The food scene in Vietnam is all about the masters of one - restaurants named after one dish, serving one dish. You’ll find places with “Bun Cha,” “Pho,” or “Bun Bo Nam Bo” in their name, and the only options you have are whether your Bun Cha comes with or without spring rolls, whether your Pho has rare or well done beef, whether you want Bun Bo Nam Bo or nothing. The only way for these people to stay in business is to make their one dish really well, so you can feel confident that you’re going to get an excellent meal.
The biggest benefit to this style of eatery is that it’s really easy to rub shoulders with locals while you’re eating lunch. In many places, it’s a bit intimidating to go to a local restaurant since the menu is in another language and you don’t know what will be good. In Vietnam, and especially in Hanoi, you can mostly sit down and say “I want one please”, and before you know it, you’ll have a steaming bowl of noodles set down in front of you. It’s pretty magical.
Just be prepared to eat a lot of noodles, especially in the North.
You have Bun Cha, or bbq pork noodles, Pho, a classic beef (or chicken) noodle soup, Bun Rieu, a noodle soup with crab, Bun Bo Hue, a lemongrass flavoured beef noodle soup, Bun Bo Nam Bo, a bowl of noodles with beef and fish sauce, Bun Thit Nuong, a bowl of noodles with bbq pork with fish sauce, Bun Oc, a noodle soup with snails… the list goes on. They’re all delicious, but you might find yourself craving some vegetables along the way. Our solution? Add more herbs to your noodles. The Vietnamese have an enormous variety of herbs that you may not have tried at home - from the cumin-y tasting rice paddy herb to Vietnamese mint or rau ram, you can customize your bowl with greens that add a lot of punch.
If you’re travelling Vietnam with food in mind, here’s our breakdown of our experiences in all the ‘H’ destinations: Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh. For specific recommendations, see our map of Vietnam.
- Hanoi’s old quarter is food heaven, especially for the celiacs out there. It’s one of the few spots on the tourist trail where it’s really easy to get tasty local food from run down shops and be confident that you’re going to get clean, fresh, delicious food. This was our number one stop in Vietnam. Some people get turned off by the traffic and the constant sound of honking horns, but as long as you cross the street at a consistent pace and don’t surprise anyone by stopping in the middle you should be fine. Make sure you hunt down some Bun Cha, Bun Bo Nam Bo and Banh Xeo while you’re here!
- Hue filled our dreams with steaming bowls of Bun Bo Hue, Jannell’s favourite bowl of noodles at our local Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal, but the birthplace of these noods failed to blow us away. It seems like a lot of the shops here don’t simmer the broth for as long as we’d like and we only found a deep, satisfying, rich broth at one shop. Even that bowl didn’t live up to our expectations though and we determined (surprisingly!) that Pho Cali in Montreal serves up the best bowl we’ve had so far. The Bun Thit Nuong here also fell a little short, with most people serving the bbq’d pork shoulder on noodles with a sweet peanut sauce rather than a savoury fish sauce. If all you’re interested in is Hue’s food, you may be better off visiting one of the branches of Mon Hue in Hanoi - you can save yourself some travel time and not miss out on all of the Banh’s that Hue’s Imperial Cuisine is known for.
- Hoi An’s old town has been “cleaned up” - which means that all of the street food has been removed and pushed to the outskirts. Instead, you’ll find a lot of places with giant menus where you can get overpriced Vietnamese classics in a polished setting. Two places stood out for us among all the others: Mai Fish, which gave us one of the best meals we had in Vietnam, and Nu Eatery, a great example of fusion food done right.
- Ho Chi Minh seems like it has some incredible food, but it’s not available in as central a location as in Hanoi. Expect to take long cab rides through traffic as you navigate this bustling city chasing down recommendations. We ended up only spending a couple days there, so the section on Ho Chi Minh on our map is filled by our research and second hand recommendations rather than our own experiences. Top reasons to come to Ho Chi Minh include Com Tam, or broken rice, which is often served with BBQ pork and fish sauce, Bun Thit Nuong, BBQ pork on noodles with fish sauce, as well as Pho. There’s a great debate raging in Vietnam over the merits of Northern Pho versus Southern Pho, but we’re firmly in the Southern Pho camp. It’s more flavourful, it’s served in cleaner settings and you get the most satisfying stack of herbs alongside it.
All in all, if all you’re looking for is great food, you can’t go wrong with Hanoi. We spent a total of just over a week there, and we could have spent much longer without getting sick of the food. It’s accessible, affordable and delicious.
- Just about any vendor selling one bowl of noodles (All of Vietnam but especially Hanoi) - As explained above, these shops (almost) never fail to impress
- Bun Cha in Hanoi (Hanoi) - You can’t leave Hanoi without experiencing Bun Cha, a dish that is inexplicably lacking in North American Vietnamese restaurants.
- Highway4 (Hanoi) - Great place for a sit down family style meal with friends. Make sure you get their catfish spring rolls, we ended up going back just for another round of these.
- Mai Fish (Hoi An) - Standouts in this restaurant include the seafood salad and the red snapper. This is a shining example of how to elevate traditional food without losing the soul.
- Bun Bo Nam Bo (Hanoi) - Similar to Bun Thit Nuong except using sautéed beef instead of bbq’d pork, this bowl of noodles is a great way to add some variety to your diet in Hanoi: instead of noodle soup, you get fish sauced noodles!
- Fried goodies (Hanoi) - This little restaurant in Hanoi serves all things fried. Their spring rolls are super tasty, but the standouts are their sweet and savoury mochi doughnuts. They’re crispy, chewy and delicious.
- Pho (Ho Chi Minh) - Pho might have been born in the North but we’ll take the Southern version any day. Maybe it’s because we’re used to the Pho in North America, but the broth in Ho Chi Minh seemed to have a lot more depth and flavour.
- Egg coffee (Hanoi) - We’re not sure if this is a drink or a dessert, but either way it’s amazing. A cup of strong Vietnamese coffee topped with an egg custard that you can either eat with a spoon or stir into the coffee. Surprisingly good, even if you (like Reid) think that sounds terrible.
- Hanoi Food Tour - This food tour was one of the most affordable we’ve come across and it enabled us to sample a bunch of Hanoi’s most famous dishes very quickly. Well worth the price.
- Hanoi Cooking Centre - This might be the best commercialized cooking class we’ve taken. The instruction is very good, and they give you a lot of choice in what you cook without losing cohesion in the menu. For a full review, click here.
- Taste of Hoi An Food Tour - Neville is a great host and the food tour is a really good educational experience. The first half is a walking tour led by a charming Vietnamese woman, while the second half is hosted by Neville in his home as you taste a myriad of little bites with Neville talking away as you go. He is incredibly verbose but there’s a lot of interesting information that gets passed along as you go.
- Visiting a tailor in Hoi An - We didn’t realize how exciting this would be until we walked into a tailor to get a pair of pants re-hemmed. Prices are super reasonable, you can pull photos off the internet and they will copy it to your size, and it all gets done within 24 or 36 hours. Give it a try when you’re in Hoi An.
- Migrationology for Saigon - The guy behind Migrationology, Mark Wiens, is the most enthusiastic eater we’ve ever seen. He’s so smiley in all his videos and we love watching his eyes go googly when he takes a bite of something new. His enthusiasm is really contagious and he makes you want to love big cities despite the congestion.
- Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table by Graham Holliday - If you’re coming to Vietnam to eat, please read this book first. You’ll be salivating in anticipation of your arrival.