When you salivate involuntarily looking at photos of food, you know it’s going to be good. That’s what Vietnamese Food does to me. It invokes memories of aromas, of tastes of good times, and of a serious foodie love affair with the country. The reality of Vietnamese food, is, however, much better than the thought. Here’s our guide to eating your way around Vietnam and our experiences with Vietnamese Food and the highlights of our multiple trips to Vietnam with Vietnamese Food.
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The cuisines of Vietnam differ from south to north, but it has been a delicious and interesting trip around the kitchens of Vietnam. We’ve eaten in what I’d call nice restaurants (ok, so one), we’ve cooked our own food in a kitchen right on the beach and we’ve eaten street food more times than we can remember. We’ve eaten breakfast on a boat on the Mekong River in the Vietnamese Delta. Raw garlic when we visited the Vietnam DMZ war sites. We’ve taken cooking classes over the years and continue to cook these dishes that we’ve come to love from Vietnam.
We’ve got used to paying sometimes 15,000 VND for an amazing bowl of noodles, and we’ve drunk Bia Hoi (fresh beer) for 3,000 VND, and it’s all been fabulous.
The Best Ways to Experience Vietnamese Food
Well, there are a few ways that you can do this. On our first trip to Vietnam, we just went around and ate everything. And then we learned to cook what we liked. We haunted fresh markets and the food stalls nearby. We sought out regional specialties (I’ve covered some of those later) and ate multiple versions of them. And we took food walking tours (more on that shortly). And what did we come up with? Do all of it. Or as much of it as you feel comfortable with. Find what you like and eat more of it.
Take a Food Walking Tour in Vietnam
Well, I suppose you don’t have to walk. You can also take scooter tours. Our most recent food walking tour was in Hanoi. You can do one of the free food walking tours, or take a paid-for one. I think the most important thing to look at is the reviews of the guides. And the list of what you’ll get to eat. Take a tour that will take you off the beaten track, to places that you wouldn’t get to by yourself. Here are my recommendations.
Take a Cooking Class in Vietnam
This was one of the best things we’ve done with regard to food in Vietnam. Took a cooking class. It’s easy to find a great one – I’ve put some recommendations in further in this article, but pick a dish that you already like eating, or that you like the sound of, and then you’ll be able to cook it at home afterward. It’s fabulous.
We took a cooking class on the beach in Mui Ne (which we’ve visited several times) on our first trip there, and it was fabulous. And there are also some great cooking classes, you don’t have to go to Mui Ne. Here’s a selection of the top-rated cooking classes in Vietnam.
And here are the results of my first Vietnamese Cooking class. And yes it tasted as good as it looks.
We cooked this at the Mui Ne Cooking School, this is one of the best things to do in Mui Ne!
Key Vietnamese Food & Dishes to Eat
There are dishes that are world-famous and that you’ll find in Vietnamese restaurants all over the world. Let me tell you now. They’re better in Vietnam. But you might have to hunt them out. Here are some of the staple Vietnamese dishes to eat in Vietnam.
Banh Mi and The Best Banh Mi in Vietnam
We’ve been searching for the most amazing Banh Mi since we had our first, of all places, in Pacifica, California, and decided that it was everything that a sandwich should be.
Crisp French baguette, crunchy salad, soft tender pork, fragrant herbs, the tang of rice vinegar, and a little heat from chilis.
We’ve tracked Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, the Rough Guide, the Wall Street Journal, and every blog in between in search of the best Banh Mi in Vietnam. We met the Austrian in Hoi An, who’s eaten so many of them that he’s put on 6 kilos in 4 months eating Banh Mi and drinking Vietnamese Coffee.
We still think that elusive Banh Mi is out there, it’s not Madam Khanh’s, neither is it the one from Phuong Banh Mi declared the best by Anthony Bourdain. (although we have tried both of them several times). Although there is another small Banh Mi shop in Hoi An that is currently (as of 2023) winning my best Banh Mi in Vietnam award.
You’ll find the best Banh Mi in Hoi An at Phi Banh Mi, 88 Thái Phiên, Phường Minh An, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam. Go at lunchtime and see the lizard come out for a little sunshine.
However, the Banh Mi In Saigon that we had was extremely memorable also. And, heck there was an amazing Banh Mi in Vientiane, Laos that was also really, really good.
Vietnamese Noodle Dishes
We’ve eaten fried-up instant noodles in an alley in Saigon, flat rice noodles, and yellow noodles, and we’ve even made our own noodles in Hoi An and then eaten them. Noodles are more of a staple between Saigon and Hanoi, once you get north of Hanoi it’s mainly rice.
But I think I’ve eaten so many noodles that I might look like a noodle. That’s not a bad thing. Vietnamese Noodle dishes are fabulous.
There are wet noodle dishes, aka soups. There are drier noodle dishes in Vietnam.
In Nha Trang, at Au Lac, we’ve paid 15k VND for a bowl of the most fragrant noodle broth with vegetarian bits and pieces on top – added our lettuce, herbs, and squeeze of lemon (although it looks like lime) and we’ve returned less than 12 hours later because it’s so good.
