In the past few years, Vietnamese food has gained steadily in popularity across the globe. Renowned for its healthy ingredients, flavorful dishes and beautiful presentation, as well as the prevalence of delicious noodles, Vietnamese food is highly craveable, fresh and unique. Food lovers might have tried the two best-known Vietnamese dishes (spring rolls and bread rolls), but rice, noodles, fresh vegetables and herbs all play big roles in Vietnamese food as well. In Vietnam, you’ll discover one unmistakable fact: Vietnamese people love noodles. They eat them every day and often with every meal. Vietnamese noodles come in several varieties, including rice, wheat, mung beans and more.
If you’ve watched even a few cooking shows, you’ve probably heard the word “umami” thrown around by chefs and foodies. It’s considered the fifth basic taste—alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter—and it’s essentially a savory flavor that adds depth and richness to a dish. In Vietnamese food, fish sauce is the foundation for achieving an umami flavor that leaves you wanting more, and this flavor appears in stir-fry, soup broths, dipping sauces and more. Raw fresh herbs, such as cilantro or Thai basil, or spicy chilies often punctuate it. This, as well as other basic components of Vietnamese cooking, make for surprising flavors that distinguish Vietnam from other Asian culinary cultures.
The Dining Experience in Vietnam
Vietnamese breakfast options are as diverse as you can imagine. Some of the most well known are the highly popular phở (noodle soup); baguettes stuffed with pate, barbecue pork and veggies; rice congee with minced pork; bánh cuốn (rice crepes) and xôi (sticky rice). Contrary to the Western breakfast, a Vietnamese option involves more salt than sugar. Lunch is served from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m., and it’s typically quick and nourishing. Expect a main dish—fish, beef, pork, chicken or tofu—served with side vegetables and steamed rice.
Dinner is the main meal of the day in Vietnam. The offering usually includes one or two main dishes, such as fried fish, steamed chicken or stewed pork; one side of boiled or stir-fried vegetables and one bowl of soup broth. Steamed rice is a given for most meals.
As in many Asian countries, people tend to eat family style here. Each diner gets a plate or bowl with rice and then shares the bowls of food set in the middle of table with everyone else. A typical Vietnamese meal includes rice, a meat or seafood dish, a vegetable dish, soup and fish sauce for dipping.
At fine Vietnamese restaurants, each place setting is likely to include a salad plate with a rice bowl centered on top. To the right will be a perfectly aligned set of matching chopsticks and a soup spoon. The plate is to catch unwanted bits of food (bones, skin and the like). Ideally, none of this will touch the table surface or the floor. At casual eateries, you’ll receive a rice bowl and chopsticks, and don’t be surprised to see food trash put directly on the table or dropped onto the floor. Someone comes along to clean this up later.
Backroads Pro Tip
At Western dinner tables, it’s considered bad manners to eat with your hands or to place your elbows on the table. In Vietnam, though, you’ll frequently need to eat with both hands, including when wrapping up food in bánh tráng (rice paper) or lettuce. It’s not bad form here, so dig in!
Typical Vietnamese Dishes
No matter where you are in Vietnam, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Vietnamese delicacies:
● Bánh Mì Thịt
Essentially the Vietnamese equivalent of a submarine sandwich, the casual dish consists of a Vietnamese baguette stuffed with any of a wide variety of fillings, including ham, cheese, canned sardines, Vietnamese bologna or pickled carrot.
● Bò Kho
This comforting, rich stew of beef and vegetables is usually accompanied by baguettes.
This pudding made from sticky rice and beans is offered for dessert.
● Nem Nướng Xa
These savory, grilled meats are served on lemongrass skewers.
● Goi Cuốn
These famous Vietnamese summer rolls are made with shrimp or pork (sometimes both), as well as fresh herbs. They’re rolled up in rice paper and served cold with a peanut or chili dipping sauce.
This warm, fragrant, herbaceous Vietnamese noodle soup is usually served with beef (phở bò) or chicken (phở gà). The soup includes rice noodles and is often served with Vietnamese basil, mint leaves, lime and bean sprouts, all of which are added to the soup by the diner.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Northern, Central and Southern Vietnam all have distinct regional foods. Neighboring China is highly influential on Northern Vietnamese cuisine, and stir-fry, noodle-based soups and the regular use of soy sauce are all prominent in this region. This part of the country is also cooler and less hospitable for agricultural cultivation, meaning ingredients like chilies are harder to find. Black pepper is used instead. Compared to other regions further south, flavors here are more harmonious and less bold. Phở and bún chả are regional dishes here.
