A taste of Vietnam: our pick of visitors’ favourites

For many years Vietnamese cuisine has won plaudits from international diners and is a source of pride for Vietnamese people. Standing apart thanks to its distinct taste and flavour, Vietnamese gastronomy features hundreds of speciality dishes from around the country. Timeout’s Hoang Anh presents the ten best dishes from across northern, central and southern Vietnam that are most favoured by foreign visitors.

Northern delicacies

Northern people pay high respect to traditional culture and are sophisticated by nature. Northern dishes, therefore, are often meticulously prepared to carry a unique flavour. Northern food distinction can be characterised by Hanoi’s typical dishes, such as banh mi, pho, bun, cha ca and banh cuon.

Banh mi

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Photo: Internet

Banh mi has recently superseded Pho to become the top choice of Vietnamese dishes amongst foreigners. This simple street fare is attracting attention on diverse websites on tourism and food as well as from renowned food bloggers. Two years ago the publication of The Banh Mi Handbook helped the humble sandwich rise to fame, and since then banh mi has constantly scored high rankings by prestigious international magazines and websites when it comes to the world’s top streetfood dishes. UK’s BBC recently praised Vietnamese banh mi as the world’s best sandwich.

Banh mi was introduced to Vietnam during French colonial times in the form of French baguettes. Given a Vietnamese twist, the street food appears on today’s stalls with a variety of fillings including beef steak, bacon, pate, sausage, scrambled egg, butter, and jam. Each type carries a distinct flavour, but they all share a crispy crust, sweet and sour pickles, and typical Vietnamese herbs and sauces. Hanoi, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City all produce their own delicious variety of banh mi. Street sellers charge from VND15,000 to VND45,000 per banh mi.

Bun cha

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Vietnamese bun cha (Grilled meat) has earned its place amongst top street food picks in Asia. US newswire CNN described bun cha as a perfect blend of two of the most favourite summer dishes – grilled meat and salad consisting of pickles and fresh vegetables. The grilled meat comes in two forms: chopped meat balls and sliced pork belly. The meat is marinated in spices before being grilled on hot charcoal. The most important element for a good bun cha is the special sauce made from simple ingredients including fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, garlic, chilli, pepper, green papaya, and carrot which is carefully prepared following a specific recipe.

Bun cha is served with a small bowl of fresh pickled vegetables and is a favourite dish in summer. A portion of bun cha costs from VND25,000. Famous bun cha spots in Hanoi are Bun Cha Huong Lien on Le Van Huu street, Sinh Tu on Nguyen Khuyen street, Dac Kim on Hanh Manh street, Duy Diem on Ngoc Khanh street as well as other shops along Hang Than, Hang Quat and Cua Dong streets.

Cha ca La Vong

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Cha ca La Vong (Grilled fishes) is famous for being the special creation of the Doan family living at 14 Cha Ca street in Hanoi. Having been served for nearly 150 years, the dish still retains its traditional flavour and has become a
Hanoi specialty.

Cha ca has scooped diverse accolades from foreign media such as being honoured as one of the top 12 unmissable dishes by Yahoo and winning fivestar ranking from diverse global websites on tourism and gastronomy. Truly authentic versions of the fried fish dish are made from hemibagrus which is a relatively bone-free fish with sweet flesh. Some restaurants use scar or catfish but the most delicious is the hemibagrus fried fish. Besides its unique flavour, foreign visitors love the dish because  of the way it is served. Diners take part in the final cooking stage of the dish by self frying carefully marinated pieces of fish in a sizzling pan.

The dish is usually served with fresh vermicelli, roasted peanuts, coriander, and a side bowl of shrimp paste sauce mixed with lemon, which combine to make up a unique taste that cannot be matched. A portion of Cha Ca La Vong can be enjoyed for around VND175,000/person.

Banh cuon

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Made of rice-flour, banh cuon (steamed rice roll) is very light crepe, steamed and rolled with fillings and served with sweet and sour sauce. What makes banh cuon unique is the way the filling is prepared. Each Vietnamese location has their own special recipe for banh cuon.

Amongst the most famous variations are steamed egg banh cuon from Lang Son province, banh cuon served with sliced BBQ fried pork belly from Phu Ly, and Thai Binh’s minced shrimp banh cuon. In Hanoi, the most popular banh cuon is from Thanh Tri district, where two types are on offer: with or without a filling of onion, fried minced shrimp or meat. Both kinds are served with Vietnamese cinnamon infused ham, pieces of fried tofu, and fish sauce mixed with lemon. Making banh cuon is a dedicated process that diners can observe going on behind the counter when enjoying this delicious dish.

Eating in Hanoi: 17 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem district; 66 To Hien Thanh, Hai Ba Trung district, and some stores along Hang Dieu, Ky Dong and Hang Cot in Hanoi Old quarter. Each portion fetches from VND30,000-35,000.

Central region delicacies

Unlike the subtle flavour of northern food, the central region’s dishes tend to be sour and full of spice. Typical dishes characterising central region cuisine include bun bo Hue, cao lau, mi quang and banh trang nuong.

