Nine Vietnamese dishes that have captured the world's imagination

Vietnam's growing global culinary reputation is exemplified by some unique recipes conjured up in different parts of the country.   

Pho noodle soup

Vietnam’s pho noodle soup was placed 28th among 50 best dishes in the world in a CNN listing in October. 

Pho features a bowl of flat, soft rice noodles dipped in a fragrant beef or chicken broth flavored with condiments. It is served with beef or chicken, shallots, chili and lemon to taste. The national dish originated in Hanoi before slipping south, where locals have added their own touch.

Food lovers can choose from among various beef cuts like tai (beef slices), bo vien (beef meatballs) and nam (beef flank). Chicken, on the other hand, makes for a more soothing broth. Southern pho has a sweeter, richer broth whereas in the north it is clear and simple.

Fresh summer rolls

Sidewalk goi cuon, or fresh summer rolls, are a popular southern snack of rice paper wrapped around pork, shrimp, herbs, and rice vermicelli, dunked in sweet and sour fish sauce or a thick peanut dip.

In October, CNN listed Vietnam’s fresh summer rolls among the world’s 50 best dishes.

Like other spring rolls, goi cuon is believed to have been introduced to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants though the dish has been modified to suit local tastes.

Cao lau (Vietnamese thick noodles)

CNN in October described the dish as a culinary symbol of Hoi An, a popular ancient town in central Quang Nam Province.

A mouth-watering bowl of cao lau features poached noodles, bean sprouts and herbs from famous Tra Que Village, garnished with thin slices of barbeque pork and crispy fried pig skin.

Traditional cao lau includes pork and dry shrimp, though in some cases pork is replaced by chicken and additional herbs. What makes cao lau unique, as a mixture of vegetables, pork or chicken, peanuts, scallions, lime and chili jam, is its absence of broth.

A bowl of cao lau, found everywhere in Hoi An, costs VND30,000 ($1.3).

A 20 year-old cao lau spot on Thai Phien Street in Hoi An. Video by Phong Vinh.

Banh mi, Vietnamese sandwich

In October, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post called Vietnam’s banh mi 'a cheap snack and global hit’ while British travel publication Culture Trip hailed it among the world’s best street snacks.  

The Vietnamese episode of a documentary series on Asian street cuisine aired in April on Netflix, the world's leading internet entertainment service, featured the banh mi from Saigon.

The simple baguette, stuffed with anything from grilled pork, cold cuts and cucumber slices to cilantro, pickled carrots, liver pâté, and a swipe of mayonnaise, is arguably one of the first things visitors try for a true taste of Vietnam.

Nowadays, banh mi is a favorite snack among both locals and tourists, with prices ranging from VND15,000 ($0.6) to VND44,000 ($2).

Crab noodles soup

Australian travel website Traveller picked bun rieu cua (crab noodles soup) among the world’s best dishes in August while CNN earlier this year urged its readers to savor the dish before leaving Hanoi.

The dish includes vermicelli in a tomato-based broth made by slow-cooking pork or chicken bones. But unlike pho or bun bo Hue (Hue beef noodle soup), to which meat slices are added, the key protein component is minced freshwater mini crabs, pork and egg.

This hearty broth is a great choice for winter, combining fried tofu, prawns, crab meat, pig blood pudding, bean sprouts and fresh Vietnamese herbs like perilla and cilantro. If you don’t mind the pungent smell, feel free to add some shrimp paste for an extra savory kick and to lessen the slightly acidic taste.

Though its origin is in northern Vietnam, you can easily bump into a bun rieu food stall anywhere around the country.

Steamed rice rolls

Food expert Tejal Rao praised banh cuon (steamed rice rolls) in the New York Times in June as a must on a culinary journey in Vietnam.

Traditional Vietnamese steamed rice rolls, or banh cuon, are easily overlooked by tourists, and overshadowed by the omnipresent banh mi or pho.

The thin noodle sheet is steamed over a thin layer of fabric placed on top of boiling water. It is often served with minced pork and a lightly sweetened dipping sauce.

The soul of this dish lies in its rice paper wrap made of rice flour ground by hand to produce the thinnest paper that’s both soft and tough.

Hue beef noodle soup

Bun Bo Hue, or Hue beef noodle soup, originated in Hue of central Vietnam. Last July, U.K. travel publication Lonely Planet suggested its readers to try the dish on a food tour of central Vietnam. 

The broth requires both pig and beef bones boiled in a generous dose of lemongrass, sugar, annatto, and shrimp paste. Vendors typically add sliced brisket, crab balls and pork pies. Adventurous eaters may add cubed pig’s blood for additional flavor.

The dish is served garnished with lime, scallions, cilantro, banana blossoms, mint, basil, and Vietnamese coriander. But be warned, if you are not a fan of spicy food: the original version in Hue packs much more of a punch than its Saigon or Hanoi counterparts.

Besides, many Saigon vendors make the broth a little sweeter to suite local taste buds. 

Cha ca, a unique fried catfish dish

In February, CNN recommended cha ca, a unique fried catfish dish, as a must-try Hanoian experience.

Pan-fried squares of fish tossed with dill, onion, turmeric and galangal make for a well-known, much favored dish, thanks in part to its fascinating history.

In Hanoi's Old Quarter, Cha Ca Street stands out as one of the few world roads to be named after an iconic dish. Between Hang Ma and Lan Ong, Cha Ca Street boasts one of the oldest restaurants in the city, La Vong, serving just one special dish for nearly 150 years.

Diners typically sit at a communal table with a skillet set over a burner. Turmeric-marinated fish is added to sizzling garlic oil, with dill and shrimp paste tossed in. Diners usually add herbs, marinated hot chilies, peanuts and vermicelli, all laid out within easy reach.

Egg coffee

During the second historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un in February, egg coffee, a fascinating Hanoian beverage, was served free to international correspondents.

In October, CNN named egg coffee one of the best-known capital drinks, as found at Giang Café, amongst others.

The father of Hanoi egg coffee is said to be Nguyen Van Giang, a former bartender at Metropole Hotel in Hanoi during the French colonial era, who added whisked egg yolk to a cappuccino to create a well-crafted balance of fatty, bitter and sweet sensations.

Story by Quy Nguyen

By Nguyen Quy