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The Ultimate Guide to Food in Vietnam

Author: Charlotte Boswell

Vietnam is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines and the food is fresh, fragrant and flavourful. With its distinctive style and influences from China, Japan, Southeast Asia and France, Vietnamese cuisine is recognised worldwide for its use of fresh ingredients and harmony of balancing flavours. Tantalising street food and vibrant local markets can be found in abundance in many areas of Vietnam and is a huge part of the Vietnamese food and drink culture. Street food stalls offer some of the country’s best and cheapest food and is an integral part of Vietnamese life. The hustle and bustle of a local food market is also an exciting experience as you work your way around admiring, tasting and haggling for the freshest ingredients. The country is also home to some of Southeast Asia’s most renowned fine dining restaurants offering refined Vietnamese or classic French cuisine. Vietnamese flavours and combinations vary from region to region and although there are many staple ingredients to the country’s cuisine, the seasoning and techniques used are contrasting throughout. Below we have put together our guide on Vietnam’s regional food and our favourite dishes.

Northern Vietnam

The northern region of Vietnam is renowned for a subtler approach to spice than the rest of the country and enjoys contrasting flavours of bitter and sweet, sour and salty. Northern Vietnam cuisine is also heavily influenced by the Chinese with soy sauce, noodles and sticky rice as principle ingredients. The capital Hanoi has a thriving food scene and offers an eclectic mix of Vietnamese street food, high-end restaurants with a French colonial influence and Western comforts. Our favourite north Vietnamese dishes are listed below.


The quintessential national dish of Vietnam, phở, was originally created in Hanoi in the early 20th century. Although this iconic dish is served throughout the whole of Vietnam with millions of bowls being served every day, it is a classic Hanoi and northern Vietnam staple. The concept of phở simply is a hearty bowl of silky flat rice noodles, thinly sliced rare beef and topped with a fragrant and delicate beef broth. It is served with additional flavourings and condiments on the side to adjust the soup according to your taste, these include chilli, limes, coriander, bean sprouts, fish or soy sauce and spring onions. Sampling phở is a must during a visit to Vietnam.

Chả Cá Thăng Long

Chả Cá Thăng Long is a classic Hanoian dish that has been served to locals and tourists for over 100 years and focuses on balancing flavours and textures. Turmeric marinated white fish is first grilled and then fried in butter along with dill, garlic, ginger and fish sauce and served with soft rice noodles and sprinkled with peanuts. This famous Vietnamese dish intrigues some due to the surprising use of dill, a herb that is rarely associated with southeast Asian cuisine.

Bowl of pho in Hanoi, Vietnam
Image credit: Marco Verch
Cha ca thang long dish in Vietnam
Image credit: a1ucard

Bún Chả

A Hanoi staple that is sold throughout the city at street stalls and local cafés, bún chả is a dish that is particularly eaten at lunch by locals. This delicious comfort food comprises of juicy grilled pork patties cooked on an open charcoal brazier that are served on cold vermicelli noodles with a variation of greens and herbs, fish sauce and bowl of sweet dipping sauce. When former US president Barack Obama visited Vietnam in 2016, he ate this local dish at restaurant Bún Chả Hương Liên. The table he and celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain sat at to eat has now been encased under a glass box, attracting bemused diners to the now-famous eatery.

Nem Rán

Nem rán fried spring rolls are a classic northern Vietnam delicacy that are the perfect accompaniment to a refreshing Bia Hà Nội (local beer) after a long day of sightseeing in Hanoi. These rolls comprise of minced pork, vegetables, herbs and spices all wrapped tightly in rice paper before being fried until golden brown. The result is a delicious and crispy parcel that is cut into bite-size pieces, superb for sharing, and served with a complementing sweet chilli dip.

Bun Cha dish in Vietnam
Image credit: stu_spivack
Spring Rolls nem ran in Vietnam
Image credit: Jenifer Saratan
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Central Vietnam

Central Vietnam is renowned for its delicate but flavourful cuisine packed with chilli heat, fresh herbs and spices. The food is typically bold and decorative which is influenced by ancient royal cuisine. Colourful and quaint Hoi An in central Vietnam is often referred to as the culinary capital of Vietnam and is a fantastic place to join a food market tour and authentic cooking class. Below is a selection of our favourite dishes from central Vietnam.

Cao Lầu

Hoi An’s signature noodle dish encompasses the history of the city in a bowl. The ancient riverside town of Hoi An was once a key trading post on the Spice Route and consequently is full of Japanese and Chinese architecture and culture. The noodles of cao lầu resemble Japanese soba noodles, the slices of pork and crackling marinated in star anise give it a Chinese twist, yet the fresh herbs, bean sprouts, lemongrass and crispy rice crackers add that essentialVietnamese flavour. Rumour also has it that the noodles must be made with water from the town’s Ba Le well, famed for its purity.

