We fell in love with the street food, markets and cafes in Vietnam! Check out our favorites including links so you can try your hand at authentic Vietnamese food at home.
For a recap of what we saw and did in Vietnam, check out part 1, 11 Days in Vietnam.
On the first day of our tour, our guide went around the group and asked us what we were most excited about experiencing in Vietnam. I’d say a good 50% of our group said street food. Yup, Vietnam has quite the reputation when it comes to food and let me say, it did not disappoint!
Because Vietnam has been influenced by many other cultures including China, Cambodia, France and eastern Europe, the cuisine is quite complex and unique. Like many Asian countries, Vietnam integrates the principles of yin and yang into their cooking, which seeks to attain balance in the body through the use of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ ingredients. It’s also influenced by the Asian philosophy of five elements, which balances the five tastes in each dish – bitter, spicy, sour, sweet, and salty.
From a nutrition standpoint, I love how herbs were often treated as a main ingredient. Not only are they delicious, the pungent compounds in herbs are powerful phytonutrients. Although we ate a lot more meat than we normally do at home, mainly because we were trying to eat the specialties of each area, it was usually treated as a condiment, rather than a main course. I also loved that they ate so many small meals throughout the day. Everywhere you looked there were packed street food stands. People were constantly eating – my kinda place!
Here’s a look at what we ate, drank and some fun market finds!
HO CHI MINH CITY/SAIGON:
We had just one day in Ho Chi Minh City, which made me sad because I had a ton of great recommendations for food!
For lunch, we ate at Hoa Tuc, a really cute restaurant near our hotel. For the most part, we were unimpressed with restaurant food compared to street food, but this one was an exception. I’m slightly obsessed with dill, so I ordered fishcake wraps over rice noodles served with a mustard and dill fish sauce. Scott had banh xeo, a type of eggy rice flour pancake wrap thats stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts. We also split an order of ca nuong, silky braised eggplant served with spring onions, garlic and chili.
For dinner, Scott and I went hunting for banh mi – one of my favorite foods! We went to Hyunh Hoa, considered by many to be the best in the city. Banh mi, along with pho, are the most famous foods from Vietnam. Banh mi, a sandwich made with various types of Vietnamese meats, pate, chilies, pickled vegetables, mayonnaise and baguette, it’s a classic example of Vietnamese-French fusion. Hyunh Hoa is literally a hole in the wall. You just go up to the door, show with your fingers how many you want, they ask if you want chilies or not, you say yes to the chilies because chilies are delicious, then they get to work assembling your sandwich out of the massive mis en place of various meats, pate, vegetables and sauces. We took our sandwiches back to the main city square, beautifully lit up at night, and dug in. I have to say, it was seriously delicious, the best I had on our trip, but I was kinda wishing it had more veggies, especially pickled daikon (my fave!). If we ever have the opportunity to go back, I want to try all the banh mi’s in this post and taste test!
Another little bite to mention because it was SO tasty – these fried banana fritters we enjoyed on our walking tour. They were so crispy and delicious with just the right amount of sweet!
So many fun eating experiences in Hoi An, from friend dumplings called money bags (which made me giggle because their currency is called the dong…I really need to grow up) to our street food Vespa tour to hunting down durian.
For lunch on our first day, we had our second banh mi of the trip at Banh Mi Phuong, considered the best banh mi in the city known for having the best banh mi. I actually preferred the one we had in Saigon, but this was still pretty darn fabulous!
One of our favorite things to do in Vietnam was explore each cities market. In Hoi An, we tried longan, a fruit related to the lychee, and Scott had the guts to try balut. Those of you with strong stomachs can click on the link. Otherwise, we’ll just pretend it’s some type of tropical fruit. We also tried, wait for it….DURIAN! Yes, that rotten egg smelling fruit that even Andrew Zimmern had a hard time choking down. It wasn’t as awful as I expected, but it was still the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.
One of my favorite meals of the trip was lunch at Ba La Cafe. The service was incredible as was the food. There’s no menu. You just sit down and they serve a plate of thit nuong (pork skewers) and nem nuong (Vietnamese pork sausage) on skewers, the best banh xeo we had and ahh-mazing spring rolls called ram cuon (someone PLEASE send me a recipe that doesn’t use wonton wrappers!). All this is served along with a giant plate of herbs, pickled vegetables, a peanut and chili sauce and rice paper wrappers. The server demonstrates how to use the rice paper wrappers to wrap everything up with herbs and sauce. She will make a beautiful little tightly wrapped cigar and you will make something resembling an overstuffed burrito from Chipotle. It’s okay. It still tastes the same.
One of my favorite experiences of the trip was a vespa street food tour. It was recommended to me by a friend of the owner, who is from Charleston (yeah SC!). HIGHLY recommend taking this tour or one of their many others in Hoi An, Saigon and Siem Reap. Our friends from the tour Caitlin and Mike joined us and we had so much fun zipping around town on the back of our vespas. We started off with passion fruit motijos at their headquarters before heading next door for a plate of banh can. It’s a type of mini fried pancake with a quail egg at the center. It was served topped with a green papaya salad and Vietnamese sausages, which look gross in my picture but were actually pretty tasty. They cook them wrapped in leaves to keep them tasting fresh.
Next stop was White Rose Restaurant, home of the white rose, one of Hoi An’s local specialties. It’s a little dumpling made from a silky, translucent white dough filled with spiced shrimp paste, which is formed into a shape that resembles a rose. They let us try to make our own, which didn’t exactly turn out as pretty as theirs. If there is one thing Hoi An taught me, it’s that I have no future as a Vietnamese chef!
