Pho is the de-facto national dish of Vietnam and undoubtedly the most well-known Vietnamese dish overseas. This noodle soup is made up of three components: a broth made by simmering beef bones and herbs overnight to really bring the flavor out, fresh rice noodles and a type of meat—typically beef.
Despite Hanoi being the birthplace of pho, it is found everywhere in Vietnam and the flavors change from region to region as it does with most dishes. It also may be a common breakfast staple, yet it’s almost impossible to not find it at all hours. Try it at least once in your life.
Bun bo is a dish that originated from Hue, hence its name. This noodle dish is a favorite among carnivores, as it comes with a huge pile of beef and pork in addition to the thick, slippery rice noodles and spicy broth. Add in some bean sprouts and banana blossoms, and sprinkle on a few pieces of chili and you will have a hearty meal.
Cao lau is the most famous noodle dish from Hoi An. This roasted pork noodle dish cannot be found in any other city, which is why it’s a must that you try it while you’re in Hoi An. The reason you can’t make an authentic cao lau elsewhere is that the broth can only be made with water drawn from the local Ba Le well. The origin story of this dish is still unknown.
Bun rieu is a seafood vermicelli soup with a distinctive crimson color thanks to the use of tomato paste and annatto oil. Crab meat is the star of this noodle dish, but depending on the region, you can find various takes such as the use of beef, pork or even snail. The dish is light, and well balanced.
Bun thit nuong is best described as love in a bowl, often a favorite among expats. There are a whole bunch of different flavors and textures in one place—sweet bits, sour bits, spicy bits, crunch, soft, tangy and stringy, all in one colorful arrangement. It’s made of grilled pork, noodles and veggies.
Bun dau mam tom has no soup, and the components are served separately—vermicelli noodles, tofu, pork and the star of the dish, the smelly mam tom sauce. Mam tom sauce is essentially fermented shrimp paste and you can think of it like the vegemite of Vietnam—you’ll either love it or hate it. Squeeze in some lime wedges into the sauce, and then use it to flavor the slabs of tofu and pork you eat with the noodles.
Bun mam is another dish you’ll either love or hate. This is a noodle dish that comes with a dark, murky broth, flavored with fermented fish sauce. A collection of sea food, pork, eggplant and chives are added to complete the dish, along with a few other common herbs. Bun mam is a little on the sweet side, thanks to its southern origins.
Mi quang is another popular noodle dish from central Vietnam, originating from the Quang Nam province, hence its name. A popular lunch item, the main ingredients of mi quang are rice noodles, meat and herbs, served with a small amount of broth. It is then garnished with peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers, setting it apart from other noodle dishes.
This is a Cambodian and Chinese-inspired noodle dish, popular in the south. There are a dozen variations of hu tieu, but the broth is pretty much the same in every version, made of bones, dried squid, rock sugar, pork and a bunch of vegetables left to simmer for hours. Add to it some noodles, veggies and meats and you’re good to go.
Fun fact: Nam Vang is the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
Banh tam bi is a relatively unpopular noodle dish from southern Vietnam, made of thick tapioca rice noodles, mixed with herbs and pork and then drenched over with deliciously sweet coconut cream. It is one of the rarer delicacies, originating from Bac Lieu, a town of the Mekong Delta.
Last but not least is bun cha. Pho might be Vietnam’s most famous dish, but bun cha is a lunchtime obsession. The components of this dish are served separately—a broth made of vinegar, lime, sugar and fish sauce, along with vermicelli noodles, a basket of herbs and veggies, and a separate dish of seasoned pork patties and slices of pork belly grilled over a charcoal fire. Mix a little bit of everything together and have a hearty bite. Remember, don’t drink the broth.
This dish became even more popular when President Obama was treated to it by Anthony Bourdain during his state visit to Vietnam. The restaurant he ate at in Hanoi, Bun Cha Huong Lien, has left his table uncleaned and created a rather lovely shrine to it. They even serve a new item on the menu, the Obama Combo.