We love mì quảng. For your money, it’s the perfect Vietnamese meal — noodles, peanuts, rice crackers, pork and a turmeric broth. This dish is the pride of Quảng Nam Province in central Vietnam, served for many important occasions. Pho is more famous, but we think mì quảng deserves much more recognition.
Let’s get this one out of the way early on, because you knew it had to be on here. It’s the quintessential Vietnamese dish, after all. In Vietnam, millions of bowls of phở are served everyday, even as foreign cuisines gain the attention of the burgeoning middle class. Phở is as Vietnamese as it gets.
Here’s the perfect Vietnamese snack, with staple ingredients like shrimp, vermicelli, pork, and healthy greens. It’s sometimes a bit difficult to gnaw your way through the rice paper, but the powerful flavor from the sauce — peanuts mixed with hoisin sauce — makes up for all the effort. And at the standard price of 5,000vnd ($0.22 USD) per roll, everyone can afford these.
This dish is another of our favorites for breakfast or lunch. It usually comes with beef, but you can get it with any meat, or even tofu. The meat is simmered on a low heat in fish sauce, sugar and either water or coconut water, with carrots, onions and coriander to finish it off. The most popular way to eat this dish is by ripping off chunks of bánh mì — or French bread — to dip in the stew.
Bún chả is a prime example of Hanoi cuisine. The main components are rice vermicelli, grilled pork, fish sauce and all the herbs you could ever want. It’s a simple dish, but sometimes the most unassuming are the best.
Chả giò (South) / Nem rán (North)
These Vietnamese spring rolls are minced pork and veggies wrapped in rice paper and fried until the outside is brown. This dish is popular around the world because it’s perfect for sharing with groups.
It seems like every food stall has a different list of ingredients for this dish. It’s a hodgepodge of whatever was on sale at the local market that morning, but the essentials don’t really change: rice vermicelli, fish paste, seafood, pork and some combination of greens and sprouts. It’s much heartier than its cousin, phở, which is just one of the reasons why we love it.
Gà nướng sả
Like other dishes on this list, this one is simple but delicious. It’s grilled chicken that’s cooked with lemongrass and fish sauce, typically served on a bed of vermicelli noodles.
Literally translated as ‘broken rice’, it’s the rice that wasn’t fit for selling, which meant farmers often kept it for themselves, or sold it for cheap when Vietnam’s economy struggled. Today, you can find a cơm tấm place on just about every street in this country. It’s the lunch of choice for millions — a bed of rice with greens and various meats, though pork is the most common.
This one is basically Vietnamese calamari. Some restaurants serve the squid whole, but more often it’s sliced into loops and fried with fish sauce or chili. Since Vietnam is a coastal nation, the squid is fresh. Fried squid is popular in Vietnam because it’s an easy dish to share.
Bún bò Huế
Huế, the former imperial capital of Vietnam, is known for the way its local dishes find a wonderful balance of flavors — spicy, sour, salty and sweet — and Bún bò Huế is an excellent example. The broth is made by simmering beef bones with lemongrass and fermented fish sauce. The dish is then served with beef, pork, thick noodles and too many herbs and vegetables to list. Chili is added as well for a spicy kick, because people from Huế love their foods spicy.
Besides some colonial architecture, bánh mì is the most prominent remnant of the French colonial days. Millions of flaky loaves are baked every day, and for millions of people, a bánh mì sandwich is the best kind of breakfast. They’re cheap and delicious — a great start to any busy day.
Cá kho tộ
How does a bowl of caramelized fish stew in a clay pot sound? We think it sounds amazing. Start with a big hunks of fish — many varieties are used, as fish is plentiful in Vietnam — and simmer it in oil, garlic, onion, salt, soy, fish sauce and coconut juice. Yummy.
These are commonly known to foreigners as Vietnamese pancakes. Many people wrongly assume that bánh xèo is made with eggs because of its distinctive yellow color, but it’s actually made with a batter of rice flour and turmeric. Once you’ve added the greens and beansprouts, welcome to taste heaven.
Gỏi (South) / Nộm (North)
This is Vietnamese salad, but not to be confused with sa lát, which is the Western style of salad. There are about as many varieties of salad as there are people in Vietnam, but they typically start with grated cabbage, turnip or papaya, with meat and other greens to top it off. The whole mixture is then tossed with vinegar, garlic, salt and/or chili.
Rau muống xào tỏi
If you’ve never had water spinach before, or if you usually hate greens, then let us introduce you to your new favorite vegetable. When it’s sautéed in garlic and cooking oil, even people who would never order a salad can enjoy it. Rau muống xào tỏi adds both flavor and color to any dining table. Plus it’s cheap, which is always nice.
There are imitators throughout Vietnam, but the real thing can only come from Hội An. In fact, the only authentic way to eat this signature dish is to have noodles that were cooked in water from a secret well near town, also made with stone-ground rice flour and ash from firewood. As you make your way through Vietnam, Hội An is a must — and so is this dish.
Chả cá thăng long
This is fish cooked with dill, marinaded in turmeric, ginger, garlic, and fish sauce. It’s especially popular in its hometown of Hanoi. As with much Vietnamese cuisine, this dish is all about balancing flavors and textures.
This one is probably the most intimidating dish to order in Vietnam because of all the varieties of snails. For Vietnamese people, snails make the perfect finger food to accompany a couple of beers.
Bột chiên is easily one of our favorite dishes. We love it. It’s crunchy cubes of fried rice flour with eggs and green onion. Most people seem to eat it for breakfast, but we’ll eat it any time of the day. Whenever we’re driving around on our motorbike and notice a bột chiên food cart, we jam on the breaks to get some. It’s that good.