Vietnamese Street Food Dishes You Need to Try and Where to Taste Them
Vietnamese street food dishes you need to try in Vietnam and where to taste them – from bun cha in Hanoi to banh xeo in Saigon. We give you the lowdown on Vietnam’s must-try dishes and the regions and cities where you need to sample them.
These Vietnamese street food dishes you need to try are the dishes that we make a beeline for on a trip to Vietnam – and they’re the dishes that Lara devoured on her recent Vietnam culinary tour she hosted for participants of our previous Cambodia trips.
Vietnamese cuisine is so rich, complex and diverse, varying from region to region, town to town, so when it comes to creating a guide to Vietnamese street food dishes you have to try, it’s impossible to stop at, say, the top five Vietnamese street food dishes, or even a top ten, so this has definitely been an exercise in restraint.
When first-timers to Vietnam think of Vietnamese street food dishes, one of the first specialties that comes to mind is probably Vietnamese spring rolls, but you’ll find so much more to sample as you travel from north to south, from baguette sandwiches and fried snacks to soups and noodle dishes.
Vietnamese cuisine changes from being Chinese-influenced in the north to featuring more traces of Cambodian cuisine in the south – all the while giving a little nod to the French whose influence can be felt not just in the use of the much-loved baguette, but in cooking techniques as well.
While you will find many of these Vietnamese dishes all over Vietnam, some are very regional, so we recommend that you try them in the destination that they originated. So while you could try pho – the noodle soup that is perhaps the best known Vietnamese dish outside Vietnam – in Saigon, I’m suggesting here that it’s best to try it in Hanoi, its birthplace, first.
Although this is essentially a guide to Vietnamese street food dishes, note that while you will find these on the street made by roving vendors carrying baskets over their shoulders or pushing carts, and cooks who set up small stalls with tiny plastic stools on the footpaths and in alleyways, you’ll also find street food dishes in simple eateries and casual restaurants.
Here’s our list of the most popular Vietnamese street food dishes that you need to try – and where we think you should try them.
Vietnamese Street Food Dishes You Need to Try – From Hanoi in the North to Saigon in the South
Hanoi and Beyond – Vietnamese Street Food Dishes to Try in Hanoi and the North
The food of Hanoi and the north is clean, simple and uncomplicated compared to that of other regions. It’s generally milder, too, with any heat resulting from the use of pepper rather than the chilli that is so ubiquitous in the rest of Southeast Asia. Hanoi is a great street food city – arguably home to the best street food in Southeast Asia – with food stalls on virtually every street of the city.
Pho Bo Hanoi – Phở bò Hà Nội
Pho bo – and specifically Phở bò Hà Nội – is perhaps the street food dish of the city if not the country. It’s best slurped early in the morning when the locals hit the streets for a steaming bowl of the beautiful beef stock and noodles, garnished with fresh herbs, such as coriander, basil, dill, and spring onions. While lovers of spice call the dish simple, don’t tell that to the vendor who has been making it since 11pm the night before. Cooks increasingly have a tendency to serve foreigners cooked beef, so if you want sliced rare beef (that will cook in the hot soup), ask for phở tái (we love this guide to ordering it). Pho ga (phở gà) made with chicken is popular too.
Bun Cha – Bún chả
The smoky aromas from a bun cha stall are mouthwatering, with pieces of pork belly and pork patties being barbecued over charcoal. Served with room-temperature rice vermicelli, and fresh herbs and greens, along with a sweet fish-sauce-based broth that varies from little more than a dipping sauce to almost a soup, bun cha is a lunch-time favourite. It’s sometimes offered with fried spring rolls (nem) – look for a sign like the one above that says ‘Bun Cha Nem’ – and, yes, if offered, order them.
Banh Cuon – Bánh cuốn
A street food dish that you will never find tasting as good outside the Vietnam capital as it does in Hanoi, the delightful rolls called banh cuon are made from steamed rice flour and tapioca flour and are filled with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms, and garnished with deep fried shallots and dried shrimp. Nuoc cham, the classic dipping sauce based on fish sauce, lime, vinegar, garlic, and chili, is served on the side and rounds out the flavours.
