But it’s precisely this simplicity, the subtle variations by region and the fresh ingredients that keep us pulling up a plastic stool for more.
1. Cheap can be tasty too.
What list of Vietnamese cuisine would be complete without pho? It’s almost impossible to walk a block in Vietnam’s major cities without bumping into a crowd of hungry patrons slurping noodles at a makeshift pho stand.
This simple staple consisting of a salty broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and chicken or beef, features predominately in the local diet -- and understandably so. It’s cheap, tasty, and widely available at all hours.
Just look out for a mass of people on plastic stools -- or try a tried and tested favorite: Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi; +84 43 821 2709
2. A food so good they named a street after it.
2. Cha ca
Hanoians consider cha ca to be so exceptional that there is a street in the capital dedicated to these fried morsels of fish.
This namesake alley is home to Cha Ca La Vong, which serves sizzling chunks of fish seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric and dill on a hot pan tableside.
Cha Ca La Vong may be the busiest but the service is a bit gruff and the food overpriced. Instead make your way to Duong Than in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district, where you’ll find plenty of more affordable but just as tasty options
3. A crepe you won't forget.
3. Banh xeo
A good banh xeo is a crispy crepe bulging with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, plus the garnish of fresh herbs that are characteristic of most authentic Vietnamese dishes.
To enjoy one like a local, cut it into manageable slices, roll it up in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dunk it in whatever special sauce the chef has mixed up for you.
Banh Xeo 46A has mixed reviews but judging by the crowds that swarm there each night they must be doing something right. Banh Xeo, 46A Dinh Cong Trang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
4. Soft, crunchy, sweet, spicy -- a bowl of contrasts.
4. Cao lau
This pork noodle dish from Hoi An is a bit like the various cultures that visited the trading port at its prime. The thicker noodles are similar to Japanese udon, the crispy won-ton crackers and pork are a Chinese touch, while the broth and herbs are clearly Vietnamese.
Authentic cau lao is made only with water drawn from the local Ba Le well.
Try Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An; +84 510 224 1555
6. A spring roll that jumps out.
5. Rau muong
Some might call it river weed -- with good reason -- but that doesn’t stop the masses from scarfing down platefuls of morning glory, usually stir-fried and seasoned with slithers of potent garlic.
Rau muong is common at Vietnamese restaurants and beer gardens.
Chung Den Bia Hoi, 18B Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
7. Roll, dunk, bite, repeat.
6. Nem ran/cha gio
Vietnam’s bite-sized crunchy spring rolls might not enjoy the same popularity as their healthier fresh equivalent, but they deserve a special mention.
The crispy shell with a soft veggie and meat filling dunked in a tangy sauce gets the gastronomic juices flowing before a main course. In the north these parcels go by the name nem ran while southerners call them cha gio.
1 Hang Manh, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
7. Goi cuon
These light and healthy fresh spring rolls are a wholesome choice when you’ve been indulging in too much of the fried food in Vietnam.
The translucent parcels are first packed with salad greens, a slither of meat or seafood and a layer of coriander, before being neatly rolled and dunked in Vietnam’s favorite condiment -- fish sauce.
Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 43 942 8162
8. Bun bo Hue
Central Vietnam’s take on noodles caters to carnivores with its meaty broth and piles of beef and pork. The thick slippery rice noodles also make for a heartier meal than noodles found in the north and south.
You don’t have to go to Hue to enjoy this dish; if in Ho Chi Minh City try Tib Express, 162 NguyenDinh Chieu, District 3, HCMC; +84 8 3822 5038
9. Banh khot
This dainty variation of a Vietnamese pancake has all the same tasty ingredients but is a fraction of the size. Each banh knot can be scoffed in one ambitious but satisfying mouthful.
The crunchy outside is made using coconut milk and the filling usually consists of shrimp, mung beans, and spring onions with a dusting of dried shrimp flakes on top.
