By: RJ Fisher Last Update: November 2023
Vietnamese food is one of the most popular cuisines in Southeast Asia. Everybody loves original, flavorful and exciting Vietnamese cooking. Lots of fresh ingredients, special cooking techniques and above all an unrelenting passion for food are the main elements that make Vietnamese food so special.
From “mainstream” dishes to “in the know” local Vietnamese delicacies, here’s our list of 15 popular and insider Vietnamese food dishes.
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15 Best Vietnamese Food Dishes
1. Cơm Tấm – Caramelized Pork over Rice
Probably you know this Vietnamese dish, without knowing it. Makes sense? The actual national dish of Vietnam is simplicity in its purest form, “pork over rice”. And all this time you thought that the National dish of Vietnam was Phở.
Cơm Tấm literally translates into “broken rice”. The use of broken rice in this dish over long grained rice is traditional. Originally broken rice was used, because that’s the cheapest rice in Vietnam and Cơm Tấm was a poor man’s dish. Over time, the texture of the broken rice became a essential feature of Cơm Tấm.
The broken rice is topped with BBQ caramelized pork chop and a fried egg. If you’re lucky, extra shredded pork and skin are sprinkled on top together with pickles, cucumber and tomato, yum!
Visit any Vietnam food market come early morning and rub shoulders with the locals for a traditional Cơm Tấm breakfast.
2. Bún Chả – Vietnamese Grilled Meatballs
World famous Vietnamese dish ever since Barack Obama, together with the late Anthony Bourdain, munched on a plate of Bún Chả at a local Hanoi eatery. He confessed to being a great fan of Vietnamese food and Bún Chả in particular. Say what you will about the former president, he sure knows his food.
Pork meatballs and slices of pork belly are grilled over a charcoal fire, then placed in a bowl with a special sauce. The sauce is made up from Vietnamese fish sauce (nước mắm), lime juice, vinegar, sugar and heavy on chilies and garlic. Served with rice noodles, fresh herbs, pickled green papaya and carrots. A traditional Vietnamese food dish that locals would have for lunch, but nowadays anytime of day is right to eat Bún Chả.
The Vietnamese sure like their pork, but then again they can work wonders with it. This next popular Vietnamese dish proves me right. Sliced pork belly is marinated in spices with added fish sauce. The meat then simmers for hours and hours in coconut water until the meat absorbed all the flavors. As a result the meat will become succulent, soft and tender.
Yes there’s fat, but this is essential for the taste. This is the kind of dish that even tastes better the next day. We prefer the Southern Vietnam version over the Northern version. In the South, they use coconut milk for braising to make the dish more sweet and creamy. Also in the South, during the lunar New Year feast (Tết), hard boiled chicken or duck eggs are added (thịt kho trứng).
Read more: “Top 39 Best food in South East Asia“. Check to see if your favorite dish made the list.
4. Bánh Xèo – Vietnamese Savory Crepe
Vietnamese food family style. Crispy goodness made of rice flour with unsweetened coconut cream and turmeric. The designated stuffing consists of thinly sliced pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and mung beans.
The secret is in the crisp. Definitely not crunchy, but more of a soft crisp, a bit like fried chicken batter with lots of air in it. To eat Vietnamese Bánh Xèo, break off a piece and add some fresh herbs (Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese perilla, cilantro). Then, wrap it in a lettuce leaf and dip into nước chấm.
Fun fact: The name Bánh Xèo translates to “sizzling cake”, after the sizzling sound of batter in a hot pan.
5. Bánh Khọt – Crispy Mini Pancake
Now that you know about Bánh Xèo, take the next step. A less known, but oh so delicious variant is ‘Bánh Khọt’. Similar batter is used for this Vietnamese mini sized pancake with a single large shrimp in the center. Special cast-iron plates are used to bake the Bánh Khọt leaving the inside soft and fluffy with a crispy outside.
This is the kind of food that you will often find at Vietnamese street food stalls. Bánh Khọt should always be made to order, since the crispness will not hold for long. We once sat at a Bia hơi place in Hanoi and kept ordering Bánh Khọt from the next door street food stall. Turned out to be the ultimate beer snack.
