Specialties in South Vietnam: Must Try Dishes in South Vietnam

South Vietnam is a culinary paradise, offering a diverse array of unique and mouthwatering dishes that have captivated food lovers around the world. From the iconic pho to the beloved banh mi, the region’s culinary traditions are a harmonious blend of Chinese, French, and indigenous influences. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the must-try specialties and dishes that make South Vietnamese cuisine so exceptional.

Specialties in South Vietnam

Pho Saigon

Pho Saigon

Pho, the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and beloved dishes to come from South Vietnam. This aromatic and flavorful soup is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, with its origins tracing back to the early 20th century in the country’s northern regions. However, it was in the bustling streets of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) that pho gained widespread popularity and evolved into the iconic dish we know today.

The key to an authentic pho lies in the broth, which is simmered for hours with a blend of spices and bones to achieve a rich, complex flavor. The broth serves as the foundation for the dish, complementing the tender slices of beef or chicken, the bouncy rice noodles, and the array of fresh herbs and garnishes. Each region in South Vietnam has its own unique take on pho, with variations in the type of meat used, the seasoning, and the serving style.

One of the most popular versions of pho in the south is pho bo, which features slices of rare beef that cook gently in the hot broth. Another variant, pho ga, showcases tender chicken in the aromatic broth. Regardless of the protein, the true joy of pho lies in the perfect balance of flavors, the interplay of textures, and the soothing, comforting nature of the dish.

Banh Mi

Banh Mi Saigon

The Banh Mi, a product of French influence, is widely available in Vietnam, with the Saigon version being considered the best. The key to its success lies in the quality of the bread, which is crispier, softer, and lighter than others. The exact source of this unique crunch remains unknown, whether from the flour mixture or the climate. The bread is typically filled with marinated carrots, white radishes, coriander, soy sauce, and various meats or eggs. The possibilities for variations are endless, limited only by the creator’s imagination. This versatile dish can be enjoyed at any time and satisfies all cravings.

Com Tam

Com Tam Saigon

Com tam, or broken rice, is a quintessential comfort food in South Vietnam, particularly in the bustling streets of Saigon. This humble dish consists of slightly broken or fragmented rice grains, which are then topped with a variety of savory and flavorful toppings.

The beauty of com tam lies in its simplicity and its ability to showcase the diverse flavors of South Vietnamese cuisine. The most common toppings include grilled pork chops (suon), shredded pork with egg (bi), and a savory, caramelized pork meatloaf (cha). These proteins are often accompanied by a fried egg, pickled vegetables, and a tangy and sweet fish sauce-based dressing.

The texture of the slightly broken rice grains is unique, providing a satisfying chewiness that sets com tam apart from other rice dishes. The combination of the tender, flavorful toppings and the comforting rice base creates a harmonious and deeply satisfying meal. Com tam is a beloved staple in South Vietnamese homes and is often enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, making it a versatile and essential part of the region’s culinary heritage.

Dishes in South Vietnam

Banh Xeo

Banh Xeo Saigon

Banh xeo, or “sizzling crepes,” are a vibrant and flavorful dish that originated in the southern regions of Vietnam. These crispy, golden-hued crepes are made with a batter of rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric, which gives them their distinctive color and flavor.

The crepes are stuffed with a variety of fillings, typically including shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs. The sizzling sound of the crepe as it cooks on a hot pan is what gives the dish its name, “banh xeo,” which translates to “sizzling cake.”

Diners typically wrap the piping hot crepe in fresh lettuce leaves, along with an assortment of herbs and a dipping sauce, such as nuoc cham, a tangy and sweet fish sauce-based condiment. The combination of the crisp crepe, the savory fillings, and the fresh, vibrant garnishes creates a harmonious and textural explosion in the mouth.

Banh xeo is a popular street food and a beloved staple in South Vietnamese cuisine, often enjoyed as a light and refreshing meal or as a shared appetizer. It showcases the region’s culinary creativity and its ability to transform simple ingredients into a truly remarkable and memorable dish.

Goi Cuon

Goi cuon, or fresh spring rolls, are a delightful and refreshing dish that are quintessential to South Vietnamese cuisine. These translucent rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, including shrimp, pork, vermicelli noodles, and an array of fresh herbs and vegetables.

The key to a great goi cuon lies in the balance of flavors and textures. The tender shrimp and pork, the chewy noodles, and the crisp, fresh vegetables all come together in a harmonious and satisfying way. The translucent rice paper wrapper serves as a delicate and edible canvas, allowing the vibrant colors and textures of the fillings to shine through.