Co Ba Vung Tau, 59B Cao Thang, District 3, HCMC
10. Ga tan
Got the sniffles? Opt for ga tan, a broth that’s Vietnam’s answer to the proverbial cup of chicken noodle soup. Sure it’s not quite how your mother used to make it, with its greenish tinge from the herbs and hunks of chicken parts, but it’s worth a try if you’re needing a Vietnamese tonic.
Try this at one of the street stalls on Hanoi’s Tong Duy Tan aka Pho Am Thuc, or “Food Street”),Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
11. Yes, bananas have flowers, and they taste great.
11. Nom hoa chuoi
Vietnam’s banana flower salad packs a much bigger punch than a typical plate of mixed greens.
Banana flowers (thick purple lumps that will later turn into bunches of bananas) are peeled and thinly sliced then mixed with green papaya, carrots, and cilantro along with chicken and a heavy-handed pour of a salty fish sauce dressing and crunchy peanuts.
Highway 4 restaurant, 3 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 4 3926 4200
12. Dry, but not dreary.
12. Bun bo nam bo
This bowl of noodles comes sans broth, keeping the ingredients from becoming sodden and the various textures intact. The tender slices of beef mingle with crunchy peanuts and bean sprouts, and are flavored with fresh herbs, crisp dried shallots, and a splash of fish sauce and fiery chili pepper.
67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
13. Hoa qua dam
This chunky blend of fresh tropical fruit in a cup is the perfect local treat when the heat of Vietnamese summer starts to wear you down. It could be considered a healthy alternative to ice cream -- if you stick to the shaved ice variation -- but for the full experience it’s best had with diabetes-inducing condensed milk mixed in.
15B To Tich, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
14. Don't let the sea-slug appearance put you off.
14. Pho cuon
Pho cuon packages the flavors of pho and goi cuon in one neat little parcel. This Hanoi take on fresh spring rolls uses sheets of uncut pho noodles to encase fried beef, herbs and lettuce or cucumber.
The best place to find them is on Ngu Xa island on the capital’s Truc Bach Lake -- specifically at 26 Nguyen Khac Hieu, Ba Dinh district, Hanoi
17. Egg coffee? Kind of like a glass of breakfast.
15. Ga nuong
KFC may be everywhere in Vietnam these days, but skip the fast food for the local version. Honey marinated then grilled over large flaming barbecues, the chicken legs, wings and feet served are unusually tender, while the skin stays crispy but not dry.
Viet Ha on Ly Van Phuc, Dong Da district, Hanoi
19. Rice that sticks ... in the memory.
16. Pho xao
Pho xao may just be a slightly healthier take on my xao -- but the beauty is in the details. The flat, smoother pho noodle doesn’t crisp up like its pre-boiled instant cousin.
When done well the outer edges acquire a browned crunchiness, whilst the center stays soft and glutinous. This dish tastes best with a fried egg and seasoned with chili or soy sauce.
26 Nguyen Khac Hieu, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
17. Ca phe trung
Vietnamese “egg coffee” is technically a drink but we prefer to put it in the dessert category. The creamy soft, meringue-like egg white foam perched on the dense Vietnamese coffee will have even those who don’t normally crave a cup of joe licking their spoons with delight.
In Hanoi, follow the tiny alley between the kitschy souvenir shops at 11 Hang Gai into the clearing, and up several flights of increasingly dicey stairs to pair your ca phe trung with an unbeatable view of Hoan Kiem Lake.
18. Bo la lot
Vietnamese are masters of wrapping their food. Bo la lot is neither raw nor deep-fried, but flamed on an open grill to soften the exterior and infuse the betel leaf’s peppery aroma into the ground beef inside.
3T Quan Nuong, 29-31 Ton That Thiep, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3821 1631
Savory sticky rice is less of an accompaniment to meals in Vietnam, more a meal itself. The glutinous staple comes with any number of mix-ins (from slithers of chicken, or pork to fried or preserved eggs), but almost always with a scattering of dried shallots on top.
Xoi Yen, Nguyen Huu Huan, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
20. Banh cuon
These rolled up rice flour pancakes are best when served piping hot, still soft and delicate. Although seemingly slender and empty they have a savory filling of minced pork and mushrooms.
