Top Local Dishes to Try in Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

One of the best ways to explore a destination is through the local food scene, which offers a better understanding of the country’s history and cultural heritage. Nikki and Michelle from Cheeky Passports share the food highlights of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.


Photo © Brian Rapsey

Being adventurous eaters, we discovered a culinary paradise in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where fresh ingredients and local cooking techniques result in some of the tastiest dishes in southeast Asia. Local eateries and stalls serve a wide range of street food that won’t break the bank.

To find the best place to get local street food when exploring a destination, follow the locals. To avoid getting sick, head to the popular stalls with the fastest turnover of dishes and check that food hasn’t been kept lying around in the heat for too long.

Food in Cambodia

Cambodian dishes tend to be less spicy than those of its neighbors, mainly because the use of herbs over spices. Its food receives far less international recognition, perhaps due to Cambodia’s smaller size when compared to culinary leaders such as Thailand and Vietnam. 

Freshwater fish is a staple in Cambodia, and fish amok – often referred to as Cambodia’s signature dish – is unlike any version of the dish you might have eaten in other countries. The slightly-sweet fish curry, steamed in banana leaf, is flavored with creamy coconut, lemongrass and lime leaves resulting in a delicate yet tasty concoction.

Prahok is Cambodia’s take on fermented fish paste and is often used to flavor soups and sauces. The strong-smelling paste is very much an acquired taste but, surprisingly, we enjoyed the kick it delivered to some of the local dishes.

Several very affordable rice, noodle, and stir-fried dishes are widely available throughout the country and will probably serve as the basis for several budget meals, many of which cost around US $1–US $2 from street stalls. Noodle soups with vegetables and grilled meats, as well as vegetable/egg fried rice or noodles, often flavored with fish sauce, are common.

Much of the food in Cambodia’s tourist areas is heavily influenced by western and Thai flavors, but typical Cambodian dishes feature on some menus. Our favorite go-to street food was tender grilled pork and rice (bai sach chrouk), accompanied by a cold beer on the streets of Siem Reap.

Insects are commonly eaten as snacks throughout Cambodia, and while they have also become somewhat of a tourist attraction, with some vendors even charging travelers a small fee for taking photos of the deep-fried bugs on sale, they also turn up in some restaurant dishes, such as stir-fried beef with red tree ants.

Sugar cane sweets on sale in Angkor, Cambodia. Photo credit: iStock/ostill

Food in Vietnam

Freshness, simplicity and a blend of all the right herbs are the benchmarks of Vietnamese cooking.  Perhaps the best-known Vietnamese dish is pho, a light rice noodle soup, flavored with fresh herbs, topped with bean sprouts and meat. Our favorites were dished up in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Another staple is goi cuon, Vietnam’s famous spring rolls stuffed with fresh vegetables, herbs and shrimp or pork. Cao lau, a dish based on pork and noodles is typical of Hoi An, and is said to be prepared using only water drawn from a secret well somewhere near the town. 

Bac Ha Market, Vietnam. Photo credit: iStock/Nikada

Coconut milk features widely in Vietnamese desserts, and is commonly found in che, a sweet drink or pudding, available in different flavors. While sweet sticky rice with coconut milk is a popular after-dinner dessert. Tapioca and mung beans tend to be used as ingredients in Vietnamese puddings, which may also be flavored with green pandan leaves. 

Vietnamese families typically eat dinner together with a variety of communal dishes being served alongside a large bowl of rice. Late dining has become more common in larger cities, with some roadside vendors selling snacks until the early hours of the morning. You can find a bowl of steaming pho at any time of day.

Food in Laos

Lao cooking is similar to that found in the northern parts of Thailand and is characterized by sticky rice, fresh vegetables and grilled fish or meat, flavored with herbs and chili. 

Our favorite dish from Laos is laap, a minced meat salad, lightly flavored with citrus and fish sauce. Don’t miss out on kaipen, flat sheets of fried crispy river algae, sold from stalls and restaurants beside the river in Luang Prabang.

While rice is a staple all throughout Asia, khao niew (sticky rice) is mainly found in Laos, where it’s served in individual bamboo baskets and eaten by hand. A spicy green papaya salad (tam mak hoong) is also a Lao specialty, although it’s not uncommon to find it in neighboring countries, too.

Tha Khaek, central Laos. Photo credit: iStock/urf

Cooking Classes

Learning to cook local food is one of the best ways to take something home with you. Not only will you learn how to make the tastiest recipes, but the best classes will also teach you about the history of local food and its context in the local culture.

Our cooking class in Laos, organized by a local restaurant, included a market tour where we learned all about the herbs and ingredients used in traditional Lao cooking, such as lemongrass, followed by a class led by one of the restaurant staff.

Colonial Influence on Food

The influence of French food (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were part of French Indochina for around 60 years from 1887) is obvious in all three countries, where crusty baguettes, stuffed with an assortment of fillings, are commonly eaten for breakfast and throughout the day.

French bread is also used for banh mi, one of Vietnam’s most popular streets foods, stuffed with pâté, pork, and pickled vegetables. 

Cafes serving coffee and pastries are ubiquitous in the cities across all three countries.

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