Vietnamese food is more than just pho – the popular hearty meat soup that now can be easily found in America. To truly experience authentic Vietnamese cuisine, you will have to travel to Vietnam. Whether you want to try fine dining or street food, Vietnam has it all.
The country is known for its “weird” Vietnamese food, including wine made with cobras, various insect delicacies, and amazing smelling fruits and noodles. Don’t judge before you try these traditional dishes! You may be surprised at how tasty and satisfying they are!
The Philosophy Behind Vietnamese Food: Flavorful and Full of Nutrition
While it is common to see “weird” Vietnamese food like coconut worm as just a curiosity, this isn’t really accurate. Whether it is restaurant or street food, Vietnam chefs are all about creating balance in their food dishes.
Vietnamese cuisine is built on the philosophy of the five elements, which comes from Traditional Asian Medicine. The five elements are fire, water, earth, metal, and wood.
Our sense of taste is related to these five elements, along with five organs, where bitter (small intestine) is associated with fire, salty (urinary bladder) with water, sweet (stomach) with earth, spicy (large intestine) with metal, and sour (gallbladder) with wood. Thus, Vietnamese food should ideally contain all of these tastes.
Additionally, Vietnamese food should contain five nutrients: fat (fire), water or liquid (water), protein (earth), minerals (metal), and carbohydrates (wood). If that’s not enough, the food should also have the five colors of the five elements: red (fire), black (water), yellow (earth), white (metal), and green (wood).
Finally – and this is where we see the justification for crunchy insects in Vietnamese food – dishes should appeal to the five senses: taste (fire), sound (water), touch (earth), smell (metal), and sight (wood).
Thus, bug-based Vietnamese finger foods, such as peanut worms, that are picked up with the hands and have a crunch to them, are appealing to both the senses of touch and sound (though perhaps not so much to sight, depending on your exposure to insects as food!).
The world’s smelliest fruit, Durian (aka Sau Rieng), offers the earth element with its yellow flesh – and it stimulates smell (metal). And, of course, insects contain tons of protein (earth), which is why they are now being recommended by the United Nations as a sustainable food source and alternative to animal meat.
10 Types of Weird Vietnamese Food
Now that you know that Vietnamese cuisine comes from a rich cultural heritage, you might have a greater appreciation for Vietnamese delicacies such as coconut worm. Are you ready to be adventurous on your next trip to Vietnam? Try out these different dishes that might be labeled “weird” Vietnamese food.
1. Sa Sung – Peanut Worms
So why do peanut worms appeal to the senses with a soft exterior and crunchy interior? These large worms come from caves that are deep underground. They eat a lot of sand – thus the crunch. Peanut worms are often grilled straight, or they can be marinated first. Spices such as chili are used for flavor as well as salt and lemon juice. As an appetizer, they go great with a beer.
2. Bun Dau Mam Tom – Shrimp Paste Noodles
At first glance, the idea of “shrimp paste” doesn’t sound so bad, right? Except, these shrimp paste noodles (bun dau mam tom) are made with a fermented paste of shrimp and salt, which gives them a unique smell that has been associated with “stinky feet.” This may sound strange that such a strong smell would be part of the five elements aesthetic of “balance,” but some people truly love this dish – and its funky smell!
Shrimp paste noodles are a very popular dish in Northern Vietnam. Typically made with vermicelli noodles, they can include veggies and protein such as protein like tofu or pork. Kumquat is sometimes added to reduce the stinky smell while adding some sweet flavor.
3. The World’s Smelliest Fruit: Durian – Sau Rieng
Durian is known as the world’s smelliest fruit, but it’s more generous name is “the king of fruits.” Durian has a bad reputation for a strong smell, much like hing (asafetida), a well-known spice from India. It may seem like something that smells “bad” shouldn’t taste good, but people who love Durian say it’s hard to stop once you start eating it.
With a spiky outer husk, Durian fruit has a sunny yellow hue on the inside. The fruit has many health benefits, including improving digestion, managing blood sugar, and enhancing cardiovascular health.
