Vietnamese food is famous throughout the world, and the array of dishes on offer is vast—seemingly endless. It spans from comforting bowls of brothy noodles to tender dumplings and crispy fried snacks, healthy herb salads, rice paper rolls, curries, stews, grilled meats, fresh seafood, pancakes, porridges, and a thousand other things.
At Hidden, we think that with a little bit of inside information from us, a rough grasp of Vietnamese cuisine, and a sense of adventure, you can open the door to a world of cost-effective and delicious meals.
Vietnamese Food Basics
So, let’s talk Vietnamese food basics. Vietnamese food is regional, and although there are 58 provinces and seven regions, for the purpose of cuisine, it can be broken down into three broad areas; north, central, and south.
The northern region has a colder climate and a heavier Chinese influence in their cuisine. Historically, they used more seafood here and less pork and beef. The capital is Ha Noi, from which bustling metropolis hails arguably the most famous of Vietnam’s culinary exports: Phở (pronounced “fer”), Bún riêu, Bánh cuốn, Bún chả, and Chả cá Lã Vọng. Here, they use minimal spices and will use pepper rather than chilli to give the food a kick.
The Central region is comprised of the highlands and the coast, and the regional capital city of Hue. This was the Imperial Capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. The Central cuisine uses a lot of spices and chilli, and a lot of dried shrimp in dishes and sauces. Famous dishes include Bún bò Huế, the nation’s second favourite soup, which can be found all over the country from north to south. Hoi An is a major player in this cuisine and has contributed much to the food of the central region, but that’s an article in itself, which you can find here.
The Southern region’s capital is Ho Chi Minh City, though locals still call it Sai Gon. The south is considered the breadbasket of Vietnam, while Mekong Delta is where cattle, tropical fruit, vegetables, pigs, and cereal crops flourish and thrive. The dishes in this region are known for being sweeter, using more coconut and fruit, garlic, and shallots. Southern dishes include Bánh khọt, Bún mắm, and Bò nướng lá lốt.
Experience eating local food on the streets
Don’t be afraid to frequent the stalls of street vendors. Some people don’t eat street food due to fears about food safety. However, the street sellers often have a better food safety record than even the fancy, expensive restaurants. A street seller only buys what they can sell in a day. They have nowhere to store the excess, so they sell what they have and then buy more, fresh, the next day. They usually only make one or two dishes, so they need minimal ingredients. In a restaurant kitchen, hidden from view, the food can sit for days or weeks, unnoticed. Their menus are large, so they need a lot of items, and if no one orders a certain dish for a few days, the product is going to be less than fresh when it finally gets served.
Also, the street sellers own and run the business. They know their regular customers and serve the same people every day. If they make them sick, goodbye, business; goodbye, livelihood. So, you should have no fear of eating beside the street, your chances of survival are as good, if not slightly better than anywhere else. So, say goodbye to the bland, overpriced western food in the hotels and tourist traps, and embark on a culinary adventure that you’ll remember long after you get home.
Hidden’s helpful hints when eating out in Vietnam
Stick to eating meals that use local ingredients and local cooking techniques, and you will inevitably find that you get a good meal. It stands to reason that Vietnamese people will be better at producing Vietnamese food than they will be at producing western food that they probably don’t really eat on a daily basis. Not only that, but the ingredients are all locally sourced and fresh, whereas your burger patty or steak has probably been frozen and shipped in from Australia or New Zealand. If you do want to eat western food, look for the places run by expats. The inherent understanding of western cuisine is essential to its proper production, and you will probably have a much more satisfactory experience.
A technique that we quite often use works like this. When strolling casually about town, if we see someone eating something that looks tasty, weird, or interesting, or if we’re already in a restaurant and can’t figure out any of the menu items, we plonk ourselves down at a table. When someone comes over to take our order, we point at the people with the nice meals, hold up one finger, and say “lấy một cái này” (one of those). We often have no idea what we’re eating, but if it looks good, it most often tastes good, too.
Another really useful phrase whether shopping in the markets or paying for your dinner is “bao nhiêu tiền.” The pronunciation goes like this: “Bow,” “nyew,” and “tien” needs to have a downward inflexion as if you are making a statement. It means “how much money?” The next problem is that they may answer you in Vietnamese. The numbers aren’t hard to learn, but you can always communicate by typing numbers into the calculator function on your phone and showing it to the seller. Most people we met knew the numbers in English. So, when you’ve finished your dinner, “bao nhiêu tiền” will get you your bill. Alternatively, if you make the hand sign of writing on a cheque, that will also work.
