The 5 Best Dishes for a Taste of True Vietnamese Food Culture

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Vietnam might be one of the world’s poorest countries (ranked 95 out of 138, according to Numbeo), but it makes up for that with something priceless: the food. It’s hard to find another part of the world where the people are so proud of their food and the culture surrounding it. The locals genuinely want you to try everything at least once, and it’s tough to say “no” when each dish looks more appetizing than the last.

Part of the appeal of Vietnamese cuisine is the superb balancing of ingredients. This is an art that’s been handed down for generations and is treated with great respect — to the Vietnamese, food culture is an integral part of their national identity. And so in this article, as well as giving you the ‘how’ a dish is made, we’ll also try to give you the ‘why.’

As to the dishes themselves, we’ve chosen seven that are all quite different in terms of taste, texture and the ability to fill you up. But before we list our 5 best dishes to eat in Vietnam, we want to talk about a few of the basic cultural ideas that make food such an important part of being Vietnamese.

Vietnamese food culture

Lady Pô Nagar -  Vietnam's Goddess of Earth and Rice
Lady Pô Nagar – Vietnam’s Goddess of Earth and Rice | Image Credit: Đông Sơn (thảo luận), CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sharing a border with China has influenced the culture of Vietnam in many ways, but the biggest factor is probably the introduction of Buddhism and its belief in am and duong (“yin” and “yang”). This cosmological balance is reflected in Vietnamese cuisine, where dishes are forever being refined to give the perfect balance of flavor, texture, and color; alongside many other ingredients.

A traditional Vietnamese meal is a combination of rice or noodles and four side dishes, for a total of five flavors almost always served at the same time. The number five is central to the concept of ngu hanh (“the five elements”), and each dish represents one element from water, wood, fire earth, and metal. That ‘perfect’ number five crops up again and again in Vietnamese cuisine: there are five flavors (salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter), five colors (green, red, yellow, white, and black) and it’s even been updated to include a set of five specific nutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein, minerals, and water).

It’s interesting to note that family meals are all served in communal bowls. Every family member, or invited guest, must think carefully about exactly how much of each ingredient they should put on their plate. That being said, it’s generally seen as good manners to make sure a guest gets more food than they need, even at the expense of a family member missing out. The phrase Ăn chưa?, meaning “have you eaten yet?”, is a common way of asking “how are you?” This goes a long way towards understanding the very open and sharing culture of the Vietnamese. (Incidentally, you can find out when to use “Ăn chưa?”  and similar phrases by reading our guide to basic Vietnamese phrases — it’s genuinely useful and it’s free!)

Rice is an essential crop for Vietnam, and making an offering to the rice goddess is the solemn duty of every paddy field worker. The goddess’ full name is Thien Y A Na Diễn Phi Chúa Ngọc Thành Phi,  but she’s known to all as “Lady Pô Nagar”: a powerful deity who created the Earth, eaglewood, and rice. During the all-important rice harvests, the mountain Vietnamese are absolutely silent while harvesting: Lady Pô is known to hate noise and will surely destroy the rice crop of anyone who angers her.

Sadly, in today’s Vietnam, most of the mountain regions only produce enough rice to sell; they cannot afford to spare any for themselves to eat. Rice is very much seen as a “rich man’s food,” and poor people live on so-called “New World crops” — corn, sweet potato, cassava, and millet — grown alongside the rice. However, there’s always enough rice to use for offerings at temples and local shrines: rice is seen as a “gift from the gods,” so it follows that it’s the most potent gift to give back when offering up your prayers.

Five dishes that give a taste of Vietnamise food culture.

The ‘big three’ of Vietnamese culinary culture are phở: a chicken or beef broth with noodles, cha gio: a unique type of spring roll, and nuoc mam: a strong fermented fish sauce. In this section, we cover all three in detail, along with two other signature Vietnamese dishes. So let’s kick off with the most popular meal in Vietnam: phở.

Ph

Pho-is-Vietnam's-national-dish
Pho-is-Vietnam’s-national-dish | Image Credit: androog CC-BY-2.0

At its heart, phở (pronounced “fuh”) is a simple savory broth with rice noodles, a few slices of beef or chicken, and some herbs for flavor. Yet it so underpins local life that it’s been made the official food of Vietnam. And it’s also delicious: CNN’s 2020 poll ranked pho as 28th in the top 50 world’s best food dishes, describing it as “far greater than the sum of its parts.”

