Poodles & Noodles: A Gastronome’s Guide to Vietnamese Food
Going to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordering Pho is like going to a French restaurant and ordering a baguette. Sure, it’s a tasty meal, but you can do much better.
Vietnamese cuisine is one of the finest in the world, but also one of the most under-represented. For the uninitiated, this makes Vietnam the culinary equivalent to a glory hole—it might look shady and you wont know what you’re getting, but the adventurous shall be rewarded.
From the succulent seafood of Haiphong, to the dainty steamed rice cakes of Hue, to the soft summer-rolls of Saigon, Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes light, vibrant flavors with fresh, local ingredients. This makes writing a foodie guide extremely difficult, as the cuisine is insanely regional. For example, one of the dishes below can only be made in one small city, using water extracted from only one specific well.
The following guide contains what I believe to be the twenty-five best, most distinctively Vietnamese dishes, arranged by region instead of course, as a culinary roadmap to Vietnam.
To understand Vietnamese food, you must first understand Nuoc Cham.
NUOC CHAM (DIPPING SAUCE): Nuoc Cham is Vietnam’s national condiment, a heady mixture of garlic, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, and spicy chili. The Vietnamese pour the stuff on e-ve-ry-thing. Nothing is holy. Nuoc Cham is to the Vietnamese as ketchup is to people who laugh at Larry the Cable Guy.
Northern cuisine closer resembles the cuisine of China than Southeast Asia, with noodles, soy sauce, and sour vinegar shaping a rustic flavor profile.
BUN CHA (BBQ PORK & NOODLES): The Vietnamese have discovered the meaning of life and they call it Bun Cha. It’s basically a giant cereal bowl filled with Nuoc Cham. And just when you thought things couldn’t get better, you discover that there are delicious patties of grilled pork submerged in it! Your Oh-Great-Bowl-Of-Sauce is served with sides of vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and fried crabmeat spring rolls, which are dunked in the sauce and eaten with the pork.
NEM RAN (FRIED SPRING ROLLS): Despite the lies you were told by Panda Express, Spring Rolls are as Chinese as Freedom of Speech.
Vietnam’s most famous export involves deep fried rice paper rolls stuffed with vermicelli, pork, shrimp, crab, vegetables, oil, oil, and oil. Sometimes they’re transcendent. Other times, they’re just soggy tubes of grease. The best ones are wrapped in thin vermicelli paper, fried extra crunchy, wrapped again in fresh lettuce or herbs, and dipped in Nuoc Cham.
BAHN CUON (Stuffed Rice-Noodle Roll): Some people describe Banh Cuon as a “Vietnamese Crepe”—but they deserve to be slapped in the face by a Frenchman. Instead picture a giant, square sheet of rice-noodle wrapped around seasoned meat (usually pork) and buried beneath a handful of fried shallots. It’s very tasty, especially when doused in Nuoc Cham.
PHO (VIETNAMESE NOODLE SOUP): You could say I’m not “bowled over” by Pho (pronounced fuh). It has nothing to do with the taste—the broth stewed with cow bones is hearty and delicious, and the noodles and meat are perfectly accentuated with herbs and fresh, crushed peppercorn. My problem with Pho is my blanket hatred of all noodle soups. I enjoy noodles and I enjoy soup, but when they’re placed in the same bowl, it offends me on an elemental level.
THIT CHO (DOG MEAT): There’s no better way to start the morning than eating a whole basket full of puppies. While the littlest ones have tiny bones that are crunchy, their meat is wonderfully tender, because they’re so innocent.
In all seriousness, if you can get your head around the fact that it’s Mr. Fluffy you’re picking out of your teeth, then you’ll find dog meat to be surprising delicious, with all the richness of pork and all the gaminess of venison. For many, dog meat raises the ethical question of which animals are acceptable to eat and which are not. Does such a line exist? Eating dog is slowly losing popularity in Vietnam (especially amongst the younger generations influenced by Western culture), and is usually only eaten at the beginning of the lunar month, when its considered good luck.
BANH GOI (Vietnamese Fried Dumplings): Vietnam’s response to Indian samosas. It’s basically a pork spring roll made with fried dough instead of rice paper. It’s as super awesome and bad for you as it sounds.
Central Vietnamese food is perhaps the most sophisticated, drawing culinary inspiration from France, China, Japan, and its Southeast Asian neighbors to produce a flavor that’s uniquely Vietnamese. The portions are small, the flavors are bold, and the chili is fiery.
