Oh hello, beautiful. (Photo: Annie Daly)
I will be the first person to tell you that I am not a foodie. I grew up in New England, where the majority of our dinners were either homemade meat-and-veg basics (chicken with broccoli, steak with potatoes, steak with broccoli…you get the idea), or ordered through a drive-through window. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved my gooey meximelts from Taco Bell, and my Wendy’s baked potatoes with that mountain of jailsuit-orange fake cheese. I did. But they didn’t exactly bless me with “sophisticated” tastebuds.
Fast forward to now. I’ve lived in New York City for the past eight years, and consequently have been to my fair share of “fancy” restaurants. (Sidenote: You know you’re not a foodie when you still call any restaurant that doesn’t serve you food through a window “fancy.”) But while I’ve certainly developed a more refined palette through the years, in that I know what foie gras is and my heart actually starts pumping a little bit when someone mentions the words “pork belly,” I’m still not a foodie in any way—except for when I travel.
Put me in a room in New York City with a bunch of fancy food people who are debating the merits of different types of crostini, and I’d likely be the girl who says they all taste good to me and can’t we all just get a plate. But put me on the road in a new city in a new country, and it’s a whole different story. The food isn’t just about the food anymore, it’s about the local culture—and eating it is like tasting a place’s essence. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise to you that I went absolutely crazy on food on a recent trip to Vietnam. Just nuts. The food was so good, I devoted entire days to eating my way through its various cities and rural areas. And so, here is my definitive guide to my favorite food in Vietnam.
It would be remiss to begin an article about Vietnamese food without mentioning pho first. A basic primer: It’s a rice noodle soup that has various other stuff in the bowl, namely meat (chicken or beef), and some herbs. Known mostly as a street food, pho is highly regarded as one of the ultimate Vietnamese dishes—and, therefore, finding the best one becomes Very Important.
My everything. (Photo: Annie Daly)
I found mine in a random little alleyway in Ho Chi Minh City. It was everything I hoped for: soft, slippery noodles, super flavorful broth, and just the right amount of spice. But the best part wasn’t even the taste; it was the atmosphere in which I consumed it.
I was by myself when I found the pho, so I was extra cautious about assessing the food-safety situation before I dug in. A Vietnamese chef had told me that the key to determining if a street food is safe to eat is to watch the truck/stand for ten minutes. If it seems to be popular with the locals during that time, then you’re good to go—but if it’s desolate, it’s best to go elsewhere. The stall I found was filled with locals, so I figured I was good. And eating my pho in the most authentic of pho situations made it, without a doubt, the best pho I have ever had in my entire life. (And yes, even as a non-foodie, I’ve had my fair share of pho!)
Popular with the locals? Check! (Photo: Annie Daly)
2. Banh Mi
Another popular Vietnamese dish is banh mi. The term itself means baguette, but most people say “banh mi” and really mean “banh mi sandwich,” which is a baguette filled with meat and other Vietnamese staples, namely cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, and picked carrots.
I ordered my first banh mi in a restaurant right when I got to Ho Chi Minh City. I knew deep down that I should probably wait for a street cart to get the more authentic kind, but I was like a kid on Christmas morning: I just couldn’t wait any longer. My dish turned out to be decent, no doubt, but I knew I could do better. Like pho, banh mi is considered one of the top street foods, and finding the perfect one is like finding the perfect boyfriend: The hunt is (more than) half the battle.
My only-ok restaurant banh mi. (Photo: Annie Daly)
I found my chance the next day, when I was walking along, minding my own business, and stumbled upon a Vietnamese guy straight chilling on his motorbike, munching on a banh mi sandwich, and smiling profusely. I thought to myself, “that guy knows what’s up,” and followed his lead. As I said before, the food isn’t just about the food, it’s about the culture—and this guy seemed to me to be the epitome of the banh mi experience.
Could he BE any more content with his sandwich? (Photo: Annie Daly)
Turns out, he was eating from a very popular stand, as there were at least six people crowded around, all just waiting for their fix. And let me tell you: It was worth the wait. The pickled veggies were so fresh, the meat was so tender (so much more than that dried-out restaurant version), and just…wow. I am still thinking about it two weeks later.
The masterpiece itself. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Me in (banh mi sandwich) heaven. (Photo: Annie Daly)
3. The drinks
Before I left for Vietnam, my boyfriend gave me one assignment: Be sure to drink as much Vietnamese coffee as you can. His logic? It’s absolutely delicious—for three reasons. First, the coffee itself is amazing. Coffee is one of Vietnam’s biggest crops; they’re the second largest producer in the world, after Brazil. Second, they serve it with condensed milk, which comes in a can and is basically like a straight, goopy blob of sugar. And third, they serve it on ice, since it’s so hot there that drinking scolding-hot coffee would be very unwise. That perfect trifecta of things makes the coffee unbelievably sweet—and made me unbelievably jittery throughout my entire journey.
