Việt Nam – More Than Just Phở

Warning: Long post with lots of food photos!

During nearly a month in Việt Nam, I had the opportunity to try many of the dishes that this country has to offer. Though I don’t typically go looking for crazy things to eat, I do enjoy trying different dishes and local specialties. The menus at Vietnamese restaurants at home tend to be fairly standard, revolving around the classic noodle soup called phở. However, with over ninety million mouths to feed, the Vietnamese have developed a vast array of dishes to suit all tastes. Here, I’ll try to give an overview of some of my favorites!

As in many parts of Asia, rice is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Here, rice comes in many different forms. Regular rice can be either steamed or fried and served with a variety of meat and vegetables. During the milling of regular rice, some of the grains break. Because the broken grains cook slightly differently and have a different texture, they are collected and used in a special southern breakfast dish known as cơm tấm, which is often served with either pork or chicken.

Cơm tấm (“broken rice”) served with chicken.
Cơm tấm (“broken rice”) served with chicken.

In Việt Nam, rice is also used to make a variety of noodles. The most well-known Vietnamese noodle is a wide noodle called phở. Phở noodles are used to make Việt Nam’s signature soup of the same name. Phở broth is made with either chicken () or beef () and then loaded up with any combination of meat cuts, including chicken slices, brisket, beef tendon, beef tripe, and meatballs. The soup is served with a variety of herbs, lime, and chili slices so you can season it to taste. Dad and I found out pretty quickly that the chili slices are deceptively small – just a few are enough to have you crying as you slurp down the fiery broth!

A nice warm bowl of phở bò.
A nice warm bowl of phở bò.

Another popular type of rice noodle is known locally as bún, and in Vietnamese restaurants in America as vermicelli. These noodles are round and come in varying thicknesses depending on the dish. Bún riêu cua is one type of soup made with bún; it consists of a crab broth along with pork, vegetables, and congealed pig’s blood (the cubes of blood don’t really have much flavor, but I’m not a big fan). Bún mắm is another soup, which is made mainly with shrimp. Bún thit nướng is a big bowl of bún, carrots, bean sprouts, and peanuts topped with a few slices of deliciously-marinated grilled pork. On top of all that, you pour a sweet fish sauce called nước chấm amd mix it all together – an amazing combination!

A typical street food stall. This woman has only one dish to offer – the sign says it all!
A typical street food stall. This woman has only one dish to offer – the sign says it all!

Some places have specialty bún dishes. For example, bún chả is a classic Hà Nội soup made with a sweet fish sauce broth filled with grilled pork patties. The fun thing about bún chả is that you get to put the noodles into the soup yourself, as they are served on a separate plate along with the pile of herbs. A bún chả restaurant in Hà Nội became famous in 2016 when Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate this dish together there.

The Hà Nội specialty bún chả served with a heaping pile of bún.
The Hà Nội specialty bún chả served with a heaping pile of bún.

Another Hà Nội favorite is bún đậu mắm tôm. A platter of fried tofu, pork, herbs, vegetables, and cubes of sticky bún is set before you along with a dipping sauce. When I tried this, the waitress asked if I wanted the proper sauce or soy sauce. Of course, I had to go for the local preference – next time, though, I’ll stick to the soy sauce! The special sauce turned out to be fermented shrimp paste mixed with lime and chilis. My taste buds cannot understand how this salty, sour concoction can taste good, but I suppose there must be something about it that the Hanoians like!

A platter of bún đậu mắm tôm with some salty shrimp paste to dip.
A platter of bún đậu mắm tôm with some salty shrimp paste to dip.

In the central city of Huế, the specialty bún dish is called bún bò Huế – literally, “beef noodles of Huế”. The soup is filled with slices of beef and many of the same vegetables and herbs that are used in phở. However, the beef broth tastes completely different, and the round bún noodles give the soup a different texture than phở. This quickly became my favorite phở alternative, and I’ll definitely be looking for it on the menu when I get home!

Apart from phở and bún, a few other types of noodle are also common. Bánh canh are very thick round noodles made with rice and tapioca flour. I tried a bowl of bánh canh cua at the weekend market in Hồ Chí Minh City – it was a crab soup with an assortment of meat, shrimp, vegetables, and congealed pig’s blood. It was tasty, and I knew I had made the right choice when I got a thumbs up from a local sitting at the next table!

A bowl of bánh canh cua.
A bowl of bánh canh cua.

Yet another popular type of noodle is called hủ tiếu. These are made by shredding freshly-made rice paper into thin strips to create small, flat noodles. This type of noodle is particularly common in the southern part of the country and I ate them quite often there. One dish that I particularly liked was hủ tiếu hải sản – seafood soup with a combination of shrimp, squid, and octopus.

It’s difficult to see the hủ tiếu in this bowl of hủ tiếu hải sản, but they’re there!
It’s difficult to see the hủ tiếu in this bowl of hủ tiếu hải sản, but they’re there!

Việt Nam also has many great dishes that aren’t based on noodles. Due to years of French colonization, the Vietnamese know how to make some delicious baguettes which they combine with local ingredients such as grilled pork and vegetables to make amazing sandwiches, called bánh mì. In Huế, a dish called bánh bèo is a local specialty. This dish consists of small, round rice flour cakes cooked in individual saucers and topped with crunchy pork skin and dried shrimp. To eat it, you pour a sauce over it to separate it from the saucer, then scoop it out with a spoon. Though I saw bánh bèo served in many parts of Việt Nam, the restaurants in Huế also offer many variations on the main form.