Goi cuon are often served with a dipping sauce, such as nuoc cham or peanut sauce, which adds an extra layer of flavor and complements the fresh, light nature of the rolls. They are a popular appetizer or light meal, often enjoyed as a refreshing and healthy option in the warm, tropical climate of South Vietnam.

Goi cuon are not only delicious but also a testament to the culinary creativity and attention to detail that characterizes South Vietnamese cuisine. From the meticulous preparation of the fillings to the skillful rolling of the rice paper wrappers, every aspect of this dish showcases the region’s rich culinary heritage.

Cao Lau

Cao Lau Saigon

Cao lau is a unique and captivating noodle dish that originates from the historic city of Hoi An in central Vietnam, but has also become a beloved staple in the southern region of the country. This dish is a harmonious blend of various culinary influences, including Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, reflecting the diverse cultural heritage of the region.

The defining feature of cao lau is its distinctive noodles, which are made from a specific type of lye water-treated rice flour found only in the Hoi An area. These noodles have a unique texture, with a slight chewiness and a slight yellow hue. They are then tossed with a variety of toppings, including slices of roasted pork, crispy pork cracklings, fresh herbs, and a flavorful broth.

The broth itself is a complex and carefully crafted elixir, made by simmering pork bones and a secret blend of herbs and spices. This broth is then used to lightly coat the noodles, allowing the flavors to mingle and create a harmonious and satisfying dish.

Cao lau is often garnished with a variety of fresh herbs, such as mint, basil, and cilantro, as well as a sprinkle of crispy fried wonton wrappers, which add a delightful crunch to the dish. The combination of the chewy noodles, the savory pork, the fragrant herbs, and the umami-rich broth creates a truly exceptional and memorable dining experience.

Popular Street Foods

Banh Canh

Banh Canh Saigon

Banh canh, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, is a beloved street food in the southern regions of the country. This hearty and comforting dish features thick, chewy noodles made from a combination of rice flour and tapioca starch, which give them a unique and satisfying texture.

The noodles are submerged in a rich and flavorful broth, which can be made from a variety of proteins, including pork, shrimp, or a combination of both. The broth is often seasoned with fish sauce, sugar, and a blend of spices, creating a complex and satisfying flavor profile.

Banh canh is typically garnished with a variety of toppings, such as sliced pork, shrimp, quail eggs, and fresh herbs like cilantro and green onions. The dish is often served with a side of nuoc cham, a tangy and sweet fish sauce-based condiment, which can be used to customize the flavor to one’s liking.

One of the most distinctive features of banh canh is the variety of noodle shapes and thicknesses that can be found across different regions of South Vietnam. Some versions feature wide, flat noodles, while others showcase thinner, more delicate strands. This diversity in noodle style is a testament to the rich culinary heritage and creativity of the region.

Banh Trang Nuong

Banh Trang Nuong

Banh trang nuong, also known as Vietnamese grilled rice paper, is a beloved street food in the southern regions of Vietnam. This crispy and savory snack is made by grilling thin sheets of rice paper over a hot grill or charcoal, resulting in a delightfully crunchy and addictive treat.

The process of making banh trang nuong is a true art form, with skilled street vendors carefully monitoring the temperature and timing to ensure the perfect texture and crispness. The rice paper is often seasoned with a variety of toppings, such as shredded pork, scallions, chili sauce, and a savory, umami-rich sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, and spices.

The contrast between the light, airy texture of the grilled rice paper and the flavorful toppings creates a harmonious and satisfying snack that is both crunchy and savory. Banh trang nuong is a popular street food, often enjoyed as a quick and satisfying bite or as a shared appetizer among friends and family.

Hu Tieu

Hu Tieu saigon

In the North, they have Pho, while in the South, they enjoy Hu Tieu. Hu Tieu can be served as a soup called Hu Tien Nuoc or without broth, known as Hu Tieu Kho. Originally from Cambodia, Hu Tieu Nam Vang became popular in the 1960s. It includes a broth with simmered pork bones and dried shrimp, along with seafood, pork tenderloin, liver, shrimp, a quail egg, cabbage or lettuce, and tapioca pasta. My Tho is known for its emblematic Hu Tieu, often eaten for breakfast with chopped chives, fried shallots, bean sprouts, and garlic.

The most widespread Pho globally originates from the South, as refugees who fled in the 1970s and 1980s were mainly from the South. Even though Pho originally comes from the North, people in the South have adjusted it to their preferences by adding more cinnamon and bean sprouts.

