Vietnam will bring proper foodies to their knees. Taste explosions culminate on every corner of Saigon, the country’s old imperial capital. The fresh ingredients, friendly, family like atmosphere and flavor combinations will leave you drooling.
Vietnam has one of the most intercultural diverse food scenes in the world, with dishes varying drastically between regions. In Saigon, you’re able to find foods from all over the country – the north, the south and the Mekong Delta – all in one city.
Food is a huge part of Vietnamese culture, with street side food stalls serving up steaming hot plates of food at all hours. Businessmen sit on tiny plastic stools scarfing down their favorite soups at lunch hour next to tourists in elephant pants taking selfies with their pho.
Eating is an intense experience in Vietnam, with the swirling noise, huge families enjoying meals with their children and sitting on the edge of whizzing traffic while you slurp your soup. It’s about more than the unfamiliar flavors sparkling on your tongue; it is about a deeper look into the culture and the endless wonderment it provides.
The most popular dish in Vietnam for tourists to try is pho but there are so many more dishes worth your while. Check out the list below for some other things to try while you’re in Saigon.
Bahn Mi (pronounced “ban me”) is undoubtedly Vietnam’s most famous sandwich. It’s served on a single serving French baguette, which was introduced to the country during the Colonial period, and is thinner, airier and lighter than its western counterpart. The sandwich affords its flavors to a multitude of fillings including pork belly, pork floss, grilled chicken, canned sardines and soft pork meatballs cooked in tangy tomato sauce.
Accoutrements consist of fresh cucumbers, cilantro, pickled carrots and shredded daikon (a bland yet refreshing, crunchy when raw root vegetable). Condiments include fresh chilis, chili sauce and mayo. The result is a fantastically crunchy and refreshing flavor bomb guaranteed to delight your taste buds. Pick the nearest Banh Mi stand on the street and try one for yourself.
Pho (pronounced like “fa”) is served around the world in some form or another and is easily Vietnam’s most recognized dish, and for good reason. It is simple and delicious. Pho is a traditional noodle soup made with thick rice noodles, fresh herbs and your choice of chicken or beef. You can also find hard boiled quail eggs to add from time to time.
It comes with a basket of fresh herbs on the side consisting of mustard greens, shallots, coriander leaves and more. You can dress up the dish with fish sauce, fresh lime juice or chili paste, or enjoy it as is. The sweetness of broth, thickness of noodles and choice of meats and herbs vary from shop to shop but you can pretty much guarantee it will be delicious no matter where you get it.
A warming comfort food, bot chien (pronounced like “bo chee yen”) is also a hearty option for vegetarians. Bot chien rice cakes are just rice flour and tapioca starch combined and then cut into cubes. While the thought of “fried rice cake cubes” doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, the finished product is a delight.
The rice cakes are thick, sticky and starchy and then fried in lots and lots of oil, to create a golden brown crust that’s crispy on the outside and smooth and creamy on the inside. Most places will toss in a fried egg or two, top with green onions and serve. Occasionally bot chien will also be topped with a pile of green papaya, offering a refreshing contrast to the rest of this fulfilling snack.
Che chuoi (pronounced like “chee choy”) is a sweet and warming dessert concoction of bananas, coconut and tapioca pearls. The tapioca pearls are cooked to perfection in water and coconut milk and spilled over sugary and salted bananas and topped with crunchy roasted peanuts and sesame seeds.
The result is a party for your taste buds. The crunchy bite of crushed peanuts adds a nice contrast to the softened tapioca pearls and cuts the sweetness of bananas with a sprinkling of salt. Encase everything in smooth, creamy coconut milk and you have a fabulously delicious sweet treat.
Banh xeo (pronounced “ban tzow”) is a savory pancake made with rice flour, water and turmeric powder and fried in lard to perfection on a sizzling skillet. The pancakes are then stuffed with pork belly, shrimp, green onions and bean sprouts. Depending on the region you’re in, the pancakes may be served with a smattering of fresh herbs including mustard leaves, coriander and basil.
You can then pick up the pancakes with your hands and dip them in any combination of fish sauce, chili paste, fermented soy bean sauce and top with more fresh herbs and toasted peanuts. Wrapping the pancakes in mustard leaf, lettuce leaf or rice paper is another great way to enjoy ban xeo.
No visit to Vietnam is complete without treating your taste buds to the fabulous concoction that is Vietnamese iced coffee. It can be found on every corner, for pennies, and is an experience in and of itself.
The typical iced coffee includes coarsely ground dark roast coffee beans grown in Vietnam. It’s brewed with a small French style drip filter and then poured over ice; to which sweetened condensed milk is added. The finished product is dark and syrupy, similar almost to molasses and sickly sweet. It is a sinfully delicious caffeine boost and the perfect cool treat for those hot days in Saigon.
Saigon is an interesting place for a lot of reasons. There are many different branches of the local culture to explore while you’re there, including trendy cafes, a buzzing nightlife, traditional temples and beautiful urban scenery.
But if you really want to connect with the locals, go to a street food stall with a hungry belly. Pull up a tiny plastic stool at the edge of traffic and chat with the grandma making your lunch. You might will definitely encounter some language barriers (she probably doesn’t know a lick of English) but smiles and laughter are the same in any language.
You will manage to learn more about the culture by becoming part of it than you ever will at a museum. And the easiest (and most delicious) way to do that is through food.