The light, fresh, and fragrant flavours of Vietnamese cuisine are influenced by the country’s proximity to the South China Sea, and the bordering countries of China, Laos, and Cambodia. Most meals feature meaty broths, stir-fries, and fresh, green herbs.
Vietnam brims with rich culinary offerings, from its dizzying variety of street food, to its fine restaurants. In the south, where the frenetic energy of Hồ Chí Minh City (or Saigon) meets the laidback lushness of the Mekong Delta, there are uniquely flavoured seafood dishes, often with a sweet twist. Central Vietnam loves its spice; and the northern part of the country has its own wonderful Chinese-inflected cuisine. From a comforting bowl of pho or congee in the morning, to family-style lunches and dinners, rice is a staple in its many forms: rolled into dumplings, cooked into a sticky ball, or ground into flour and steamed into silky crepes. Only the freshest herbs and vegetables are used, and the cuisine is marked by its play of complementary textures, and balance of sweet, sour, and salty flavours.
One of Vietnam’s most ubiquitous culinary exports, green papaya salad is found in every nook and cranny of the country. But what goes into creating that alchemical mix of spice, salt, sugar and tang? At a cooking class in Hanoi, I learnt the process behind the tongue-tickling flavours that define this dish. Starting with a bowl of finely grated green papaya, use chopsticks to untangle the long strands and lumps that stick together, otherwise the salad won’t soak up the flavours. Add salt and sugar to taste, toss in some finely grated garlic, and a few coarsely chopped red chillies for heat. Squeeze fresh lemon juice into the mixture, and throw in a handful of basil leaves. Top it with coarsely chopped peanuts for a satisfying crunch.
Where Five Oysters, 234 Bùi Viện, Phạm Ngũ Lão, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City. Green papaya salad 40,000 Vietnamese dong (₹120).
Widely known as Vietnam’s national dish, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a pure soul food: clear, flat-noodle soup in a savoury broth, topped with meat, such as chicken or beef, and various condiments. Add-ins can include mung bean sprouts, a lemon wedge, basil and cilantro leaves, fiery red chillies, and a variety of soy and fish sauces. A popular and filling breakfast or lunch dish, pho comes in a variety of flavours, with regional variations from every part of Vietnam. Hue, in central Vietnam, for example, is known for bun bo Hue, a meatier soup that is strongly flavored with lemongrass and intense chilli oil. Vietnam’s busy streets are crammed with stalls overflowing with locals who sit at colourful plastic tables on the sidewalks and tuck into bowls of pho. Some like it spicy, and some like it sweet, but it’s a dish everyone can relish.
Where Nhà hàng Ngon,160 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh City. Pho 50,000 Vietnamese dong (₹150).
The Vietnamese-French fusion sandwich is sold everywhere—street stalls, restaurants, bakeries, even trains—but Bánh Mì Phuong in Hoi An has the distinction of being featured by Anthony Bourdain on his popular show No Reservations. Now a world foodie destination, Phuong has a second location to accommodate her legions of fans. At the original stall, baguettes bake in the oven while servers use chopsticks to delicately pick from piles of deli meat, sausage or chicken, layering these ingredients with the perfect portions of meat pâté, cucumber slices, cilantro, pickled carrots and shredded daikon. Some chilli sauce and a dash of mayo serves as a lip-smacking substrate for these ingredients, which are pressed between bread, et voilà, your bánh mí is ready. It’s a great on-the-go sandwich, but you may not be able to resist biting into it right there.
Where Bánh Mì Phuong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh, Minh An, Hoi An. Banh mi 15,000-25,000 Vietnamese dong (₹45-75).
At the venerable restaurant Chả cá Lã Vong—over a hundred years old—not knowing Vietnamese is no impediment as there is only one dish on the menu. Lã Vong’s legendary chả cá, or grilled fish, has inspired chefs around the world with its intensity of flavours. The experience begins as you ascend a wooden staircase filled with the wafting aromas of turmeric and dill and the sizzle of cooking. A server brings a lit stove to your table, with a skillet piled with delectable ingredients: fish marinated in turmeric, fresh dill, shrimp paste, and garlic oil. Along with this come bowls of fresh mint and cilantro, roasted peanuts, fish sauce with red chillies, and silky rice noodles. Grilling your own fish at the table is easier than you might expect, but each mouthful of the hot, herby dish explodes with surprising flavour in your mouth.