Fusion Dishes

Banh Mi Pizza

Banh Mi Pizza

The fusion of Vietnamese and Italian cuisines has resulted in the creation of the delightful and unexpected dish known as banh mi pizza. This unique culinary creation combines the iconic Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with the classic Italian pizza, resulting in a harmonious and delicious fusion of flavors and textures.

The foundation of the banh mi pizza is a traditional pizza crust, which is then topped with a variety of ingredients that are commonly found in a banh mi sandwich. These toppings typically include thinly sliced roasted or grilled pork, pâté, pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cilantro, and a tangy and savory sauce, often inspired by the flavors of nuoc cham.

The combination of the crisp, chewy pizza crust and the bold, vibrant flavors of the banh mi toppings creates a truly unique and memorable dining experience. The pizza format allows for the flavors to meld together seamlessly, while the familiar elements of the banh mi sandwich provide a sense of familiarity and comfort.

Banh mi pizza has become a popular menu item in many Vietnamese and fusion-focused restaurants, particularly in the bustling cities of South Vietnam. It showcases the region’s culinary creativity and its willingness to embrace new and innovative approaches to traditional dishes.

Pho Burger

Pho Burger

The fusion of Vietnamese and American cuisines has led to the creation of the captivating pho burger, a unique and delicious dish that combines the iconic pho noodle soup with the beloved hamburger. This innovative culinary creation has become a beloved menu item in many Vietnamese-influenced eateries, particularly in the urban centers of South Vietnam.

The pho burger features a juicy beef patty that is infused with the aromatic spices and flavors commonly found in pho broth, such as star anise, cinnamon, and cloves. The patty is then topped with a variety of pho-inspired toppings, including sliced onions, fresh herbs like cilantro and basil, and a tangy, fish sauce-based sauce.

The result is a harmonious and unexpected fusion of flavors, where the richness and umami of the pho-spiced beef patty is balanced by the freshness of the pho-inspired toppings. The familiar structure of the hamburger bun provides a comforting and familiar base, while the unique flavors of the pho elements elevate the dish to something truly special.

The pho burger is a testament to the creativity and adaptability of South Vietnamese cuisine, showcasing the region’s willingness to experiment and blend traditional flavors with modern culinary trends. It has become a must-try dish for those seeking a unique and memorable dining experience that celebrates the diverse and evolving nature of South Vietnamese cuisine.

Coconut Curry Noodle Soup

Coconut curry noodle soup is a delightful fusion dish that blends the rich and creamy flavors of Thai-style coconut curry with the comforting noodle soup format that is so beloved in South Vietnamese cuisine. This unique and captivating dish has become a popular menu item in many restaurants and eateries throughout the southern regions of Vietnam.

The foundation of the dish is a fragrant and flavorful coconut curry broth, which is made by simmering coconut milk with a blend of aromatic spices, such as lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. This rich and creamy broth is then combined with a variety of noodles, including rice noodles, vermicelli, or even egg noodles, depending on regional preferences.

The noodles are then topped with a variety of proteins, such as chicken, shrimp, or a combination of both, as well as an array of fresh vegetables and garnishes. These can include items like bean sprouts, fresh herbs, lime wedges, and crispy fried shallots, all of which help to balance the richness of the coconut curry broth.

The result is a harmonious and deeply satisfying fusion dish that combines the comforting and familiar elements of Vietnamese noodle soup with the bold and complex flavors of Thai-style coconut curry. It is a testament to the culinary creativity and adaptability of South Vietnamese cuisine, showcasing its willingness to embrace and incorporate diverse culinary influences.

Traditional Desserts

Che Ba Ba
Che ba ba is a delightful and unique Vietnamese dessert that originates from the southern regions of the country. This sweet treat is a layered concoction that features a variety of textures and flavors, creating a truly memorable and indulgent dining experience.

The foundation of che ba ba is a base of soft, chewy tapioca pearls, which are cooked until they achieve a delicate, almost gelatinous texture. These tapioca pearls are then layered with a variety of other ingredients, including sweet red kidney beans, fragrant pandan-flavored jellies, and a creamy, coconut-based sauce.

The combination of the soft, chewy tapioca pearls, the sweetness of the beans and jellies, and the rich, creamy coconut sauce creates a harmonious and satisfying dessert that is both comforting and indulgent. The dessert is often served chilled, making it a refreshing and delightful way to end a meal on a hot day in South Vietnam.

Che ba ba is a popular dessert at family gatherings, celebrations, and special occasions in South Vietnam. Its unique combination of textures and flavors makes it a favorite among locals and visitors alike, showcasing the region’s love for sweet treats that are both satisfying and complex.

