Food sits at the very epicenter of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person’s life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions – food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors’ deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.
At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest about their cuisine. (And old proverb/joke says that a fortunate man has an American house, Japanese wife, and Chinese chef.) High-end restaurants tend to serve “Asian-fusion” cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at modest or even quite cheap restaurants. Definite regional styles exist — northern, central, and southern, each with unique dishes. Central style is perhaps the most celebrated, with dishes such as mi quang (wheat noodles with herbs, pork, and shrimp), banh canh cua (crab soup with thick rice noodles) and bun bo Hue (beef soup with herbs and noodles).
Many Vietnamese dishes are flavored with fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells and tastes like anchovies (quite salty and fishy) straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. (Try taking home a bottle of fish sauce, and using it instead of salt in almost any savory dish — you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.) Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called nước chấm, served on the table with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander or cilantro (rau mùi or rau mgò), mint (rau răm) and basil (rau húng), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighboring countries, especially China.
Vietnam’s national dish is phở, a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles ( a form of rice linguini or fettuccini). Phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs(usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chilis and and scalded bean sprouts which you can add in according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phở is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal. Most phở places specialize in phở and can serve you a bowls as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It’s available at any time of the day, but locals eat it most often for breakfast. Famous phở restaurants can be found in both Hanoi and HCMC.
Streetside eateries in Vietnam typically advertise phở and cơm. Though cơm literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese.
If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.