During our time in Vietnam, we traveled through Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and Cat Ba. We got to try a pretty wide array of the local cuisine, and while the list of indigenous foods is far more extensive than what we got to try, we found that we did get a nice sample of the cuisine.
Pho (Bo, Ga, Thit)
Probably one of the most famous of Vietnamese dishes, this is a noodle soup consisting of a thin yet flavorful, clear beef broth, noodles, meat, and herbs. It comes in several different styles: Pho Bo (beef), Pho Ga (chicken), Pho Thit (pork) and you can even find it with seafood and duck. There are many more varieties within those sets: such as Bo Vien (meatballs) and different cuts of meat. There are subtle, yet distinct differences between northern and southern style pho – the north is simpler (due to a poorer history) in it’s make. The south tends to have spicier pho, and offer a much larger offering of various herbs and spices to load into the bowl as well as including bean sprouts and lime.
Bun Bo Nam Bo (Ga)
This dish I found in Hanoi from a place advertising itself as Pho Ga. But what came out was Bun Ga Nam Ga (chicken). Bun Bo Nam Bo (Beef) is delicious and reminiscent of Pho, but without the broth. instead, marinated meat is served atop white rice noodles with herbs and peanuts. A small amount of sauce similar to a spicy sweet and sour is found at the bottom to mix it all with. My dish also came with a side of broth.
Bun Bo Hue
Yet another soup, this time hailing from the Hue region in northern Vietnam. At first appearance, it will bear striking resemblance to southern style Pho – lots of herbs, spicy, and served with a slice of lime. But the real difference here comes from the broth and choice of meat. This is a pork based soup, and as such you’ll find pork loin, and pork knuckle in the bowl, though they often will include a few slices of beef as well. The big kicker here though, is the pork blood added to the soup that gives a very strong and greasy flavor. The taste is very good, but I found that afterwards I would always have a bloody aftertaste which I felt the need to rid my mouth of. Some will elect to skip the blood, but more often than not, it’s included.
This dish hails from Hanoi, but has spread far and wide among the country with regional variants. The dish is grilled pork meat, noodles, and herbs. It is served with dipping sauce on the side. In the south, particularly around Saigon, you’ll find it all mixed together in a soup similar to Bun Bo Hue. However, the cuts of meat are always grilled, and always fatty. In contrast to many other dishes you’ll find in Vietnam, it is not spicy at all – I found it rather sweet and savory.
Next to Pho, this dish is also very famous the world-over. French baguettes became a norm in Vietnam during France’s extended colonial occupation of the country. While the French inevitably left, the food influence stayed and so the Banh Mi developed. A mini-baguette is stuffed with a variety of meat (typically sliced pork), pickled vegetables, and cilantro then given a once over with chili sauce. It makes for a great sandwich and you can find vendors pedaling them in every city and town on street corners – many cafes will also offer them. Since they’re made on the spot, it’s also easy to get a custom Banh Mi to your taste, so vegetarians will be pleased to find it easy to get one to their tastes.
Thien Nuoc Mam
I had no idea what I was ordering when I got this, but what came out was quite recognizable. Fried chicken wings. These aren’t your standard buffalo wings, but they are very similar. First chargrilled, then given a quick fry, they come out quite juicy, but with a slight crunch. The sauce I had was light, and very reminiscent of a BBQ sauce. It came served on top of sautéed vegetables and cucumbers.
Mi Xao Gion
I was so hungry I forgot to take a picture of the food while it was actually on the plate, but I did get a picture of the menu which has a pretty accurate representation of it.
Another simple, yet delicious noodle dish. Lo Mien noodles are fried to a crisp and then topped with sautéed vegetables, and various cuts of meat, swimming in a mushroom gravy. The gravy softens the crispy noodles, but still leaves a noticeable crunch. The meat can vary by the place, but mine came with fish balls, beef shank, beef liver, pork loin, and octopus.
Suon Xao Chua Not
My phone ran out of battery so I couldn’t take a picture, however you can refer to the menu picture above for the Mi Xao Gion.
