Vietnam is coming up as a Southeast Asian alternative to Thailand now, and rightfully so since it’s one of the most wonderful countries in the world! Even grumpy Paul Theroux couldn’t stay immune to its charms when he travelled through the war-ravaged country on its sole train line and wrote about it in his book The Great Railway Bazaar.
Most people associate Vietnam with the breath-taking limestone karsts at Ha Long Bay, or the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels in South Vietnam, close to Saigon. These are of course great reasons to visit Vietnam, but one of the foremost reasons to get yourself to Vietnam right now is the astonishingly flavourful and completely underrated Vietnamese food!
Those expecting food similar to Thai, or even Cambodian food are in for a surprise as it has completely distinct and different flavours. Expect pungent broths with noodles, French-influenced sandwiches called bahn mi and delicate crepes with the most mouth-watering array of fillings!
The quintessential Vietnamese dish, indeed Vietnam’s national dish many would claim, is pho. A humble bowl of pho is a hearty beef soup with chunks of sliced meat and rice noodles—garnished with bean sprouts, basil, chopped chillies and lime wedges. It is found at every street corner in every city and is surprisingly delicious given its simplicity. If you’re having trouble deciding what to eat, start with pho—you won’t be disappointed.
Another ubiquitous Vietnamese dish, found in all parts of Vietnam, is the bahn mi—a different kind of a baguette filled with grilled meats, vegetables, pate and sauces. This likely French-inspired sandwich tastes different in different parts of the country, depending on the fillings but is guaranteed to be delicious no matter where you pick one up!
Once you’ve discovered the joys of the simple pho, prepare to treat yourself with some bún riêu—a south Vietnam special tomato-based broth with crabmeat and pork and tofu—so flavourful it will have you wanting to lick the bowl clean! Up in Central Vietnam, the bún bò Huế is a spicy noodle soup from—you guessed it—Huế. The much-loved soup is made using beef broth and spicy chilli oil and it’s made using vermicelli and thin slices of beef. If you find yourself in Hue, make sure you try the bún bò Huế.
If you’re not much of a noodle soup person, worry not—Vietnam has rice cakes, rice crepes and spring rolls aplenty to keep you happy. Bánh cuốn from up north are light and fluffy rice rolls filled with pork and mushrooms. Bánh bèo from Central Vietnam are rice cakes filled with savoury fillings. And gỏi cuốn are incredibly healthy spring rolls filled with fresh vegetables and meat and eaten with a delectable dipping sauce.
And of course, no trip to Vietnam is complete without guzzling gallons of the famous Vietnamese coffee—mixed with a dollop of condensed milk. Coffee drinking and people-watching are pursued as serious activities in most cities in Vietnam. So get yourself some iced Vietnamese coffee or hot coffee with condensed milk, sit on the low stools set up on the sidewalks and pass your time like a true local.