Plan a Culinary Trip to Vietnam
Vietnam is the ultimate country to plan a culinary trip. There are so many different options, no matter what your style of travel you can guarantee you’ll have a fantastic holiday.
We’ve all tried Vietnamese food at home but it will never compare to the real deal. There’s nothing better than sitting on a tiny plastic chair on a shady street corner with ‘xe ôm’ motorcycle taxis whizzing by, the sound of a foreign language in your ears, and a bowl of steaming hot pho for breakfast!
Vietnam is a surprisingly large country, and as you travel its length you’ll notice the cuisine adapting to the changing terrain and climate.
An itinerary based around these delicious meals is the perfect way to taste the real Vietnam. Plan a culinary trip to Vietnam today!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is your likely point of arrival, and as it is the most ‘western’ of Vietnamese cities it’s the perfect place to acclimatize to the weather, culture, and of course, the food. A couple of days is recommended unless you are keen on some of the attractions outside the city in which case you may want to book one or two more days.
HCMC is in the hot and humid southern region of Vietnam. Seafood, fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs are popular in many of the southern Vietnamese dishes.
One clever way of not only getting your bearings in a new city but also finding the best street food is to book yourself a food tour.
There are plenty of companies to choose from, but one with a real difference is XO Tours. Forget your hot and stuffy bus tour, with XO you’ll be riding on the back of a Vespa through the streets of Saigon in search of all the tasty morsels! It’s so much fun and the food is delicious. The adventurous can even try some of Vietnam’s more ‘exotic’ street food, like a barbecued frog or fetal duck egg (hột vịt lộn)!
For something a little bit tamer, but just as good, you could also hunt down a dish of HCMC’s specialty ‘cơm tấm’, or broken rice. Normally served with grilled pork, shredded pork skin, pickled vegetables and other greens, this is one dish you’re unlikely to find outside Saigon’s boundaries.
Hanoi is in the northern region of Vietnam where temperatures are much cooler than the southern and central regions. The food is not as spicy as in the south, with any heat typically created using pepper instead of chili. If you’re looking for the best phở in the country then you’ve come to the right place.
There are three things we recommend that you eat while in Hanoi: phở, cà phê trứng (egg coffee), and chả cá (catfish with turmeric and dill).
Surprisingly, Hanoi gets cool in winter, and phở is just one way the locals warm themselves up in the morning. Beef bone broth, rice noodles, beef slices, and herbs to garnish…these rich, hearty flavors are what travel memories are made of.
Chả cá is unique to Hanoi and consists of small pieces of catfish marinated in turmeric, then fried and mixed through with dill and spring onions. Add some vermicelli noodles, basil, fish sauce, and peanuts and you’ve got one very traditional and delicious Hanoian meal.
For dessert…actually, make that for whenever you feel like it! You must try Hanoi’s strange, yet sublime cà phê trứng (egg coffee). This combination of egg yolk, sweetened condensed milk, and coffee is such an oddity, and yet it works! You can use your spoon to scoop up the sweet meringue-like layer on top, and then drink the strong coffee at the bottom like normal. Sweet? Bitter? It’s a little bit of both!
Phong Nha Caving
In the heart of Vietnam, a two-hour drive from Dong Hoi in central Vietnam is the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
It may be a long way from civilization, but your reward is the opportunity to explore some of the largest and most impressive cave systems anywhere in the world. Oxalis Adventure Tours have years of experience and they offer some incredible hikes, ranging from one to five days in length.
Drop by Fork and Foot to read more about the incredible 2-day/1-night Tu Lan Cave Encounter that we experienced.
If you do decide to stay overnight in the Vietnamese wilderness you would be excused for thinking that the food might leave you wanting. On the contrary! Your tour guides will work miracles over the top of their campfire in producing a satisfying mix of traditional and western dishes for both dinner and breakfast. No doubt they will also offer you a swig of the traditional Vietnamese home brewed rice wine ‘rượu đế’. Give it a try, you won’t forget it anytime soon!
Hue lies roughly halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and is very close to the old border that existed between north and south during the Vietnam War.
What many don’t realize is that until 1945 Hue also used to be the Imperial City of Vietnam. As you can imagine, the royal family had some high expectations when it came to the quality and variety at their dinner table! As a result, Hue is considered by many to serve the most refined dishes in Vietnam.
One style of cuisine initiated by the emperors was like the modern-day degustation. Legend has it that these feasts could include up to 300 bite-sized delicacies for the emperor’s pleasure! Many of Hue’s restaurants offer an experience similar in spirit and flavor, with a banquet or set menu being a great way of tasting the flavors of the region. These would typically include:
- Bánh bèo – ‘Water fern cakes’ are delicately steamed rice cakes cupping a spoonful of savory shrimp and a little bit of fried pork crackle sprinkled on top.