BANH HUE (Royal Rice Cakes): While most chefs would accommodate a picky eater with a plain noodle soup or a sandwich, this never occurred to the royal chefs of fussy Emperor Tu Duc. Instead they decided that the most logical course of action would be to fossilize individual shrimps in glass-clear cubes of pounded glutinous rice, like Dr. Grant’s mosquito in Jurassic Park. Perhaps they were fucking with the Emperor. Either way, their dimsum-esque creations are popular in the old capital of Hue, where you can choose from a wide gamut of visually beautiful, delicious ‘Banh’ rice cakes. The most delicious are Banh Khoai, Banh Beo, Banh Loc, and Banh Uot.
CAO LAU (HOI AN-STYLE SOBA NOODLES): CAO LAU WILL BLOW YOUR FACE OFF AND YOU WILL WEEP WITH JOY. Take chewy Japanese-inspired noodles, add mouthwatering Cantonese-style char-sieu pork, sprinkle it with Southeast Asian herbs and spices, and then top it off with a French-inspired reduction sauce and crispy fried “croutons.” Just trying to describe it, I nearly cream my boxers. In a unique twist, the dough of the noodles is made with timber ash, imbuing a smoky note. Might that be carcinogenic? Absolutely! But holy hell, is it yummy.
Sadly Cao Lau is only made in the old port city of Hoi An, using water drawn from one specific well. The universe is cruel.
CHAO TOM (SHRIMP PASTE GRILLED ON SUGARCANE): Who doesn’t love a tasty shrimp paste Popsicle? Not this guy. Chao Tom involves rich, decadent shrimp paste grilled on sugarcane. You’re supposed to roll it up in rice paper with herbs and veggies, almost like a tortilla, then dip it in a spectacular Vietnamese peanut sauce. DO NOT attempt to eat the sugarcane skewer like I did. I managed to bite off and swallow two large chunks of it before my waitress ran over to laugh at me.
NEM LUI (PORK & LEMONGRASS SKEWERS): The same thing as Chao Tom, except with delicious grilled pork and lemongrass instead of shrimp paste. The skewers were made of wood, which was much harder for me to swallow.
CAO LAU AGAIN!!! CAO LAU, YES! CAO LAU ALL OVER MY BODY.
MI QUANG (SPICED NOODLES WITH PORK, SHRIMP, & PEANUTS): There seems to be a correlation between the amount of soup in my noodles and the scope of my rage. Fortunately, Mi Quang only uses enough broth to moisten its tasty ingredients, which include rice noodles, pork, shrimp, peanuts, banana blossoms, herbs, and a tangy annatto sauce. I might go as far as to say I recommend this noodle soup.
BUN BO HUE (SPICY BEEF & PORK NOODLE SOUP): Goddamn noodle soups! This was probably the least interesting of the ones I tried, but some people lose their shit over it, so here it is. Noodles, beef, and pork mingle in a reddish broth flavored with chili, lemongrass, shrimp sauce, and annatto. Pffffffff. Shrug.
BANH BAO VAC (HOI AN “WHITE ROSE” DUMPLINGS): Perhaps in retaliation for China stealing the spring roll, the Vietnamese hijacked the Cantonese steamed dumpling. It’s obscenely tasty. The only innovation is that you dip it Nuoc Cham.
The South is the breadbasket of Vietnam and its abundance of fish, herbs, and vegetables means you’ll find bigger portions. Local ingredients emphasize freshness, color, and flavors that veer on the sweet side.
BANH MI (VIETNAMESE-STYLE SANDWICHES): I don’t recall the last time I’ve been so enchanted by a sandwich. This southern specialty is a glorious pairing of French and Chinese colonial influence: a crispy baguette is stuffed with various manifestations of pork, vegetables, cilantro, pork crackling, and chili. Mayonnaise moistens, soy sauce imbues ‘umami,’ and the flavors are anchored with a generous slathering of pork paté. Some people are put off by the abundance of fatty pork. They’re stupid.
BANH XEO (VIETNAMESE RICE CREPES): Banh Xeo is like sad, make-believe Mexican food. It’s still very tasty—I just wish it were buried in cheese and sour cream. The dish involves bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp fried into a crunchy shell made of rice flour and turmeric.
Resist the urge to eat it like a taco. Instead, place it in your rice bowl and mutilate it beyond recognition with your chopsticks. You then roll the fragments in rice paper with vegetables and herbs and dip it in Nuoc Cham or glorious peanut sauce.
