The food scene in Vietnam represents an ideal fusion of East and West: French baguettes meeting Vietnamese sausages, pho noodles incorporating European ingredients, and the like.
Pho: the Iconic Vietnamese Noodle Dish
It seems so simple and unadorned, but this hearty noodle dish has leapfrogged other more elaborate Vietnamese foods to the top of everybody's must-eat list.
Pho is served everywhere in Vietnam, at all times of the day, mainly because it's so easy to make: all you need are rice noodles ("pho" actually refers to the type of noodle used; another noodle dish, "bun", is named after a type of rice vermicelli noodle), herbs, vegetables, and a choice of beef or chicken, all scalded in a meaty broth. It's cheap, too - a good hearty bowl should cost about $1-$2.
South and North Vietnam claims pho as their own, with very distinct differences. The serving style, for starters, is different: in the South, pho is served with the vegetables on the side, while in Hanoi and the North, the vegetables are already incorporated into the dish.
Ready to order? Keep this in mind: beef pho is pho bo; chicken pho is pho ga; vegetarian pho is pho chay. And it's pronounced fuh, not fow.
Banh Mi: the Vietnamese Take on the French Baguette
This fusion of French bread and Vietnamese fixings has roots in Ho Chi Minh City, where an exiled Hanoian family first created an affordable sandwich for their patrons in District 3.
French baguettes used to be way out of reach for ordinary Vietnamese, until the Le family began making shorter (thus less costly) buns and reducing the meat content in favor of fresh vegetables. The resulting banh mi was an instant hit, and a present-day fusion favorite for travelers who want something both familiar and excitingly Vietnamese-flavored.
The classic banh mi dac viet (“the special”) uses the greatest-hits of banh mi fixings: Vietnamese cha lua pork sausage, pork liver pate, shredded carrots and radishes, cucumber slices and lashings of chili and mayonnaise. This is the usual fare you’ll find on the street, served from metal carts as a quick breakfast or mid-afternoon snack.
Today’s remix-happy crowd aren’t simply satisfied with the classic combination; more adventurous types gravitate towards experimental fixings like French fries, Turkish doner, pork floss, siu mai, even ice cream!
Bun Cha: Grilled Meat Makes All the Difference
First, let's deconstruct the name: "bun" refers to a thin, vermicelli rice noodle; the "cha" refers to the grilled pork meatballs that form the meaty component of the dish.
When serving bun cha, the noodles, vegetables, nuoc cham (dipping sauce) and pork are served in separate plates or bowls, allowing each guest to pick and mix according to their personal taste. Cha gio (fried spring rolls) are an optional, but much-ordered, bun cha sidekick.
Northern Bun cha invites comparisons with the southern bun thit nuong, a similar dish served in the south. In Saigon, bun thit nuong comes with all the ingredients mixed together, including the sauce. And southerners disdain the use of cha, preferring to use thit nuong, or roast pork, in the dish.
In the North, Hanoians prefer to take their bun cha only during lunchtime. That's strange to southerners, who eat their bun thit nuong can be eaten at any time of the day.
Cao Lau: Noodles with a Super-Secret Recipe
Originating from Hoi An in Central Vietnam, cao lau took cues from the foreign traders in the port town to synthesize something absolutely local: a bowl of thick, chewy wheat noodles with a modicum of cilantro, basil and mint-flavored broth, served with salad greens, bean sprouts, croutons and slivers of chasiu-style pork.
Authentic cao lau can only come from Hoi An, thanks to the closely-guarded secret behind their manufacture. Hoi An noodle makers only use water from one well, and use a lye solution derived from a specific (also secret) mix of ashes from trees on a nearby island.
While the noodle recipe is secret, the dish itself is widely scattered around Hoi An—you can venture to any corner around the Old Quarter and come across a cao lau house with its own special take on the dish.
Visit Hoi An’s central market to eat cao lau that’s both relatively cheap, and absolutely authentic.
Banh Cuon: Take a Light Meal Break
This rice-flour pancake dish is a Northern Vietnam specialty, a savory rice-batter crepe filled with cloud-ear mushrooms, minced pork, and chopped shallots.
The crepe literally holds everything together: a light, moist envelope made from fermented rice-flour batter, steamed to a semi-gelatinous state, filled and served with a dipping sauce made from fish sauce (nuoc mam) and a few drops of essence derived from ca cuong, a giant water bug!
Banh cuon was literally invented in Hanoi, and may be older as the city (founded in 1010 AD). Thanh Tri District on the city’s southeast quarter lays claim to be this food’s place of origin, and to this day has the largest number of famous banh cuon places.
At any of these Hanoi banh cuon joints, you’ll get three different plates (each one containing a pile of rolls; spicy cha lua, or Vietnamese pork sausage; and vegetables) together with a bowl filled with the dipping sauce. While it’s a classic Hanoi breakfast, you can eat it any time of the day – a light repast ideal for that mid-Old Quarter shopping break!
Banh Xeo: the Lower you Go, the Bigger they Get
There’s some debate over its cultural roots: the banh xeo Vietnamese pancake may have been influenced by French crepes, but a case can be made for localized origins in central Vietnam, or from Cham or South Indian origins much further in the past.
What’s absolutely clear, though, is how well banh xeo goes down as a cheap but delicious street snack, wherever you are in Vietnam. The name literally means “sizzling pancake”; rice batter is poured on a searing-hot pan, then seasoned with turmeric and paired with fillings like pork, shrimp, fresh herbs and bean sprouts. Dip into the Vietnamese sauce nuoc cham before each bite.
There is no single banh xeo classic recipe, as each region in Vietnam has its own take. In the Mekong Delta way to the south, banh xeo are huge and filled with local delicacies like duck meat. In Hoi An, banh xeo eaters use ultra-fresh herbs (a local specialty) and a peanut-infused dipping sauce on their morsel-sized pancakes.
Cha Ca La Vong: Dill, Turmeric, and Revolution
Unlike pho and bun cha, this dish has no natural counterpart in the south - cha ca la vong is proudly homegrown by Hanoians, the brainchild of the Doan family, who continue to make it in a restaurant that serves only that one dish.
Cha ca la vong is redolent of dill, turmeric, and revolution: the dish was legendarily prepared to nourish North Vietnamese insurgents, and after reunification, the Doan family was allowed to make cha ca la vong on a street newly renamed after their product. (The street was formerly Hang Son, or "Paint Street"; the whole street is now called "Cha Ca".)
The cha ca la vong experience is more theatrical than most other culinary treats in Hanoi. In cha ca la vong restaurants, guests sit at tables equipped with gas or charcoal burners. Marinated fish are cooked right in front of the guests, then served alongside rice noodles, coriander, fennel, peanuts, leeks, chili, and shrimp paste.
The original Cha Ca La Vong restaurant (location on Google Maps) is still the best place to experience this fish and veg concoction; the interior is shabby and the servers are snippy with the guests, but it's all part of the show. Eat it while it's hot.