10 foods and drinks to try in Vietnam

Like I said on Instagram: when you can’t travel, you drool over old photos of your trip to Vietnam. If you followed my blog posts from that time back in February, you will recall that Mr. Chuckles and I basically spent our entire trip on food tours, cooking tours, and eating everything in sight. I’ve sorted through my photos from those two weeks and would say that at least a quarter of them are pictures of things that ended up in our stomachs.

We discovered that there is a lot more to Vietnamese cuisine than we have ever experienced here in Canada, so I’ve narrowed things down to a list of my top 10 favourite foods and drinks that we had over there. It was a tough exercise, but it had to be done.

1. Bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette)

I think I mentioned bánh mì nearly every time we transferred to a new city in Vietnam, so it’s appropriate for this to be at the top of my list. A popular lunchtime meal for locals, these baguette sandwiches typically include pork sausage and pâté, accompanied by an assortment of herbs and vegetables such as cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled daikon. The pâté and baguettes are the key features for making a quality bánh mì, with the best vendors boasting their own secret family recipes and sources for these components.

Where we ate:

📍Bánh Mì Tuấn Mập, 196 Pasteur, Phường 6, Quận 3, Ho Chi Minh

📍Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, 26 Lê Thị Riêng, P.BT, Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh

📍Bánh Mì Phượng, 2b Phan Chu Trinh, Cẩm Châu, Hoi An

📍Bánh Mỳ P, 12 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

📍Banh Mi Paté, 1 Hàng Cá, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

2. Barbecue duck

BBQ duck is not really a classic Vietnamese dish per se; you probably associate it more with Chinese cuisine. There is in fact a large community of Chinese expatriates in Vietnam (known as Hoa people), which has influenced the country’s culinary culture. During our food tour in Ho Chi Minh City, we stopped at a small roadside vendor owned by two sisters, who roast up only about 50 of these ducks per day. They were so juicy and delicious, and went perfectly with the soft, warm baguette and crispy vegetables on the side. This was undoubtedly one of the favourites from our entire time in Vietnam.

Where we ate:

📍Vịt quay 2 Chị em, 257 Nguyễn Công Trứ, Phường Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh

3. Bánh xèo (Savoury fried crepes)

I‘d eaten bánh xèo throughout my childhood but was never a big fan of these savoury crepes, until I tried them again as an adult in Vietnam. Our first taste was at a little hole in the wall place behind our hotel in Hoi An, perfectly fried and filled with pork. The proper way to eat them is to wrap the crepe, made from fried rice batter, with rice paper and herbs, and then dip in fish sauce. We loved these so much that we recreated them when we returned home, after learning the recipe during our cooking class.

Where we ate:

📍Sông Hoài, An Hội, Hoi An

📍Coconut Fragrance Cooking School

4. Cha giò (Fried spring rolls)

In Vietnamese, the name for spring rolls has three variations: nem rán in the north, chả giò in the south and ram in the central region. Since we ate these in Hoi An, I should really refer to them as ram, but in Toronto most of our Vietnamese restaurants are owned by people from the south, so I have always known of fried spring rolls as chả giò. They are usually filled with ground pork mixed with mushrooms, noodles, and diced vegetables, all rolled up in rice paper. There’s a fresh spring roll variation that is very good as well.

Where we ate:

📍Sông Hoài, An Hội, Hoi An

📍Coconut Fragrance Cooking School

5. Cao lau (Pork with rice noodles)

Cao lầu is a dry noodle dish that is region specific to Hoi An. It typically consists of pork and greens on a bed of rice noodles, made from rice soaked in lye water. This gives the noodles a characteristic springy texture and yellowish colour that distinguishes it from other noodle dishes. We ate this at a low key food stand within a market in Hoi An during our food tour there, and it was one of my favourites from the evening. I preferred it to the other regional noodle specialty, mì quảng, which we later ate during our bike tour on Cam Kim Island.