Zest is also added by dunking the slippery parcels in a fishy dipping sauce.
Corner of Cong Quynh and Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, HCMC
21. The humble egg plant comes good.
21. Ca tim kho to
Eggplant alone tends not to get us excited. Although when it’s diced and sautéed in a clay pot along with tomatoes, soy sauce, sugar, and (depending on the recipe) minced meat, the once bland vegetable redeems itself.
Pineapple Restaurant, 35 Hang Buom, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; + 84 43 935 2316
23. Sometimes it's the sauce that makes the meal.
22. Bot chien
Saigon’s favorite streetside snack, bot chien, is popular with both the afterschool and the after-midnight crowd. Chunks of rice flour dough are fried in a large wok until crispy and then an egg is broken into the mix.
Once cooked it’s served with slices of papaya, shallots and green onions, before more flavor is added with pickled chili sauce and rice vinegar.
Nighttime food vendors sell this at the corners of Pham Ngu Lao and Cong Quynh, District 1, HCMC
26. Just looking at this rice porridge dish will ease your stomach pains.
23. Bun dau mam tom
This plain-looking tofu and noodle dish is served with mam tom sauce -- the Vegemite of Vietnam. The pungent purple dipping sauce is used to flavor the slabs of deep-fried fofu that are at the core of the meal.
Corner of Hang Be and Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
29. Anything served on a stick can't fail.
24. Banh goi
These pockets of deep-fried goodness are often described as the equivalent of a Cornish pastry or as a Vietnamese samosa, depending on the nationality of the person explaining.
Inside the crispy exterior you’ll find that it’s similar to neither description, with its filling of finely minced pork, mushrooms and vermicelli noodles.
52 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 4 3828 5922
30. Hanoi's lunch-crowd favorite. 25. Com suon nuong
This simple meal is the Saigonese equivalent of bun cha -- with rice in place of noodles. A tender pork cutlet is barbecued over hot coals to give it a rich, smoky flavor, and laid over the fluffy white com.
Com Tam Cali has a number of branches across HCMC. Try Tam Cali 1 at 32 Nguyen Trai, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3925 2222
With its thick and creamy texture Vietnam’s rice porridge is the best pick when your queasy stomach can’t handle much else. If you want to jazz it up you can always add slices of chicken, fish, beef, duck or pork ribs, along with a sprinkling of herbs and shallots.
Chao Ca specializes in fish chao, 213 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 43 829 5281
27. Bo luc lac
Cubes of beef are tossed around a steaming wok with garlic, pepper, and some vegetables to make shaking beef. There’s nothing special about the beef that makes it shaking.
The name is just a literal translation that refers to the process of mixing the beef around while cooking.
Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3827 7131
28. Hat de nong
The smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire can bring back fond memories of Christmas carols -- until a moped transporting a giant blow-up Santa whizzes by. Pick the street vendor with the most enticing smell.
To Tich, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
29. Banh uot thit nuong
It’s all about the marinade when it comes to the grilled pork in fresh rice paper rolls that are popular in central Vietnam.
The typical mixture coats the meat in a blend of sugar, salt, chili, lemongrass and fish sauce. Cilantro, basil and mint are added when it’s served up to add some green to the appetizer.
Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An; +84 510 224 1555
30. Bun cha
Pho might be Vietnam’s most famous dish but bun cha is the top choice when it comes to lunchtime in the capital.
Just look for the clouds of meaty smoke after 11 a.m. when street-side restaurants start grilling up small patties of seasoned pork and slices of marinated pork belly over a charcoal fire. Once they’re charred and crispy the morsels are served with a large bowl of a fish sauce-heavy broth, a basket of herbs and a helping of rice noodles.
Hanoi’s most famous bun cha outlet is 1 Hang Manh, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
31. The baguette, upgraded and improved.
31. Banh mi
The French may have brought with them the baguette, but Vietnam takes it to a different level. How exactly depends on what end of the country you’re in.
