Vietnamese Noodles — Flavorful World of Broths, Toppings, and Sauces

Noodles made their way to Vietnamese territory from China some time after the 13th century via the Silk Road. During this same time period, noodles also reached European as well as other Asian countries.

The earliest records of noodles are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 CE). Nomads typically stored wheat bread as a staple food for long journeys. Somewhere along the line, they experimented with slicing the dough in strips. Hence the early days of noodles.

The exact origins of both wheat and noodles are still topics of debate and research. Most popular hypotheses for the origin of wheat include 7000 BC Mesopotamia and 5000 BC Middle East.

In addition, archeologists found 4000-year-old noodles in an earthenware bowl at the historic Yellow River Lajia site in 2005. Analyses identified the millet as belonging to Panicum miliaceum – the most common millet group – and Setaria italica or foxtail millet. However, the culinary origin is not yet determined.

An Introduction to Vietnamese Noodles

Introduction to Vietnamese Noodles
[ by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels ]

Since Vietnamese noodles originate from China, so do their names. The Chinese word for noodle — ‘麵條’ (miến điều) — equals ‘mì’ from wheat flour (bột lúa mì) in Vietnamese. Meanwhile, ‘米粉’ (mễ phấn) includes all kinds of rice noodles and doesn’t have a specific word in Vietnamese.

However, Vietnam doesn’t have any indigenous wheat noodle dishes since all wheat noodles were introduced via China. In addition, ‘miến điều’ is not to be mistaken with ‘miến’ which are Vietnamese glass noodles or cellophane noodles. In Chinese, cellophane noodles can be ‘粉絲’ (phấn ty) or ‘粉條’ (phấn điều).

Noodles in Vietnamese Cuisine

Noodles in Vietnamese Cuisine
[ by Chi_Capon from Pixabay ]

Vietnamese noodles are generally thin and long cylindrical strands and not flat or thick strips. As a trait of national cuisine, Vietnamese noodles tend to incorporate a variety of vegetables in each dish.

Also, a lot of Vietnamese noodle dishes use some kind of fermented paste (mắm) as the core seasoning. Interestingly, Vietnam has the largest variety of fermented pastes and each region has its own variation.

In addition, Vietnamese cuisine tends to focus on combining different flavors for developing unique tastes rather than nutritional value. However, the modern health-conscious movement has led to the incorporation of vegetable powders into noodle doughs.

The Diversity of Vietnamese Noodles

Diversity of Vietnamese Noodles
[ by Helena Yankovska from Unsplash ]

The substantial wet-rice agriculture of Vietnam makes it a major global producer. Thus, there’s a wider variety of Vietnamese noodles from rice flour rather than from wheat and buckwheat.

Also, buckwheat is only grown in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam like Ha Giang so it’s not really common. Alternatively, Vietnamese have cellophane noodles from mung beans (bún tàu) and from arrowroot (miến dong).

Due to the popular custom of having a soup dish with each meal, Vietnamese noodle soup dishes abound. In 2020, the World Records Union (WorldKings) officially recognized Vietnam as the country with the most ‘strand and broth’ dishes in the world.

Nonetheless, stir-fried noodles are not any less diverse nor appealing to Vietnamese people. Furthermore, Vietnamese people’s food preference differs from region to region, which leads to the overall greater diversity of noodles.

The Modern Scene of Vietnamese Noodles

Modern Scene of Vietnamese Noodles
[ by sq lim from Unsplash ]

Like any country with a rich cultural heritage, Vietnamese people take pride in traditional ways of making noodles. Nonetheless, Vietnamese take full advantage of technological advancements in making noodles.

The invention of instant ramen in Japan in 1958 spread to Vietnam during the 1980s. Then, instant noodles (mì ăn liền) quickly became inseparable from the daily life of Vietnamese. The term ‘mì ăn liền’ is also used to criticize low-value commercial pop songs and movies.

One of the first popular instant noodles had two shrimps on the package and somehow northern Vietnamese coined the term ‘mì tôm’. It became a common reference for instant noodles. Although it translates to ‘shrimp noodles’, the term may have nothing to do with shrimp.

Presently, Vietnamese people mostly use packaged pasta, dried egg noodles in hotpots, and instant noodles in quick meals or street food dishes. Vietnam is currently one of the top consumers of instant noodles in the world. Of course, the country also produces and exports its own unique noodles, including Pho.

Vietnamese Rice Noodles and Their Variations

Vietnamese Rice Noodles and Their Variations
[ by Bram Wouters from Unsplash ]

The main ingredients for Vietnamese rice noodles include either rice flour or rice starch, water, salt, and oil. In addition, the secondary ingredients can be cassava or corn starch for a more chewy texture.