Vietnamese Rice-Based Dishes
Eating Tofu in Vietnam
We have eaten probably our body weight in Tofu while we’ve been in Vietnam – we’ve cooked with it and tried it in all different ways, including baked stuffed tofu in Hoi An, which was interesting, but not worth what we paid for it.
The best tofu, though remains the Tofu with Lemongrass and Chili that I ate three nights in a row in Mui Ne at the scruffy, right on the beach, frequented by locals Lam Tong. It’s still one of the best things to do in Mui Ne.
Eat Vietnamese Morning Glory
Yes, we’ve been good, there have been lots of vegetables along the way, delicious morning glory, and spinach, all with lashings and lashings of garlic. Mmm. The best Morning Glory we had? In Hue, Vietnam.
We ate a lot at small stalls, street food, and local restaurants and I have a theory, that there is a direct correlation between the price of food and the height of the stool, so go low, go really low.
We ate a lot at markets too and that’s where we discovered Mi Quang and Cao Lau, at the food court area of Hoi An Market, where there’s a fixed pricing in place, where your food costs you 20k VND (US$1) and your fruit smoothie another 20 VND.
Regional Vietnamese Food Specialties
While there are staples that you’ll get all over the country there are some regional specialties when it comes to Vietnamese food and you absolutely must seek them out. They’re well worth it. If you take a morning market boat trip on the Mekong River down in Can Tho, then you absolutely must have breakfast on the boat. Boat Noodle Soup is fabulous. And it’s so much better because you watch it being prepared. In the middle of the Mekong River!
In Hoi An eat Mi Quang
The dish is made with rice noodles tinted yellow with the use of turmeric. The protein is pork. The broth is made by simmering the pork in water seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallot, and garlic. Added to this are crushed peanuts, chili pepper or chili sauce, fresh vegetables including water mint (rau hung lui), basil, Ipomoea aquatica, Vietnamese coriander, and lettuce, and pieces of toasted sesame rice crackers called banh trang me. It’s a single bowl of spicy, fragrant, nutty, pork goodness that you will slurp and dribble and smack your lips around.
Eat Cao Lau in Hoi An
Cao lầu is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is only found in the town of Hội An, central Vietnam. Its unique taste and texture are achieved by using water from an undisclosed ancient Cham well, just outside of the town. The noodles are served with very little broth. The broth is seasoned with cilantro, basil, and mint; sometimes chili peppers and lime are provided on the side. It is served with salad greens and bean sprouts, and thinly sliced pork slices and deep-fried croûtons are sprinkled on top to complete the dish. I couldn’t decide which I liked best, Mi Quang or Cao Lau, so I kept eating them both.
Eat Pho in Hanoi – Northern Vietnam
The quest for Pho (a spicy fragrant beef noodle soup) started at the Viet Kitchen in Colchester, and Nige says they’re still winning the race for the best Pho. We ate a mixed Pho down a back alley in Saigon, that included all parts of the cow and was interesting, but more interesting than tasty. We had tasty, good, but not great Pho at Pho 10 in Hanoi, but it remains that we’re still looking for a great Pho for when we head back in October. Eating Pho is one of the top things that you should do in Hanoi – and here are more things that you should do in Hanoi if you have just 2 days there.
Breakfast in Vietnam
I should have tested my cholesterol before coming into the country and again on the way out. I think I’ve had eggs every day. Breakfast in Vietnam is easy. There’s always a selection that includes omelets of various sorts, perhaps a pancake (and we’ve had good and bad), bread is a staple, and it’s usually the mini French baguette style. What I’m not sure I can manage without now, is the lashing of Chili sauce that I heap onto my omelet each morning.
Vietnamese Food Specialities of Hue
With limited time in Hue, we headed to the Dong Ba market and the food stalls that you’ll find right in the middle. There you can try for the tiniest amount of money (some dishes are 5k VND, some 10k, and some 15k) all the Hue specialties. And there’s always a smoothie or cane sugar drink stall nearby willing to deliver you a drink too. We feasted on all the local favorites for 90k including a cane sugar drink. There’s more on what to eat in Hue in our guide to Hue here.
Bun Bo Hue
The most famous local dish is bún bò Huế, a noodle soup served with slices of beef and lashings of chili oil.
Nem Lui is a dish of sweet, minced pork around bamboo sticks grilled over hot coals.
Banh Khoai is a “pancake” filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork.
Bun Thit Nuong
Bun Thit Nuong is delicious barbecued pork served with vegetables and noodles.
We have loved the food of Vietnam, especially when we ate local and hot and spicy – turns out we loved the drinks too – and not necessarily in the way that you think!
There are some unique things to drink in Vietnam, that completely epitomize the country. And of course, you’ll find the usual soft drinks and beers that you’ll find in other countries, but here are some of the specialty Vietnamese drinks to try.
