The 5 best things I ate in Vietnam

*Update, in response to disgruntled commenters: I was in Vietnam for a total of four days in Saigon and four days in Hanoi, way back in 2011. Therefore it — like all my posts in this series — is by NO means a definitive list of food to eat in Vietnam.

This is simply: I ate some food on a trip, it was delicious, here’s what it’s called. If you disagree, by all means, throw some suggestions into the comments! But I have little patience for unproductive negativity on this blog.

I loved Vietnam. Plain and simple. We won’t be having a long, fancy introduction today; let’s just say that on the great travelers’ debate of Vietnam is awesome vs. I’m never visiting again, I am firmly on the side of the former.

And food has a lot to do with it.

I mean, I even got fleeced out of a ridiculous amount of money by two wily cyclo drivers — and I still harbor no ill will towards the country, and can’t wait to one day return to explore more of its coastline and highlands.

Such is the power of Vietnamese food: a cuisine that’s fresh, light, and easily enjoyed on stools or with a bottle of Bia (or both).

Behold, the 5 best things I ate in Vietnam:

1. Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Ca phe sua da)

If Rumpelstiltskin ever came to me and asked for my firstborn child in return for the magical ability to make a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee appear whenever I want, I might actually take that deal. That’s how much I love ca phe sua da. I don’t know if it’s the Vietnamese drip, or the sweet condensed milk; but whatever it is, they’ve got me hooked. This is my crack.

2. Breakfast Pho

When I lived in Shanghai, a group of my friends would go out on these “pho-missions” to search for the best pho in the city, inevitably hitting up shops with names like “Pho Real” and “Pho Ever.” I never understood the craze — until I got to Vietnam. The bowls at Pho 24 in Saigon was amazing enough, but then we go to Hanoi — and I fell in love with pho for breakfast. For the equivalent of a dollar, we got to sit on toddler-sized stools and eat the freshest noodles in a delicately spicy clear broth, with accoutrements of lime, chili, cilantro, and mint. Don’t question me on this — pho for breakfast.

3. Bun Bo

Bun bo is a cold dish featuring rice vermicelli mixed with lettuce, herbs, beef and bean shoots, and sautéed with garlic. Crushed nuts, dried shallots, and thinly sliced pickled papaya and carrot go on top, and a sweet, warm sauce (fish sauce, perhaps) is added last. I’ve tried several variations of this in Paris, and while it’s easy enough to season the beef and mix the other toppings, I think the key is getting the vermicelli right. I love this dish so much, I never got a proper photo of it in Vietnam because I was too eager to dig in. However, mixed together, it looks like this:

4. Spring Rolls

I can’t tell you the difference between spring rolls and summer rolls and nem and banh cuon and all the other variations in Vietnamese cuisine. But I believe my favorites are the ones known as spring rolls, which are crispy and fried, and usually filled with light meats and vegetables like shrimp and wood ear mushrooms (shown in the foreground of the photo). Not that it’s a big deal — regardless of texture or season name, you can’t go wrong with a Vietnamese roll.

5. Seafood

Once again, I cannot tell you the names of what we ate (I’ll never make it in food writing. I’m like the anti-Bourdain). During a Vespa tour we took in Saigon, we rode up to this outdoor seafood restaurant and our guide ordered a few things from this lovely lady. Next thing you know we’re sitting pretty with chilli-rubbed crab, a spicy lemongrass and clam stew, and barbecued clams on the half-shell with peanuts and cilantro. I never would have expected it, but some of the best seafood I’ve ever had, has been in Vietnam.

What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?

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  1. When I had first heard that some of the best coffee I’d ever had was from a vietnamese place, I thought the guy who told me was crazy! I went to my nearest Pho place (also amazing) and was blown away! that coffee is so stinkin’ good! Just looking at the picture here makes me want more!

    • I agree — not enough people know about the joys of Vietnamese coffee! Going through all my photos for this post made me want to go back, just for the food!

  2. I wouldn’t even question pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    A segway tour in Paris and a vespa tour in Vietnam?! This is why I read your blog.

  3. I love your “Five Best Things I Ate” feature – such a great idea! And I’ve never really understood the pho craze either – so I guess now I know I just have to visit Vietnam to get it.

    • Thanks! And yeah, I think you really have to get it straight from the source, as it were, to really get the big deal about pho. But once you do, you’re hooked!

  4. jhlook says:

    Makes me hungry just reading this. Can’t wait to get to Asia in the fall.