Vietnamese rice noodles also come in various shapes and sizes — much the same as Italian pasta or Chinese and Japanese noodles. The sheer amount of rice noodle dishes made Vietnam the country with the most rice flour dishes in 2020.

Common types of Vietnamese rice noodles include bún, phở, hủ tiếu, mì Quảng, bánh đa, bánh canh, and bánh hỏi. Our article will detail these further below. 

Fresh rice noodles are generally more preferable, but also spoil quickly after a couple of days. To increase shelf life, rice noodles can be sun-dried, naturally air-dried, or machine processed.

Vietnamese Rice Vermicelli or Bun

Vietnamese Rice Vermicelli or Bun
[ by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels ]

Rice vermicelli (bún) is the most prominent in Vietnamese noodle culture and also has the longest history. The pronunciation for bún is derived from the Chinese character 粉 meaning powder or noodle.

The Vietnamese rice vermicelli bun is long, thin, semi-translucent strands of non-glutinous rice flour. Depending on the usage, the strand thickness may vary from less than 1 mm to about 2 mm.

The dough needs to go through a short fermentation process before kneading. Afterward, makers divide the dough into workable pieces pressing it through a specific mold straight into boiling water. After boiling for a few minutes, they take out the noodle strands and rinse them in cool water.

Then they immediately shape the noodle strands into small piles (bún rối), swirls (con bún), or rectangular blocks (bún lá). Each of these shapes of Vietnamese rice vermicelli is for different dishes, some are mentioned below.

Vietnamese rice vermicelli bun is usually eaten fresh within the day but it can also be dried for later use. Modern production lines increase efficiency but the steps remain the same.

Vietnamese rice vermicelli, or bun, can be combined with all kinds of meats, vegetables, and soups to create a plethora of dishes. This rice vermicelli is also used in many noodle dishes in Asia including pad Thai and Laos khao poon.

Pho Noodle Strands

Pho Noodles in Vietnamese History
[ by @pwign from Unsplash ]

Pho noodle strands (bánh phở) have similar ingredients to bun but made to a different ratio. The shape is also different as Vietnamese Pho noodles are flat and similar to fettuccine.

Cellophane Noodle Strands

Cellophane Noodle Strands
[ by Dave Colman from Pexels ]

Cellophane noodles from mung beans were brought from China and are a common ingredient in Vietnamese stir-fried or steamed dishes. Meanwhile, cellophane noodles from arrowroot better suit soup dishes as they don’t get mushy over time.

Hu Tieu Strands

Hu Tieu Strands
[ by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pixabay ]

Hu tieu strands (sợi hủ tiếu) is a type of Vietnamese rice noodle also very similar to bun. However, it’s much chewier thanks to the addition of cassava starch. Also, the batter is steamed into thin sheets, then sundried, and finally cut into thin strands.

Furthermore, hu tieu strands shouldn’t be mistaken for hu tieu stir-fry (hủ tiếu xào) in Ho Chi Minh City. Hu tieu stir-fry originates from Chinese ‘char kway teow’ and uses flat rice noodles similar in size to tagliatelle. It was popularized by the Hoa People in Saigon Chinatown.

Banh Da Strands

Banh Da Strands
[ by Bánh đa khô Hải Phòng from Facebook ]

Banh da strands (bánh đa) are another type of Vietnamese rice noodle with two main variations. While ‘bánh đa trắng’ is similar to pho strands but thinner, ‘bánh đa đỏ’ is about twice as wide.

The special thing about banh da do is the brown color and unique flavor which come from molasses. It thus goes well with crabs and other kinds of seafood which are abundant in Hải Phòng — a port city.

Banh Canh Strands

Banh Canh Strands
[ by Bánh Tét TRÀ VINH from Facebook ]

Banh canh strands (bánh canh) is a type of thick rice noodle with a similar shape to spaghetti. It’s made from rice, cassava (a type of yam), tapioca flour, or a combination of them.

Vietnamese Rice Paper

Vietnamese Rice Paper
[ by Peter Kvetny from Unsplash ]

Vietnamese rice paper (bánh tráng) and rice noodles are similar in ingredients and techniques while only different in shape. Rice paper refers to sheets of rice flour batter which are spread (tráng) and steamed on a flat surface.

Rice paper is the base of many special roll dishes of which Vietnam has the most in the world. Interestingly, some places around the country also call it ‘bánh đa’ which creates some confusion among even Vietnamese people.

20 Popular Noodle Dishes Across Vietnam

In Vietnamese, the dishes’ names are usually just a literal description. For Vietnamese noodle dishes, their names include the noodle strand, main ingredient, and their place of origin or adaptation.