Where we ate:

📍Ms. Liet, Food Market at 14 Phan Chu Trinh, Cẩm Châu, Hoi An

6. Pho (Beef noodle soup)

More noodles! This one you’ve probably heard of, as it is the Vietnamese dish that has been most heavily popularized in North America and Europe. Phở, pronounced “f-uuuh” not “f-oh“, is a classic dish of white rice noodles in beef broth, topped with thinly sliced meat (usually beef) and herbs. Since we get lots of phở at home, we opted not to eat much of this in Vietnam other than the one lunch we had with our Hanoi city tour and during our cooking class in Hoi An. It was good but not my most memorable meal.

Where we ate:

📍Phở Thìn, 13 Lò Đúc, Ngô Thì Nhậm, Hai Bà Trưng, Hanoi

7. Bánh cuon (Rice noodle rolls)

This is another classic north Vietnamese dish that I had lots of while growing up, but tasted better when I ate it in Vietnam during our Hanoi food tour. These rice noodle rolls feature steamed, fermented rice batter stretched into a sheet, and then filled with a mixture of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushrooms, and minced shallots. They are topped with herbs and fried onions, accompanied by fish sauce.

Where we ate:

📍Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền, 12 Hàng Gà, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

8. Bún cha (Grilled pork and rice noodles with dipping sauce)

Anthony Bourdain fans out there may know of bún chả from an episode of Parts Unknown, where he travelled to Hanoi and ate this with Barack Obama. We looked up the restaurant where they went but were unimpressed by the mediocre reviews, so found another place near our hotel to try it out. It was my first time trying this dish and I quite liked it. It is made up of grilled pork served alongside vermicelli noodles, and sometimes spring rolls, which you eat with a dipping sauce. This is a quintessential Hanoi dish and is mandatory eating if you ever visit the area.

Where we ate:

📍Bun Cha Ta, 21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

9. Cà phê dá (Vietnamese iced coffee)

Drinking Vietnamese coffee stirs up some nostalgia, bringing me back to the days of visiting my grandpa and getting him to sneak a cup to me. Vietnam has a big coffee culture and the people from there sure know how to do coffee. Traditional cà phê is made using medium to coarse ground dark roast, filtered through a metal drip filter. The iced version is made by pouring the hot coffee into a glass full of ice, and then adding a bunch of sweetened condensed milk. You can also go with just the hot coffee, but the iced version is a delightful pick me up on a hot day. Zing!

Where we drank:

📍McDonald’s, Ho Chi Minh

📍KAFA Café, Số 2 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

10. Cà phê trung (Egg coffee)

After a glass of iced coffee in the daytime, you can cap off your dinner with a cup of egg coffee. This was another Hanoi specialty that we tried during the food tour. Egg coffee was invented in 1946 by a local man in Hanoi who was trying to create a richer coffee in the time of food rationing, when cream and milk were in scarce supply. It remains very popular today, but is more of a dessert drink and typically enjoyed in the evening. I still prefer regular old cà phê but this was definitely worth a try.

Where we drank:

📍Đinh Café, 13 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

Vietnam food tips

The top recommendation I have for fully experiencing the food of Vietnam is to consider joining food tours (whenever it’s safe to resume travelling, of course). We thoroughly enjoyed all of our tours with Urban Adventures, and actually attended a food tour with them in every city we visited. We found them to be a great way to learn about the local cuisine and discover eateries that we could revisit later on. They were also an avenue to meet other travellers and socialize a little. Of course, you are paying a lot more than it would cost to just seek out places on your own, but in my opinion, the experience is well worth it. Plus, unless you are on a super low travel budget, a couple tours won’t really break the bank. Another option is to save and refer back to this post, as the places I’ve listed above are personally vouched by yours truly. 😉

My second recommendation is to embrace the street food. I think we ate at only a handful of indoor, sit-down, table service restaurants the entire time. The rest of our much tastier meals were enjoyed in open markets or at street vendors. Practice basic health precautions and eat up.

Enjoying the street food of Hanoi

When you are exploring on your own, the general tip is to look for busy places with lots of locals inside – or rather, outside sitting on those teeny plastic stools. If you end up somewhere without an English menu, you can always look around and point at whatever your table neighbours are eating. Of course, this carries some risk. Case in point, we met a couple travellers during our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise who relayed to us their horrifying but funny-in-retrospect tale of unknowingly eating dog meat when they were in said scenario. Yikes!