In Central Vietnam, flavor explosions are much more common in each meal. Abundant spices and fresh herbs grown in this region make their way into each dish, and the resulting food is spicy, flavorful and complex. Some of Central Vietnam’s signature dishes include bún bò huế (soup containing rice vermicelli and beef), mì quảng (a noodle dish, sometimes served as a salad, with an assortment of vegetables), cao lầu (another noodle dish with pork and local greens) and bánh khoai (cake made from cassava, sugar, salt and coconut milk).
Flavor explosions continue as you travel south. Here, however, there’s much more international influence. The French brought the baguette, and Thai and Cambodian neighbors encouraged sweeter foods, including the use of coconut milk. Due to the consistently warm weather, Thai and Cambodian influence also brought culinary techniques for nourishing but cooling dishes. Bánh mì ốp la is a regional dish here. This fusion dish blends Western and traditional Vietnamese ingredients and methods of preparation. It’s made on a frying pan with eggs cooked sunny-side up. The filling is often supplemented by slices of cucumber, caramelized onions and peppers, all of which are spread on a nice crusty baguette. Gỏi cuốn (summer rolls) are also prevalent. Fresh, healthy and traditional, these are full of veggies, lean meat, shrimp and vermicelli noodles wrapped in thin, translucent rice paper. Served with a hoisin and peanut dipping sauce, this dish is both light and tasty.
Backroads Pro Tip
Vietnamese people are naturally quiet and polite, so raising your voice or speaking boisterously when dining might be seen as off-putting. Remember, a warm smile is the best way to start an interaction. Use it often!
Vietnamese Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
Here are a few words and phrases to help you recognize the different types of food you might encounter:
● Appetizers: Khai Vị
● Dumpling, Roll: Bánh
● Soup: Canh, Súp or Cháo
● Salad: Gỏi
● Chinese-Style Egg Noodles: Mì
● Vermicelli (Rice Noodles): Bún
● Main Dish: Món Ăn Chính
● Side Dish: Món Phụ
● Meat (Pork, Beef, Chicken or the Like): Thịt
● Grilled Meatballs: Nem Nướng
● Cured Sausages: Nem Chua
● Rice, Rice Plates: Cơm
● Vegetables and Herbs: Rau
● Dessert Soup, Pudding or Iced Sweet Drinks: Chè
● Beverages: Giải Khác
● Desserts: Tráng Miệng or Bánh Ngọt
Words to Know When Dining Out
● Hello: Xin chào
● Good-bye: Tạm biệt
● Nothing too spicy, please.: Lam on moi thu khong qua cay.
● I’m vegetarian.: Toi an chay.
● Hot (spicy): Cay
● How much?: Bao nhieu?
● Beer: Bia
● Yes: Vang (Northern Vietnam); Da (Southern Vietnam)
● No: Khong
● Thank you: Cám ơn
● I’m sorry.: Xin lỗi.
● Can you help me?: Ban co the giup toi duoc khong?
● No problem; You’re welcome.: Khong co gi
● Do you speak English?: Ban co noi duoc tieng Anh khong?
● Where’s the toilet?: Nha ve sinh o dau?
Tipping isn’t customary among locals in Vietnam, but the practice is highly appreciated when visitors do it. Especially in tourist centers, it’s increasingly common for high-end services to include service fees in their final bills. This ranges from 5 percent to 15 percent. Unfortunately, this money doesn’t always find its way to the service staff. Therefore, directly tipping someone who provides excellent service that exceeds your expectations is recommended
Here are a few tips and pointers when it comes to Vietnamese dining etiquette:
· When you’re not using your chopsticks, rest them across your rice bowl instead of sticking them into your food. Buddhism heavily influences Vietnamese culture, and chopsticks standing up in rice looks too similar to incense burned in Buddhist ceremonies.
· Feel free to hold your rice bowl up to your mouth.
· Avoid eating directly from shared dishes. Instead, move a small amount of food to your rice bowl before you eat it.
· Don’t be afraid to ask for a fork and spoon if your chopstick skills are lacking.
· Take your time. Dining in Vietnam is a slower process than in most Western countries, so don’t feel the need to rush.
· Eat your vegetables. Meat’s expensive, and only eating meat from a dish is considered impolite.
· Try to at least sample every dish on the table, and always make sure to use both hands when passing any dish.
· In Vietnamese restaurants, it’s considered rude of the staff to bring you your bill. In most restaurants, you’ll need to go to the front to ask how much you owe.