Where Chả cá Lã Vong, 14 Chả cá Street, Hanoi. Chả cá 1,70,000 Vietnamese Dong (₹510) per person. Beware of imposter restaurants in the area with signs saying they serve Cha cá Lã Vong. The original restaurant is on the first floor.
Ever wonder what liquid tiramisu would taste like? Look no further than Hanoi’s famous egg coffee, served thick and frothy at Giang Café’s outdoor rooftop tables, overlooking Lake Hoan Kiem and its iconic Turtle Tower. Getting to this spot is an adventure in itself as the entrance is not advertised. The café is up a narrow flight of stairs, on the small Ngyuễn Hữu Huân Street in Hanoi’s old quarter. Climb all the way to the top floor, seat yourself on the cool patio overlooking the frenetic city, and breathe in the fresh air. Order the egg coffee, or cà phê trung, a unique drink created during tough times in Vietnam when milk was scarce. The founder of Giang Café is said to have decided to add egg yolks instead of milk, and the boldly decadent drink was created. The first sip is silky smooth, thanks to rich egg yolk; then, the flavors of roasted coffee, cheese, butter,and sugar swirl around your tongue along with the richness of condensed milk.
Where Giang Cafe, 39 Ngyuễn Hữu Huân, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi. Egg coffee about 30,000 Vietnamese dong (₹90).
Made with the stems and leaves of the nutritious raumuong plant, morning glory can be prepared a number of different ways, including boiling them with salt, making a broth out of them, or even eating them raw. One of the simplest and tastiest preparations involves stir-frying the leaves with loads of fresh garlic. At the Morning Glory restaurant, owner Trinh Diem Vy serves up a mean version of the traditional preparation. The founder is known for her great love of Vietnamese street food, and for creating rare, authentic dishes that are hard to get. Her restaurant, tucked away inside a cosy alley in Hoi An, is full of warmth and the smell of good food from the open kitchen.
Where Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Minh An, Hoi An. The dish costs 68,000 Vietnamese dong (Approx ₹200).
Locals swear you can tell the difference between real cao lầu noodles—prepared using water only from one special well in Hoi An—and those made with regular water. I did not seek out the storied Ba Le well to taste-test its water myself, but I did partake of a bowl of the thick noodles in a light broth, topped with slices of marinated pork, crispy croutons, bean sprouts, and cilantro. Hoi An is the only place to try this dish, while sitting just a short distance away from the original source of inspiration.
Where Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Minh An, Hoi An. Cao lầu 55,000 Vietnamese dong (₹165).
Banh bao vac, or white rose dumplings, definitely live up to their pretty name. Don’t be misled though, the name has nothing to do with what goes into the dish. The steamed rice flour dumplings were originally created over a hundred years ago by the Ngai family in Hoi An, and named by the French for their resemblance to a bunch of delicate roses on a plate. Stuffed with ground shrimp or pork, and wrapped in sheets of rice-flour dough made with water from Hoi An’s famous Ba Le well, the steamed dumplings are garnished with crunchy shallots and served with a dipping sauce made from shrimp broth, chillies, lemon, and sugar. Tuck in with the locals at the brightly lit Ngai family restaurant where women in blue áo dài (the traditional Vietnamese dress) can be seen sitting around a table near the kitchen deftly filling the dumplings and shaping them into the famous white roses.
Where Nha Hang Bong Hong Trang, 533 Hai Ba Trung, Hoi An. Plate of 8-10 dumplings 60,000-90,000 Vietnamese dong (₹180-270).
Highly recommended by our guide on a food tour of Hoi An, com ga was created during leaner times, when rice and chicken were the only major staples available to Vietnamese locals. We stopped in front of a woman who was busily preparing plates of com ga for a line of hungry customers waiting at her cart. She ladled the tender rice, which had been cooked in chicken broth, into a bowl. Then, she added shredded chicken on top, along with soy and chilli sauces. The deliciousness of the dish belies its simplicity.
Where Ba Buoi, 22 Phan Chu Trinh, Hoi An. Plate of com ga costs 30,000-40,000 Vietnamese dong (₹90-120).
There is often a long queue of people waiting to get into Bún Chả in District 1, the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City. This popular restaurant is frequently rated one of the best places to eat its namesake dish, which consists of pork meatballs and grilled pork in a clear, herb-flecked soup, with rice vermicelli, vegetables, and accompanying sauces. Garlic and chilli, along with the stalks of herbs like basil and perilla are often added to the broth to impart additional flavor. Bún chả is a comforting dish on a cold night, and it tastes especially good after waiting one’s turn outside the tiny eight-table restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.
