Vietnamese food has taken the world by storm. The tasty, flavourful dishes, such as Pho, have become popular all around the globe. Fresh ingredients and herbs, with Chinese and French influence, make Vietnamese cuisine what it is. Each region has its own specialties and versions of staples such as Pho and Bahn My. The food in the north is more similar to Chinese, whereas food in the north has some subtle Thai notes.
Eating vegetarian (and even vegan) wasn’t too difficult, as there are always meatless options for the Buddhists. Learn how to ask ‘no meat’ and ‘vegetarian’ just to be sure. Although it hasn’t replaced Thai as my favourite South East Asia cuisine, I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through Vietnam. Here are some of the dishes you should absolutely try:
Noodle dishes in Vietnam come in many forms. You should be aware that they cook with instant noodles a lot! Especially fried noodle dishes are often made with “yellow noodles” a.k.a. instant ramen. I recommend you avoid this unless you want to feel like a broke college student again. Instead, go for dishes that are made with rice noodles called ‘pho’. Yes, pho is not the name of the soup, but the name of the noodles. Pho was one of my favourite dishes in Vietnam, but the quality greatly differs. I liked it best in the north where the broth was more heavily spiced, but I also tasted some that were pretty much devoid of flavour, a real shame.
One of my favourite noodle dishes was Cao Lau, a local specialty in Hoi An. It’s noodles with a super flavourful sauce, topped with all kinds of goodies like veggies, tofu/meat, and crispy fried cracker things.
If it’s not made with noodles in Vietnam, it’s made with rice. Rice is called ‘com’ and small local restaurants often serve either ‘pho’ or ‘com’. Restaurants that serve com often serve it buffet style. You get a plate of rice and pick a few sides, such as veggies, meat or tofu. You then pay somewhere between 1 -2 dollars depending on how many sides you took. They always have tofu, often in tomato sauce, so a great option for budget vegetarian/vegan food. I ate at a lot of these roadside places while on my motorbike.
What I also ate a lot was steamed rice with vegetables, such a garlic fried morning glory, and fried rice another favourite among vegetarian backpackers in Vietnam. Note that fried rice is often made with egg and not suitable for vegans.
3. Bahn Mi
I ate so many Bahn Mi’s y’all… For breakfast, lunch, as a snack and best of all: a midnight drunk snack before bed. The crispy, fluffy baguettes are light and don’t fill you up too much.
Originally Bahn Mi is a sandwich with liver pate and pickled veggies, a clear leftover from French colonialism. But nowadays, you can get all kinds of Bahn Mi’s. Very popular are Bahn Mi with omelet and in bigger cities you can also get Bahn My with cream cheese or tofu. Every place makes them slightly different, the best places are generous with toppings and toast the sandwich for you. Either way, at 1-1,50 dollar, it’s a great option for a quick bite.
4. Bahn Xeo
One of the best things I ate in Vietnam was Bahn Xeo. These are crispily fried rice-flour pancakes that you fill and roll like a spring roll and dip in sauce. The absolute best I had was at The Duck Stop in Phong Na where they were served with a fresh peanut sauce. Every place I ordered Bahn Xeo they gave me something slightly different. Sometimes it wasn’t really a pancake, other times it came with fish sauce or soy sauce. But it always tasted great!
5. Street food
Like everywhere in South East Asia, Vietnam has a great street food scene. Technically every meal in Vietnam is potentially served on the side of the street on tiny plastic furniture, so it is all street food. But here I’m referring to the snacks you buy from street vendors and eat while walking. Of course spring rolls are everywhere, but I never found one that I liked (they were also always with seafood or meat). What I did love were the fried donut holes and fresh fruit sold by ladies on the city streets.
Of course, all that food must have been you thirsty, luckily there are plenty of tasty Vietnamese beverages as well. Enjoy the fresh fruit shakes and cane juice (only for the hardcore sweet tooths) during the day and a variety of alcoholic drinks at night (or okay, in the afternoon). Every region in Vietnam has its own beer brands along with the (inter)national brands such as Tiger and Heineken. I recommend sticking with the regional beers as they are just as bland and usually cheaper. But the absolute best option is Bia Hoi. Bia Hoi is fresh brewed beer from the tap without any preservatives, so it has to be consumed in a matter of hours, which is why it’s so cheap. You can get a cup of Bia Hoi for 5000 Dong (0.25 cents). Definitely the cheapest beer I’ve ever had, and not even the worst tasting. If you want to get drunk for cheap, look for Bia Hoi signs. I’ve seen them in big cities and small towns. Drinking beer in Vietnam is a whole experience. Beer is often drunk in small cups with ice and refilled before it’s empty. After the cheers (Một hai ba dzô!) you down the glass and shake hands with everyone you just toasted with. We got pretty smashed like this when we got randomly invited to a Vietnamese office party. It was crazy.
Aside from beer, the Vietnamese also love a glass of rice wine. Some rice wines are very sweet, others taste like rocket fuel. Either way, they’ll get you drunk and then some. Traditional rice wine is made by adding water to fermented rice in big clay jugs and then drinking it through a bamboo straw, but mostly you’ll see it sold in plastic water bottles.
If you have to recover from all the beers and rice wine, Vietnamese coffee will do the trick. It’s thick and strong, often served with condensed milk. The best coffee, however, is the egg coffee. It’s topped with a whipped mixture of egg yolk and condensed milk and tastes like tiramisu. So, so good!
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