Iced Vietnamese Coffee
I’ve always reacted badly to iced coffee, I never understood why anyone would want to wreck a decent coffee by putting ice in it. The same went for milk, what a ridiculous waste of coffee dumping all that cow juice in it. My hands are in the air and I’m admitting surrender as I say that.
I’ve fallen head over heels for Vietnamese coffee. Cold, tall, with condensed milk. Moorish. Sweet. Wonderful. Even black iced Vietnamese coffee, although that means I need to heap teaspoon after teaspoon of the not-very-sweet Vietnamese sugar in to make it drinkable. Saigon style to make it a taller drink. Yes, by the look on my face now, you can safely say that I’m hooked.
We even sought out some specialties, and believe me, they’re well worth seeking out. In the small, hidden coffee shops of Hanoi, we went on the hunt for Iced Yoghurt Coffee. OH MY GOD. Yes seriously, this is a drink that you’re going to love. All that caffeine goodness with the sharp tang of yogurt. Over ice. There’s more on egg coffees, yogurt coffees, and where to find them in our guide to the best things to see, do and eat in Hanoi.
Not enough? Ok, try the Iced Yoghurt Coffee with cocoa. That’ll put your Mocchachino to shame. Then take a step outside the normal and get yourself an Egg White Iced Coffee – invented apparently when there was a shortage of milk, it’s worth considering giving up milky coffee for. Almost.
The most famous place to drink these coffees is in a small coffee shop overlooking the lake in Hanoi. Do it. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Fruit & Lemon Juice in Vietnam
We also found squeezed lemon juice and water a great alternative to fizzy drinks. A squeezed lemon with bottled water, and ice of course.
Drinking Fruit Smoothies in Vietnam
I’m not generally a fruit smoothie person, but if you make it to Hoi An market, then you HAVE to blow the 20k VND on some fruit smoothies. Try the Avocado, which the Vietnamese view as a fruit – added to yogurt and ice, it’s Moorish and so distinctly avocado, yet not, that you’ll just have to taste it to understand. The strawberry hit that you’ll get from the smoothie of the same name is surreal.
Vietnamese Cane Sugar Drinks
Deep inside the Ham Tien market near Mui Ne, there’s a little Cane Sugar drinks machine that dispenses the coldest, sweetest cane sugar. It’s squeezed right in front of you, the lemon is added and there you have a cup of sunshine. I’d never tried it before and enjoyed every single drop.
The Best Vietnamese Beer
From the first bottle of Saigon Green, we drank, sitting on the small red plastic stools on BIEN THIEN in Saigon – one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, to bottles of Hanoi and Lao Cai, beer is something that Vietnam is very good at.
Oh, it’s not your special microbrew taste, and it’s all very light-tasting and easy to drink. It’s also pretty darned cheap. From 10k VND for the Saigon Green bottles in Saigon right down to 3k VND for a glass of Bia Hoi in Hoi An, yes you can certainly say it’s cheap.
Drink Bia Hoi in Vietnam
It’s Hanoi that is famous for Bia Hoi – the fresh beer that is delivered or collected in barrels each day and has to be drunk that day, but you can find it in a lot more places, from Sapa in the north to the furthest place south we found it was Nha Trang.
In Hoi An, they use it to tempt you into the restaurants – Cafe 41’s offer was 3k VND a glass, dropping to 2k if you drank 3. Most other Bia Hoi, or fresh beer places in Hoi An charge 5k VND for the beer – we found Bia Hoi at Lots of places, Cafe 43, Trip Nguyen, and Red Sail all for prices from 3k to 10k.
In Hanoi, it’s much more the culture that you go to the Bia Hoi places to drink beer and perhaps a snack. On Bia Hoi Corner, you can sit on small plastic stools, watch the world go by, and snack on boiled peanuts in their shells, on chickens’ feet, and on fermented pork wrapped in banana leaves. If the mood takes you, you can also try the cement-fried frog…
Bia Hoi Hanoi is a chain, and you’ll find their small plastic stool fresh beer places throughout the city, snack on tofu, and peanuts, and enjoy the floor show as the next round of glasses is filled.
Drinking Bia Hoi in Hanoi and Getting Raided by the Police
Our most fun Bia Hoi experience was sitting on the steps of a closed building. Here we met Jim and Sarah who were on their honeymoon, ate peanuts, drank Bia Hoi, and watched, assured that we were safe, as the police raided our “establishment”. We watched as they picked up the barrel, and a few stools loaded it into their van and drove across the intersection. We watched as one of the staff from this makeshift little place, raced after them, did some form of a deal, and had his beer and equipment returned.
Shrugging he returned, “It’s just a normal day”, as we paid 60k VND ($US 3) for our 3.5 hours of entertainment, beer, and peanuts.
Snacking on Bia Hoi Hanoi Food
We picked food off menus with pictures, pointing at other people’s food, by walking into the kitchen and going through containers, and even in one instance, where the owner picked some food from someone else’s table and had us taste it to see if we liked it. (we did).
Are you traveling for Food? Read these guides.
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Final Words on Vietnamese Food and Drink
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