In the creation myth of the Vietnamese people, a fairy marries a dragon lord and their union produces 100 children. Though they’re happy together, the dragon lord yearns for the sea, his home, while the fairy wants to return to her home in the mountains. They part ways, each bringing with them 50 children that would become the great kings of Vietnam.
Even way back then, Vietnamese people spoke of regions and geographical features. A long, narrow S-shaped strip of land, Vietnam stretches north to south, sharing borders with southern China, Laos, and Cambodia. The entire eastern edge of Vietnam is coastline, providing much of the country access to a wide range of seafood. Inland, Vietnam boasts a diverse geography of tropical jungles, lowlands, highlands, river deltas - and of course, mountains.
Indeed, geography and climate play a significant role in the cuisine of the country, but that’s only part of it. Throughout Vietnam’s history, colonization and commerce would shape what we now recognize as Vietnamese food. From China’s thousand-year imperialism to European trading posts in the 17th century to France’s late-19th/early 20th-century oppression, regional Vietnamese cuisine has been shaped by struggle and innovation.
With multiple waves of Vietnamese refugees leaving the country after 1975, the cuisine of the diaspora showcases dishes people have brought from their different regions. And fortunately for us in Chicago, we get to experience a delightful variety of regional Vietnamese cuisine - beyond phở and bánh mì.
Here in Chicago, Argyle Street in Uptown is the hub of Vietnamese businesses and restaurants. Below you’ll find some of the most memorable dishes I’ve had while living and traveling throughout Vietnam and where to find them in Asia on Argyle.
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THE NORTHERN REGION: Turmeric Fish, Bún Chả, & More
The northern region of Vietnam is the oldest part of the country, with Vietnamese civilization originating from the Red River Delta before moving southwards toward the Mekong River Delta. Even so, some of the north’s popular dishes didn’t come about until the 19th century. The northern region is quite mountainous and cooler in climate than southern parts of the country with fish and pork featuring heavily in dishes from the region.
What To Order: Chả Cá Lá Vọng
Invented in the 19th century by the Doan family of Hanoi, chả cá lá vọng is a delightful DIY-feast. Turmeric-marinated fish, green onion, and dill are brought out on a sizzling platter and it’s your job to grill them until they’re just right. Pair the fish with mounds of fresh, springy rice noodles, a mix of aromatics, and both cilantro and mint, eaten raw. Fermented shrimp paste is the traditional dipping sauce, which brings a pungent, salty slightly fishy dimension to the dish too.
What To Order: Bún Chả Hà Nội
Another dish from Hanoi, bún chả consists of seasoned grilled pork floating in a viscous fish sauce broth. Served with rice noodles and fresh herbs and vegetables, this dish is eaten by dipping the noodles into the broth and slurping up the coated strands with a bite of pork. It’s also often accompanied by nem cua bể, a sliced-up, deep-fried crab spring roll.
What To Order: Miến Lươn
Hailing from Ninh Binh, this noodle soup consists of miến (a vermicelli glass noodle) and eel, in a light broth flavored with chili, fish sauce, and ginger. The aromatic punch to this dish comes from the banana flower, a floral note that perfectly complements the earthiness of the mung bean-based noodle and eel.
What To Order: Bánh Đa Cua
Bánh đa cua is a hearty dish of crab, herbs, and thick noodles from the seaport town of Hai Phong. Served with a wider noodle with a rich color and stronger flavor from roasted brown rice, bánh đa hangs onto that intense crab-based broth, making for a delightful slurp.
What To Order: Bún Đậu Mắm Tôm
Presented on a bamboo tray, bún đậu mắm tôm consists of fried tofu, fresh herbs and vegetables, thin rice noodles, and chả cốm - fried pork patties with young green rice. Grab a small bundle of noodles, top it with herbs, a piece of fried pork and tofu, and dip the entire thing into the seasoned fermented shrimp paste for a simple yet complex bite.
What To Order: Bánh Giò
Good on the go, this pyramid-shaped snack is a steamed rice “cake” filled with seasoned pork and mushrooms and can satisfy a hunger urge any time of day.
What To Order: Bánh Cuốn
These delicate rice crepe rolls are steamed and then, much like bánh giò, filled with seasoned pork and mushroom before getting rolled into their cylindrical shape. Dip them in nước mắm for a savory breakfast or snack, regardless if it’s 8am or 3pm.
THE CENTRAL REGION: Bún Bò Huế, Steamed Rice Cakes, & More
As we move south along the coast, the central region boasts brighter flavors and more spice - both in terms of heat and sharpness. Influenced in part by ancient trading posts located in this region, central Vietnamese cuisine incorporates an exciting diversity of ingredients and textures, such as turmeric (originally from India) in mì quảng or a sprinkle of fried pork rind atop a gently steamed rice cake.