1. Pho Noodles —  Most Iconic Vietnamese Dish

Original Pho Noodles
[ by Lightscape from Unsplash ]

The most globally popular Vietnamese rice noodle dish is, without a doubt, Phở. The soup base for traditional Pho is a unique bone broth with added prawns, onion, ginger, and shallots. Enhancing spices include cinnamon sticks, cloves, tsaoko, culantro seeds, and star anise.

Finely chopped scallion, sliced onion, cilantro, vinegar-pickled garlic and shallot, Thai basil, and blanched bean sprouts are common vegetable toppings. Also, condiments can include fresh whole chilies, lime wedges, sriracha or chili sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, and ground pepper.

While beef Pho (phở bò) and chicken Pho (phở gà) are the favorites, there are many variations using Pho noodles across Vietnam. Notable mentions include Pho variations from Nam Dinh, Hanoi, Saigon, Ha Giang, and more. There are also delicious but vastly different dishes like Pho stir-fry, fried Pho, and Pho puffs to name a few.

Read more about Pho noodles

2. Vietnamese Noodle Salad, Southern Vietnam

Vietnamese Noodle Salad, Southern Vietnam
[ by phamkhanhquynhtrang from Pixabay ]

Bun thit nuong (bún thịt nướng), or Vietnamese noodle salad with grilled pork, is a staple rice vermicelli dish. This salad has lettuce, pickled julienned cucumbers, carrots, radish, fried spring rolls, and charcoal-grilled pork slices.

Toppings include aromatic herbs, scallions cooked in oil (scallion oil), and crushed peanuts. The simple dressing is a house-recipe fish sauce.

Some say Vietnamese noodle salad originated from bun cha Hanoi (bún chả Hà Nội) or Hanoi grilled pork noodles. It uses charcoal-grilled pork patties and a lighter fish sauce for dipping both the meat and the rice vermicelli.

3. Bun Bo Hue, Central Vietnam

Bun Bo Hue
[ by Pho & Grill from Facebook ]

Bun bo Hue (bún bò Huế) or Hue beef noodle soup is a strong Pho contender. While the original bun bo Hue uses thin rice vermicelli, the Saigon version uses thicker strands similar to spaghetti.

The broth uses pork bones, lemongrass, a signature fermented shrimp paste (mắm ruốc), and other spices. The common condiments are lime wedges and chili oil. For vegetables, bun bo Hue usually has bean sprouts and julienned banana flowers.

The protein choices include slices of beef shanks, crab meatballs, a thick slice of pork hock, and maybe Hue ham. Some places substitute crab meatballs with a beef counterpart, some also add blood puddings.

4. Bun Thang, Hanoi Noodles, Northern Vietnam

Bun Thang, Hanoi Noodles
[ by Vũ Phương Anh from Facebook ]

Bun thang (bún thang) is a unique noodle soup of Hanoi requiring only simple ingredients but a lot of preparation. The clear soup is made from chicken and pork bones, whole prawns, dried squids, onions, and shallots. Besides fish sauce, crucial seasonings include fermented shrimp paste (mắm tôm) and Lethocerus indicus (cà cuống) extract.

The toppings are everything julienned including chicken breast, Vietnamese ham (chả lụa), boiled eggs, omelet, and shiitake mushrooms. Traditionally, bun thang is served with some pickled julienned radish on the side.

5. Hu Tieu, Mekong Delta Noodles, Southern Vietnam

Hu Tieu Southern Vietnam
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Variations of hu tieu dishes are popular throughout the Mekong Delta Region and you can get them all in Saigon. The most common is Hu tieu Nam Vang (hủ tiếu nam vang) originating from the Cambodian dish ‘kuy teav’.

‘Nam Vang’ is how Vietnamese used to say Phnom Penh. Meanwhile, both ‘hủ tiếu’ and ‘kuy teav’ derive from ‘粿條’ — long-grain rice noodles of the Chaozhou dialect in China.

Hu tieu Nam Vang usually has a pork bone broth and slices of pork, shrimps, and quail eggs for toppings. However, hu tieu from Mỹ Tho City makes use of their abundance of prawns and squids for a different taste.

6. Cao Lau Noodles, Hoi An, Central Vietnam

Try Some Cao Lau Noodles
[ by Quán Cao lầu Bá Lễ – Quán Cao lầu ngon tại Hội An from Facebook ]

Cao Lau noodles (mì Cao Lầu) is a specialty that all visitors of Hoi An should try at least once. It uses a unique kind of rice noodle that requires a lot of effort to make. The noodle strands are similar to Japanese udon but thinner.