Traditional Vietnamese street coffee. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Another drink highlight of my trip was Vietnamese honey tea. I didn’t know honey tea was even a thing before I went on a river cruise to a bee plantation on Unicorn Island, a little island on the Mekong River, which is the longest river in all of Asia. The Mekong Delta, as the whole region is called, is a great slice of local, rural Vietnamese life outside of the big cities.
When my group and I arrived at the plantation, a local worker sat us down and mixed up the tea—made from black tea, dried bee pollen, homemade honey, and lime juice—right in front of us.
Vietnamese honey tea ingredients. (Photo: Annie Daly)
One word: Amazing. Seriously, this tea is incredible. The lime makes it a little tart, but the bee pollen and the honey cut that with sweetness, making it this smooth explosion of hot flavor in your mouth. Plus, our guide told us that it’s super healthy, and that it helps you live longer. I would say I would start making it home, but it wouldn’t be the same, as both the bee pollen and the honey were super local, made right there on the island. But still, it’s worth a shot!
Tea time. (Photo: Annie Daly)
4. A very local lunch
After the bee plantation, my group and I continued to make our way through Unicorn Island, ending our walk at a restaurant right on the Mekong River, where they served us a whole slew of local Vietnamese dishes. My favorite, without a doubt, was the sticky rice. Here in the states, sticky rice usually means sweet white rice served with veggies or meat. But over there, it’s a whole different story. They mash the rice up so it’s pulverized, meaning it ends up being one big giant rice ball, and then they cook it into this sugary, hollowed-out piece of bread.
Great balls of…heaven! (Photo: Annie Daly)
Sticky rice as it’s served. (Photo: Annie Daly)
After they serve it whole, they cut the bowl into little pieces, so you can munch on it before you eat your meal. I’m just going to take a guess that it’s not that good for you (#understatement), but at that moment, health was not on my radar, as evidenced by the fact that I ate more sticky rice than anyone else at my table. Boom.
I could’ve eaten just sticky rice for my entire meal and been happy. So good. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Other appetizer highlights of the meal included elephant ear fish, aptly named due to the fact that it looks like an elephant ear (though truth be told, I didn’t really see the correlation), pork spring rolls served out of a pineapple because why not, and shrimps that I almost didn’t eat because EYES.
Elephant ear fish. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Pork spring rolls. (Photo: Annie Daly)
EYES. (Photo: Annie Daly)
As if all this food weren’t enough, we still had to eat the main course: a traditional Asian hot pot. Hot pots are everywhere in Vietnam; they are essentially a simmering pot of stew, consisting of some sort of thinly-sliced meat and/or seafood, along with steamed veggies, noodles, egg dumplings, and, of course, broth. They’re traditionally served for dinner or supper, and are a bit more fancy than its more-casual cousin, pho.
Hot pots live up to their name: Ours was almost-burn-your-tongue warm. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Such yum. (Photo: Annie Daly)
I am a huge snacker, and luckily, Vietnam did not disappoint in the munchies department. First, let it be known: The country is huge on cashews. In fact, they are actually the largest cashew supplier in the world, a fact I certainly did not know before I went. As such, there are humongous bags of cashews at all of the markets, and on the streets. They’re everywhere.
The country is just nuts about cashews. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Next up: Vietnam has lots of delicious fruit, especially in the local rural regions. When I went to Unicorn Island along the Mekong River, I sampled tons of local fruit. The best part? They mix salt with spicy chili powder and put it on their fruit as a topper. The salty plus sweet combo is so good, and definitely makes fruit more exciting.
Dragonfruit and mango with chili salt, plus amaretto tea. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Bananas are also a big crop in rural Vietnam. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Another fruit that’s big in Vietnam is the jack fruit, which has a big green case, but the inside is actually yellow. It’s such a cool-looking fruit, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And the weirdest part is that even though the outside is super spiky, the inside is actually really smooth.
The jack fruit. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Related: Bring, Buy, Leave: Vietnam
And finally, who can talk about snack-y foods without bringing in candy? One of my favorite Vietnamese candies were these homemade coconut candies that we found along the Mekong River. The farmers told us that they chop up bits of fresh coconut, and grind the flesh to press out the coconut milk. Then, they heat the coconut milk over a fire, until it becomes thick. Next, they let the mixture cool and press it flat, and then cut it into small rectangular pieces.
Voila! Coconut candy. (Photo: Annie Daly)
In retrospect, so much of my memories of Vietnam revolve around the food. When I got home and my friends and family asked me how it went, my first reaction was, “The food! The food!” It really was phenomenal. That said, there were still a couple things I saw on the street that I just could not bring myself to touch, no matter how brave I was feeling. And so I will leave you with this: two foods I definitely did not eat in Vietnam.
I just couldn’t. (Photo: Annie Daly)
I was almost there—almost!—but then … legs. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”