Vietnam is known for its world-class cuisine that is uniquely different from the rest of Southeast Asia due to a century of wars that isolated the country. Main influences you will see in traditional Vietnamese food come from when Vietnam was colonized by France. Which means there are lots of cafes and bakeries in the web of local streets.
For expats, the abundance of cheap street food and quality restaurants creates a lifestyle that allows you to eat out every night if you wanted to. But if you are just traveling in Vietnam, don’t miss out on these dishes before leaving! Often they will be a bit different per region. Read about my top 5 Vietnamese street food dishes.
1. Pho i.e. Vietnamese Noodle Soup
No trip to Vietnam is complete without a steaming hot bowl of pho; whether it is chicken or beef! This kind of soup is widely known by internationals and incorporates a flat rice noodle. The broth is lighter than a lot of other local soups; which tend to be made with fish sauce.
Pho is normally served for breakfast in Vietnam–big bowls of steaming noodle soup, with meat and any number of ingredients added at the last minute, like bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, chili peppers, lime slices, and green onions. All, spiced with plenty of fish sauce and chili-garlic sauce.
To eat this properly, take out your chopsticks, and top it with lightly boiled beans sprouts as well as a variety of herbs. Tip – squeeze in a bit of lime and leave the herb stems out of the soup.
The phở in northern Vietnam is defined by a clear broth whereas the phở in southern Vietnam like Saigon might be murkier with more sauces, herbs, and other add-ins.
2. Oc i.e. Snails / Seafood
If you are a tourist, you will most likely be going to cities that are close to the coastline, which means lots of fresh seafood. If you see the word ‘Oc’ written outside of a street stall or restaurant then they have a wide variety of seafood dishes on the menu. One of my favorites is crab in a light broth.
3. Banh Uot i.e. Fresh Rice Paper Wraps
Banh uot literally means ‘wet cakes’. I love it for its lightness and to have as a quick lunch. When you go to a banh uot restaurant, you will receive fresh rice paper wraps wrapped around marinated minced pork, topped with beansprouts, fried shallots, herbs and a side of fish sauce with chilli. These rice paper wraps are made fresh, and you can see them make it right in front of you!
4. Chao Ga i.e. Chicken Congee or Chicken Rice Porridge
This is one of my ‘go to’ dishes for its heartiness and the comfort it brings. This is typically eaten by young children, but in some restaurants you will find that you can get a big bowl of Chao Ga for adults with a bit of chili and pepper. My favorite restaurant to get this in Saigon is Cuc Gach (or the restaurant that Angelina Jolie visited) since it is served with a beautiful cabbage and peanut salsa with a generous portion size.
5. Banh Mi Op La i.e. Egg Sandwich
If you’d like to experience some of the French influence, have a banh mi or fresh bread. There is a wide variety of banh mi sandwiches; the shape and kind all depends on the city. The one that I eat the most is banh mi op la.
Remember to go hungry when visiting Vietnam, and choose restaurants that seem popular amongst locals to eat the freshest food. You can also join a local to his or her best food places in Hanoi or Hoi An.
Danica Ratte is a sustainable travel addict who is now an expat living in Australia. She is the Founder of Wild Tussah; a weave and leather handbag line that preserves ancient weaving cultures in Vietnamese ethnic communities. You can also read more on the Wild Tussah blog.