Grittiest Vietnamese dishes for hardcore foodies
With a rich food culture famed worldwide, Vietnam is a haven for any foodie traveler looking to broaden their horizons. But aside from the famous phở and bánh mì, our country also boasts no shortage of unusual food that not everyone – including many locals – has the courage to try. So, if you consider yourself a hardcore foodie, see if you can muster the courage to bite down on these 10 grittiest Vietnamese dishes.
After all, savoring local delicacies is a major part of any vacation. If you can overcome these dishes’ intimidating appearance and actually try them, you’ll see that they can make for great highlights of your trips.
1. Đuông dừa – coconut larvae
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Đuông dừa are the larvae of a bug called the Asian palm weevil, which lives inside coconut trees. It is for this reason that they are most commonly seen in the southern Vietnamese province of Bến Tre, where lush coconut gardens grow.
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Locals consider đuông dừa a delicacy that can be made into a wide variety of dishes, from deep-fried to grilled. Back in 2019, a restaurant in Hanoi even came up with the idea of putting them on pizza as an April’s Fool prank which caused a storm on the internet.
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But to many people, the best way to enjoy đuông dừa is simply to eat them raw and wiggling with fish sauce. As terrifying as that might sound, these larvae are chewy and have a slightly sweet taste. We’d say that to a certain extent, they are a bit similar to cheese, minus, you know, the squirming part. If you are brave enough to try them this way, you’ll find that they are actually pretty satisfying to eat.
2. Mắm tôm – a staple sauce of Vietnamese households
Mắm tôm is a staple sauce in Vietnamese meals
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Mắm tôm literally translates to shrimp sauce, and it is made by fermenting shrimp with salt under the sun for months. The method results in a thick sauce with a distinctly intimidating purplish color.
Bún đậu mắm tôm – a dish well-loved by Vietnamese people
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But what makes most foreigners wince is the sauce’s pungent smell, which to many is similar to that of spoiled seafood. For Vietnamese, however, mắm tôm is a staple condiment used in many everyday dishes.
People also like to eat mắm tôm with chả cá (fishcake) – a signature dish of Hanoi
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For instance, it is an indispensable part of bún đậu mắm tôm, a dish favored by many Vietnamese diners where the sauce complements rice noodles, deep-fried tofu, blood sausages, and many other toppings. Chả cá (fish cake) – a specialty of Hanoi – also uses the strong taste of the sauce to bring out the flavors of deboned fish grilled with turmeric and galangal.
3. Tiết canh – soup made from raw blood
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Tiết canh, or blood soup, is a Vietnamese dish that consists mainly of raw animal blood – most commonly duck or pig blood. It is a way to make the most out of the less meaty parts of an animal, such as cartilage or gizzards, ensuring that nothing goes to waste.
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To make blood soup, the animal parts must first be cooked and minced. Fresh blood is then poured over them and left to coagulate. The dish is then served with chopped liver and crushed peanuts, as well as a wide variety of herbs.
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Tiết canh is widely eaten all over Vietnam, as people enjoy the feeling of biting through the jelly-like texture of the coagulated blood into the crunchy meat inside. Since the dish is served cold, it is often accompanied by Vietnamese vodka to warm the body up, making it a popular snack during nhậu (drinking) sessions.
Still, the prospect of eating raw, uncooked blood does turn many heads away, which is why some chefs have created a variation using blended beetroot mixed with gelatin as a substitute for the blood. That could make for a solid alternative if you want to experience this unique Vietnamese dish, but find yourself unable to bear the goosebump-inducing sensation of chewing raw blood.
4. Rươi – brackish water worms that taste absolutely amazing
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Chả is a word you’ll see a lot when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, and it refers to minced meat baked into cakes. Basically any kind of meat can be used to make chả, from chả bò (beef cake) to chả mực (squid cake) and chả cá (fish cake).
And if you visit markets in some northern Vietnamese provinces such as Hanoi, Hải Phòng, or Quảng Ninh, you might also come across signs that say chả rươi.
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With its extremely savory taste complemented by a hint of citrus, chả rươi can be a main dish on your dinner table, or it can be a yummy afternoon snack – provided you are not scared away by its main ingredient, rươi.
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Rươi is a type of worm often found in brackish water in some coastal cities of northern Vietnam. Sure, it’s not easy to bring yourself to eat such frightening creatures, but trust us, one bite is all it takes. Once you see how tasty chả rươi is, you’ll easily forget the worms’ appalling appearance once they’ve been minced and baked into cakes.
To make chả rươi, the worms are mixed with egg yolk, minced meat, and herbs, then fried
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5. Sá sùng – a luxurious seafood despite its appearance
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Yes, the slithery appearance of sá sùng may have you exclaim, “Ew, what on earth is that?”. However, if you’ve tried the famous Vietnamese phở, then chances are you already have a bit of these sea worms in you as some phở restaurants add them to the broth to create a more distinct flavor.
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But don’t sweat it too much. Despite their less-than-appetizing look, sá sùng is an incredibly expensive ingredient, so even the most high-end phở restaurant would only dare use very small amounts of them. Processed sá sùng can sell for as high as VND3,000,000 (~USD130.11)/kg.