The rice used to make the flour needs to be soaked in wood ash water from the Cham Islands beforehand. Thanks to the alkaline solution that is the ash water, the dough gets a slight yellow color and more chewy texture.

For presentation, blanched bean sprouts and fresh herbs are first placed at the bottom of the bowl. Next, add Cao Lau rice noodles, tasty slices of char siu pork, and thin slices of deep-fried lard for crispiness.

7. Banh Da Cua, Hai Phong Noodles, Northern Vietnam

Banh Da Cua Northern Vietnam
[ by Thơm Phạm Bích from Facebook ]

Banh da cua (bánh đa cua) is a signature crab noodle soup dish of Hai Phong City. Similar to bun rieu, it uses ground rice paddy crab as the base for the broth. However, the proteins include seafood like crabs, giant tiger prawn (tôm sú), greasy back shrimp (tôm rảo), and mackerel fish cakes.

8. Bun Rieu or Rice Paddy Crab Noodles

Bun Rieu
[ by @huongthu98 from Unsplash ]

Bun rieu (bún riêu) or rice paddy crab noodle soup originated from the south but the north also has it. The soup has a nice red color from stir-fried tomatoes and maybe annatto seeds.

The rice paddy crabs are ground, strained, then added to the broth and also as cakes. While Northern Vietnamese simply add fried tofu and morning glory as toppings, Southern people further add blood pudding and meatballs.

Buon Ma Thuot City also has something similar which is bun do (bún đỏ) or red noodle soup. It uses different seasonings and adds water celery as well as quail eggs.

9. Bun Dau Mam Tom

Bun Dau Mam Tom
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Bun dau mam tom (bún đậu mắm tôm) has rectangular blocks of rice vermicelli cut into bite-size squares as its core. Originating from the North, the ingredients in bun dau mam tom may vary depending on the region.

For proteins, the main choices include fried tofu pieces, a specific Vietnamese cured ham (chả cốm), and slices of pork hock. Each bite is accompanied by a dipping sauce from fermented shrimp paste (mắm tôm) mixed with lime or calamansi juice. The fresh herbs on the side can help balance out the pungent sauce and all the meat.

10. Bun Mam, Southern Vietnamese Noodles

Bun Mam Southern Vietnamese Noodles
[ by Bích Thảo Nguyễn from Facebook ]

Bun mam (bún mắm) or fermented paste noodle soup has a prominent saltiness and strong smell. Originating from Cambodia, it uses prahok which ferments some kind of freshwater fish in roasted rice flour (thính).

Southern Vietnamese adopted it with their own fish and added lemongrass and sugar to the soup. Toppings usually include pieces of roasted pork, squid, fish, shrimp, and vegetables.

11. Mi Quang, Central Vietnamese Noodle

Mi Quang in Saigon
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Mi Quang (mì Quảng) or Quang noodle soup has a vibrant yellow chicken broth thanks to turmeric. You can easily get authentic mi Quang in Hoi An City, Quảng Nam Province, Central Vietnam. It has pieces of chicken, pork, shrimps, even frog, quail eggs, and baby greens.

Mi Quang is usually topped with pieces of charcoal-grilled rice paper and crushed peanuts. While most places use rice noodles with similar shapes to fettuccine, Nha Trang people prefer thinner noodles plus fish cakes.

Even though the name is ‘mì’, it’s still not a wheat flour noodle by definition like we mentioned above. Nonetheless, it’s still a signature noodle strand as well as a dish of Quang Nam Province.

12. Shrimp Noodle Soup, Hai Phong, Northern Vietnam

Shrimp Noodle Soup Northern Vietnam
[ by Bún tôm Hải Phòng from Facebook ]

Shrimp noodle soup (bún tôm) is a rice vermicelli staple of Hai Phong City. After boiling giant tiger prawns for stock, they stir-fry them with tomatoes, water celery, spinach, wood ears, and shiitake mushrooms. A bowl of Hai Phong shrimp noodle soup has a nice red color plus savory, sweet, and tangy flavors.

13. Banh Canh Cua

Banh Canh Cua
[ by Bánh Canh Cua 14 from Facebook ]

Banh canh cua (bánh canh cua) is another Vietnamese crab noodle soup dish but with thicker rice noodle strands. This dish has sea crab, straw mushrooms, shrimps, pork, and sometimes Vietnamese cinnamon cured ham.

14. Eel Cellophane Noodle Soup, Nghe An, Central Vietnam

Eel Cellophane Noodle Soup Central Vietnam
[ by Đặc Sản Lươn Đồng Xứ Nghệ O Lài from Facebook ]

Eel cellophane noodle soup (miến lươn) from Nghệ An Province gets the best out of this rice paddy delicacy. The entire eel spine and head are used in making the stock along with onion, shallots, and ginger. Part of the meat is then boiled in the stock while the rest is shallow-fried for a different texture.