Banh Bo Nuong

Banh bo nuong is a traditional Vietnamese dessert that hails from the southern regions of the country. This delightful sweet treat is a type of steamed sponge cake that is known for its light and airy texture, as well as its subtly sweet flavor.

The base of banh bo nuong is made from a mixture of rice flour, tapioca starch, sugar, coconut milk, and pandan extract, which gives the cake its distinctive green color and fragrant aroma. The batter is then steamed until it puffs up and becomes spongy and soft, creating a delicate and delightful dessert.

Banh bo nuong is often enjoyed on its own as a snack or dessert, but it can also be served with a drizzle of coconut cream or a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds for added flavor and texture. The cake is beloved for its simplicity and versatility, making it a popular choice for both everyday indulgences and special occasions.

This traditional Vietnamese dessert is a testament to the region’s love for light and subtly sweet treats that are perfect for enjoying with a cup of tea or coffee. Its delicate texture and fragrant flavor make it a delightful way to experience the rich culinary heritage of South Vietnam.

Kem Xoi

Kem xoi is a unique and delightful Vietnamese dessert that combines two beloved sweet treats into one delicious dish. This indulgent dessert features a scoop of creamy ice cream served atop a bed of sticky rice, creating a harmonious blend of flavors and textures that is sure to satisfy any sweet tooth.

The base of kem xoi is sticky rice that has been cooked until it is soft, chewy, and slightly sweet. The rice is then topped with a generous scoop of ice cream, which can be flavored with a variety of options such as coconut, green tea, or durian, depending on personal preferences.

The combination of the warm, sticky rice and the cold, creamy ice cream creates a delightful contrast of temperatures and textures that is both comforting and indulgent. The dessert is often drizzled with a sweet syrup or condensed milk and garnished with toppings like toasted sesame seeds or crushed peanuts for added flavor and crunch.

Kem xoi is a popular street food dessert in South Vietnam, particularly in bustling markets and food stalls where locals and visitors alike gather to enjoy a sweet treat. Its unique combination of flavors and textures makes it a must-try for those looking to experience the diverse and delicious world of Vietnamese desserts.

Influences on South Vietnamese Cuisine

Chinese Influence

Chinese cuisine has had a significant influence on the culinary traditions of South Vietnam, particularly in terms of cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavor profiles. The southern regions of Vietnam have a long history of trade and cultural exchange with China, which has resulted in the integration of Chinese culinary elements into local dishes.

One of the most notable Chinese influences on South Vietnamese cuisine is the use of stir-frying as a cooking technique. Stir-frying is a quick and efficient method of cooking that allows for the retention of the natural flavors and textures of ingredients, resulting in dishes that are vibrant and full of flavor. Many popular dishes in South Vietnam, such as com tam and cao lau, feature stir-fried components that showcase this Chinese influence.

In addition to cooking techniques, Chinese ingredients like soy sauce, tofu, and various spices have also become staples in South Vietnamese kitchens. These ingredients add depth and complexity to dishes, creating a unique fusion of flavors that is characteristic of the region’s cuisine.

Overall, the Chinese influence on South Vietnamese cuisine has enriched the culinary landscape of the region, contributing to the diversity and vibrancy of dishes that are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.

French Influence

French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th and 20th centuries left a lasting impact on the culinary traditions of the country, particularly in the southern regions. French cuisine introduced new ingredients, cooking techniques, and dishes to Vietnam, which were gradually integrated into local culinary practices to create a unique fusion of flavors and styles.

One of the most enduring legacies of French influence on South Vietnamese cuisine is the introduction of baguettes and pastries, which are now ubiquitous in the region. The iconic banh mi sandwich, for example, is a direct result of the fusion of French baguettes with Vietnamese fillings and condiments, creating a beloved street food that is enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.

French cooking techniques like baking, braising, and sautéing have also become integral parts of South Vietnamese culinary practices, influencing dishes like banh xeo and pho. The use of butter, cream, and wine in certain dishes reflects the French influence on the region’s cuisine, adding richness and depth to traditional recipes.

The French influence on South Vietnamese cuisine is a testament to the region’s ability to adapt and evolve in response to external influences, creating a culinary tradition that is dynamic, diverse, and deeply flavorful.

Cambodian Influence

The neighboring country of Cambodia has also had a significant influence on the culinary traditions of South Vietnam, particularly in terms of ingredients, flavors, and regional specialties. The southern regions of Vietnam share a border with Cambodia, which has facilitated the exchange of culinary ideas and practices between the two countries over the centuries.

