A Food Lover's Travel Guide to the Best of Vietnamese Food

The Greens of Vietnam: A Guide to the Herbs in Vietnamese Food

The difference between herbs and vegetables can be argued over, but generally herbs are something that enhances the flavour of food. The Vietnamese have a term for this “rau thom”. “Rau” refers to edible leafy vegetation, and “thơm” meaning aromatic or fragrant. Vietnam loves herbs. They’re used like condiments. It’s a big part of the reason why Vietnamese food is so good. Order a bowl of pho in Vietnam and it will surely come with a plate of greens. Never has a pile of leaves been so intimidating. Some you may recognize – cilantro/coriander, dill, lemongrass, and various forms of mint are popular in Vietnam – but for the unrecognizable ones, hopefully this will help you make the most out of the Vietnamese’s favourite flavour enhancers.

thai basil

Thai Basil - Húng Quế

Identifying it: Small, narrow leaves that are darker than Italian basil, purple stems, will sometimes have purple white flowers. Smells like black licorice. Probably the most popular herb in Vietnam.

Taste: Slightly sweet. Anise taste.

Use: Tear off the leaves and eat them raw. They will almost always be served with pho amongst many other dishes. Place a pile of leaves in the soup and mix them in.

bitter herb

Bitter Herb - Rau Dắng

Identifying it: Narrow alternating leaves with thin stems.

Taste: Bitter, of course.

Use: Popular with hotpot (lậu) and for use in soups. Use only the leaves and taste as you add them to avoid over-bittering your food.

Chinese Chives

Chinese Chives - Hẹ

Identifying it: Also known as garlic chives, they are tubular and flatten off at the ends. They are similar looking to traditional chives.

Taste: Similar to traditional chives but with more of a garlic flavour.

Use: They often come cooked in soups or rolled into spring rolls. Some dishes will sprinkle chopped chives on dishes as a garnish.


Chrysanthemum - Tần Ô

Identifying it: A special kind of chrysanthemum that is edible. The alternately arranged leaves run along the thick stalk and finger out. They can be toothed or rounded.

Taste: A strong, bitter flavour.

Use: Cooked in soups and clay pot stews. Sometimes it will be given to you raw to add to your soup yourself.

Fish Mint

Fish Mint - Diếp Cá

Identifying it: Green heart shaped leaves and small white flowers. Slight fish smell.

Taste: Fishy

Use: Served with grilled meats and fish soup, in herb noodle salads, and fresh spring rolls.


Pennywort - Rau Má

Identifying it: Stems are slender. Leaves are rounded with small ripples.

Taste: Grassy, cucumber-like.

Use: Eaten raw in salads or fresh spring rolls. Used in a drink called nuoc rau ma (pennywort juice) because of its many health benefits.


Peppermint – Húng Cay

Identifying it: Slightly serrated leaves (not as serrated as spearmint) with a minor shine to them. Minty smell.

Taste: A strong mint flavour – like toothpaste or mint ice cream.

Use: Very popular. Served and eaten raw. Often rolled in spring rolls, served in salads. If your meal includes a plate full of greens, peppermint will probably be in there somewhere.

Rice Paddy Herb

Rice Paddy – Ngò ôm

Identifying it: Stems are hollow, spongy, and have small hairs. Leaves have small serrations.

Taste: Lemon and dill

Use: Most often used in sour soups or served with hot pot.


Culantro – Ngò Gai

Identifying it: Long narrow serrated leaves.

Taste: A stronger version of cilantro.

Use: As an accompaniment to pho or banh xeo (Pork and beansprout pancake). In sour soups.

Sorrel herb

Sorrel – Rau Chua

Identifying it: Broad and wavy arrow-shaped leaves.

Taste: Sour, kiwi-like.

Use: Added fresh to salads, or with bánh xēo, soups, or spring rolls


Spearmint – Húng Lũi

Identifying it: Dark green leaves are an oblong shape with serrated edges. Flowers are pink/white and spikey.

Taste: Like mint, but milder than peppermint.

Use: Served and eaten raw. Rolled in spring rolls, served in salads. Your plate of greens will most likely have this or peppermint (or both).

Vietnamese Balm herb

Vietnamese Balm – Kinh Giới

Identifying it: Long, stalked, and serrated leaves that are 2-8.5 cm in length.

Taste: Combination of lemon and mint.

Use: Can be found on herb plates that accompany soups and meats.

Vietnamese Coriander

Vietnamese Coriander – Rau Răm

Identifying it: Dark green with chestnut coloured spots. Smells and looks like mint.

Taste: A bit like mint, a bit like coriander, but spicier, and with a slight bitter lemony taste.

Use: Eaten in salads, fresh spring rolls, in soups, stews, and is often served with fertilized duck egg.

Pepper Elder

Pepper Elder – Càng Cua

Identifying it: Bright green and glossy broad, heart-shaped leaves. Stalks are slightly transparent.

Taste: Slightly sweet, slightly bitter.

Use: Eaten raw in salads or cooked into beef dishes.

Vietnamese Perilla

Vietnamese Perilla – Tiá Tô

Identifying it: Leaves are green on top and purple underneath.

Taste: Strong earthy taste.

Use: Eaten with soups, salads, and grilled meats. Check your herb plate for the green and purple combination.


Watercress – Xà Lách Son

Identifying it: Wavy, shiny green leaves grow out of a thick stem.

Taste: Peppery, piquant flavor.

Use: Can be found on herb plates that go with soups, pancakes, or grilled meats.

Piper Lolot

Piper lolot – Lá Lốt

Identifying it: Dark green, teardrop shaped leaves.

Taste: Peppery, bitter

Use: Most often used as a wrap for bò lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in leaves). They're similiar to betel leaves, and often confused with them.