It's easy to claim that pho, the ubiquitous bowl of beef broth and rice noodles we know and love, is Vietnam's national dish. In fact, it might even be the only Vietnamese dish you can name off the top of your head. But just one visit to this gorgeous Southeast Asian country is all it takes to realize that its cuisine is actually just as expansive as its breathtaking coastline.
As you travel through the country—perhaps living out your Top Gear fantasies on a rented motorbike—you'll encounter everything from the Central Coast's devilishly spicy broths to the famous street-side barbecue up north. These are the dishes that have folks like Anthony Bourdain calling the country their second home and make the near-death experience of crossing Saigon's bustling streets well worth the risk
While what follows barely scratches the surface of Vietnamese cuisine, if you find yourself planning a trip to Vietnam (or even your local Vietnamese restaurant), think outside the bowl and seek out these nine incredible dishes instead.
① Bún chả
Weave your way around Hanoi's Old Quarter and, in between wafts of moped exhaust, you're sure to catch a few whiffs of succulent meat roasting over charcoal grills. A favorite of Bourdain—and now President Obama—these sizzling pork strips and juicy patties are submerged in a sweet, savory broth of fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chiles. Oversize mounds of fresh herbs and chewy rice noodles are served alongside the dish, as is an optional (but, let's face it, necessary) plate of deep-fried crab spring rolls. Build yourself a bowl with a little bit of everything, slurp and repeat.
② Bánh cuốn
Straightfaced, highly skilled women throughout the country demonstrate their expertise in flipping these ultra-delicate rice-flour crepes. After steaming the batter into a translucent sheet, their nimble fingers fold the crepes around a number of fillings, the most popular being sautéed ground pork and wood ear mushrooms.
③ Pâté chaud
Evidence of France's former colonial rule can be found embedded in so many aspects of Vietnamese cuisine, including the baguettes used for bánh mì, a cultural penchant for strong coffee and, interestingly, this favorite afternoon snack. Pockets of savory sausage and liver pâté come encased in buttery puff pastry, rivaling any hand pie the Western Hemisphere has to offer.
④ Bún bò Huế
Vietnam's central region is known for fiery, sinus-clearing specialties, like this spicy soup named after the country's ancient capital city, Huế. Despite the area's notorious desert-like heat, every morning you'll see locals slurping up the thick rice noodles and cuts of braised beef swimming around inside the lemongrass-scented broth. For the adventurous eater, congealed cubes of pork's blood add a distinct minerality, which contrasts nicely with the refreshing crunch of shaved banana blossoms.
⑤ Bánh bèo
Another widely known—and much-adored—Central Vietnamese dish, these adorable soft rice cakes come adorned with shrimp, scallions, salty fried shallots and, if you're lucky, extra-crunchy pork cracklings. Ordered by the platter, they're all too easy to gulp down once dressed in fish sauce.
⑥ Cơm tấm
This classic turns broken grains of rice, too imperfect to sell, into the ultimate lunch platter, topped with a barrage of different tasty items. Choose from chargrilled pork chops marinated in lemongrass, julienned pork skin, a sunny fried egg or, preferably, all of the above.
⑦ Thit kho
Chances are you won't see this homespun dish on restaurant menus, even in Vietnam. Instead, hunt it down in markets such as Ben Thanh in Saigon or Hội An's riverside center by walking past pho-gulping tourists and finding the vendor who's hawking this modest everyday staple. Giant hunks of caramelized pork belly float in a sweet and savory coconut broth, dotted with hard-boiled eggs that have taken on a golden hue. And, like all home-style dishes, every Vietnamese kid believes their mother makes the best one out there.
⑧ Bánh xèo
Translated literally as "sizzling cake," this giant pancake's name refers to the sound its yellow, turmeric-spiked batter makes when poured into a piping-hot skillet. Thin, lacy and exquisitely crispy, the addictive snack comes folded around shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, and is meant to be torn into chunks and wrapped in lettuce leaves and herbs before being shoveled into your mouth.
⑨ Bún riêu
Hailing from the Mekong Delta, bún riêu serves as one of the premier examples of Vietnam's global noodle soup domination. A tomato-based broth perfumed with crab serves as the home for melt-in-your-mouth ground pork, tender crabmeat, tomato wedges and little islands of airy fried tofu. It manages to be rich and complex yet light enough to finish without falling into a food coma.
Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.