Seasoning your meal
The way Vietnamese food is served and seasoned differs a little from the western way of doing things. Meats will mostly be briefly cooked, and the amount of meat used will be tiny compared to western portion sizes. Vegetables are mostly served fresh or very lightly cooked. Soups and broths are prevalent, and contrasting textures are prized. Generally, the dishes are lightly seasoned, if at all, and a range of condiments are provided at the table for you to adjust the dish to your liking. There will often be a fiery chilli jam, some fish sauce (Nước mắm), or a spicy garlic fish sauce (Nước chấm), lime wedges, Vietnamese soy (dark and malty), and in some parts of the country, you will get salt and pepper mixed together. You’ll also find the ubiquitous little “scud” chilli, small in size, but packing a massive punch.
The idea behind all of these condiments provided at the table is that you will adjust the spice and seasoning to satisfy your own palate. So, taste your meal, add a little soy, and a bit of chilli jam. Taste again. Almost there? Add a touch of fish sauce and a squeeze of lime; taste again. Wow! That just brought all the flavour of the dish out, and now it’s fabulous! Just don’t be impatient and put in too much at one time or the result could be really terrible.
When eating soups or broths, or any of the wrap-and-dip type dishes (Gỏi cuốn), you’ll often be given a plate full of herbs, thinly sliced reddish banana flower, and sometimes, cucumber and bean shoots. Just keep on piling them in until the herb plate is empty—they add freshness, aroma, zesty flavour, and are incredibly good for you. Mostly, you’ll get sawtooth coriander/cilantro, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, lettuce, and mustard leaf. Sometimes, you’ll get fish mint, shaped like the ace of spades (try some, and you’ll immediately understand why they called it that), and rice paddy herb (small, succulent leaves with the flavour of toasted cumin seed). These last minute additions can really make a big difference to the dish, adding layers of flavour, and fresh, crunchy textures.
Another common side are long thin strips of grated green papaya, green mango, and carrot. These will usually come with your Bánh bèo or Bánh căn dishes, which are based on tiny, little pancakes. Just pretend like it’s a little soft taco (which they kind of are)—stuff, fold, and eat. It’s hard to get it wrong, though it can get a little messy if your chopstick skills need work. Mostly you’ll be provided with spoons as well, so there is a fallback option if the chopsticks aren’t working out.
So, now that you know a little about how Vietnamese food works, let’s get to learn some common Vietnamese meals, what they’re all about, how to order them, and we’ll try to answer some FAQs while we’re at it.
Common Vietnamese dishes
When saying the Vietnamese words written in this article, it is important to note that Vietnamese is a tonal language. There are six different tones or inflexions, and the meaning of the word can change dramatically depending on whether you give it an upward inflexion, like when you’re asking a question, or a downward modulation, like when you are making a statement. Google Translate’s speech function can help you nail the pronunciation.
Pronounced “fer,” with an upwards inflexion, like you’re asking a question. Although you probably already know this, let’s go through it anyway for the sake of anyone who’s been living under a rock for the last couple of decades. Pho is a soup dish from Ha Noi, a fusion of French colonial cuisine and local ingredients. It consists of a chicken or beef bone and oxtail broth, delicately flavoured with star anise, cinnamon and black pepper. There will be some rice noodles called “Bánh Phở,” some vegetables, some herbs, and some meat. There is a myriad of different combinations you can order, depending on how you feel on that day.
The menu will say “Pho bo” and “Pho ga” (bo is beef, whilst ga is chicken). Also, you may see “Pho Chay.” This means Buddhist or vegetarian, as the priests don’t eat meat. There are, apparently, fish and/or squid Pho versions as well. Pretty easy so far? Great, let’s move on.
Phở bò chín: is with well-cooked brisket.
Phở bò tái: is with thinly sliced rare beef.
Phở bò cầu: is with fatty brisket
Phở bò gần: (the Aussies will love that one) is with beef tendon. This is a tough part of the meat, high in collagen, and it becomes very tender and gelatinous when cooked slow and low, like a lamb shank.
Phở bò sạch: is with tripe
Phở bò viên: is with Vietnamese meatballs (it will say “beef balls” on the menu)
Phở Đặc Biệt Xe Lửa: combination Pho, with everything but the kitchen sink
Some of these sound a bit strange, but we’ve tried them all, and they’re all good. However, the rare beef, Pho bo tai, is the king.
How to eat Pho
You will always get a big pile of herbs and vegetables. Pick the herbs and throw them in, pile the veggies on top, stir them, and add chilli and seasonings to taste. You’ll need to get a napkin ready as it can get messy getting those noodles dripping with broth into your mouth using chopsticks.
Bún Bò Huế
“Bún” is pronounced similar to “book” but with an N instead of a K at the end. Bo is just Bo, whilst “Huế” is like “way” with an H at the start. Boon Bo Hway.
