What's the first Vietnamese food that pops to mind for you? Phở? Bánh mì? Spring rolls? All of these are quintessential dishes to be sure—and you've already knocked off three of the 20 in this list—but we've only just begun.
When you're talking about "Vietnamese food," as mentioned before, you're talking about rice in many forms (steamed, sticky, noodles, pancakes, porridge), fish sauce (lots of it), herbs (mint, cilantro, lemongrass), seafood, pork, beef, chicken, and tropical fruits (rambutan, banana, papaya, mango, etc.), with borrowed flavors from the French imperialists and nearby countries like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and China.
Most dishes fall under broader categories. "Bánh," for example, encompasses the many steamed rice cakes and rolls (like bánh cuốn and bánh bèo); not to be confused with the "bún" family, which always involves some rice vermicelli (whether with pork, as in bún chả, or the various noodle soups, such as bún rieu); "goi" is synonymous with salad, and in Vietnam they're typically made with non-lettuce things like unripe green papaya or mango.
By no means is this a definitive list—just 20 of the most memorable, most interesting, and most delicious dishes in my experience. Many of them vary by region. For example, the phở of the north is defined by a clear broth whereas the southern-style phở in Saigon might be murkier with more sauces, herbs, and other add-ins.
Speaking of sauces, let's pause for a second to honor nước chấm, which is on virtually every table, at every meal, every single day. The amalgam of fish sauce, lime juice, chili, garlic, and sugar is salty, tangy, spicy, fishy, sweet and exactly what you want for dunking, dipping, or just plain drinking (oh, is that just me?). It's mentioned many times in this roundup.
What's your favorite Vietnamese dish?
Author's note: I traveled to Vietnam with Intrepid Travel, a company that organizes trips all over the world. They recently launched special food-themed journeys (both long and shorter day trips) to many destinations, including Vietnam. Check out the itineraries here. I was able to preview the Vietnam trip and was immensely impressed at how much we were able to see, do, and learn; how many real-life experiences we had with locals, and just how non-tour-group it felt. Intrepid Travel always keeps the groups small, the itineraries interesting, and the meals delicious, often at local joints and family-run homestays.