- Bánh khoái – ‘Happy cakes’ are like a crispy crêpe filled with pork, egg, and shrimp. Guaranteed to put a smile on your face!
- Nem lụi – Marinated pork wrapped around a lemongrass stick, grilled, and then served with fresh greens in a rice paper roll. Barbecue at its best! Remember to ask your server how to prepare this dish, because there’s a neat little trick most westerners won’t have previously experienced (hint…you don’t eat the lemongrass!).
- Bánh cuốn thịt nướng – More sizzling barbecued pork, this time wrapped in rice paper with fresh herbs.
- Nem rán – The quintessential lightly fried spring roll.
While walking the streets of Hue, keep an eye out for a stall doing a good trade in ‘bún bò huế’. This is another iconic dish that many may try to copy, but it never tastes as good as when it comes from its hometown. Vermicelli noodles in a beef bone broth, slices of beef brisket, lemongrass, shrimp sauce, and chili oil, served with coriander, basil and other herbs on the side. While becoming a rarity now, a truly traditional bún bò huế will also include a few cubes of coagulated pig’s blood.
An imperial leader is nothing without his loyal subjects, and ‘cơm hến’ evolved among Hue’s working class. A cheap meal, but complex in flavors starting with a cold rice base, to which is added peanuts, crunchy pork crackle, chilies, star fruit, banana flower, and more. Over the top of this is poured a small measure of clam broth to wet the base of the rice and provide flavor to every mouthful. Simple, yet delicious, with a nice underlying chili punch!
A stroll down Hoi An’s UNESCO World Heritage listed streets and alleyways is like stepping back in time. The smells and sounds of the markets unchanged in centuries, and the food is just as good.
There’s magic in the ‘Cham’ well water in Hoi An, with locals claiming its purity and alkalinity make it the only water that can be used for its most famous dish, ‘cao lầu’.
While the garnishes and other ingredients may vary, the two consistent ingredients in a bowl of cao lầu are the noodles and the broth. Differing from most Vietnamese noodle dishes, the noodles used in cao lầu are much thicker, must be stone ground, and contain wood ash from the Cham islands off the nearby coast. And of course, the broth can only use the ancient well water found in Hoi An!
Mì quảng is another noodle based dish, with a broth typically based on the humble chicken rather than beef. Turmeric is used in making the noodles, turning them a beautiful golden yellow, while the garnish includes peanuts and, surprisingly, rice crackers.
Both dishes are common throughout Hoi An and are extremely good value, so keep your eyes peeled for the busiest street stalls and find yourself a table.
With sunshine, surf, and golden sands it isn’t hard to understand Nha Trang’s popularity. What is easily overlooked is the excellent food and authentic Vietnamese culture to be found only meters away from the bustling foreshore.
Lanterns Street Food Tour is a great way to ease into the local cuisine. Hopping from stall to stall, you not only get to try some delicious food but you can also hear the stories behind the local shop owners.
Bánh căn is very popular in central and southern Vietnam, and there are many vendors selling the delicious little cakes by the roadside. These rice pancakes with spring onion and egg, baked in tiny clay molds over hot coals are so simple, and yet utterly satisfying.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you might want to try a bowl of ‘bún chả cá’, or vermicelli noodles with fish and jellyfish. Sweet and savory, and light on the palate, this dish from Nha Trang is perfect on a hot day.
Your culinary trip to Vietnam
The cuisine of Vietnam is as diverse as its geography and to plan your holiday around its culinary options makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re a foodie.
Vietnam stretches a long way from north to south, and the options we’ve touched on can form the skeleton for an itinerary covering the major regions. Jump onto Inspirock and bookmark each location and you’ll have your holiday schedule sorted out in no time at all.
Of course, eating the amazing food isn’t the only thing you can do in Vietnam. Each of these locations has so many other attractions, from ancient ruins, to war history, to natural landmarks. Your dollar will also stretch that little bit further in such an affordable destination.
Whether it’s only a few days or a whole month, Vietnam has it all!
About Our Guest Blogger
Karen and Andrew are ‘Fork and Foot‘ and they LOVE food and travel! Giving up the corporate life they now travel the globe, opening up new holiday horizons to their readers through the cuisine, landscapes, and cultures of the world. Slow travel is their philosophy, taking the time to dig a little deeper and peel back the layers of a destination, sharing with their community through engaging stories, inspirational photography and an odd sense of humor. Tasting the world, one step at a time!