One of the most notable Cambodian influences on South Vietnamese cuisine is the use of fresh herbs, vegetables, and spices in dishes. Cambodian cuisine is known for its emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, which are used to create vibrant and aromatic dishes that are full of flavor. Many dishes in South Vietnam, such as goi cuon and banh trang nuong, feature an abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables that reflect this Cambodian influence.

In addition to ingredients, Cambodian flavors like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind have also made their way into South Vietnamese dishes, adding a unique and tangy twist to traditional recipes. The use of sour and spicy elements in certain dishes reflects the Cambodian influence on the region’s cuisine, creating a dynamic and diverse culinary landscape.

Overall, the Cambodian influence on South Vietnamese cuisine has contributed to the region’s reputation for fresh, flavorful dishes that celebrate the abundance of local ingredients and the rich cultural heritage of the area.

Best Places to Experience South Vietnamese Cuisine

Local Markets

Local markets are vibrant hubs of activity in South Vietnam, where visitors can experience the diverse and delicious world of Vietnamese cuisine in all its glory. These bustling markets are filled with vendors selling fresh produce, meats, seafood, and prepared foods, providing a sensory feast for those looking to immerse themselves in the local food culture.

One of the best ways to experience South Vietnamese cuisine at a local market is to sample a variety of street foods from different vendors. From banh mi sandwiches to pho noodle soup to fresh spring rolls, there is no shortage of delicious and affordable options to choose from. Visitors can watch as vendors prepare dishes right in front of them, using fresh ingredients and time-honored techniques to create authentic and flavorful meals.

In addition to prepared foods, local markets in South Vietnam also offer a wide range of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices that are essential ingredients in many traditional dishes. Visitors can wander through the colorful stalls, sampling exotic fruits and learning about the unique flavors and uses of different ingredients from knowledgeable vendors.

Overall, local markets are the heart and soul of South Vietnamese cuisine, offering a vibrant and immersive culinary experience that is not to be missed. Whether you’re a seasoned foodie or a curious traveler, exploring the markets of South Vietnam is sure to be a memorable and delicious adventure.

Street Food Stalls

Street food stalls are an essential part of the culinary landscape of South Vietnam, offering a wide range of delicious and affordable dishes that are perfect for on-the-go dining. These humble eateries can be found on nearly every street corner in cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, serving up a variety of traditional and fusion dishes to hungry locals and visitors alike.

One of the best things about dining at a street food stall in South Vietnam is the opportunity to interact with the vendors and watch as they prepare your meal right in front of you. Whether you’re ordering a steaming bowl of pho, a crispy banh xeo pancake, or a refreshing glass of che ba ba dessert, you can witness the care and skill that goes into each dish, ensuring a fresh and flavorful dining experience.

Street food stalls also offer a unique opportunity to sample a wide range of dishes in one sitting, allowing you to taste your way through the diverse and delicious world of South Vietnamese cuisine. From savory soups to sweet treats, there is something for every palate at these bustling and lively eateries.

Overall, dining at a street food stall in South Vietnam is a must-do experience for anyone looking to immerse themselves in the local food culture. The authentic flavors, friendly atmosphere, and affordable prices make street food stalls a favorite dining option for both locals and visitors alike.

Family-Owned Restaurants

Family-owned restaurants are cherished institutions in South Vietnam, where generations of cooks and chefs have passed down traditional recipes and culinary techniques to create unforgettable dining experiences. These cozy and welcoming eateries offer a glimpse into the heart and soul of South Vietnamese cuisine, serving up classic dishes with love and care.

One of the best things about dining at a family-owned restaurant in South Vietnam is the warm and inviting atmosphere that greets you as soon as you walk through the door. Many of these establishments are run by families who take pride in sharing their culinary heritage with guests, creating a sense of hospitality and authenticity that is hard to find elsewhere.

Family-owned restaurants in South Vietnam often specialize in specific regional dishes or family recipes that have been perfected over generations. Whether you’re craving a hearty bowl of cao lau noodles, a fragrant plate of banh xeo pancakes, or a comforting bowl of che ba ba dessert, you can trust that these establishments will deliver a delicious and memorable dining experience.

Overall, dining at a family-owned restaurant in South Vietnam is a wonderful way to connect with the local food culture and experience the passion and dedication that goes into creating traditional dishes. The welcoming atmosphere, authentic flavors, and heartfelt hospitality make these restaurants a favorite dining destination for locals and visitors alike.