Anyone else noticing a wave of Vietnamese eateries popping up across our capital cities? It seems hungry folk can’t get enough of that zingy, herbaceous hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine. But for all the classic haunts and modern Oz takes on this much-loved fare, it doesn’t get much better than straight from the source. Next time you’re in the serpent-shaped country, you’ll be able to distinguish your pho from faux with our must-eat guide to Vietnam.
Pho-st things first. Pho is pronounced ‘fuh’ (or fur), not ‘fo’ or ‘poh’. Mmmkay? This noodle soup originated in Hanoi around the 1800s and is said to have been influenced by the classic French stew, pot-au-feu, but pho is at its most flavourful down south in Ho Chi Minh City.
Expect nothing less than silken rice noodles in a clear, flavour-packed beef broth cooked for 24 hours (at most) and topped with sliced beef (or chicken) and a range of fragrant accoutrements, including herbs, pickled onion, lime and chilli. Pho is bone broth at its best before ‘bone broth’ was even a thing.
You’ll find bowls for a couple of dollars (at most) at street stalls – just follow the locals. But, if you really don’t want to balance on those tiny plastic stools at a dingy street side stall, head to Pho 2000 next to the Ben Thanh Markets. This humble restaurant has a huge local following too.
1 – 3, Phan Chu Trinh, Phuong Ben Thanh, Quan 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Banh Mi Thit
The ubiquitous banh mi thit needs no introduction. This famous sandwich has swept the world and is loved for its filling of rich barbecue pork and crisp pickled veggies. Then there’s that crusty baguette. Hungry yet? There are no shortage of banh mi thit vendors, from street-side carts to modern chains.
Hanoi: Banh Mi 25, 25 Hang Ca, Hang Dao, Hoan Kiem
Hoi An: Banh Mi Phuong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh; Madam Khanh, 115 Tran Cao Van
Ho Ch Minh City: Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng
A true street-side dish cooked up on a cast iron pan, bot chien is made up of fried rice flour cakes with scrambled eggs and spring onion. It’s topped off with a zingy papaya salad and a sweet vinegar and soy dressing for a true on-the-go snack. You’ll mostly find stands popping up at night around Ho Chi Minh City, but if you’re lucky, you’ll find one during the day too.
Vietnam’s answer to the crepe is banh xeo, a savoury coconut milk-based pancake filled with bean sprouts, mung beans, prawn and pork. The mark of a good banh xeo is its earth-shatteringly crispy exterior. The method: wrap in lettuce leaves and herbs, dunk in nuoc mam cham (a fish-sauce based condiment), eat, smile and go back for seconds.
Bale Well in Hoi An specialises in one thing: a smorgasbord of grilled meats, spring rolls and banh xeo served with a range of toppings to wrap up in a rice paper roll. The owner is an exuberant lady who will even show you the best way to wrap it all up – and feed you!
45/11 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoi An
The banh family is a big one, ranging from the popular banh mi thit to the silky soft banh cuon. Ladles of rice noodle batter are poured onto a steamer to create a paper thin crepe-like noodle. This soft noodle is wrapped with pork mince and mushrooms and served with a sprinkling of coriander, fried onions and drizzling of nuoc mam cham. So simple, so delicious.
Banh Cuon Gia Tuyen, 140 Pho Hang Ga, Old Quarter, Hanoi
While you’ll still find bun cha down south, this dish is one of Hanoi’s most iconic. This lunch and dinnertime treat is yet another flavour bomb of salty, sweet and sour elements. Your base is a mound of rice vermicelli noodles (bun) which is served with grilled pork patties and slices of pork belly in a nuoc mam-based soups and a heaping of fresh herbs, capped off with a side of nem (spring rolls).
Dac Kim Bun Cha is an institution. Because travellers have caught wind of this eatery, you can expect to pay around 90,000 dong ($5) for a bun cha serve, which is considerably more ‘expensive’ than you’ll find it elsewhere. Just don’t get confused with their brazen neighbours with the same name who are attempting to piggyback off their success!
Dac Kim, 1 Hang Manh, Hang Gai, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Ca Phe Sua Da
I’m no coffee drinker but I can’t get enough of traditional Vietnamese coffee, ca phe sua da. Even those who don’t take sugar with their morning cup will love this heady concoction of roasted beans, condensed milk and ice. If you’re wary of drinking ice from the street, you can still enjoy this sweet treat hot.
Much like pho and banh mi, there is no shortage of places that serve ca phe sua da. But, for something different, Cong Caphe, a kitschy coffee chain littered across both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, serve it frappe-style with coconut milk!
Hanoi: 32 Dien Bien Phu
Ho Chi Minh City: 26 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Nghe