Vietnamese are very hospitable, and there’s a good chance you’ll be invited to eat with a local family or join a Vietnamese group at a restaurant you don’t want to pass up the opportunity if it presents itself.
Authentic Vietnamese cuisine is best enjoyed alfresco at street side, where food is cooked fresh and served, without any pomp and circumstance, on squat stools at a low table, often under an umbrella a great way to meet local people (folks will be amazed/excited/ appalled that you’re there) and pick up some language. The food does the talking in Vietnam, though. Below are a few of the kinds of dishes you can sample. Get adventurous. Go where locals go. Look for stalls that are packed, or storefront restaurants that have a line out the door, and walk in, smile, and point or just say, “One, please, ” holding up a finger. The entry fee is low, usually $1 or less per dish. Order up!
This classic Vietnamese noodle soup has become a staple all over the world. Vietnamese and increasingly their Western visitors are almost fetishistic about their interest in the intricacies of its preparation. Pho bo (noodle soup) is a dish of wide rice noodles done in a beef broth; flavored with ginger, black pepper, lemon, and shallots; and lopped with thin slices of roast beef and fresh greens like basil or coriander. Pho ga (noodle soup with chicken) is the same as pho bo, but with shredded chicken on top. Pho’s simple formula keeps people searching the length of Vietnam looking for just the right combination. Everyone is loyal to a favorite stall, though, so ask for a recommendation. Locals eat pho any time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and as a midnight snack after a night on the town.
The very definition of “eating” is to an com, or “eat rice.” Vietnam’s staple plays a part in nearly every meal, whether as whole kernels or mashed and processed into rice paper, rice noodles, or fermented into rice wine. And Vietnamese com shops (the o in com is pronounced like the elongated or in the word should) line every street. Com restaurants serve all manner of stir-fries or curries, often quite spicy in the south, along with a bowl of “Vietnamese bread. ” If you’re out in the sticks a lot, you’ll want to learn to say the likes of com trung, or “rice with egg” and com chien or “fried rice. ”
Vietnamese bun (the /u/ in bun is pronounced like a shortened or in wood) is rice vermicelli, a fresh, light rice noodle with a slightly pungent aroma to it. Bun-style dishes are many, usually a mix of herbs and spices served with broth as a one-dish meal. Bun bo is rice vermicelli with shredded beef, usually in a fiery sauce. Bun rieu is a hearty stew of paddy crabs cooked in curry and shrimp paste and served with fresh rice vermicelli and greens. Avoid the various pig intestine varieties of bun dishes, the likes of bun moc or bun gio heo, and if you’re eating at a local stall unless you’re an aficionado ask the owner to go light on the nuoc mam.
Nem Ran (Called Cha Gio in The South)
This is the classic fried Vietnamese spring roll, a delicious appetizer of ground meat or fish mixed with shrimp paste, mushrooms, spices, and some greens, folded into a thin rice wrapper and dipped into a sweet and sour sauce. It’s an especially popular dish during the Tet holiday.
A thin pancake of rice flour folded with chicken or pork and topped with onions, sprouts, and greens, banh xeo is a popular treat in the south.
Banh cuon is a variant of the standard spring roll. Made with a thick rice wrap, like a heavy crepe cooked in fat, banh cuon are stuffed with chicken, beef, or shrimp (lots of varieties) and steamed. A Hanoi specialty food.
A classic Hanoi specialty that has found its way into restaurants along the length Vietnam, cha ca is a delicious meal of delicate whitefish, fried at high heat in gobs of peanut oil with dill, turmeric, lemon shrimp paste, and a dash of rice whiskey. You prepare the dish yourself over a small brazier of coals that heat the frying pan. In a small rice bowl, diners each add a portion of the flash-fried fish to fresh bun (rice vermicelli) and fresh greens and peanuts. The best place to sample cha ca is at Hanoi’s famed Cha Ca La Vong.
These are my favorite: fresh spring rolls you make yourself, popular all over 457 Vietnam and a great light, low-budget snack. You’re given a plate of rice wraps, bowls of condiments like pickles and sour eggplant, and a dish of pork, shrimp, or vegetables (your choice); you’re left to do the origami to put it all together. Vietnamese people get a real kick out of watching unpracticed Westerners fumble with this, and someone is always on hand to show you how to put it all together and dip it in the spicy sauce.
Here’s a popular dish available just about everywhere a good one to learn by heart and order when you’re out in the boonies. It’s a basic dish of fried tofu with lemon grass, delicious with rice and a side of rau muong xao chau, fried morning glory (a kind of stringy spinach) with oyster sauce.
Popular in tourist restaurants, this sweet, savory dish appeals to the foreign palate. Cha tom is ground, seasoned shrimp grilled on a stick of cut sugar cane. It’s a delicious appetizer.
Bo Bay Mon
This is “beef served seven ways.” A Saigon specialty, this succession of beef dishes includes fondue, fried, barbecued, and soup. It’s a real treat.
Goi Ngo Sen
A lotus root salad served with pomelo.
Steamed fish served as you like. Always look for regional specialties. Hue cuisine, for example, is famous for its light specialties, such as bun bo hue and good spring rolls. In Hoi An, try the Vietnamese raviolis, and in Hanoi the great pho, dog- meat dishes, and cha ca (see above). Keep your eyes open for the fish sauce of Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc; duck dishes and spicy curries in Saigon; and many other regional favorites. Explore. Ask what’s good. Make sure it’s not guts or frogs, unless you want to try guts or frogs, and bon appétit!