6. Gỏi Đu Đủ Khô Bò – Green Papaya/Beef Salad
Due to its tangy taste this Vietnamese salad is one of my absolute favorites. Shredded unripe papaya is mixed in with holy basil and tossed with a generous vinegar/soy sauce dressing. Thinly sliced dried beef is placed on top with sprinkles of crushed peanuts. If you prefer, you can add some sugar and/or minced red chili to the dressing.
This Vietnamese dish is easy to make at home. You can use your favorite brand of beef jerky, although it must be said that Vietnamese beef jerky is normally sweeter and more tender than Western jerky. So, maybe use a sweeter variant. Very refreshing eat on a summer day.
7. Phở – Vietnamese Noodle Soup
Another Vietnamese food dish made famous by a former American president. In 2000, then president Clinton and his daughter Chelsea ate a bowl of the soup in Ho Chi Minh City. The event attracted a lot of media attention and overnight Phở grabbed a significant position on the international culinary map.
But of course, long before Bill Clinton discovered it, Phở was already iconic to Vietnamese cuisine. The hearty and fragrant beef noodle soup has been a Vietnamese staple food for ages. A local breakfast favorite, rich in protein to get you through a hard day’s work.
From the beef bones broth that simmered for hours on end, to the flat rice noodles and thinly sliced beef, all ingredients are of equal importance and must be high quality. Although the broth is usually light, the spices that go into the broth are up the chef and are a main factor to distinguish between Phở restaurants. A basket with fresh herbs such as cilantro, green onion and Thai basil is served next to your bowl, together with essential condiments, such as lime, chilies and hoisin sauce. Load up to your liking and enjoy, slurping allowed.
Read more: The truth about Phở – from a different angle
8. Bún Riêu – Crab Noodle Soup
Straight from the river delta to you, noodle soup! This one is very special to Vietnamese cooking. The main ingredient, fresh water crab, is pounded within the shell. The almost liquefied substance along with flakes of crab meat is then (sometimes mixed with egg) poured into a pork based tomato broth. Of course the broth needs a teaspoon of fermented fish paste, which is a must use ingredient for any food in Vietnam.
Since the pounding of crabs is a rather tedious job it’s ok to use canned minced crab instead. Furthermore, ground pork and other meat at will. Vietnamese Balm is the most important herb and adds a lemony mint flavor to the soup. Substitute the Balm with regular mint and a squeeze of lemon if you can not find it at your local store. Also, a spoon of tamarind paste will provide an essential tangy note.
Rice noodles, fried tofu, ground pork along with a handful if shrimp are added. Also, don’t forget typical Vietnamese vegetables like shredded banana flower and raw water spinach to complete this wonderful and authentic Vietnamese food dish.
9. Bánh Mì – Vietnamese Baguette
Some of the best food that Vietnamese cuisine has to offer has its origin in France. For instance, after the French introduced the baguette in Indochina, the Vietnamese took it and made it their own. Vietnamese bread is much lighter and airier with a thinner, flakier crust than traditional French baguettes. The difference comes from adding rice flour to the dough, as well as an alternative kneading technique and by spraying the loafs with water during the baking process.
Bánh Mì soon became a staple food in Vietnam. For the toppings, anything goes. Meat, fish, cheese, pate or fish, whatever you like. Some essential condiments are, pickled vegetables, cucumber, chilies, cilantro, sauces and a yellow spread from butter cut with mayonnaise.
10. Cá kho Tộ – Braised Fish
Simple cooking usually does the trick, as long as you use good quality ingredients. Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for its fresh and tasty dishes.
Take this next Vietnamese dish, “Cá Kho Tộ” is just fish (snakefish or catfish) braised in garlic, fish sauce and soy sauce, that’s it. Restaurants in Vietnam serve Cá Kho Tộ in a traditional clay pot with steamy bowl of rice on the side.
Usually fresh herbs and crispy veggies are served on the side as well, which are very welcome, since it’s a very rich and salty dish. Cucumber and pickles will also work the balance the rich flavors.
