each lunar month; this is a great time to scour the markets and sample dishes that would otherwise be offlimits. Otherwise, be wary. Any dish of vegetables may well have been cooked with fish sauce or shrimp paste, so it can be easier to say that you are a vegetarian Buddhist to a potential cook, even if you aren't, as Vietnamese people understand what this means.
Habits & Customs
Enter the Vietnamese kitchen and you'll be convinced that good food comes from simplicity. Essentials consist of a strong flame, basic cutting utensils, a mortar and pestle, and a well-blackened pot or two. The kitchen is so sacred that it is inhabited by its own deity, Ong Tao (Kitchen God). Offerings are always left in the kitchen for the spiritual guardian of the hearth, and every kitchen has an Ong Tao altar, considered to be the most important object in the kitchen.
When ordering from a restaurant menu don’t worry about the succession of courses. All dishes are placed in the centre of the table as soon as they're ready and diners serve themselves. If it’s a special occasion, the host may drop a morsel or two into your rice bowl.