Vietnam has surged in popularity among travelers over the past decade or so thanks in no small part to its delectable, ever-affordable cuisine. Diverse by virtually every metric, Vietnamese food frequently appears in the form of delicious sandwiches, rich soups, barbecued meat, all manner of seafood, and noodles, noodles, noodles, and each dish can vary greatly from region to region.
Below we’ll explore not only Vietnam’s must-have dishes, but the specific region, city, and restaurant where travelers can try each one. It isn’t required to get a particular food in its suggested location—a bánh mì, for example, will be great country-wide—but they do tend to be offered in their most representative form at the recommended region. In other words, eat the food wherever, whenever. (But if you’re looking for specifics, we’ve got you covered.)
1. Bánh mì
- Where to try it: Ho Chi Minh City
Arguably Vietnam’s most famed food, bánh mì is—in this author’s humble opinion—the greatest sandwich ever invented, appropriating the bread from Vietnam’s French colonizers then upping the ante with flavorful slices of meat (usually pork or chicken), a smear of pâté, fresh herbs, pickles, and sauces like mayo, soy, hoisin, or chile. Bánh mì is served throughout the country, and it’s easy to spot because it’s typically sold out of a roadside stall loaded with bread rolls. (Good bread, according to one restauranteur, is “all about crispiness on the outside and airiness on the inside.”)
Ho Chi Minh City is often cited as the bánh mì capital, and here they tend to lean into plenty of high-quality charcuterie, scrambled eggs, and veggies as opposed to some of the more minimalist varieties sold further north. The best bánh mì is the one that’s closest at hand—there are stalls all over the place and it’s hard to go wrong—but Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa in the city’s Ben Thanh market area is a particularly popular provider.
- Where to try it: Hanoi
In the words of Vietnamese chef and food writer Alex Tran, “If you want to make Vietnamese fight each other, ask them which pho is the best.” A strong contender for the distinction as Vietnam’s most well-known dish, pho’s brothy, noodly, often meaty goodness is offered more or less ubiquitously throughout any city or town in the country. It originated in the northern region, however, so seek it out in Hanoi. Here the pho is somewhat different from what most foreigners have experienced at their local Vietnamese spot. The broth tends to be lighter and specifically beef-based unlike the thicker broth of the south where they often incorporate chicken stock.
Up north they also use little to no bean sprouts and fewer fresh herbs, and usually choose to stir in chile sauce rather than the hoisin preferred to the south. There are plenty of amazing places to try pho no matter which city you’re in, but if you’re aiming to slurp the real OG variety, check out Pho Gia Truyen on the edge of Hanoi’s downtown market district.
3. Banh xèo
- Where to try it: Hoi An
At first glance, the concept of a rice pancake might sound strange, but this deep-fried crispiness is in fact incredible. With said pancake at its core, banh xèo then stacks on grilled meat, fresh herbs, and rice-papered spring rolls, in addition to a regionally appropriate sauce. Banh xèo is found all over the country, but it’s typically associated with the central region. There’s great banh xèo in Da Nang, but go a little further south—about 40 minutes by bus or motorbike—to the aesthetically stunning town of Hoi An, and look for a back alley place called Bale Well Restaurant. Not only is the banh xèo excellent, but the outdoor, plant-decorated restaurant itself also has a great vibe.
4. Bún bò Huế
- Where to try it: Huế
Bún bò nam bò is an extremely popular noodle dish; the name translates to “noodles with beef from the south.” Ironically, the place it’s frequently found is way up north in Hanoi. There’s a specific variety made in the ancient city of Huế, known as bún bò Huế. The noodle soup fuses spicy, savory, and umami flavors, and it’s typically made with sliced beef (hence the word “bò”), though in Huế it’s often seen with pork knuckles.
Drive into Huế and there will be dozens upon dozens of restaurants and roadside stalls advertising the dish, but often these are rather subpar as they’re catering to people they know are just passing through. Head further into Huế itself and go to Phở Hoàng-Bún Bò Huế near the imperial palace to experience the full breadth of bún bò Huế flavors.
5. Bún chả
- Where to try it: Hanoi
Among the most common dishes served à la street cart, bún chả combines noodles and fatty grilled pork to make rich, brothy, chewy perfection. While bún chả is common across the country, it’s associated with the north and Hanoi in particular. Check out Bún Chả 34 located in the upper Ba Dinh district right between the popular Tây Hồ district and Old Quarter, which is known for having particularly rich broth. Diners are given a plate of noodles, another of grilled pork, and bowls of broth and herbs—add them all in the broth according to your tastes. Start low on the red peppers; they’re not insanely hot, but it’s best to turn up the heat slowly.
6. Cá lóc nướng trui
- Where to try it: Can Tho
Vietnamese seafood restaurants tend to offer a uniquely lively atmosphere replete with colorful lights, tanks and pools full of live sea critters, and enthusiastic locals enjoying light Vietnamese lagers served warm then poured over large cubes of ice. Typically there’s a card listing the seafood they have to offer; sometimes spots in the Mekong Delta offer cá lóc nướng trui, or grilled snakehead fish—go for it. Enhanced by cucumbers, basil, and other spices and sweetened with bananas and mangos, it’s a delicious centerpiece to a seafood spread. A vibrant spot in Can Tho right near the river is Cá Lóc Quay Hiệp Thành. A night there will feature loud toasts proclaimed by residents. Enjoy.