Read more: “Hanoi Food Tour“, food and culture experience in the old quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam.
11. Chả Cá – Vietnamese Fish Cake
More fish, simply because we can. But also, because fish represents a large part of the Vietnamese food diet. Do not confuse this dish for the Chả Cá Lã Vọng dish that features next on our list of Vietnamese food. Chả Cá is a Vietnamese fish cake, made from chopped up fish, mixed to a course mash with ginger, garlic, onions, fish sauce and any other herbs or spices the chef likes.
Next, the mixture is shaped into cakes and grilled. Simply serve a slice of the fish cake to accompany almost any Vietnamese rice and noodle dish. Or, eat it as a snack with chili sauce dip.
12. Chả Cá Lã Vọng – Fish in Turmeric and Dill
A legendary dish in Vietnamese cuisine, named after the restaurant in Hanoi that first served it in 1871. The recipe is strict: Catfish marinated in turmeric, shrimp paste, ginger, shallots, garlic and chilies, then grilled over a charcoal fire. Then replaced in a hot pan (sometimes a sizzling plate) with the marinade, fresh scallions and added dill, lots of dill.
Chả Cá Lã Vọng is eaten with thin rice noodles. Essential side dishes are peanuts and nước chấm dipping sauce.
Although this traditional Vietnamese dish is nowadays served in many Hanoi restaurants, the original Chả Cá Lã Vọng restaurant still exists in the old quarter of Hanoi, still serving its signature dish.
13. Cơm Gà Tam Kỳ – Chicken Rice Tam Ky Style
This Vietnamese dish originated in the town of Tam Ky in Central Vietnam and is now a very popular food in Vietnam. Rice cooked in chicken broth and topped with shredded strips of chicken mixed with black pepper, salt, sugar, lime and chili. Garnished with green papaya, local vegetables and accompanied by fish sauce. There, simple cooking does it again, something that food in Vietnam is famous for.
14. Gỏi Cuốn – Fresh Spring Rolls
Gỏi Cuốn is probably one of the most popular Vietnamese food dishes. Perhaps you know them as fresh spring rolls and that’s exactly what they are, a taste of spring. Basically it’s ultra thin rice paper, rolled with any fresh ingredients that you like.
Famous are of course the all-vegetable Vietnamese spring rolls, which are vegan and gluten free. However, traditional Gỏi Cuốn is rolled with fresh vegetables, thin rice noodles, shrimp, pork slices and dipped in a hoi sin/peanut sauce.
Gỏi Cuốn is served cold, so not only perfect for spring, but also for summer.
15. Chè Chuối – Banana Soup Dessert
Time for dessert! Chè is the word for any Vietnamese sweet soup, drink or pudding. Chuối translates into banana, so banana soup it is. Tapioca pearls and slices of banana boiled in coconut milk with some added sugar.
You can eat Chè Chuối either warm or cold, but both are the perfect Vietnamese dessert. Sprinkle sesame seeds or crushed peanuts sprinkled on top to enhance the subtle flavors even more.
Healthcare in Vietnam is hopelessly underdeveloped. Any serious ailment or injury will almost certainly involve expensive medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. Make sure that your travel insurance covers your medical cost abroad, as well as evacuation and repatriation. Don’t just assume that your regular health insurance covers adventurous activities like hiking and cycling.
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I feel hungry just writing about this delicious food in Vietnam. How about you? Is there any Vietnamese food missing that you feel should be in this list? Let us know in the comments below. We can always change the number of Best Vietnamese Food in this list from 15 to 16 or even more.
Vietnamese Food FAQ
1. Bún Chả – Vietnamese grilled meatballs and pork in sauce
2. Cơm Tấm – Caramelized Pork over Rice
3. Phở – Vietnamese Noodle Soup
4. Bánh Mì – Vietnamese Baguette
5. Gỏi Cuốn – Fresh Spring Rolls
Phở – Vietnamese beef broth with rice noodles
In general Vietnamese food is not spicy, but of course there are some spicy dishes. Many dishes are served with fresh herbs, veggies and chilies or hot sauce on the side. This way each individual can spice up their food to their own liking.
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