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Phở as we know it now was first seen in Vietnam around 1905, sold by street vendors who kept the broth hot with a wood-burning stove carried between two poles slung across their backs. Nowadays, phở is served absolutely everywhere in Vietnam, from rural street stalls to high-end uptown restaurants. There’s even a place in Ho Chi Minh City that charges $97 for a bowl of beef phở that has to be ordered a day in advance, to give the chef a chance to prepare the meat.

The range of ingredients is vast. Even at the most basic of Phở Bò (beef) stalls, you’ll be asked to choose the cut of beef you want, and then specify how well you want it cooked. The same sort of options are available for the Phở Gà (chicken) variety, and some places also offer a fish version. For garnish, popular options include green onions, Thai basil, fresh chili peppers, lemon or lime, bean sprouts, coriander leaves, or mung beans (so, basically, anything goes!). Phở is often served with bánh quẩy, which are lightly-fried breadsticks that you dip into the broth, adding a crunchy texture that would otherwise be missing — remember: the right balance of textures is critical.

(Fun Fact: Traditionally, a mother would judge her son’s intended bride by closely examimng her phở-making skills. If the broth was deemed poor, the chances of marriage were almost zero.)

Nước Mắm

On the left is fish sauce (nước mắm) and on the right is soy sauce (nước tương).
On the left is fish sauce (nước mắm) and on the right is soy sauce (nước tương) | Image Credit: Chris Phan at flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

While rice provides carbs and energy, it lacks nutrition, so the Vietnamese need to look elsewhere for fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Fish and seafood are a great source of protein, and the favorite way to consume them is in the form of a fish sauce, known as nước mắm. Originally used to preserve fish, nước mắm is essentially the liquid that remains after fermenting fish in brine, and it’s nutritionally very rich. Therefore, it’s perfect to use as a dipping sauce once it’s been thinned out or as a base for other sauces.

Nước mắm is made with high-oil fish such as anchovies, mackerel, or scabbard fish. The only other required ingredient is salt, although some modern interpretations add herbs and spices. Once the mix has been finalized, it’s sealed in a container and left to ferment for up to two years. When it’s ready, the sauce is treated like a well-aged wine, with “first press” bottles (filled from the initial draining of the barrel) fetching a hefty premium. And, just like wine, there are regions of Vietnam known for producing the best quality of fish sauces. For example, bottles produced on the island of Phú Quoc are so highly prized that the sauce has protected status (!) in Vietnam and throughout Europe.

Undiluted nước mắm has a very pungent smell, and it’s also far too concentrated to use straight out of the bottle. So in the North, people use a water and vinegar mix to dilute the concentrate, along with a drop of lemon juice and some sugar. Southern Vietnamese usually thin the sauce with coconut water, whilst citizens of Central Vietnam prefer the original flavor of the fish sauce and simply add lemon juice.

Chả giò

Chả giò is the Vietmanese version of China's spring roll
Chả giò is the Vietmanese version of China’s spring roll | Image Credit: Phó-Nháy via wikimedia public domain

Chả giò is basically a fried spring roll, and the evidence of Chinese influence here is easy to see. The main ingredients are seasoned ground meat, typically pork and sometimes shrimp or chicken, along with noodles and diced vegetables. Traditionally, this gets wrapped in a moist rice paper sheet, and the whole roll is deep-fried until the rice paper turns crispy and golden brown.

Of course the ingredients are completely interchangeable. Different families in different villages have their own recipes, with details of “secret” ingredients passed from mother to daughter (food preparation and cooking is still seen as women’s work throughout most of Vietnam). There’s also some difference in the name: in the North, people use the term nem cuốn, meaning “salad roll,” whereas southerners prefer to use the original chả giò. 

Outside of Vietnam, many restaurants use wheat flour sheets in place of rice paper, which can be quite brittle and tough to roll properly. Some modern chefs use ‘rice vermicelli’ (skinny noodles) in place of the Chinese-inspired rice paper; even within Vietnam. However you choose to make them, spring rolls are an integral part of every Vietnamese meal, and, in our opinion, they’re perfect for dipping into Nuoc Mam. Not only does the fish sauce complement the taste of the spring rolls perfectly,  but you’re also getting a healthy intake of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Bánh Mì

A typical bahn mi sandwich
A typical bánh mì sandwich sold by a street vendor | Image Credit: vtoanstar via wikimedia

The bánh mì (which literally translates as simply ‘bread’) is a crunchy bread sandwich, filled with an ever-changing combination of meats, vegetables, and sauces. If you guessed that it has a French influence, you’d be right: the baguette shape was introduced by French missionaries who arrived in Vietnam in 1658, and it remains a king of Vietnamese street foods. During the 1950s, a version was developed known as bánh mì Sài Gòn (“Saigon sandwich”). After the Vietnam war, this became very popular in countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States.

