Unlike many parts of Southeast Asia, you’ll rarely crave Western food in Vietnam. Even after three solid weeks of a pho and banh mi-based diet, I could go for months more!
However, if you’re tempted to stick to the most popular Vietnamese dishes, you should think again. Some of the lesser-known options to Westerners are many a local’s favourite. With good reason, too.
Here are seven Vietnamese foods that you (hopefully) haven’t heard of yet – and that I highly recommend you try!
1. Chao Ca (fish porridge)
It might sound like all sorts of wrong but chao ca is actually pretty delicious. A hearty bowl of rice and sticky rice (double carb load, mmm!), fish sauce and stock, dill and shallots are topped with thick pieces of freshwater fish (like salmon or carp). If you fancy something similar but a meatier version, you can go for some chao vit instead. The result? A warming and nutritious meal that can be enjoyed at any time of the day.
2. Banh Trang Nuong (Dalat pizza)
Okay, so it’s not exactly the standard cheese and tomato margarita pizza that you’d get on a trip to Italy, but it’s pretty damn good!
The base is made of a thin circle of rice paper, rolled out on a hot plate and grilled over hot coals into crispy deliciousness.
Toppings vary, from shrimp to quail eggs to sausages but either way, Dalat pizza is a very satisfying snack. And, at around 12,000VND ($0.50), it ain’t gonna break the bank either.
3. Op la
If you’re a fan of the Mexican dish ‘huevos rancheros’, you’ll love this! Although it doesn’t include salsa, it’s a similar idea – you get your own personal pan, in which eggs sizzle away before your watering mouth. The eggs are accompanied by onions, peppers and a dollop of chilli… plus a roll of crusty banh mi to scoop it all up. Yummy!
4. Bun rieu cua (meat & vermicelli tomato soup)
Straight up, I’ve got to say that this is the best meal I’ve had in Vietnam. The amazingly cheap and tasty cao lau in the Central Market of my current hometown is a close second – but this dish won me over before I’d even tasted it.
By a tiny stall near Hanoi’s train station, an old lady stirred an enormous vat of my soon-to-be favourite meal. I was lured over by the aroma of tomatoes, crab-based stock, tamarind paste and rice vinegar and, once I’d ordered a bowl, things got even better. The delicious broth was complimented by spaghetti-like noodles, golden fried tofu and moist meatballs…yep, it’s got it all!
Add a squeeze of lime juice and the requisite garden of herbs and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tastier dish in Vietnam.
5. Bun mam (Vietnamese gumbo)
Another vermicelli soup star is bun mam, a dish that’s found in central and southern Vietnam, available from street food stalls as well as more upmarket eateries.
It may be a bit harder to track down but your efforts will be rewarded; the sweet combination of its dark-coloured broth, prepared with fermented fish sauce, tamarind and sugar, vermicelli noodles and an assortment of seafood and meat, will make you glad you looked that little bit further. The addition of eggplant – to soak up the broth – is a nice and healthy touch.
6. Banh tam bi (thick noodles & coconut milk)
This dish, of sticky rice and tapioca noodles, topped with herbs and pork and mixed in a coconut cream dressing, is only available in the south of Vietnam. Sorry if that rules it out.
But if you’re lucky enough to be in the area, look out for shops with thicker noodles in their window and a tell-tale pan of coconut milk. Give it a try and enjoy the sweet and buttery flavours of the ‘gravy’, the freshness of the herbs and the crunchiness of pig’s skin. It’s a noodle dish with a difference.
7. Ca kho to (braised catfish in clay pot)
Less of a street-food snack and more of a dining experience, ca kho to will satisfy any cravings you have for a warming, motherly meal. Braised in a sweet caramel gravy of soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, shallots and garlic, the dish comes in a clay pot and is usually served with rice. It’s a great comfort food and you’re likely to smell the tantalising aromas long before you see it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of ‘off-the-beaten-path’ foods! So the next time you’re making a beeline for the banh mi stand, take a step back and try something else instead. You’ll be glad you did.
About the author: Hi travel fans! My name’s Emma. When I’m not satisfying my food cravings I’m fulfilling my other two great passions – travelling and working with words! I’m currently writing for Hoi An Now in Vietnam’s food capital of Hoi An. Life is good!