What To Order: Bún Bò Huế
Originating in Huế, the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam, this spicy, flavorful beef noodle soup has strong notes of lemongrass and chili that help mellow out the beefy richness of the broth. The rice noodles are thick, round, and slippery, yet firm, and the different cuts of beef and pork make it one of the most texturally exciting things on this guide.
What To Order: Mì Quảng
Bold flavors, vibrant colors, and numerous textures define this staple dish that originated in the Quảng Nam Province (hence the name). Mì quảng consists of chewy, turmeric-based rice noodles and a handful of fresh herbs (basil, banana flower, cilantro, perilla, and Vietnamese coriander to name just a few) sitting in a shallow, strong broth. Everything is then topped with shrimp, pork, quail eggs, peanuts, and a crunchy, black and white speckled sesame rice cracker that brings the whole thing together.
What To Order: Bánh Bèo Chén
Served in a concentric pattern of small, round, ceramic dishes, bánh bèo chén was originally intended to look like a floating aquatic water fern. A toothy, almost al dente steamed rice cake is the base, topped with green onion, a delicate sprinkle of shrimp, and a crunch of crispy pork skin. I like to add a spoonful of sweet and savory nước mắm for a perfect bite.
THE SOUTHERN REGION: Beef Five Ways, A Family-Style Dinner, & More
Vietnam’s southern region showcases well-balanced, stronger, and bolder flavors all around: in each dish, there are clear elements of sweetness, savory, acidity, pungency, and spiciness. But like its northern and central counterparts, the southern region also features fresh herbs and vegetables and a DIY aesthetic when it comes to preparing your ideal meal.
What To Order: Cơm Già Đinh Sài Gòn
Cơm già đinh, or Vietnamese family-style dinners, often consist of white rice, an assortment of proteins and vegetables, and a soup. The cơm già đình Sài Gòn at Nha Hang features the greatest hits of all these options, each with their own distinct flavors that meld together into a satisfying whole. Cá kho tộ is a caramelized braised fish, often served in a ceramic pot. The golden sweetness of the caramel perfectly balances the salty fish, and you’ll want to spoon that sauce all over your rice. Rau muống xào tội is the green of the platter - vitamin-packed water spinach sauteed with garlic. Finish this communal dinner with the complex and bold soup, cành chua cá - a mesmerizing blend of tamarind, caramelized garlic, pineapple, tomato, and fish.
What To Order: Nem Nướng Nhà Trang
Nem nướng, charcoal-grilled pork on skewers, exists in many different variations throughout Vietnam, but the version from Nhà Trang is notable for its notes of tangy sweetness. Nem nướng Nhà Trang is a DIY-wrap dish: roll up some grilled pork with fresh herbs, rice noodles, and a crispy cylindrical rice cracker for a satisfying crunch, and dip it in the signature orange-colored, nước chấm dipping sauce.
What To Order: Bò 5 Món
Considered a higher-end dish fit for a celebration, bò 5 món consists of five different preparations of beef. First, there’s gỏi bò, a cold salad of shredded papaya and carrot, with beef. Then bò nhúng dấm, a fondue-like dish with sliced raw beef dipped into heated sweet vinegar. There’s bò nướng mỡ chài - grilled sausages of ground beef encased in caul fat that’s then wrapped in rice paper with rice noodles, fresh vegetables, and herbs. Bò lá lốt, which are ground beef sausages wrapped in the lá lốt leaf (known as “wild betel leaf”) and grilled - an earthy, herbaceous delight. And lastly, bò nướng sả, grilled beef with lemongrass, which is also eaten in a rice paper wrap.
THE MEKONG DELTA: Seafood Soups, Rice Noodles, & More
The Mekong Delta lies on the southwestern edge of Vietnam, in close proximity to Cambodia. The region known for its labyrinth of riverways, floating markets, and lush rice paddies yields a myriad of rice, fresh fruit, and vegetables along with an abundance of river fish and shrimp. This diversification of the land in the Mekong Delta really shines through in its cuisine.
What To Order: Bún Cá Trà Vinh
Hailing from the city of Trà Vinh, the Mekong Delta’s proximity to waterways is clear in this fish noodle soup. Floating in a bright fish broth flavored with lemongrass, bún cá Trà Vinh consists of rice noodles, fish cakes, catfish fillet, and water spinach, topped with shredded cabbage and an herbal pop of fresh mint.
What To Order: Bún Nước Lèo Sóc Trăng
Nước lèo is a foundational stock that is the base of many Vietnamese noodle soups. In bún nước lèo Sóc Trăng, the stock is a clear, savory broth of pork bones and fermented fish paste, laced with the bright sharpness of lemongrass. Poured over rice noodles, this soup is served with catfish filets and shredded crispy pork skin, before getting topped with water spinach and shredded cabbage for a fresh finish.