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The best bánh mì is arguably served at the Huynh Hoa restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. One of the reasons it’s so popular is that it uses 8 or 9 different types of cold cuts, layered with cucumber, peppers, onion, cilantro, and some shredded carrots. It’s finished off with homemade mayonnaise, then topped with chili sauce. As with most small Vietnamese restaurants, the Huynh Hoa is really just an indoor street cart: there’s no seating, and you’re expected to eat your meal outside. This might sound like an imposition, but a crowd usually forms 30 minutes before the restaurant opens, and it stays busy until closing; and if it’s good enough for the locals…

Chả cá Lã Vọng

preparing Chả-cá-Lã-Vọng
The final step in preparing Chả cá Lã Vọng is to watch it fried right in front of you | Image Credit: Yun Huang Yong, CC BY-SA 2.0

People of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, are big fans of grilled fish. So much so that they’ve named an entire street after it! In 1871, a small fish restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong was opened in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Originally planned as a meeting place and hideout for anti-colonial rebels, their grilled fish became insanely popular, and the restaurant was soon patronized by the very aristocrats and colonial troops that the owners hated so much.

Seeing an opportunity, nearby restaurant owners started copying the grilled fish technique, and many renamed their restaurants to reflect the popular dish (one enterprising fellow cheekily named his restaurant Chả cá Lã Sọng, but he was asked to take down the sign once people realized how similar it was). Eventually, the small alleyway once called Hang Son (Paint Street) was renamed Cha Ca Street, in honor of the signature dish created there all those years ago.

Traditionally, Chả cá Lã Vọng is made with snakehead. That’s actually a local freshwater fish, and not a deadly reptile (but check our guide to venomous snakes in Vietnam just to be sure!) However, it’s the marinade that provides the real flavor: a mix of turmeric, garlic, shallots, galangal (similar to ginger root), salt, sugar, and fish sauce. The snakehead is marinated for at least an hour, then grilled to lock in the flavor. Just before serving, the fish is fried in oil, often right in front of you at your table.

Unlike the other dishes we’ve covered, Chả cá isn’t street food, so it’s only available at a sit-down restaurant. If you’ve not been inside one before, it can be quite offputting as people eat very close to the ground (about 30 inches) and continually throw their trash on the floor, ostensibly aiming at a small trashcan under the table that’s always filled to overflowing.

FAQs

A couple on a scooter stop to buy a street snack in Hanoi
A couple on a scooter stop to buy a street snack in Hanoi | Image Credit: HaynieC from Pixabay

What is traditional Vietnamese food?

The most popular traditional Vietnamese food is undoubtedly Phở, a meat broth made from beef or chicken and served with rice noodles and a variety of herbs and vegetables. Phở is available absolutely everywhere in Vietnam, from the smallest street vendors to the most up-scale society restaurants. Having tried a few options, we can safely say that authentic street food Phởis far superior to the often overpriced versions served in many restaurants.

What makes Vietnamese food unique?

Vietnamese food is unique because of the many different cultures that have influenced it over the years. China introduced the all-purpose rice, Thailand and Cambodia demonstrated their expertise with herbs and spices, and French colonialists offered up their baguette. Furthermore, Vietnamese cooking is usually very light, with little use of heavy creams or sauces.

Why is Vietnamese food so popular?

One reason Vietnamese food is so popular is that it’s such a healthy combination of protein, minerals, fiber, and vitamins. This includes vitamins B1, B3, B6, and C and metals such as folate, copper, magnesium, and zinc: all of which have a proven record in boosting energy levels, meaning the food is not only tasty, but it’s good for you as well.

What is the national dish in Vietnam?

The national dish of Vietnam is Phở, a meat broth made from beef or chicken and served with rice noodles and a variety of herbs and vegetables. However, the most-consumed food is cơm trắng (plain white rice), which is served as part of every meal.

Is Vietnamese food cheap?

Compared to prices in the western world, Vietnamese food is very cheap, although be wary of the so-called “authentic boat traders” who will try to charge you exorbitant tourist rates for an undersized pineapple. They can be quite forceful and intimidating, which we witnessed first-hand during our Tam Coc boat trip, (which was otherwise an excellent day out!)

Do the Vietnamese eat dog meat?

Most Vietnamese avoid eating dog meat, mainly for religious and moral reasons (most Southern Vietnamese are Buddhists who forbid the consumption of dogs). It is, however, popular with North Vietnamese men, who believe it works as an aphrodisiac. This is probably the result of Chinese influence, who believe that most things in life are imbued with health-giving powers, including deer antlers, toad venom, ox penises, and, seemingly, dog flesh.

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