This soup has a rich beef broth using pineapple (you won’t taste it, but it adds depth to the soup), a spice paste, and aromatics like shallot and garlic, which are slow cooked until they’re oh, so mellow. It has chunks of slow-cooked beef shin, rice noodles (of about the same size as the No. 5 spaghetti your mum cooks for you when you go around to her place for dinner), and is often served with rice crackers and the same herbs and items you get with your pho. Same deal: herb up, veg in, season, add your chilli, and chow down.
Pronounced like book, but with an “N” in place of the “K” at the end, as we discussed earlier. “Rieu” is pronounced kinda like the Belgian violinist with the crazy hair. Pretty close too phonetically.
This is the third of the famous noodle soups of Vietnam. The broth is a seafood base, with tomato, and coloured red with annatto seeds. The broth is richer and more vibrant in colour than Pho or Bun bo hue and is rendered a little bit sour by the addition of tamarind. Bun rieu can sometimes contain pork, prawn, fried tofu, meatballs, crab cakes, or blood cakes.
These disturbing sounding things are a sort of mini meatloaf-type thing made from congealed pig’s blood, and they are actually not nearly as gross as they sound. They’re fairly inoffensive in taste and actually quite good for you, and are part of a minimizing-waste philosophy of cooking. Nose-to-tail eating is old news in this corner of the world. There are also some herbs and vegetables, as usual, and, of course, the thick rice vermicelli noodles. Prices range from 30,000 to 60,000 VND (1.50 to 3 USD).
“Bánh” is pronounced “barn,”’ “Xèo” is “Seyoh”; so, Barn seyoh.
These are one of our favourites—a crispy coconut and rice flour pancake coloured with turmeric and folded over in half like a calzone. The most popular versions are most often with pork, prawn, and some vegetables inside. The name means “sizzling cake” because of the sound the batter makes when it hits the hot oil in the pan.
Their size varies from place to place with the southern style being one large banh xeo cut into pieces. In Hoi An, they are often no bigger than the brim of a baseball cap. Usually, they will be served “Gỏi cuốn,” which means with herbs, lettuce, rice paper to wrap them up in, and a dipping sauce. There are endless local varieties of fillings, and they are one of the most popular foods in Vietnam. Prices range from 6,000 each in the local market up to 35,000 to 80,000 VND (1.75 to 4 USD), depending on size, filling, and restaurant.
Pronounced “Bun Cun,” this dish is based on thick tapioca flour noodles, and the name literally translates into “cake soup.” This refers to the way the noodles are made, formed into a thick sheet, or “cake,” before being cut. Here are some of the common variations of the dish:
Bánh canh cua: crab and quail egg
Bánh canh chả cá: fish cake, popular in the central region of Vietnam
Bánh canh giò heo tôm thịt: pork and shrimp
Bánh canh tôm: shrimp and coconut milk, mostly found in the south
Prices range from 30,000 to 60,000 VND (1.50 to 3 USD).
Lẩu – Hot Pot
Pronounced like “ow” but with an “L” added at the beginning. This cooking method is Chinese in origin. A big pot of tasty broth with vegetables, meat, tofu, or fish inside. There will be a little gas burner on the table, and the pot goes on, and it simmers away until it’s cooked just the way you like it. They will also serve you some plates of noodles, herbs, beans and other goodies, for you to add as you see fit. Seasonings and chilli will be made available as usual, for you to spice it up or keep it mellow according to your taste.
There are many varieties of hot pot: meat, chicken, vegetarian, and seafood. Most are delicious, accessible, and non-scary, with the exception of Lẩu mắm. Seriously, beware of the Lau mam. This heavily fermented, well-aged fish dish, known as “stink fish,” has the heady odour of mouldy parmesan cheese combined with the funky flavours of a post-marathon sweat sock. It is a polarising dish. Like Durian, some people love it, and some people would rather die than raise it to their lips. But, apart from that particular variety, the Lau hotpot is a great interactive way to eat, and a lot of fun when you have a bunch of people to entertain. Prices range from 120,000 to 200,000 VND (6 to 10 USD) (serving size for 2-3 people).
Pronounced “Goy Kwonn,” this is a Vietnamese spring roll or rice paper roll. People think that spring rolls are Chinese, but actually, they are Vietnamese in origin. They can either be fresh, served cold, or deep fried, served hot and crispy. The rice paper roll is one of Vietnam’s most revered contributions to world food, popular from Queenstown to Quebec and beyond. The usual fillings consist of rice vermicelli, herbs, lettuce, cucumber, pork and/or prawn, wrapped up in Bánh tráng (rice paper) and served with a dipping sauce. Often, the sauces are Hoi Sin (Asian BBQ sauce), or Tương chấm (Peanut sauce). The fried crispy ones will be served with Nước chấm (spicy fish sauce). You can also get other dishes, like Bánh xèo or Nem nướng, served Gỏi cuốn style. This means with herbs, sliced vegetables, lettuce or mustard leaf, and rice paper. You roll it up, dip it in the tasty sauce, and consume. Usually, these will cost around 35,000 to 65,000 VND (1.75 to 3.25 USD), depending on what kind of establishment you’re at.
