Learning Vietnamese through food

Written by Cindy Lu (Carnegie Mellon University), Student Correspondent CET Vietnam, Summer 2019

During my first month in Vietnam, food has helped me a lot in learning Vietnamese as well as local culture. Before coming to Vietnam, the only three Vietnamese dishes that I know of are bánh mì (stuffed baguette), phở, and gỏi cuốn (salad spring roll). Somehow, I developed a stereotype that phở includes all the variations of soup and noodle, and this is what Vietnamese people eat every day. Therefore, when my Vietnamese roommate told me that she does not like phở and showed me bún bò Huế (rice noodle with beef) on the first day when I arrived, I was pretty shocked.

In fact, food in Vietnam not only shows people’s daily life, but also represents its culture and history. After trying many food for a month, I have developed a list of “must-haves” in Vietnam, and since I am based in HCMC, you should not be surprised to see that phở is not on the list. Even just from the food culture, it is clear that the north and the south do not get along very well with each other. In fact, I was told that phở is more popular among the northerners and in the south, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), people prefer to eat cơm tấm (broken rice) and hủ tiếu (rice noodle soup with pork).

So, the top three of my list of “must-tries” of local Vietnamese food are:
  1. Bánh tráng nướng (Grilled ice cracker/ Vietnamese pizza) & lẩu bò (beef hotpot)

Bánh tráng nướng is one of the most characteristic foods in Đà Lạt (Dalat). Since Đà Lạt is usually very cold and windy, it feels warm to eat something hot after a long cold day. Last weekend, a bunch of the CET students went to Đà Lạt, but as we stayed mainly in HCMC where the normal whether is above 30 degrees celsius since we arrived, most of us did not bring warm clothes to resist the coldness. Therefore, when we finally went to a hotpot place to eat the lẩu bò (beef hotpot) at night, I felt saved. After that, we went to the night market and it was raining slightly, but being able to eat a Bánh tráng nướng (Grilled ice cracker/ Vietnamese pizza), I felt that “the coldness doesn’t bother me anyway.”

  1. Miến xào cua (Crab with fried glass noodle)

My roommate brought me to this place near the CET guesthouse after our first organized bowling trip. I would definitely miss this place if she did not suggest it specifically to me since it is not a restaurant but just a quán (little shop). Although it is a little bit more expensive than other dishes that I have tried so far, I couldn’t complain at all for the amount of the real crab meat in the dish. I still remember how lost I was the first night I arrived in HCMC alone and I felt so lucky to have a local roommate that could guide me around in the neighborhood.


  1. Bánh xèo/ Bánh khọt (Crispy pancake)

My third favorite Vietnamese dish is Bánh xèo and usually people warp them in salad vegetables or rice papers to eat it. I first ate it on the first day of my internship when my coworkers brought me to have dinner with them after work. Having just finished my last internship in Washington, D.C., I felt that the working environment here in Vietnam is very different from what I was used to. People here are much closer to each other and it seems that they have formed a family together. People would bring homemade food to share with everyone, and they would tease each other much more than I have seen when I interned in the States. It feels really warm when people who you barely know could trust you with important tasks and share their food and happiness with you.

Besides these, I also love to eat bánh canh cua (Crab soup noodle) and bún bò Huế (Rice noodle with beef), but since I am not a big fan of red meat, I have not tried Bún thịt nướng (rice noodles [with] grilled meat), cơm tấm (broken rice), and Thịt bò nướng lá lốt (grilled beef in lolot leaf). However, my friends who have tried these dishes said that they loved them.

Apart from the Vietnamese food, there are also many international restaurants in HCMC which shows how globalization has affected the city. Nowadays many college students would choose to go to KFC, MacDonald’s or Highlands Coffee to do their homework, and it is not rare to see business partners chatting in a local coffee shop. Korean Barbecues and Japanese Sushi houses are all over the place, and Chinese dim sum and hotpot restaurants are also popular choices among the public.

After all, based on my observation, food is a huge part of Vietnamese people’s life and I was lucky to have been able to try different types of food and to learn about the culture embedded in them.