  5. That. Bun. Bo. I want to grab it out of the picture and shove it down my gullet.

  6. It feels good to be in Vietnam! Tell me you tried snails?… LOL. We’ll make sure to drink extra cafe sua da for you. ;)

    • I haven’t tried snails in Vietnam, though I have in China and France. Personally I’m a fan :)

  7. I share your same love for crack, um, I mean Vietnamese iced coffee. When I left Thailand, I was trying to cut back on my caffiene intake, but when I tasted my first cup of joe in Vietnam, I threw that idea out the window. I also fell in love with Pho for breakfast and the cheap egg baguettes! I’m still getting around to posting about my Vietnamese adventures, so thanks for the inspiration! (And thanks for following!)

    • Thanks Jessica, can’t wait to read your take on Vietnam! More posts will be coming after I finish my Australia posts.

  8. Edna, I meant to reply to this post when you first wrote it but Vietnam was blocking the internet. I agree with you about the Vietnamese coffee and I know exactly where you took the bun bo nam bo picture. Bun bo nam bo was actually my last meal in Vietnam and ranks up on my top five list, too.

    • Bun bo has become my favorite Vietnamese dish, even more than pho — it’s now my litmus test for every Vietnamese joint I try in Paris, if they have good bun bo then I know it’s an authentic place!

  9. Being Vietnamese I have way too many favorites. But my go-to is usually Bun Bo Thit Nuong Cha Gio. It’s rice vermacelli with grilled pork and egg rolls. The egg rolls add that great crunchy texture that makes the meal complete for me. I recommend Mi Quang too.

    • Right, next time I go back to Vietnam I’m totally hitting you and Q up for a list of must-eats!

  10. thanks for this list – off to hanoi in April and was a bit worried of what i should eat in vietnam other than pho-soup! just jotted these down! thanks again!!!

  11. There are plenty more delicious food in Vietnam :) Wait till you go to Hanoi

    • Thanks James — though this isn’t about everything I ate in Vietnam, just the BEST things. In fact, quite a few of the above are from Hanoi!

  12. At the risk of being controversial…
    I didn’t rate the food in Vietnam (I spent three months there), but I still think that there many more foods that are much more special than some of the items listed here.
    What about the Bun Cha or Banh Bao Thit in Hanoi, or the huge spicy Won Tons in Hoi An?

    The problem in Vietnam is not so much the cuisine itself, but that many restaurants are very bad and you definitely need to be advised about which ones to visit.

    • Thanks for your comment — I only spent four days in Saigon and four in Hanoi/Halong Bay so there were only so many meals I could eat in that time. I never say these dishes are the best in the city — they’re simply the best that *I* ate during my trip.

  13. Al Co Holic says:

    Hmmmm…hardly adventurous eating…spring rolls…a ridiculously sweetened coffee and chicken noodle soup? Really? There isn’t one dish in your top 5 that you couldnt buy in your local neighbourhood back home. I was expecting some wild elaborate dishes that would have my taste buds soaring to new heights if I ever tried it….but…sadly..I find very few delicious things to eat here in Vietnam….and I lived here for a few years! Most of it is average at best! If these 5 things entice you back to Vietnam then you must be eating some pretty bland stuff on your travels! The best food in SE Asia…you have to be joking! People…It seems Edna hasn’t really delved into some of the few treasures that one can find on the food side of things here…please…be a little more adventurous! How does she make a living doing this and recommending that? I could list a page of interesting dishes that not many would know about but that would spoil the fun of you finding this out for yourself! Oh and people…the Pho you get in most places is a dollop of noodles with hot water…a few spring onions and you are given two different bottles of table sauce to give it flavour!! Now if thats your national dish…what you think most of the other stuff will be like? Great scenery…food?…Ill pass!

    • Hi “Al” — as I wrote in the comment *directly* above yours, I was in Vietnam for a very short trip, five years ago. If you want to discover new treasures, go to a LOCAL’s blog. I’m known as a Paris blogger, NOT a Saigon blogger.

      I never say my suggestions are THE things to eat in the city. They’re simply a recap of my trip to a place. If you’re going to troll a one-week vacation I had five years ago, I feel sorry that you don’t have anything better to do with your time.

      I stand by my choices — and I think you’ll find the majority of people think Vietnamese pho and coffee are the bomb. If you haven’t found delicious things to eat after “a few years” in Vietnam, I’m pretty sure the problem lies on your side of the keyboard, not mine.