Vietnamese street food is distinctive and delicious. The flavours are influenced by the Asian principle of five elements: sour (wood), bitter (fire), sweet (earth), spicy (metal) and salty (water), with each dish reflecting one or more of these elements. What’s more, it’s believed to be some of the healthiest food in the world due to fresh ingredients, minimal use of dairy and oil and being naturally gluten-free as many dishes are made with rice noodles/paper.
But what to order? That’s where we come in. From a hearty bowl of phở to deep-fried bánh gối, read on for the 11 best Vietnamese street food dishes to try when visiting Vietnam.
Probably the most famous Vietnamese street food dish, phở (pronounced as “fuh”), is a heart-warming broth consisting of rice noodles, herbs and meat, either chicken (phở gà) or beef (phở pò). You’ll find it all over Vietnam. The dish was then popularised throughout the world by refugees after the Vietnam War. The Hanoi style of phở differs to Ho Chi Minh in the south, and you’ll also find differing noodle sizes, herb varieties and sweeter or saltier broths all across the country. Grab a seat at a phở stand, order like a local and don’t hold back on the slurping.
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2. Bún Chả
Another one of our favourite Vietnamese street food dishes is bún chả. This dish is a popular lunch order for busy workers in the country’s capital. You’ll notice smoke rising at 11 am as street food vendors start grilling delicious slices of marinated pork belly. Bún chả typically consists of crispy grilled fatty pork (chả) over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) sprinkled with herbs and a side dish of dipping sauce. Sometimes it comes with a side of tasty fried crab spring rolls (nem cua be). Still not convinced? It’s one of Obama’s favourites.
3. Nem Rán or Chả giò
Costing about 43 cents each, this tasty street side snack is cheap and oh so delicious. Nem rán are made using ground meat (usually pork), mushrooms, noodles, and diced vegetables such as carrots, kohlrabi and jicama. The ingredients are rolled up in a sheet of moist rice paper which is then deep fried until it turns crispy and golden brown. Recipes vary across the country but they’re often served with a spicy dipping sauce. Officially the most moreish snack in Vietnam, it’s impossible to have just one!
4. Bún Bò Nam Bộ
Bún bò nam bộ is a light and refreshing dish that originated in the south (the name means ‘beef noodles of the southern region’). It’s typically made using fine rice noodles (the bún), which are piled on top of a bed of fresh lettuce and topped with beef (the bò), bean sprouts, onions and herbs.
5. Bánh Tráng Nướng
Bánh tráng nướng are large round rice crackers, which are added into the vermicelli noodle dishes like cao lầu and mì quảng. Recently, the dish has been given an Italian twist and has become known as “Vietnamese pizza” or “Dalat Pizza”. It’s particularly popular in Dalat (hence the name). Take your pick from a wide variety of toppings including egg, ground pork, dried shrimp or scallion oil, hot chili sauce and mayo. Not exactly your usual pizza, but certainly just as tasty.
Xôi is a savoury or sweet rice but unlike like the curry accompaniment, is a meal in its own right. A popular “grab and go” breakfast for busy locals, this Vietnamese snack is loved nationwide. The glutinous staple comes with a variety of add-ins including fried chicken and pork or preserved eggs, and not forgetting a scattering of dried shallots on top.
7. Bánh Mi
Another classic Vietnamese street food is bánh mi (meaning ‘bread’). Extremely popular with locals and tourists alike, bánh mi is an extraordinary sandwich. Typically consisting of chả lụa (pork sausage), coriander leaf, cucumber, pickled carrots, pickled daikon and condiments from French cuisine such as pâté, along with chili and mayonnaise. Originating in the mid-19th century, the baguette was introduced to Vietnam during French Colonialism. However, the Vietnamese made it their own in the 1950s, when a distinctly Vietnamese style of sandwich was developed in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) and became known as bánh mì Sài Gòn (‘Saigon sandwich’).
Top tip: for the best bánh mi in Ho Chi Minh, head to Banh Mi Huynh Hoa – they don’t hold back on the fillings!
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8. Bánh Gối
This tasty little treat is on the more indulgent end of the scale. Bánh gối (or ‘pillow cake’) is pastry stuffed with mushrooms, glass noodles, minced pork and various seasonings, folded and deep-fried. What’s not to love?
9. Phở Cuốn
Not to be confused with the famous noodle soup (see number one), phở cuốn (also known as gỏi cuốn), means rolled pho. The word ‘cuốn’ refers to the fresh rice paper sheets which are used to roll meat, seafood or prawns, vegetables and fresh herbs, making a sort of fresh spring roll. Phở cuốn is often served as a snack or an appetiser, and is especially popular in the summer. Allegedly, the dish was invented when a street vendor from Hanoi ran out of broth for his pho!
10. Bánh Xeo
Bánh xeo is a regional speciality from Hoi An, a city on Vietnam’s central coast. Made using rice flour batter and a beaten egg, bánh xeo are like crispy, stuffed rice pancakes. The outside is similar to a taco shell with tumeric added for colour. The filling is a mix of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. The word ‘xèo’ means sizzle, which refers to the loud sound the rice batter makes when it is poured onto the hot skillet.
11. Bánh Cuốn
Last but by no means least is bánh cuốn, one of the most delicious Vietnamese street food dishes. Originating from Hanoi and northern Vietnam, bánh cuốn is made from a thin, steamed rice batter. The slightly fermented rice batter is steamed on a cloth that is stretched over a pot of boiling water. It’s then filled with a mixture of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced mushrooms and shallots. It’s a light and tasty dish generally eaten for breakfast everywhere in Vietnam.
Top tip: for the best bánh cuốn in Vietnam head to Quan An Ngon Restaurant in Hanoi.
Which of our 11 Vietnamese street food dishes would you choose? Or have you already tried one before? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re thinking about visiting Vietnam then check out Trafalgar’s range of Vietnam trips.