The main characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine is to create harmony between flavors and textures by combining a variety of herbs and spices. This can be seen in many traditional Vietnamese noodle-based dishes, which are a fusion of contrasting textures into culinary harmony – chewy, crunchy, fleshy, soft.
To get the most authentic experience of Vietnamese cuisine, here are ten noodle-based delicacies that you can easily find at many roadsides eateries. Besides, you will be able to learn about the regional culture, geography, and people by looking at their take on these delicious, soft, and silky noodles.
Kicking off the list is pho, the most recognizable traditional food of Vietnam. Visitors walking around the streets of Hanoi in the morning can see pho stalls busy preparing fresh ingredients – broth, meat, vegetables – for this ubiquitous dish. Some first-time travelers believe this is a morning dish, but it is actually served throughout the day at all wet markets and street vendors’. It comprises rice noodles and a luscious broth garnished with various herbs (bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, onion, and mint). Food lovers can choose from among different beef cuts like tai (beef slices), bo vien (beef meatballs) and nam (beef flank). You can also change beef for chicken for a more soothing broth. However, the broth is cooked differently in the north and south of Vietnam. The most noticeable difference is that the southern pho has a sweeter, richer broth whereas in the north it is clear and simple.
9. Bun cha
Bun cha is not a strong rival to some of the iconic street foods like banh mi, pho and cuon (spring rolls). The dish is a region specialty of Hanoi popular and typically not well known outside of the capital. Even in Saigon, some restaurants have it on the menu, the taste just is not right as Hanoi’s bun cha. Unlike those of other favorites, bun cha’s ingredients are easy to find and the recipe is not very complicated. But what makes Hanoi’s bun cha different from other versions is in the skills required to make it, which cannot be mastered overnight. The dish consists of two types of meat: meatballs and thick pork slices. The meat balls are made out of the lean meat and fat from the pork’s shoulder meat while the pork slices satisfy fans of people who like chewy meat. The pork must be marinated with spices overnight so that it absorbs all the aromas. This is a remarkable dish thanks to a balanced dipping sauce and soft grilled pork meat without charred bits.
8. Bun rieu cua
Bun rieu cua is a vermicelli soup with a tomato-based broth made by slowly simmering pork or chicken bone. But unlike pho or bun bo Hue (Hue beef noodle soup), to which meat slices are added, the key protein component of this soup is the crab meat mixture made of freshwater mini crabs, pork and egg that is almost like a patty. This soup is hearty and wonderful during winter as it combines lots of ingredients like fried tofu, prawns, crab meat, pig blood pudding, bean sprouts and fresh Vietnamese herbs like perilla and cilantro. If you don’t mind the pungent smell, feel free to add some shrimp paste for extra savory since the soup is slightly acidic. Though its origin is in northern Vietnam, you can easily bump into a bun rieu food stall anywhere around the country.
7. Bun bo Hue
Bun bo Hue, or Hue beef noodle soup, is a specialty of Hue in central Vietnam, where it was invented. The broth requires both pig and beef bones to be boiled with a generous dose of lemongrass, sugar, annatto, and shrimp paste. Vendors then add various things like sliced brisket, crab balls and pork pie. Adventurous eaters can also add cubed pig’s blood for even more flavor. When served, the dish is garnished with a tangle of vegetables like lime, scallion, cilantro, banana blossoms, mint, basil, and Vietnamese coriander. But be warned, if you are not a fan of spicy food: the original version in Hue packs much more of a punch than the bun bo Hue served in Saigon or Hanoi. Furthermore, many vendors in Saigon make the broth a little sweet to fit local tastes.
6. Bun ca
This is a specialty of the central beach town of Nha Trang. Cooks use various kinds of filleted fresh raw fish to make the fish cake and to make the delicious seafood-packed broth. Before cooking, the fish are deboned and diced into small pieces. Usually, the cooks choose juicy, sweet and chewy fish like flagfish. They use vermicelli and fresh banana leaf as the base of the clear, low-fat soup and top it with fish cake and jelly fish before garnishing with tomatoes and spring onion slices to add fragrance and flavor. A small bowl of fish sauce is served on the side for eaters to add according to their taste.
5. Mi Quang
Another distinctive and wildly popular dish in the central region of Vietnam is mi Quang (Quang-style noodles). The dish features thick, wide, yellow rice noodles served in red-orange turmeric sauce with a choice of pork, chicken, shrimp, quail egg, mussel, and eel served in a soupy, beefy broth. To add texture, other ingredients like banh trang (sesame rice crackers), spring onion, basil, peanuts, coriander, lettuce, and sliced banana flowers are added. In Quang Nam Province, the birthplace of the dish, mi Quang is served with a thick broth while southerners tend to make it a full soupy dish. And don’t forget to add the rice crackers to add even more texture to this mouthwatering dish.
4. Bun mam
Bun mam, a southwestern staple, is a noodles soup that uses the highly pungent mam, a fermented fish/shrimp paste, as its base. Originally from Cambodia, the dish’s broth is made with the Cambodian prahok dipping sauce, but locals have substituted it with fish sauce. The dish as a strong smell, but it is also packed with flavors coming from fish fillet, shrimp, squid, pork belly and eggplant. Typically, this dish is served with an extra serving of vegetables, including purple stems of water lilies, yellow-white curls of banana blossoms, bean shoots and some other herbs that add texture and eases its saltiness.
3. Hu tieu Nam Vang
Hu tieu (called kuy teav or Phnom Penh noodle soup) is a Cambodian-Chinese dish that Saigoneers have borrowed and changed to suit their palate. Hu tieu is a kind of noodles soup served in the southern part of the country, and there are innumerable stalls serving it in Saigon. It also has a dry version, which is slightly chewy and comes with a stronger sauce. The toppings may include pork, pork ribs, pork offal, shrimp, squid, wonton dumplings, fried garlic, fried shallots, and scallions. But minced meat is a must-have ingredient. Food vendors simmer finely minced meat in water to make the soup sweet and fatty. Hu tieu has various versions for diners to choose from. The dish also has a “dried” verison, is lightly chewy with a stronger sauce than the “wet” variety.
2. Goi cuon
Listed among the best dishes in the world, summer roll (or soft springroll) is a must-try among Vietnamese rolls. It is available across the country, but arguably tastes best in Saigon. Goi cuon, to give the correct name, is a rice paper wrap stuffed with rice noodles, sliced pork, steamed prawns and pickled carrot and daikon. The tightly wrapped rolls are also filled with fresh aromatic leaves including mint and basil. The red shrimp and green vegetables under the transparent rice paper give it an attractive and delicious look. The dish is served with a dark brown and gooey peanut dipping sauce. This finger food not only has an unbeatable price but also allows you to carry it around while exploring the beauty of Saigon.
1. Bun thit nuong cha gio
Bun thit nuong cha gio is fast, fresh and is probably Saigon’s answer to Hanoi’s pho noodle soup. It consists of cold rice noodles and fresh vegetables including bean sprout, diced cucumber, pickled radish, and chopped lettuce. It is topped with lean grilled pork, fried crab springrolls and crushed peanuts and pickled daikon and carrot. It is better for the midday tropical heat than a steaming bowl of pho. Vendors carefully choose meat with the right ratio of lean meat and fat before marinating to make sure the meat does not get too dry after being grilled. And don’t forget the nuoc mam fishsauce, which ties all the components together perfectly.