Hue and Hoi An – Vietnamese Street Food Dishes to Try in Central Vietnam
The food from Central Vietnam is best known for the street food dishes from Hue and Hoi An. Much of Hue’s street food actually consists of specialties that came from Hue’s royal imperial court, while the fascinating Hoi An specialties are the result of its cosmopolitan trading history. If you’re heading to Hoi An, see our itinerary for a self-guided Hoi An street food tour.
Bun Ho Hue – Bún bò Huế
The old imperial capital of Hue has a knockout breakfast dish that we believe is an unsung hero of Vietnamese cooking. Bun bo Hue is a spicy noodle soup made from a broth of beef, pork or chicken stock, depending on the cook, and (typically) beef and pig trotters. The vibrant colour – courtesy of annatto oil and chili – and the heady, rich aroma, with a hint of lemongrass, makes pho look anaemic. Sometimes topped with sliced, rare beef sirloin, which cooks in the broth, it’s a dish to savour.
Bun Thit Nuong – Bún thịt nướng
Hue’s Bun thit nuong consists simply of smoky grilled pork served on cold vermicelli noodles, but what pork meat and noodles! At our favourite barbecue pork joint in Hue the barbecue is close by so the mouth-watering aromas waft into the eatery enticing customers to order more. Fresh cold rice noodles are topped with the grilled pork that’s typically been marinated in lemongrass, shallots, soy, and fish sauce. You can find it served in other parts of Vietnam, but we think it’s at its best in Hue.
Banh Khoai – Bánh khoái
Such a signature dish of Hue that it’s commonly called ‘Hue Pancakes’ (the translation is ‘happy pancakes’) this rice flour crêpe contains pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, and spring onions. Banh khoai comes with the usual fresh fragrant herbs and greens, such as lettuce leaves and finely sliced cucumber, green banana and star fruit, which locals typically wrap around the pancake. Served alongside is a pungent, sweet, fermented soya bean, peanut and sesame sauce that’s sometimes made with pork liver. Some visitors never want to eat it again, others return to Hue just to try it once more.
Cao Lau – Cao Lầu
Hoi An’s legendary dish of chewy noodles with pork reflects the town’s multicultural past with the thick noodles reminiscent of Japanese udon and the pork cooked in a Chinese style five-spice fashion. The smoky rice noodles are unique to this pretty town and best eaten the day they’re made. Dribbled with a rich stock from the pork cooking process, sprinkled with an array of aromatic herbs and crunchy rice-noodle crisps, and topped with a dollop of the local chili sauce, it’s enough to make you get a visa extension.
Mi Quang – Mì Quảng
Another quintessential Hoi An noodle dish is a bowl of turmeric noodles and succulent slices pork called mì Quảng (also written as my Quang). Hailing from the surrounding Quảng Nam province – hence the name – you’ll find these noodles in Danang and other towns and villages, but we think the best rendition is in Hoi An, where it’s restrained and elegant. The distinctive yellow coloured noodles should be topped with char siu pork, plump prawns, a quail egg, and an ever so slightly spiced broth. Less forgiving than Cao Lau, it’s a dish that only a few vendors really do well.
‘White Rose’ – Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc
Another unique dish to Hoi An is banh bao banh vac, known as ‘white rose’ because of the dainty flower-like appearance of these elegant rice flour dumplings. Still handmade each morning by the original family whose ancestors invented the dish, the dumplings are then distributed to restaurants right across Hoi An. Filled with a shrimp mixture, the dumplings are steamed and then topped with a sauce based on fish sauce, garlic, chilli, sugar, and lime juice, and sprinkled with fried garlic or shallots. If you’re eating them at a restaurant, it’s the sauce that distinguishes one from another.