Pronounced “Coom gaa” (“Com” means “rice”). Any time you see it in the name of a dish, you know you’re getting a rice-based dish. “Ga,” as we mentioned in the Pho section, means “chicken.” So, what do you think “Com ga” means? Well done, genius! Chicken rice! Everywhere in Asia has a version of chicken rice, but the Vietnamese ones are mostly just a piece of chicken and some rice. Maybe fried chicken, maybe soy-braised, maybe fried rice, maybe steamed. This is a good go-to when you want some comfort food when you just can’t face another bowl of soup, or you’re just plain in a hurry. It is everywhere, cheap, and non-confrontational food. Also, keep an eye out for Cơm tấm. This means ”Broken Rice,” and is served with grilled pork, a fried egg, some chilli sauce, and some cucumber. It’s a great, cheap lunch meal, usually around 30,000 to 50,000 VND (1.50 to 2.50 USD). Read Hidden Hoi An’s review of the best Hoi An Com ga here.
Pronounced “Barn Me.” Once again, we’re pretty sure everyone knows this one, but here we go anyway. Another product of French colonial fusion, these meat and pate baguettes have become one of Vietnam’s ubiquitous on-the-go meals.
Bánh mì thịt: meat
Bánh mì thịt nguội: pate
Bánh mì pâté chả thịt: meat and pate
Bánh mì đặc biệt: special combo, cold cuts, and head cheese
Bánh mì bì: pulled pork
Bánh mì xíu mại: pork meatball
Bánh mì gà nướng: grilled chicken
Bánh mì chay: vegetarian
Prices are usually around 20,000 to 30,000 VND (1 to 1.50 USD). Read all about Banh mi in Hoi An here.
Pronounced “Chow,” this is Vietnamese congee, a thick, hearty rice porridge served with side dishes or savoury toppings. Pandan leaves or mung beans can be added for flavour, and the dish is often eaten for breakfast or fed to sick people to help aid their recovery. When you order this hearty breakfast staple, you will often be given youtiao, or Chinese doughnut sticks, to dip into your chao. Prices range from 25,000 to 50,000 VND (1.25 to 2.50 USD).
Cháo Gà is made with rice, chicken, and ginger with spring onions and cabbage.
Cháo Vịt: duck porridge.
Cháo Lòng Heo: with pork offal
Cháo Bầu Dục: contains sliced pig’s kidneys.
Pronounced “Barn Beyoh,” this name translates as “Water fern cake” and originates from Hue, in the central region of Vietnam. The dish consists of palm-sized soft pancakes, made from steamed tapioca and rice flour. There are regional variations in toppings, but mostly, we have seen them topped with sliced pork, tiny school prawns, dried shrimp powder, pork crackling, and green onions.
Banh beo is made and served in tiny ceramic bowls, about the size of your palm. To eat, slide a spoon around the edge of the bowl and scoop out the wobbly pancake. These little flavour bombs are one of our all-time favourite Vietnamese dishes, especially as they will usually be priced around 30,000 to 50,000 VND (1.50 to 2.50 USD).
Pronounced “barn cann,” these street-side snacks are cooked in a big, cast iron thingy, with little depressions, similar to a Japanese tako-do or Dutch poffertjes pan. A thin batter is poured in to coat the semi-circular depression, Chicken or quail eggs are then added and it is cooked until crispy. Enjoy these little snacks for a similar price to banh beo.
The dishes we have described here are good, cheap, hearty staples, available everywhere. You can find them in expensive fusion restaurants or cheap hawker stalls. Now that you know what they’re made of and how to order them, it’s time to get out there and try them.
While we at Hidden have become familiar with the most popular Vietnamese dishes, we are still constantly discovering new ones, as well as regional variations of our favourites. Of all the times we’ve tried tasting random dishes, it’s never really been terrible. Now and then, it can be a bit sub-optimal. Sometimes, it can be an eye-opening experience. Mostly, it’s nothing short of fantastic.
We recommend that after reading our guide, as long as you keep an open mind and have a sense of humour about the outcome, trying new food is never a waste of time. You, too, will find your favourites and be swept away by not only Vietnam’s beauty but its delicious food as well.