This dish reminds me of Chinese food. It’s sweet and sour pork ribs. Sometimes it may be served over rice, other times noodles – but the core stays the same. Meaty and fatty pork ribs are pan fried then glazed with sweet and sour sauce and sautéed vegetables. Mine was served over fried rice and it was quite good. My only issue was attempting to eat the giant hunks of meat and ver much not-sticky rice with chopsticks.
These are stuffed steam buns. At first glance, they look rather plain and even unappealing. They’re a dull-white dough, with a quirky little twist on top. But inside they’re stuff with one or two hard-boiled quail eggs and sausage. The bun itself is moist and chewy with a mildly sweet taste, while the sausage has a pungent spice that compliments the eggs nicely.
This light soup hails from Hanoi, and has a distinct taste all its own. While it uses the same noodles as Bun Bo Hue, that is where the similarities end. This is considered a finicky dish, as it’s preparation is very exact: 6 month old chicken having laid eggs for only 1 week; evenly cut herbs of cilantro, green onion, and onion all laid underneath the noodles; scrambled eggs fried crispy then cut into noodles. Tofu and mushroom are added to the top. The bowl is then filled with a light chicken broth and topped further with scallions, red onions, cilantro, Vietnamese Coriander, shallots, thai chili, shrimp paste, and ca cuong (beetle juice). The dish is very good, and makes for a decent departure from pho.
Vietnamese Fried Fish
While in Cat Ba, I tried out a little bit of seafood. One of the first things I got was fried fish. The fish on Cat Ba is quite good (though I have no idea what kind it is). The method of cooking is pretty simple, the whole fish is tossed in a pan and fried in butter and garlic. Eating off the bone is easier than I would have thought, and the skin turns into a nice crisp with a delicious flavor all its own.
Another dish I got on Cat Ba, the squid salad was not exactly what I was expecting – not that that was bad. It came as a little bit of vermicelli noodle, pickled carrot, and cooked (but cool) squid, on top of fried rice puffs. The dish was lighter than I was hoping for, but was delicious nonetheless.
Bun Nem Chay
This is a vegetarian dish that we got a from a Buddhist restaurant serving only vegetarian dishes. It’s rice noodles served atop a mixed salad of herbs and cucumber, and topped with vegetarian fried spring rolls. The spring rolls have a nice spice to them of cinnamon, clove, and anise, filled with mushroom. A light sweet and sour sauce compliments the noodles and salad along with a topping of peanuts. It’s a light, refreshing, and filling meal. Great for a hot day when you might want something cooler than hot soup.
Bun Rieu Chay
This is a vegetarian styled dish based on meat rice vermicelli soup. This did not have meat, instead having fried tofu. This version is very different from the original, but does its best to keep with the inspiration. This soup has a tomato broth, and is filled with various vegetables and tofu. The non-vegetarian version contains crab and pig-blood. Regardless of the variety you try, it is very nutrient rich.
Bun Chuoi Dau
Yet another vegetarian dish we got – this was also a soup. This dish is a heavy, clear broth, filled with vegetables, noodles, and fried tofu. One of the highlights to this dish I found was the green banana. I’m not typically a banana fan (I actually hate them with a vengeance), but I found the green bananas to be a great addition, taking the place a potato normally would in a french style stew. This dish is very hearty, with a mildly sweet taste to it. I found myself ordering this multiple times.
Nem Ran (Chay)
These Vietnamese style spring rolls. Longer and thinner than the typical Chinese style spring rolls we’re used to, they are stuffed with pork, glass noodles, and vegetables and then deep fried to a golden crisp. Vegetarian (chay) versions skip the pork and will instead use tofu or mushroom as a filler. We got these while at a wonderful vegan restaurant in Cat Ba.
Pineapple Fried Rice
Briana got this while at Hum Vegetarian in Ho Chi Minh. Because of this, it was vegetarian (obviously). The key to this dish, which seems pretty ordinary and can be found pretty much everywhere is that it is served inside a hallowed out pineapple. Tiny bits of pineapple and peanuts are fried up alongside the rice (and meat if you choose that option) to create a sweet yet savory dish.