The next stop was my favorite, a spot right on the Thu Bon River. We were served a big plate of rice crackers along with a river clam salad (my favorite of the night). The river clams are teeny, teeny tiny, but really delicious. You eat them by scooping up the clams with rice crackers. We also enjoyed a plate of really flavorful calamari. The tentacley ones are the best!
After that, we went to a restaurant for bo nhung giam, a beef hot pot. We’re served a plate of raw, sliced beef, a bit pot of flavorful broth bubbling away at the table, along with rice paper wrappers and more herbs. The broth is crazy delicious – the secret is lots of vinegar! First you fish the cooked beef out of the broth and make wraps out of it, then you enjoy the broth as a soup – the best part! Another cool thing about this dish – one of the herbs served with it they call ‘fishy lettuce.’ The first bite tastes just like fish (really odd!), but after a second or so, it tastes citrusy and delicious!
Our last spot of the night was a barbecue venison dish, which was cooked wrapped in some type of leaf right at the table. I was pretty tipsy at this point, so that’s all I’ve got!
If you get a chance to go to Hoi An, I highly recommend this tour!
Before going to Hue, I knew it was famous for it’s vegetarian food and had watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain where he gave a few food recommendations, so I was really excited for food in Hue!
The first night, we wandered around the city with another couple from our tour. At the market, we enjoyed a bowl of bun bo hue, which Anthony Bourdain referred to as his favorite food in Vietnam. I liked it, but not as much as the banh canh, the crab and tapioca noodle soup we ate next. I just love those fat, chewy noodles! We also ate banh trang nuong, one of my favorite bites of the trip. It’s basically a Vietnamese pizza, made on a rice paper round topped with egg, caramelized shallots and chilies, pork and other unidentifiables. You don’t ask in Vietnam, you just eat.
The second day in Hue, we took a boat tour of the Perfume river, stopping at pagodas and emperors tombs along the way. For lunch, we ate an incredible vegetarian lunch prepared by female monks. After a few days of indulgence, all those vegetables were much needed!
For dinner, I was still all over this vegetarian cuisine, so Scott and I went to Lien Hoa, considered to be the best vegetarian restaurant in Hue. The menu is pretty extensive, so Scott and I just looked at the English translations and ordered whatever looked interesting. And by interesting I mean we had no clue what it was and wanted to find out. We ordered fried nem, which turned out to be a vegetarian spring roll, curried mesan (we still don’t know what that is), fried jackfruit (holy smokes it’s good!), and vegetable banh cuon.
Hanoi is known to have the best pho, the famous rice noodle soup. So naturally, the first thing we ate in Hanoi was pho. Our guide recommended pho thin, which serves pho bo (beef pho). We all loved it! Most of us on our tour went there twice. One guy ate two bowls, which I totally would have done if I had more room. I’ve had many a pho in my life, and this was the best.
Later that night, we wandered the area around our hotel, stopping for street food and beers along the way.
One of the coolest things about Hanoi were the markets. There were so many new fruits to taste and crazy ingredients to see!
If you’re nervous about trying street food, check out Quan An Ngon, which serves street food from all over Vietnam in a nice, restaurant setting. We ate lunch there and although it wasn’t as good as the legit street food, it was still pretty tasty. We had mien xao luon (stir fried cassava noodles with eel), banh cuon (a steamed rice roll filled with pork), green papaya salad, and a beef summer roll.
Bun cha is another local specialty in Hanoi. We were told it was a must eat by a friends friend, who described it as ‘a bowl of porky, noodley goodness.’ I can think of no better description. We were served a bowl of pork meatballs in the most incredible, sweet and smoky broth, along with the standard giant plate of herbs, rice noodles and fish sauce. Scott said this was his favorite meal of the trip! We ate it at Bun Cha Dac Kim, considered to be the best in the city. Just don’t go next door – they are imposters as multiple signs will tell you!
Next we went to another place that was recommended by our friends friend was The Unicorn Pub. We were told to get the pho cocktail, which despite the name, did not involve any beef or noodles but did involve lots of yummy spices, lime juice, and fire!
For a late night snack, we went in search of more pho, this time from a place recommended by our vespa guide in Hanoi. I think I liked the first pho we had just slightly more than this one, but they were both the two best I’ve ever had!
Cha ca la vong is another Hanoi speciality and it just might be my favorite meal of the trip! Fish seasoned with turmeric is cooked with tons of green onions and dill at the table, then served with rice noodles, herbs, peanuts and fish sauce. We heard the place where it originated has gotten pretty touristy and the quality has gone down, so we went to Cha Ca Thang Long, which is now rated higher.
One of the most fun things about Vietnam is trying random street foods and having no idea what to expect. Walking along the street, hungry for a snack, Scott and I picked up a random, fried ball of dough sprinkled with sesame seeds. We thought it would be savory and filled with some type of meat, but to our surprise, it was the worlds most perfect donut – banh cam! Just barely sweet with a crispy exterior, chewy interior with a filling that we thought was almond paste but google tells me is actually mung bean paste. We were so obsessed we hunted them down three more times! Usually they were sold as one bigger donut, but this one lady sold us a bag of mini donuts. We kept them in my purse and snacked on them all day!
Another crazy food we tried in Vietnam was egg coffee. Yes really! Our guide told us it was something we just had to have, and although I had no desire to try it, Scott had to hunt it down. I was expecting something like egg drop coffee or bulletproof with an egg instead of butter, but it was nothing like that. We ordered egg coffee both hot and cold. Both were a small amount of very strong brewed coffee topped with the most incredible, creamy and frothy egg whites you can imagine. We tried it at Giang Cafe per our guides recommendation.
Phew! Now I’m hungry!
For those who have been to Vietnam, would love to hear your favorite foods! Anything I missed? I need an excuse to go back. For those who haven’t gone, what Vietnamese foods are you most excited to try?