Vegetables for eel cellophane noodle soup simply include bean sprouts and scallions, onion slices, and Vietnamese coriander as garnish. There’s also an eel cellophane noodle stir-fry using the same ingredients.

15. Vietnamese Fish Noodle Soup

Vietnamese Fish Noodle Soup
[ by Bún Cá Rô Đồng from Facebook ]

Across its regions, Vietnam has a number of fish noodle soup dishes (bún cá) using different broths, fish, and vegetables. The fish noodle soup in the northern cities like Hanoi and Hai Phong uses shallow-fried tilapia and fermented shrimp paste.

Meanwhile, cities in the Mekong Delta region use snakehead fish stir-fried with turmeric and a different fermented shrimp paste. In addition, the beach city of Nha Trang has a fish noodle soup staple with fish cakes and fish sauce.

16. Bun Mam Nem, Danang Noodles, Central Vietnam

Bun Mam Nem Danang Vietnam
[ by Bún Mắm Nêm Bà Như from Facebook ]

Bun mam nem (bún mắm nêm), or fermented anchovy paste noodles, is a soupless staple for the people of Danang. The dipping sauce isn’t complete without the additional fresh garlic and pineapple purée.

Bun mam nem usually has slices of roasted or boiled pork, fresh greens, and crushed peanuts. An interesting ingredient is boiled young jackfruit as a seasonal delicacy of Central Vietnam.

17. Duck and Bamboo Shoot Noodle Soup

Duck and Bamboo Shoot Noodle Soup
[ by Thịnh Bin from Facebook ]

Duck and bamboo shoot noodle soup (bún măng vịt) is a common rice vermicelli dish throughout all regions of Vietnam. After prepping the ingredients, stir-fry pieces of duck with seasoning in a pot. Then, add water, bamboo shoots, straw mushrooms, blood pudding, onion, and scallions to make the soup.

18. Banh Hoi Noodles

Banh Hoi Noodles
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Banh hoi (bánh hỏi) is a highly delicate form of Vietnamese rice vermicelli bun. While it’s a daily food for people in Southern and Central Vietnam, it’s also a staple in Vietnamese traditional celebratory food trays. Banh hoi is usually served with roasted pork, boiled pork intestine, and topped with crushed peanuts and scallion oil.

To make banh hoi, you follow the same initial steps as ordinary bun until the portioning of the dough. However, after pressing through a special mold, each noodle strand is only as thin as a toothpick.

Noodle makers then catch a certain amount of noodles on a steamer basket. After the steaming process, the thin noodles will take the shape of a net blanket.

19. Banh Tam Bi

Banh Tam Bi
[ by Tin tức Đồng Tháp from Facebook ]

Banh tam bi (bánh tằm bì) is a salad and a specific type of rice noodle with a silky texture. Toppings include everything julienned including stir-fried pork, pork rind, pickled radish and carrots, fresh cucumber, and roasted rice flour. Besides a rich coconut milk dressing, banh tam bi also has a spicy dipping fish sauce on the side.

20. Vietnamese Rice Paper Dishes

Banh Trang Nuong, Banh Trang Tron and Banh Trang Cuon
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Banh trang nuong (bánh tráng nướng), or the debatable Vietnamese pizza, uses rice paper as the crust. The base of banh trang nuong is a mixture of quail eggs and margarine. Toppings include dried shrimp, minced pork stir-fry, scallions, maybe sausage, pork floss, and shredded cabbage.

Banh trang tron (bánh tráng trộn), or rice paper salad, is a savory, sweet, and sour Saigon street food favorite. It typically has julienned rice paper and green mango, quail eggs, beef jerky, tamarind sauce, peanuts, and scallion oil. In addition, banh trang cuon (bánh tráng cuốn) is the roll version using a more chewy rice paper wrap.

Spring rolls (gỏi cuốn) use rice paper to wrap a filling of choice including meat, vegetables, and rice vermicelli. Fried spring rolls (chả giò or nem), however, are a bit different. The common filling includes ground pork, bean sprouts, potato of choice, wood ears, and cellophane noodles.Banh uot (bánh ướt), or steamed rice paper with slices of Vietnamese ham and cucumber, makes for a handy breakfast. Also, there’s banh cuon (bánh cuốn) or steamed rice paper rolls, with minced pork and wood ears as the filling. And, you can choose a version of steamed rice paper rolls with eggs in the batter.

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