Mì Quảng

Another central Vietnam speciality, mì quảng, is a celebrated noodle soup unique to the Quảng Nam Province. Traditionally served at Tết and important family occasions, this hearty dish is now an affordable staple throughout the country. Mì quảng is made up of flat rice noodles mixed with tender pork, fresh herbs, peanuts and crisp rice crackers for added texture and topped up with a fragrant turmeric broth.

Cao Lau in Vietnam
Image credit: Alpha
Mi Quang in Vietnam
Image credit: Ron Dollete

Bánh bao bánh vạc

Bánh bao bánh vạc or more commonly known as white rose dumplings are a must-try Hoi An specialty. These delicate dumplings are made from translucent white dough and filled with minced shrimp or pork, then arranged to look like white roses. The small parcels are then topped with crunchy toasted garlic and shallot and served with a sweet dipping sauce. The white rose dumplings are unique to Hoi An and the original recipe remains a guarded secret. These delicious delicacies are available throughout Hoi An, however the food market is a great place to try the picturesque city’s signature dish.

Bánh Xèo

Literally translated to ‘sizzling cake’, these savoury crêpes are essentially a rice flour and turmeric batter that is fried like a pancake and then stuffed with anything ranging from shrimp or pork, to beansprouts, fresh herbs, chilies and peanut sauce. These delicious delicacies are said to have originated from central Vietnam, however are now extremely popular all over the country and each region has its own variation.

White Dumplings in Hoi An
Image credit: Paul Arps
Banh Xeo Pancake in Vietnam
Image credit: Huyzee Vu
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South Vietnam

Heading to Vietnam's southern regions, the cuisine is found to be full of character and flavour which is often sweeter than other areas. The sweetness often comes from the use of sugar and coconut milk, tips taken from neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Thailand. Chilli is often present in southern cooking, unlike in northern Vietnam where the cool climate limits the growth of chillies. The bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City in the south is a fusion of street food stalls, intriguing dining experiences and modern, high-end restaurants. Whereas the iconic Mekong Delta offers visitors the chance to glide down the winding waterways and visit the floating markets selling exotic fruits, herbs and spices. Our favourite south Vietnam delicacies are listed below.

Bánh Mi

Created in the late 1950s in the city then known as Saigon, bánh mi  is one of the country’s most recognisable dishes, the famous Vietnamese baguette. The signature version in Ho Chi Minh City consists of a crunchy French baguette filled with meat pâté, sliced pork, coriander and pickled cucumber and carrot. This delicious lunchtime snack is available from hundreds of food carts throughout the city for as little as US$1 and is also very popular throughout the rest of the country. Variations on this delicious street food exist including fillings such as omelette or a simple cream cheese spread.

Gỏi Cuốn

Gỏi cuốn, a Vietnamese summer roll, is one of the country’s most famous snacks and are a fresh and healthy option. They are offered everywhere throughout southern Vietnam as the Mekong Delta is the largest producer of rice paper, the constant ingredient in gỏi cuốn. The summer rolls comprise of minced pork, shrimp or crab, greens, coriander and mint encased in a rice paper wrapper, giving it an appearance of a translucent spring roll. Many restaurants will serve the ingredients separately and it’s up to you to wrap the summer roll just how you like. A delicious and popular southern variation of gỏi cuốn is strips of barbecued pork wrapped with green banana and star fruit, dunked in a peanut and hoisin sauce.

Banh Mi sandwich in Vietnam
Image credit: Sodanie Chea
Summer Rolls with prawn in Vietnam
Image credit: Anthony Tong Lee

Cơm Tấm

Cơm tấm translate literally to ‘broken rice’ and is a Brazil street food staple made of fractured rice grains. This ‘broken rice’ is a by-product of rice production that farmers make use of and sell on, rather than letting it go to waste. The tasty cơm tấm is commonly accompanied with grilled pork, a fried egg, salad garnish and a sweet chilli dipping sauce. This tasty dish is extremely affordable and be found on most streets in Ho Chi Minh City.

Cà Phê

Following Brazil, Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of cà phê (coffee). Introduced by the French in the late 19th century, the Vietnamese recognised the potential of this cash crop and now export an estimated $3.5 billion of coffee per year. Strong and flavourful, the Vietnamese have a distinct preparation process of coarsely grinding the beans before adding to a French drip filter which sits on top of the cup. A thin lid is added to weigh the beans down and hot water is added, the dark aromatic liquid then drips slowly into the cup. In Southern Vietnam, you can’t walk down a street and not see a local enjoying a coffee in one form or another, the most popular being cà phê sữa đá, an iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.

Com Tam rice dish in Vietnam
Image credit: T. Tseng
Ca Phe Vietnamese coffee
Image credit: Zoe Shuttleworth
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