In the north chefs stick to the basic elements of carbohydrate, fat and protein—bread, margarine and pâté—but head south and your banh mi may contain a more colorful combination of cheese, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, sausage, fried egg, fresh cilantro and chili sauce.
One of the better baguette vendors in Saigon sets up shop beside the Cherry mini-mart on DoQuang Dao, District 1, HCMC
Eating this hodgepodge hotpot dish is a communal affair with everyone digging in to the oversized boiling pot. We’ve found that just about anything can (and will) go into this soup from tofu to frogs.
It’s best to stick to one main protein rather than opting for the mix of meat, poultry and seafood together.
On the northern edge of Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake you’ll find a number of restaurant staff crossing the street to deliver lau to lake-side diners
36. Veggie food for meat lovers.
33. Banh bao
Steamed pork buns aren’t traditionally Vietnamese but that doesn’t stop the spongy rolls from being sold by street vendors and in traditional Vietnamese restaurants.
The best buns have a hard boiled quail egg buried within the minced meat, while the cheaper ones come without any filling at all. Remember the lower the price the less stuffing, so you might not be getting the good deal you thought you were.
Often sold by wandering vendors patrolling Hanoi’s Old Quarter at all hours. In the south try Banh Bao Tho Phat, 78 Nguyen Tri Phuong, District 5, HCMC
38. World's best "instant" food.
34. Com rang
Fried rice may not be the most adventurous option, but sometimes you just want some familiar grub done right. Baby sized chunks of meat and colorful vegetables are mixed with soy and fish sauce in a wok streetside to create a rice dish that is still moist but slightly smoky.
Make it Vietnamese by supplementing with Bia Hanoi.
Try one of the vendors on Tong Duy Tan (aka "Food Street"), Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi
39. Tofu + tomato sauce, but greater than the sum of its parts.
35. Bo bit tet
Vietnam’s equivalent to steak and eggs fills the void when you’re hankering for some greasy pub tucker. The thin flank steak is usually served with eggs, thick potato wedges, and Vietnamese meatballs on a sizzling cast iron plate.
Le Hong, 489/29/18 Huynh Van Banh, District 3, HCMC
36. Com chay
Com chay refers to two things in Vietnam: vegetarian food, or Vietnam’s homemade rice crispies that are popular with children. Unlike the sweet treats in the United States, Vietnam’s version of a crispy comes with meat instead of marshmallows.
Vietnam’s vegetarian restaurants use mock meats to create all the traditional dishes and usually do a pretty good job. Although some places include artificial creations we would rather not try. Fake rubbery snails anyone?
Try Hoa Dang vegetarian restaurant, 38 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3820 9702
This dessert can be served in either a bowl or a glass. The latter is the more enticing option with the visible layers of bean jelly, coconut milk, fruit, and ice.
Best had when you’re craving something sweet on a scorching day in Saigon.
Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3827 7131
40. Got crabs? Cook 'em up and devour.
38. My xao bo
Mix noodles with a dollop of oil, then add beef, onions, garlic, morning glory and some tomato for color and you have a platter of my xao bo. The whole dish takes about as long to make as instant noodles -- but oh so much more flavor.
Any bia hoi establishment serves this dish, but the eateries on Tang Bat Ho, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, have perfected it
39. Dau phu sot ca chua
The English translation of “tofu in tomato sauce” doesn’t really do this dish justice. The slabs of deep-fried soy are doused in a rich fresh tomato and spring onion coating, and seasoned with a speckle of fresh herbs.
Chim Sao at 65 Ngo Hue, Hai Ba Trung district, Hanoi; +84 43 976 0633
40. Canh bun
Another hearty soup that’s high on the lunchtime agenda, this is a crab and morning glory noodle soup. Canh bun is similar to the more well-known bun rieu crab soup, but has a small handful of variations -- including the type of noodle used.
Look for street food vendors with Canh Bun on handwritten signs surrounded by lunchtime crowds, or visit Bun Saigon at 73 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, HCMC.