Where Bún Chả, 145 Bùi Viện, Hồ Chí Minh City. Bowl of bún chả with accompaniments 35,000-45,000 Vietnamese dong (₹100-150).
A dish from the central Hue region of Vietnam, chạo tôm consists of marinated shrimp paste skewered onto chunky sugarcane sticks that are then deep fried to golden perfection. The skewers are served with rice paper, rice noodles, and fresh herbs, which you can use to make your own rolls. The dish is a study in sweetness: from the syrupiness of the sugarcane, to the delicately redolent flesh of the shrimp, and the slightly sour bite of the accompanying dipping sauce. A party for your taste buds, chạo tôm is also a fun dish for your hands, as you get busy rolling right at your table.
Where Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Minh An, Hoi An. Chạo tôm 1,15,000 Vietnamese dong (₹350).
Unlike Vietnam’s many types of wrapped rolls or dumplings, bánh ít must be unwrapped before being eaten. Also known as leaf cakes, these are sweet parcels of sticky rice and black beans, flavoured with coconut, wrapped up in a banana leaf, and steamed. These leaf-swaddled dumplings are traditionally made at home, to be eaten as a dessert or as a snack. On a food tour, I got to watch a local family as they prepared a batch of bánh ít. And then, like a kid on Christmas morning, I got to unwrap the banana leaf parcels, which had imparted a fruity, nutty flavour to the black bean morsels inside. Sample bánh ít at a local home on a guided food tour of Hoi An, like the small-group ones with a local guide offered by Urban Adventures.
Where 134 Nguyễn Thái Học, Hoi An. Bánh ít 50,000 Vietnamese dong (₹150).
Hến xúc bánh tráng is a delicious textural juxtaposition of chewy baby clams and crumbly rice crackers, but it’s even more fun to learn how to eat it. The thick rice cracker, or “cake” is made of a sheet of steamed rice paper, which is pressed between two crunchy rice wafers until the components are stuck to each other. Our Vietnamese friend showed us how to “smash the cake”, by placing it on one palm, and slapping it hard with the other palm, so that the large pancake breaks into several smaller pieces in your hands. Then, use these pieces to scoop up the small spicy baby clams, savouring their strong, meaty flavour, which is offset with herbs, onions, chilli and ginger. This must-try dish is available at many street stalls and family-run restaurants.
Where Ba Gia, Nguyễn Tri Phuong, Hoi An. Hến xúc bánh tráng 20,000 Vietnamese dong (₹60).
You might be far from your own clan, but seek out any street-side barbecue joint and you will certainly make new friends before the meal is over. Sharing a meal with friends and family by an open grill is a popular social activity in Vietnam. Find a restaurant with outdoor seating, score a plastic chair, and flag down the server to ask him what kind of skewered meat they have. Typically, such barbecue places offer everything from seafood, chicken, and shredded pork to grilled duck tongue and more adventurous options. Additional sides include vegetables like corn-on-the-cob and bok choy, and sweet bread to mop up the juices. A lit stove with a griddle is placed in front of you on the table and bits of animal fat are spread around on the pan to add flavour. Keep the skewers coming by ordering them from an outdoor cart that is loaded up with meat and vegetables, and strike up a conversation with locals at the neighbouring table.
Where Thai Dat, 66 Hàng Bông, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi. A meal costs about 2,00,000-4,00,000 Vietnamese dong (₹600-1,200) depending on how many and what types of skewer you order.
Also called summer rolls, gỏi cuốn packs in rice vermicelli, julienned vegetables, herbs like mint and chives, and lean pork, or shrimp, tightly rolled into a thin rice paper. Served at room temperature, the rolls are typically accompanied by a dipping sauce of hoisin, oil, garlic, red chillies, peanut butter, and crushed peanuts. Its sweet-and-spicy flavours are the perfect foil for the delicate flavours of the roll. It’s a nice, light lunch, perfect for a day heavy with sightseeing. The Wrap and Roll chain in Hồ Chí Minh and Hanoi is recommended.
Where Wrap and Roll, 111 Nguyen Hue, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City. Plate of gỏi cuốn 20,000-40,000 Vietnamese dong (₹60-120).
Photo: Tim Hall/robertharding/Dinodia Photo Library