Bun bo Hue

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A typical dish originating from the ancient royal capital city of Hue, these days bun bo Hue can be found in most localities throughout Vietnam. But to sample the true bun bo Hue flavour, visitors should call at Dong Ba market in Hue city, where American chef Anthony Bourdain once uttered after tasting the dish that “Bun bo Hue is the best soup in the world.”

The dish consists of thin slices of marinated and boiled beef shank and knuckles of pig. It can also include cubes of congealed pig blood. It is commonly served with lime wedges, diced green onions, raw sliced onions, chili sauce, thinly sliced banana blossom, red cabbage, mint, basil, coriander and bean sprouts. A subtle blend of Asian and classical French cuisine, bun bo Hue costs from VND30,000 a bowl.

Mi Quang

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A common everyday dish from the central province of Quang Nam, mi quang was recognised by Asian Record Organisation as one of the 12 best Vietnamese foods carrying “Asian cuisine values”. Like bun and pho (fresh vermicelli and Vietnamese noodles), mi quang noodles are also made from rice, but its flavour carries true distinction. The dish offers protein in the form of shrimp, pork, chicken, or even fish and beef. An intensely flavoured broth is made by simmering the meat in bone broth seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallot and garlic. Mi quang is served with green chilli, roasted peanuts, dry pancake (banh da), authentic fish sauce, and nine different fresh vegetables. Visitors can taste mi quang at any restaurants in Quang Nam province with the price averaging VND30,000 a bowl.

Cao lau

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The dish’s origins continues to spark heated debate. According to some cao lau originated from Japanese udon noodles, while others insist that the food came from China. By appearance, cao lau resembles mi quang, but the preparation of the two dishes is markedly different. True cao lau noodles are said to be made using only water from one ancient well in Hoi An called Ba Le. The water is also supposed to be mixed with a specific type of ash from a tree found on the Cham islands off the coast of Hoi An. Thin slices of perfectly barbecued pork and fresh greens cooked to perfection sit atop a bed of thick rice noodles, all topped off with a smattering of crunchy croutons. The pork is cooked by the traditional Chinese method known as char siu. Bean sprouts are also commonly added on top to give a burst of freshness and contrasting crisp texture to the chewy noodles and meaty pork.

Cao lau is often served in second floor restaurants where visitors can soak up both the food and the Hoi An ancient town atmosphere from the streets below. In 2014, US online news the Huffington Post hailed cao lau Hoi An as one of Vietnam’s greatest culinary treasures.

Southern delicacies

Southern dishes come in a wider array and diversity than their northern and central counterparts, and tend to feature a deft blend between salty, sour and sweet tastes, often complemented with fresh coconut milk. Typical southern dishes include goi cuon, banh xeo, banh khot and hu tieu.

Goi cuon

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Goi cuon (or nem cuon) can be found in any food market or street style restaurant in southern Vietnam, priced from VND2,000 a piece. The dish is made from soft steamed rice crepe or rice paper wrapped around sliced processed pork meat, shrimp, fresh vermicelli and fresh herbs. Goi cuon is served with sweet and sour dipping sauce or a special condensed sauce made from liver and meat. A lighter and less oily dish than some, goi cuon is a favourite choice for many people, particularly foreign visitors.

According to world cuisine experts, goi cuon is one of most healthy, nutritional and safe dishes. It was ranked 30th out of the world’s 50 best dishes by CNN in 2011.

Banh xeo

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Though today it is a familiar dish in all of Vietnam’s three regions, banh xeo reportedly originated from central and southern Vietnam. The differences between banh xeo from these two regions lie in its dimension and the fillings. Banh xeo from the southern region are bigger and have more filling than those served up in the central region, the filling of which often includes small prawns, slices of meat or cuttle-fish and fresh bean sprouts.

Banh xeo resembles a pancake in appearance, earning it the moniker amongst westerners of “Vietnamese pancake”. The dish, however, is so much more than its nickname suggests, with the advantage of providing daily dietary requirements in the form of starch, protein and fresh herbs. Banh xeo was honoured by CNN as one of Vietnam’s best foods in an article
in 2015.

Banh xeo shops can be found all over Ho Chi Minh City with prices from VND10,000 (45 US cents) a piece.

Banh khot

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The name banh khot reportedly originates from the sound “khot khot” that can be heard when the dish is being made. Banh khot appears in diverse southern locations and carries a unique flavour in each location. For example, banh khot found in Chau Doc in An Giang province is yellow, due to the rice flour being blended with turmeric powder, and is served with a whole shrimp on top, whereas banh khot in Vung Tau retains its original white colour and its top is sprinkled with minced fried shrimp.

To experience a true taste of banh khot, visitors should venture to Vung Tau, famous for this specialty of the southern land. Each portion of banh khot costs from VND15,000-20,000 (68 to 90 US cents). It usually comes wrapped in green leaf lettuce, and served with sliced green papaya, fresh vegetables and sweet and sour dipping sauce. The dish was once named among 12 best Vietnamese dishes and garnered praise at a 2013 street food festival.

By Hoang Anh