Vietnam has one of the finest, most varied and healthiest cuisines in all of Asia. The serious Vietnamese cook strives to excite all the senses. Presentation attracts the eye, the snap of fresh vegetables and crunch of crispy crusts pleases the ear, aromatic herbs and spices tantalise the nose and textures – tender, chewy, smooth and rough – engage the diner’s tactile sense. Taste is a balanced, often counter-punctual combination of sweet, sour, savoury, salty, bitter and spicy. Simple ingredients combined with skill and care create exquisite meals that are far more than the sum of their parts.
No food is wasted; everything is used in Vietnam. Snails from the rice paddies, critters from the mountains, flowers, roots and shoots from the forest, herbs and leaves from the fields and paths are all put to good use. If it tastes good, you will find it on the Vietnamese table. Animal parts that are often discarded in Western cuisine (or made into sausage) are utilised fully in Vietnamese cooking.
Food in Vietnam is regionally influenced. Popular dishes in Hanoi may be difficult to find in Ho Chi Minh City and the reverse is also true. Since Hoi An, Da Nang and Nha Trang are in central Vietnam and have been exposed to influences from both the north and the south, they enjoy the best of both cuisines—as well as having their own specialties found nowhere else in Vietnam.
A typical Vietnamese morning begins with a steaming bowl of phở (pronounced “fuh”), a popular noodle soup originating in the north that is now enjoyed throughout Vietnam.
Phở starts with a subtly complex clear stock made from the long, slow simmering of marrow bones, flank steak, charred onion, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, roasted ginger, cardamom, coriander and fennel. It is served in large bowls with tender flat rice noodles accompanied by thin-sliced rare and well-cooked beef, meatballs or chicken and is garnished to taste at the table with spring onions, sauces and fresh herbs.
Many Vietnamese (and expats) are just as content to have a bánh mì—a Vietnamese sandwich—for breakfast. Ingredients vary but usually include soft cheese, pâté, sliced pork, sardines or eggs, topped with pickled carrots, jicama, coriander and chilli sauce, served on a just-baked baguette.
Cháo—a hearty rice porridge flavoured with meat, fowl or fish—is also a popular meal, particularly during the colder winter months.
Most restaurants supply chopsticks and spoons, but not forks, so having chopstick skills is handy in Vietnam. Individual bowls of rice, served with an assortment of beef, pork, chicken or duck are common meals, as well as fish, shrimp and crab. A bowl or two of steamed, stir-fried, pickled or raw vegetables is served with every meal and there will generally be clear broth or soup at the end of the meal. Fresh fruit is offered for dessert instead of sweets.
Though it may seem that way at times, not every meal revolves around rice. Vietnamese cuisine uses dozens of different noodles, too; entire supermarket aisles are devoted to nothing but noodles. Spring rolls and wraps are also popular throughout the country.
No Vietnamese meal would be complete without nước mắm (fish sauce). Used extensively in cooking and as a tableside condiment, nước mắm has a surprisingly delicate flavour that helps foods taste richer and more savoury. This condiment combined with chili peppers, sugar, lime or vinegar and garlic becomes nước chấm, the ubiquitous sauce used for dipping and for flavouring many Vietnamese dishes.
Bún chả, a Hanoi speciality, is a dish served with rice vermicelli, marinated and charcoal grilled thin-sliced fatty pork shoulder and ground pork patties, fresh salad, basil, coriander and other aromatic herbs. The smokey-flavoured grilled meat is served in a generous bowl of nước chấm broth to which minced garlic and lightly pickled thin-sliced green papaya and carrot has been added. The other ingredients are added to taste. Bún chả giò chay is the vegetarian form of this dish, where deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls substitute for the meat.
Da Nang and Hoi An make the country’s best mì quảng. This hugely popular dish is made from wide rice noodles called lá mì, which are tinted yellow by preparing them with turmeric. A large bowl holds these quảng noodles; slices of seasoned pork (usually pork belly), chicken, fish or shrimp are sautéed in annatto oil and piled on top. A small amount of mild broth is poured over the noodles and meat and the dish is garnished with a hard-boiled quail egg or chicken egg, shrimp, toasted peanuts and an assortment of fresh vegetables such as water mint, basil, coriander, shaved banana flower and lettuce. This dish is served with fresh herbs and rounds of bánh tráng, a rustic type of sesame rice cracker, along with chilli oil, ground ginger and fish sauce.
Bánh xèo (pronounced “ban zay-o”) is popular all over southern and central Vietnam and increasingly in the north, as well. Sometimes known as “Vietnamese pancakes,” bánh xèo are super-thin crepes made from rice flour, turmeric and water, then stuffed with slivers of pork, shrimp and/or squid, diced scallions, bean sprouts and occasionally mushrooms. Portions of the “pancake” are wrapped in lettuce leaves or raw mustard greens, along with herbs such as basil, citronella and mint. Finally, the bánh xèo is wrapped in a thin sheet of rice paper and dipped in a sweet, sour and savoury sauce.
Bún thịt nướng (pronounced “boon tit noong”) is a popular dish originating in the south. It’s a delicious dish perfect for lunch or dinner in the tropics, consisting of thin rice vermicelli served cold with sliced lemongrass-infused charcoal-grilled pork chops sitting on top of a bed of daikon (Japanese radish), thinly sliced cucumber, lettuce and carrots. The flavours are blended together with the addition of nước chấm.
Hot pot, or lẩu, is popular dish that’s made for sharing. A large pot of seasoned broth is brought to the table and a butane or Sterno-powered burner is lit. You are provided with platters of raw vegetables, mushrooms and herbs and plates of uncooked meat, poultry, shrimp or seafood. As the broth comes to a boil, add the ingredients, let them boil until they are cooked and fish them back out. Everyone digs in and takes whatever food looks good from the communal pot, with more vegetables and meat added to the pot as needed. Rice or noodles accompany the meal.
Lẩu, hot pot, steamboat, sukiyaki—all basically the same concept—is immensely popular in Vietnam and it can be fun to get a group of people together for one of these meals. It’s not only nourishment, it’s entertainment, too.
Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee and it is the hot beverage of choice for many Vietnamese. Coffee drinkers will love cà phê sữa. Strong, ground coffee is very slowly dripped through a special filter and then served with thick, sweetened condensed milk. A remnant of the French occupation, coffee has remained a source of national pride and locals drink nearly as much coffee as they do tea.
The only beverage that might bring more pride to the national image is fresh draught beer, known as bia hơi in the north and bia tươi in the central and south. This Czech-inspired pilsner beer is locally brewed in small batches without preservatives. Inexpensive and plentiful, Vietnam’s streets remain lively well into the night when there’s a bia hơi stand nearby.