Sá sùng porridge
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Considered “the king of seafood” by many, sá sùng isn’t something Vietnamese people can enjoy on a daily basis, but aside from being used in phở, it can also be made into a variety of other dishes, from stir-fried delights to stews.
6. Nậm pịa – partially digested grass found inside animal intestines
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Nậm pịa is a staple dish of the Thái ethnic minority people living in mountainous areas northwest of Vietnam, but to any outsider, it takes some serious guts – pun intended – to even look at the thing and not flinch.
In Thái people’s language, nậm means stew, and pịa refers to partially digested grass mixed with intestinal fluid found inside the small intestines of grass-eating animals such as buffaloes or cows. Nậm pịa, therefore, is a stew made by simmering the animal’s bones, meat, and organs with pịa into a thick broth.
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Sure, just the thought of eating the content of an animal’s bowels makes us shudder, but to Thái people, the taste of meat would not be complete without the distinct flavor of pịa. At the first bite, you’ll probably cringe at the strong bitterness, but it leaves behind a sublime lingering sweetness on the tip of your tongue.
Alternatively, Thái people also mix pịa with herbs and spices into a sauce that makes a tasty dip for grilled meat.
7. Thắng cố – a signature dish of the Vietnamese highlands
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Yet another dish native to the Vietnamese highlands, thắng cố is made by simmering every edible part of a horse, cow, or buffalo with a wide variety of spices. Yes, that means on top of the meat, cartilage, blood, and organs are all included.
The dish has been adopted by many restaurants in big cities
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Over the years, thắng cố recipes have been picked up by many restaurants in modern cities and adapted to cater to city dwellers’ preferences. However, the most original taste can only be found in remote villages of ethnic H’mông people in the northern mountains. Here, people mainly make thắng cố from horse meat.
For the most authentic thắng cố taste, look for it in the mountainous towns of northern Vietnam
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The mishmash nature of the dish might look unappealing to some, but it is a local delicacy that you should definitely not miss out on if you have the chance to visit mountainous towns in Hà Giang or Lào Cai.
8. Rat meat – a delicacy from the rice fields
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If you venture into the rural areas of Vietnam – particularly those with lush rice fields in the Mekong Delta region of the south – you might come across vendors offering rat meat for sale.
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Now, you’re probably thinking of trash-dwelling, disease-carrying vermin found in sewers when we mention “rat meat”, but rest assured, the rats used for rat meat dishes are captured straight from the rice fields, where their diet consists mainly of rice and other grains. As a result, there is nothing to worry about hygiene-wise.
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And truth be told, once seasoned and cooked, these rodents taste as good as any other animal. We’d say rat meat is comparable to chicken, and as such it can be prepared in the same ways, from grilling with chili and lemongrass to baking with lime leaves.
9. Silkworm chrysalises – rich in nutrients with medicinal properties
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Vietnamese silk is a souvenir sought after by many visitors. With such high demand, many craft villages around big cities in the country are still farming silkworms for silk. And once the silkworm cocoons are harvested, the chrysalises inside don’t go to waste either, as they can make for a tasty snack.
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Containing a rich amount of nutrients, these silkworm chrysalises can be easily bought from any market in major Vietnamese cities. People also consider them to have medicinal properties, believing that eating them can help treat muscle pains or boost growth in children.
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Silkworm chrysalises can be stir-fried with onions and herbs, deep-fried with egg yolk and flour, or added to porridge.
10. Snake – a unique meal in Hanoi
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Just a 20-minute cab ride from the center of Hanoi and you’ll find yourself in the Lệ Mật Village, whose residents have been farming snakes for meat for generations. It is here that you can have one of the most unique meals in Vietnam.
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The snakes on offer here come in all shapes and sizes, from your average grass snakes to king cobras. They can be prepared into a wide variety of courses, from stir-fried snakes to snake spring rolls.
Snake spring rolls
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An activity that Vietnamese men like to challenge each other to is chugging the still living, beating heart of a snake with a shot of vodka. The taste is… well, let’s just say about as good as you’d expect, but more importantly, it makes for an awesome story to tell your friends later. After all, how many people you know can say, “Hey, that one time I swallowed a snake heart when it was still beating”?
A snake heart with vodka
Image credit: John Ford
Grittiest Vietnamese dishes for a unique meal
It is true that these exotic Vietnamese foods are acquired tastes that might frighten you at first glance, but each carries generations’ worth of history that reflects the local way of life.
So to experience Vietnam’s cuisine to the fullest, don’t be afraid to give these dishes a try if you have the chance. If nothing else, you come away with a terrific memory to remember our adventure-filled country by.
For more stories, check out:
- 11 street foods in Hồ Chí Minh City
- 23 essential Vietnamese phrases every foreigner needs to know
- Hanoi Old Quarter guide
- 8 vegetarian restaurants in Hanoi
- 10 souvenirs in Vietnam to take home
- Vietnam wins 5 food world records
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