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From pho to banh mi: Discovering Vietnam in 10 delectable dishes

Fragrance, colour and spice - Vietnamese food is a culinary melting pot, embracing the foremost flavours from South East Asia and beyond

Bold, bright and vibrant, the classic dishes and flavours of South East Asia are beloved around the world, and Vietnamese cuisine sits, deservedly, close to the top of the pile. Characterised by their fragrant spice and rewarding umami finish, Vietnam’s fresh, colourful plates are always a pleasure to eat – whether you’re doing so in a charming regional restaurant or right in the street, at the heart of one of the country’s bustling, welcoming cities.

Recognising that Vietnamese food is an experience in itself, our South East Asian river cruise and tour itineraries give you the opportunity to seek out the country’s best-loved plates as part of an evening street food tour on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. In the company of an experienced local guide, you’ll savour classic Vietnamese favourites, bringing you an authentic taste of this beautiful country.

To inspire your gastronomic odyssey through Vietnam, here we explore 10 of the country’s best-loved dishes, from pho to goi cuon.

1. Pho

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Pho is without question one of Vietnam’s signature dishes, beloved across the country for its aromatic broth, tender meat and rich umami flavour. Originating in northern Vietnam, there are now many different varieties of this classic dish, but they all share the same culinary make up: a clear broth, dressed with lemon, chilli and fresh herbs, topped with noodles and – most commonly at least – ribbons of medium-rare beef. Experts say the secret to a good pho bowl lies in the soup, which is flavoured during cooking with cinnamon, clove and star anise, imparting a subtly sweet flavour. Unusually, pho is considered a breakfast staple in Vietnam, though visitors can enjoy it throughout the day.

2. Banh Mi 

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When the French brought the baguette to Vietnam in the 18th century, they had little idea their classic bread would go on to form the basis for one of the country’s foremost street foods: banh mi. The banh mi is a baguette sandwich, but like none you’d find in the boulangeries of Paris. Cut lengthways and packed with pickled vegetables, coriander and cucumber, the banh mi is then stuffed with your choice of filling, be it a classic meat variation with pork belly, or a vegetarian version, made with strips of fried and marinated tofu. Available from virtually every street corner in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the banh mi is one dish you must try on your visit to Vietnam.

3. Com Tam

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Like so many countries across the globe, many of Vietnam’s most celebrated dishes have humble origins, having been developed by peasants from simple ingredients, and passed down through the generations. Com tam is one such dish. Made using rice whose grain has split, com tam started life as a working-class dish, with farmers saving ‘broken’ rice and cooking it alongside a mix of local ingredients. Today, com tam dishes are hugely popular, with one of the best-known variants being com tam suon nuong op la – a dish of rice, caramelised pork, chilli, fish sauce, onion and sugar. The great thing about com tam is that the diner is free to put the dish together how they see fit, with all the ingredients served separately, allowing for different flavour combinations and a satisfying dining experience.

4. Cao Lau

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Cao lau was developed in the coastal city of Hoi An, where it remains a much-loved local dish. As one of Vietnam’s earliest trade ports, Hoi An is celebrated for its multicultural cuisine, of which cao lau is the most popular dish. A fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese flavours, cao lau perfectly captures the colourful cultural heritage of Hoi An. The dish comprises of Japanese udon noodles and Chinese barbecued pork, served in a bowl with a ladle of classic Vietnamese spiced broth. The combination of exotic flavours and spices packs serious flavour punch, and rumour has it that authentic cao lau, made locally in Hoi An, has magical healing properties.

5. Banh Trang Nuong

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Another of Vietnam’s creative and indulgent street eats; banh trang nuong is a contemporary dish, whose appearance represents that of a classic pizza. However, this being Vietnam, things aren’t as simple as dough, tomato and cheese, and banh trang nuong is actually made from rice paper, finished with toppings like dried shrimp, green onion, minced pork, butter and eggs. This wonderful dish is traditionally cooked directly on a charcoal brazier, which imparts an additional smoky flavour. The charred rice paper is then expertly rolled, so you can enjoy this tasty treat on the move. Be aware that hot sauce is usually added to the topping as a final step, so if you’re not one for heat, you may wish to go easy.

6. Banh Xeo

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A staple of southern Vietnam, banh xeo was historically produced in the Delta Mekong region, so it's something you're bound to come across along your journey. A sensory experience from making to eating, banh xeo is a type of crispy fried pancake that promises bold flavour and satisfying crunch. In Vietnamese, 'xeo' means 'sizzling', which gives you an idea of this dish's texture and method of serving, straight off the skillet. Inspired by French crepes, the dish is traditionally stuffed with a filling of minced pork, bean sprouts, prawns and fresh herbs, before being folded up and served hot. Golden and crispy, there's nothing like a perfectly-cooked Vietnamese banh xeo. 

7. Bun Cha

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One of the timeless plates served up in Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter, bun cha is a platter dish, much like com tam, whereby the diner can assemble the dish from separate ingredients as they see fit. On a typical bun cha platter, you can expect sliced belly pork, herbs and green salad, vermicelli rice noodles, and a fish sauce broth, as well as additional seasonings like chilli flakes and soy. A popular lunchtime eat, bun cha is a favourite among the workers of Hanoi, with its eateries filling up during the midday rush. Interestingly, this is the dish former US President Barack Obama was photographed eating during his famous visit to Vietnam in 2016.

8. Goi Cuon

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Salad rolls are hugely popular throughout Vietnam, and they make the perfect mealtime appetiser or a healthy snack on the go. One of the best-known salad roll varieties in Vietnam is Goi Cuon, which is made from leafy greens, aromatic herbs, chicken or prawn, and garlic chives, all wrapped up in a softened sheet of rice paper. To keep things light and healthy, the complete rolls are steamed, not fried, so it’s a great way to enjoy a fresh bite with all the individual flavours on display. Dunked in a bowl of soy or hoisin sauce, there’s no finer way to mark the start of another delicious Vietnamese feast.

9. Hu Tieu Nam Vang

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A meaty alternative to the classic pho bowl, hu tieu nam vang is a Vietnamese noodle dish with a broth made from a stock of pork bones and pork blood. Very popular in southern Vietnam, the dish uses traditional hu tieu noodles, which are almost always served with an accompanying broth, though dry versions are available. Hu tieu nam vang is usually topped with boiled liver, shrimp and a quail’s egg, with some restaurants and street vendors also adding things like green onions, sugar and pork blood chunks. For those looking for a serious adventure in food, this staple of southern Vietnam is a bold, flavoursome choice.

10. Che


While sweet dishes aren’t hugely popular in Vietnam, the country does have some notable desserts – many of which are designed to cleanse the palate and cool the diner. Che is a great example of this, a dish made from a sweet, cold soup, generously topped with coconut cream, crushed ice, jellied sweets and lotus seeds. This colourful dessert comes in all sorts of varieties, and locals tend to eat it in the humid summer months, much like we would a cooling ice cream here in the UK. If your Vietnamese meal deserves a refreshing finale, it’s this.

If you're feeling inspired, check out these recipes from food bloggers Kate Hackworthy and Michelle Minnaar on how to make your own Vietnamese recipes at home.

Has reading about Vietnam’s exceptional cuisine set your taste buds tingling? Join us for an unforgettable river cruise and tour in South East Asia, and enjoy sampling some of the country’s celebrated dishes as part of a guided street food tour and any one of our memorable on-board dining experiences. For more information and to book your place, visit the homepage or call us on 855 444 0161.