Saigon and Beyond – Vietnamese Street Food Dishes to Try in Saigon and the South
The food of Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City) is more spicy and sweeter than in the north with ingredients such as coconut milk and fish sauce from the Mekong Delta used more. Once part of Cambodia and still home to millions of Khmers, the food of the south also reveals Cambodian culinary influences, including a love of fermentation, insects, and the like.
Banh Xeo – Bánh xèo
Bánh xèo, Saigon’s signature version of the rice flour crêpe, bánh khoái, above, is a big one with an almost lacy texture at times. Filled with minced pork, dried shrimp, and crunchy beans sprouts, it’s another street food snack that requires finishing. Served with a basket or plate of herbs and greens, you need to break off a piece of the crêpe, wrap a lettuce leaf around it, then add your choice of wonderfully fresh herbs, before dipping it in the ever-present nuoc cham. It has a cousin in Cambodia called banh chao, which is even larger and thin and crispier.
Banh Mi – Bánh mì
Where to send you to eat Banh Mi in Vietnam is a tough decision to make. Lara prefers the Banh mi in Hoi An, but Vietnam’s world-famous filled baguette sandwich is perfect takeaway food in Saigon, where there’s a more frenetic Western-style approach to everyday life. A warmed baguette is filled with layers of all cold cuts, pâté, a slather of stiff mayonnaise, some crisp salad veg, fragrant herbs and greens, and a hot chili sauce. Extras might include grilled pork or omelette. Once upon a time a breakfast favourite, these days it’s eaten any time of the day. While Saigon does a mean banh mi, a couple of stalls in Hoi An make most banh mi in Saigon taste like, well, a baguette with cold cuts and pâté.
Bo Kho – Bò kho
This hearty spice-laden beef stew would appear to be more suited to a chilly Hanoi winter evening rather than breakfast in sultry Saigon. But all over the city you’ll see locals sweating over an aromatic bowl as they dip their baguettes into the aniseed flavoured broth between mouthfuls of fall-apart chunks of beef and bites of carrot and potato. This is another dish found all over Vietnam but we love Saigon’s rendition, as the cuisine is naturally more spicy in the south, and they don’t hold back on the flavour.
Pho bo Saigon – Phở bò Sài Gòn
Clearly some of our Vietnam food aficionado readers are going to think this is sacrilege. But we did suggest you try pho in Hanoi first – but not only in Hanoi. The southern version of this ubiquitous dish, pho bo Saigon, is different to pho in the north. It tends to be loaded with more of everything rather than restrained, with a spicy kick and lots more herbs. There’s also an anything goes attitude on the part of the diner when it comes to adding condiments. You should also order pho bo tai with the rare beef on top here too.
While we’re recommending you try the most authentic Vietnamese street food dishes from the place they originated from or have become a specialty, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them elsewhere, of course. Just as with pho, sometimes seeing how different cities make the same dish reveals as much about the cuisine, culture and the people of that place, as it does about the food.
Sampling Vietnamese Street Food Dishes – Our Tips
- Vietnam’s street food is some of the safest in Asia, however, it’s still worth following our tips to eating street food safely.
- You must add condiments – it’s not considered an insult to the cook as it is in the West. Taste the dish first then check the condiment caddy or tray on your table to see what takes your fancy. Unsure? Add what the locals are adding. Learn more here about condiment use in Asia.
- Do a little reading on local customs and etiquette when eating out.
- The best introduction to Vietnamese street food dishes you can get is on a street food tour. Watch this space: we’ll be posting a guide to Vietnam’s best street food tours very soon.
- If you really love Vietnamese street food, consider our 3-week Vietnam Culinary Tour – it’s 21 days of eating Vietnamese food on street food tours and in restaurants, cooking the cuisine in classes, and so much more. New dates coming soon. (In the meantime, we also have some spots left on our Cambodia Culinary Tours and Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreats.)
LEARN TO COOK THESE VIETNAMESE STREET FOOD DISHES
Vietnamese Street Food by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl
Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen
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So which Vietnamese street food dishes are your favourites and where do you like to eat them? And are there any must-try Vietnamese street food dishes you think we need to add to this guide?