Vietnamese food is characterised by fresh, contrasting flavours – sweet and sour, crunchy and silky, fried and steamed. Rice and noodles are integral to most dishes, though you’ll find slight variations in flavour in different parts of the country. Dishes tend to be milder in the north, sweeter in the south and quite spicy in the central region.
Must-try dishes in Vietnam
Gaining international popularity, a steaming bowl of flavoursome pho is one of Vietnam's most celebrated street foods and an absolute must on the list of things to eat in Vietnam. This noodle soup, pronounced more like “fur” than “foe”, usually features clear noodles in a broth with beef or chicken, some vegetables and herbs. Regionally, pho is divided between "northern pho" (pho bac), which tends to be meatier and less garnished, and "southern pho" or "Saigon pho" (pho Sai Gon) which tends to be sweeter and features more fresh herbs. Vegetarian pho (pho chay) exists, but you might need some assistance from your local leader to find it.
The French influence in Vietnamese cuisine becomes obvious when you consider the popularity of fresh baguettes. Take crusty bread, stuff it with meat, coriander, daikon or green papaya and pickled condiments, and you've got a favourite lunch or breakfast treat for locals and travellers alike. Look out for banh mi trung in Hanoi, a no frills banh mi filled with an omelette and ngai cuu (mugwort leaves) served by street vendors for breakfast, and the less traditional Vietnamese/Middle Eastern fusion food, banh mi doner kebab.
This delicious crepe-like savoury pancake is filled with shrimp, fatty pork, bean sprouts and green onions, and is served with lettuce. Its name (literally "sizzling cake") comes from the intense sizzling sound the crepe makes when the turmeric and rice flour batter hits the frying pan.
Bun mam is the pungent essence of southern Vietnamese food – a vermicelli noodle soup prepared with a heady fermented fish paste, topped with an assortment of meats like squid, prawns and pork, and a slice of eggplant.
Bun bo hue
Hailing from the central Vietnamese town of Hue, this rice noodle beef soup packs a spice and lemongrass-filled punch. Often served with pork knuckle, slices of beef, Vietnamese sausage and onions, this soup is citrusy, hearty and warming.
That smell of charring meat that permeates Hanoi is probably bun cha – patties of fatty pork served in a thin soup alongside assorted greens, herbs and fresh rice vermicelli noodles.
When in Vietnam, take the opportunity to try exotic fruits not widely available elsewhere in the world. Rambutan, persimmon, mangosteen, dragon fruit, jackfruit and durian are all delicious snacks that can be bought cheaply from markets and roadside stalls.
Watch celebrity chef and author Nadia Lim discover Vietnam's food scene.
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