There were a million and one reasons why I thought I would fall in love with Vietnam.
Food was not one of them.
It’s not that I didn’t expect to like the food, more that food usually doesn’t rank really high on my travel radar, especially in places like Southeast Asia. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE food, but I also have the world’s most sensitive stomach that cannot handle anything spicy. I’ve figured out some awesome tips along the way to avoid traveller’s tummy, but it still sucks. However, not enough for me to stop travelling and trying local dishes.
That being said, after three weeks of exploring Vietnam I absolutely fell in love with the food and, months later, I miss it terribly. It honestly didn’t seem to matter what I tried, I liked it all, though I definitely had my favourites. So for anyone headed to Vietnam, these are my top must try Vietnamese street foods.
Bun Cha (Hanoi)
Bun cha is my absolute favourite. I first tried it at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, and ate it daily when I got to its birthplace, Hanoi. It’s the Vietnamese food I miss the most.
Bun cha is a pork and broth dish served with rice noodles and herbs. The pork is grilled over a fire and served in bite-size patties with a fish sauce enhanced broth. Along with the pork and broth you will be served a bowl of rice noodles and herbs. Now comes the fun part; add the herbs as you please (chili, mint, coriander, and basil are common) and the noodles. Personally I don’t add all the noodles at once, but kind of in little clumps to eat as I go so they don’t soak up all the broth.
Bun cha originated in Hanoi which is still the best and easiest place to get it. It’s important to point out that bun cha is a lunchtime only food, available between the hours of around 11am-3pm. You won’t be able to find any street vendors cooking it around the dinner hour so be sure to get your fill during the day.
It is possible to get bun cha throughout Vietnam, as I said earlier I had my first taste in Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s not as prevalent outside Hanoi so stuff your face while you are there!
Fresh Spring Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)
We’re used to deep fried spring rolls in North America, and they are pretty tasty. But once you try the fresh version, there’s no going back.
Made with pork, shrimp, fresh vegetables, and rice noodles wrapped in soft rice paper, they are full of flavor and still have that satisfying crunch thanks to the fresh veggies. They are served with a dipping sauce that often includes freshly crushed peanuts.
Fresh spring rolls can be found all across Vietnam. They aren’t really a meal on their own, but more of a snack or appetizer. They go really well with bun cha (I liked to add them to my broth).
Bahn Mi is the Vietnamese word for bread, but these traditional sandwiches are actually made on baguettes thanks to the French influence. While a sandwich may not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, there’s something amazing about biting into one of these. Pork, or a homemade pate are the most commonly used meats. Add some veggies, mayonnaise, and some other ingredients and you get a tasty meal that is crunchy, savory, sweet, and even a little bit spicy (only if you want) at the same time.
Bahn mi can be found around the country at pretty much any time of day, especially later in the evening. It’s the go to ‘drunk food’ for partiers which, unsurprisingly means a raise in price. I once spent a good twenty minutes haggling for bahn mi for my friends and I after a night out in Hoi An. At first it didn’t work, but upon turning away we were chased down with promises of the delicious sandwiches for the daytime rate. Just call me the haggling master.
Before I even get started on this Vietnamese favourite, we need to have a pronunciation lesson.
Pho = “Fuh”. Capiche?
Most of us know that Pho is a traditional Vietnamese soup. But there are actually several variations of it, the most obvious being whether it is from the north or south of the country. The northern version is Pho bac while the southern version is Pho nam. Pho bac tends to be a simpler version of the dish, while Pho nam has a few more garnishes. Both are delicious, though I will say that the best pho I had was in the north.
Pho is typically made with beef, rice noodles, and a fragrant broth. However, you can also get it made with other meats such as chicken or meatballs.
As mentioned earlier, Pho can be found around the country though the flavours do vary, so be sure to try it in multiple places as you travel through the country.
Cao Lau (Hoi An)
First off, can we all just agree that this might just be the most fun name to pronounce? But, more importantly, you cannot come to Hoi An without having cao lau. It’s not as well-known as the other Vietnamese foods on this list, but trust me when I say it’s top notch. Like with the bun cha in Hanoi, I ate cao lau for lunch every single day in Hoi An.
Cao lao is a noodle dish made with barbeque pork, a mixture of greens, and topped with deep fried Cao lao noodle croutons. The noodles are the big winner on this dish, and according to the legend, the water to make them comes from one special well.
Cao lau can only be found in Hoi An, which is part of why it is not as commonly known as other Vietnamese dishes. There is no shortage of places to try it, but I recommend going to the public market and grabbing a seat at one of the tables to have it made freshly in front of you. I ended up being a regular at one stall during my stay in Hoi An.
Vietnam has so many delicious foods to try, and I encourage you to be open to trying them all. Just make sure that these five favourites are on your list, and eat extra for me!