Don’t mind the chewing expression – we both loved the bánh bèo!
Don’t mind the chewing expression – we both loved the bánh bèo!

Many meals in Việt Nam involve rolling a variety of ingredients in rice paper, spring-roll style. My favorite is nem nướng, which contains grilled pork skewers and a variety of vegetables and herbs, and a chili dipping sauce. The danger with nem nướng is that you can get so carried away adding the fillings that it bursts through the rice paper when you roll it up!

This nem nướng was probably our favorite meal of the trip!
This nem nướng was probably our favorite meal of the trip!

Another interesting wrap-it-yourself dish that I tried is called bánh xèo. It’s generally translated as “Vietnamese pancake” as it is similar in form to a crêpe. However, due to the rice batter it is made of, I found it to be more similar to an Indian dosa. Imagine a crêpe stuffed with shrimp, beansprouts, green onions, and minced pork – that’s what the bánh xèo looks like. To eat it, however, you tear it apart and roll the pancake and the filling into lettuce leaves with plenty of herbs, then dip the wrap into a sweet fish sauce. So basically, it’s a wrap that you destroy and re-wrap a different way. I prefer nem nướng, but bánh xèo is a tasty alternative!

A bánh xèo, ready to tear apart and wrap in leaves!
A bánh xèo, ready to tear apart and wrap in leaves!
Vietnamese Barbeque Stand
Barbeque stands like this are common in Việt Nam – just pick out the skewers you want to have them grilled on the spot!

For a quick street snack, my favorite find is bánh tráng nướng, a specialty of Đà Lạt. The name translates as “grilled rice paper”, and that’s exactly what it is. A circular sheet of rice paper is put on the grill and topped with dried shrimp and green onions. A few quail eggs are scrambled on top, and some condiments such as chili sauce are added; then, the whole thing is folded in half and wrapped in paper to make it easy to hold. My mouth is watering now!

Banh Trang Nuong
Preparing a tasty bánh tráng nướng on the streets of Đà Lạt.

Bánh tráng trộn is another tasty street snack, which happens to also be made with rice paper – shredded, though, not grilled. This dish is like a shredded rice paper salad mixed with ingredients such as dried seafood, green onions, peanuts and some boiled quail eggs.

A nice box of bánh tráng trộn from an evening market.
A nice box of bánh tráng trộn from an evening market.

For dessert, a popular and tasty option is chè. This sweet is a creamy, soupy cocktail made with various ingredients such as fruit, tofu, red beans, corn, and a variety of jellies. Alternatively for dessert, you can have some grilled bananas smothered with a delicious coconut sauce. A more surprising dessert is bánh flan. I always thought of flan as a Spanish dish, but it is actually quite a big deal in Việt Nam as well. It is served with sweet caramel sauce and covered with crushed ice to keep it cold. A not-so-great dessert that Dad and I tried was strawberries. How can strawberries be bad? Well, what we thought was sugar and cinnamon turned out to be salt and chili powder – a most unwelcome shock to our taste buds, but apparently a common way to season fruit in Việt Nam!

In addition to food, Việt Nam has a great selection of beverages to choose from. Perhaps the most uniquely Vietnamese of these is cà phê sữa đá – iced coffee with condensed milk. Traditionally, Vietnamese coffee is made using a filter called a phin, which sits on top of the coffee cup to allow the coffee to drip directly in. It’s strong, but once you stir in the condensed milk and pour it over ice, it becomes a refreshing drink for a hot day! If you don’t like coffee, then trà sữa (milk tea) is also readily available. Freshly-pressed and iced sugarcane juice, nước mía, is another sweet refreshment, though this is common throughout many Asian countries.

Waiting for a glass of coffee to drip through the phin.
Waiting for a glass of coffee to drip through the phin.

When it comes to beer, Việt Nam has its own style called bia hơi – fresh beer. This is beer that is brewed daily with no preservatives and delivered on tap to small establishments around town. As it is not given much time to ferment, the alcohol content is not very high, but it still has quite a bit of carbonation and it’s refreshing and cheap! Often, beer in Việt Nam is served with a big chunk of ice in it, so you have to drink it quickly if you want to taste it!

Though I liked most things I tried, I would not recommend everything I tried… Getting a little exotic, my street food guide in Hồ Chí Minh City pointed to some suspicious-looking jars on a shelf in front of a laundromat. They were all filled with whiskey, but each jar was steeped with something different. One jar had some snakes, another some geckoes, you get the idea… Everyone in the group picked their poison and the laundromat owner began ladling it into shot glasses. I opted for the banana version, but even that was a dubious choice – it tasted about as bad as you would expect a 25-cent shot to taste!

As you can see, my Vietnamese food vocabulary is much better than any my non-existent conversational skills in the language. But that’s okay – trying so many different types of food was one of the highlights of my time in Việt Nam. Before I came to Việt Nam, I only really knew about phở and bánh mì, so I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the food here. I just hope I can find some of these dishes at home – othewise, I just might have to come back to Việt Nam…


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