4. Pha Lau Bo – Cow Intestine Soup
Soups and dishes made from the intestines of animals are common in Vietnam. Cow is just one animal; you can also eat Vietnamese dishes made from horse and goat intestines. The idea is to use the whole animal and not just throw away parts that can be nutritious and healthy.
To make cow intestine soup safely, the cook will wash the intestines multiple times and rinse them with lemon and salt to destroy bacteria. Spices such as ginger are used to improve flavor and smell. The intestines are cooked in milk to become noodle-like, and additional cow organs are often included, such as the kidney, heart, and stomach.
While pha lau is available at many Vietnamese sit-down restaurants, it is often best as street food in Vietnam. If you see a Vietnamese street vendor with a line of people waiting for cow intestine soup, it’s probably amazing!
5. Scorpions and Other Whole Insects
You may wonder how you can make a dish out of a scorpion, but the scorpions in Vietnam are massive compared to the ones found in the American southwest. We are talking humongous black scorpions the size of your hand – and they can be easily fried to make a crunchy if scary appetizer.
How would you eat them? Imagine a plate with a ring of large, shiny black scorpions around it, with dipping sauce in the middle. Just don’t eat the barbed tail! Other popular insect cuisine choices include grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, and even spiders.
6. Mice and Rats
Small field mice as well as larger rats are available in Vietnam – sometimes chopped and cooked in a regular stir-fry. The challenging mice to eat will be the ones baked and made available whole.
7. Cobra Wine
Don’t be surprised if you see a wine bottle in Vietnam with an actual cobra inside it! Rice wines in Vietnam are often made with snakes or other poisonous animals like scorpions. Supposedly, the liquor “cancels out” the poison. Many of these wines are considered as having medicinal qualities, and can include other exotic animal parts such as goat’s testicles.
8. Coconut Worms – Duong Dua
Coconut worms are actually bug larvae that feed up on coconut trees. The fat, yellowish larvae look like large maggots – because that’s essentially what they are.
Larvae are the immature form of a bug, and maggots are the larvae of flies. Eating “maggots” may seem exceptionally gross, but coconut worms aren’t the same thing as maggots. For one thing, they are much bigger (about the size of a thumb).
Here’s the eating challenge: in places like the Mekong Delta coconut worms are typically eaten while live! Yes, that’s right. You will need to grasp the squiggling coconut bug larvae with your chopsticks to consume them. If you can’t handle that, try the coconut worms in Tra Vinh, where the larvae are stuffed with peanuts first before being served.
9. Hot Vit Lon — Balut (Fertilized Duck Egg)
Not for the squeamish, fertilized or fetal duck egg is a popular Vietnamese dish. The duck embryo looks like a little squashed up duck rolled into a fetal position, and it is still in the shell. For some Western-minded diners, this is the Vietnamese version of the French “ortolan” dish, which consists of tiny, whole songbirds that are cooked and eaten, bones and all. The cooking of ortolans has been banned in France, but they are considered to be one of the tastiest delicacies ever.
Likewise, Vietnamese duck egg is not only considered to be extremely tasty, but highly nutritious, with touted health benefits for conditions ranging from anemia and headaches to a lack of sex drive.
10. Tiet Canh – Blood Soup
Blood soup or pudding is a North Vietnamese dish made from the raw blood of various animals. This includes duck, pig, or goose, but it is typically duck. The blood is combined with fish sauce, and then meat and veggies are placed in blood, with turns into a jelly-like substance. Spices might include pepper, coriander, mint, and chili. High in protein, this is a healthy food provided it comes from a healthy animal.
Visit Vietnam to Experience Authentic (and Weird) Vietnamese Food
Vietnam has many beautiful sights and experiences to offer the adventurous traveler. It is also known for its unique food. To enjoy authentic street food from Vietnam and other delicacies – including the infamous coconut worm – you need to come to Vietnam. Plan your trip today!