BUN BO NAM BO (NOODLES WITH BEEF & PEANUTS): Bun Bo Nam Bo crams all the most iconic flavors of Southeast Asia into a single bowl; it can’t decide what it wants to taste like, so it decides to taste like everything all at once. Dry noodles are seasoned with mangoes, fried shallots, lime, garlic, lemongrass, pepper, tender beef, and just enough sour tamarind broth to moisten. Aside from having a having a cool name, Bun Bo Nam Bo is absurdly tasty.
HU TIEU (CHINESE-STYLE NOODLE SOUP): I take back what I said about Bun Bo Hue—this is my least favorite noodle soup. Soggy vegetables and cheap cuts of pork float unattractively in a boring, generic broth. Sometimes they use better cuts of pork or fresh seafood, but no one’s writing songs about it. Allegedly it’s a Vietnamese interpretation of a Chinese dish. I can’t think of any dish I had in China that resembles this, but for that I am thankful.
BUN THIT NUONG (NOODLES WITH GRILLED MEAT): Grilled marinated pork skewers with herbs and vermicelli noodles. It’s like a southern Bun Cha, EXCEPT DROWNED IN CREAMY, DELICIOUS PEANUT SAUCE HURRAY FOR PEANUT SAUCE.
GOI CUON (FRESH SUMMER ROLLS): Southern-style “summer rolls” emphasize fresh flavors. Unfortunately, these flavors are all quite boring. Unseasoned vermicelli noodles are wrapped in rice paper with bland pork and boiled shrimp. It lacks the glorious calories of its deep fried, northern cousin.
Ha Long Bay might draw the crowds and historic Hanoi may feature on all the postcards, but anyone can tell you the real highlight of Vietnam: Caffeine, Sugar, and Alcohol.
Save room for dessert.
CAPHE SUA DA (VIETNAMESE COFFEE): Vietnamese Coffee is strong enough to power a motorcycle, or at least get your hands shaking uncontrollably. While the grounds used aren’t special (typically cheap Robusta beans), the coffee is brewed to cocaine-like potency and sweetened with condensed milk. I’m not a coffee drinker, but this stuff is like chocolate-flavored crack. Perhaps I just like condensed milk.
BIA HOI (VIETNAMESE “FRESH” BEER): A Bia Hoi joint is a ghetto, Vietnamese beer garden, except the ‘garden’ is a dirty sidewalk strewn with litter and everything is in miniature. You sit on a tiny, plastic kiddie stool at a tiny, plastic table and purchase $0.25 pints of beer with colorful Vietnamese Monopoly-money. The experience feels perversely infantile. It’s like Fisher Price’s “Baby’s First Dive Bar;” the fact that the locals are always shitfaced only enhances this illusion of a kindergarten.
CHE (SUGARY ICE DESSERT-THINGY): “Che” is a word used to describe many dishes—from pounded rice cakes to syrupy soups to icy dessert cups. If you order Che Thap Cam, you’ll get a bowl of crushed ice topped with mixed fruits, syrups, coconut cream, pandam leaf, a parade of gelatinous mystery-items, and best of all, sweetened condensed milk.
I realize I’m only staying in Asia so that I can drink condensed milk everyday without seeming strange.
Vietnam boasts an enormous cuisine whose variety dwarfs the likes of Thailand and rivals the great kitchens of India and China. While it can’t compare in size, it compensates with ingenuity and regional flair. Inspired creativity is the hallmark of the cuisine. To indulge a trip along Vietnam’s coast is to indulge in an innovative and ever-changing menu.
So the next time you find yourself in your local Vietnamese restaurant, consider giving Pho a pass. Dig deeper. Travel your taste buds. Feast on rich Bun Cha noodles with pork. Explore the exotic fusion flavors of Cao Lau. Try asking the server for a nice basket of crunchy puppies. Most likely, the flavors will astound you. And in the unlikely event that they don’t… just dip it in some Nuoc Cham.
For a culinary tour of Thailand, check out “A Wok to Remember: A Foodie’s Guide to Thailand on a Budget“
Then grab some Imodium and tuck into a curry with “Inhaling India (A Diarrhea Adventure): A Foodie’s Guide to India on a Budget“
Or just watch this video of me gagging on traditional Chinese wine made with animal penises: “The 1,000 Year Old Egg & The Three Penis Wine”