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First-timer’s guide to food in Vietnam

vietnam food with chop sticks

Vietnam’s cuisine is fascinating. But with so many unusual dishes to try, deciphering the list of must-eat foods in Vietnam can seem overwhelming!

If it’s your first time in the country, this guide to iconic Vietnamese dishes should help.

From the classics that everyone should try on their first visit, to unique dishes specific to a certain region or city, these are the nine foods you should try on any trip to Vietnam…

Iconic Vietnamese Dishes you Have to Try

1) Pho
Vietnam’s most famous, and best-loved dish is pho. Usually eaten for breakfast, pho is a beef noodle soup made of rice noodles, beef slices and fresh herbs in a rich, flavourful broth. It’s usually served with chilli slices, beansprouts, and lime wedges on the side. You really can customise the bowl to your heart’s content.

2) Banh Mi
An iconic dish of the French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine that sprang up during the years of colonialism, banh mi is essentially a sandwich. But it’s far from a simple one!

Most sellers offer a variety of meat fillings, such as fried duck or barbecued pork. These are stuffed into a lightly toasted baguette along with pickled vegetables, pate, soy sauce, chillies, coriander, and peppers. The most famous one can be found in Hoi An, at the shop Banh Mi Phuong, which once appeared on an Anthony Bourdain episode.

3) Fresh Spring Rolls
Goi cuon, or Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, are usually filled with vermicelli noodles, pork, shrimp, shredded carrot, and lettuce. The thinly sliced ingredients are wrapped into a spring roll using a sheet of translucent rice paper. They’re served cold with a dipping sauce and are delectably fresh.

4) Fried Spring Rolls
The less healthy version are fried spring rolls. These are probably more familiar to Western visitors!

Generally, fried spring rolls contain mung bean noodles, minced pork and spices, all wrapped in rice paper and deep fried. They’re served hot with a peanut or chilli dipping sauce.

5) Banh Xeo
Next we have the famous Vietnamese pancake, banh xeo. Unlike the crepes you’re probably used to, banh xeo is a savoury pancake made from rice batter. It’s stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, and egg, it’s then folded in half in a dish that’s part pancake, part taco!

To eat banh xeo like a local, tear it into strips and wrap them in rice paper with some fresh greens, then dunk into a spicy sauce.

Region-Specific Vietnamese Dishes

6) Bun Cha, Hanoi
Bun cha is a definite Hanoi speciality, and can be found at food stalls and restaurants all over the city. The dish involves small patties of minced pork which have been barbecued over charcoal. These are served on a bed of cold rice noodles, with mixed greens and a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.

7) Bun Bo Hue, Hue
There are a lot of unique dishes to try in Hue, but the main one is bun bo hue, a noodle soup that’s similar to pho.

Bun boe hue is thicker and spicier than pho and is heavily fragranced with lemongrass. Alongside noodles, beef, and spring onions, many restaurants also add more exotic ingredients such as offal meatballs, crab balls, and cubes of congealed pigs’ blood. It’s an acquired taste, but the intricate combination of flavours is surprisingly delicious!

8) Mi Quang, Da Nang
Over in neighbouring Da Nang you can find another distinctive noodle dish. Mi quang is distinguished by its thick, yellow noodles which are served in a flavourful bone broth along with shrimp, quails eggs and roast pork.

9) Cao Lau, Hoi An
Finally, we have cao lau, a dish that is particularly tied to Hoi An. It’s said that unless the noodles were prepared using water from Hoi An’s Ba Le well, the dish simply isn’t cao lau at all!

Thick rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts, lemongrass, fresh herbs and thin slices of pork form the basis of the dish. A topping of crunchy pork crackling and crispy fried rice crackers adds extra textures for a dish that’s delicious and completely unique.

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