The staple of Vietnamese meals is rice, with noodles a popular alternative at breakfast or as a snack. Typically, rice will be accompanied by a fish or meat dish, a vegetable dish and soup, followed by a green tea digestive. Seafood and fish – from rivers, lakes, canals and paddy fields as well as the sea – are favoured throughout the country, either fresh or dried. The most commonly used flavourings are shallots, coriander and lemon grass. Ginger, saffron, mint, anise and a basil-type herb also feature strongly, and coconut milk gives some southern dishes a distinctive richness.
Even in the south, Vietnamese food tends not to be over-spicy; instead chilli sauces or fresh chillies are served separately. Vietnam’s most famous seasoning is the ubiquitous nuoc mam, a nutrient-packed sauce which either is added during cooking or forms the base for various dipping sauces. Nuoc mam is made by fermenting huge quantities of fish in vats of salt for between six months and a year, after which the dark brown liquid is strained and graded according to its age and flavour. Foreigners usually find the smell of the sauce pretty rank, but most soon acquire a taste for its distinctive salty-sweetness.
The use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be excessive, especially in northern cooking, and some people are known to react badly to the seasoning. A few restaurants in the main cities have cottoned on to the foibles of foreigners and advertise MSG-free food; elsewhere, try saying khong co my chinh (without MSG), and keep your fingers crossed. Note that what looks like salt on the table is sometimes MSG, so taste it first.
The most famous Vietnamese dish has to be spring rolls, variously known as cha gio, cha nem, nem ran or just plain nem. Various combinations of minced pork, shrimp or crab, rice vermicelli, onions, bean sprouts and an edible fungus are rolled in rice-paper wrappers, and then eaten fresh or deep-fried. In some places they’re served with a bowl of lettuce and/or mint. In addition, a southern variation has barbecued strips of pork wrapped in semi-transparent rice wrappers, along with raw ingredients such as green banana and star fruit, and then dunked in a rich peanut sauce – every bit as tasty as it sounds.
Soups and noodles
Though it originated in the north, another dish you’ll find throughout Vietnam is pho (pronounced as the British say “fur”), a noodle soup eaten at any time of day but primarily at breakfast. The basic bowl of pho consists of a light beef broth, flavoured with ginger, coriander and sometimes cinnamon, to which are added broad, flat rice-noodles, spring onions and slivers of chicken, pork or beef. At the table you add a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of chilli flakes or a spoonful of chilli sauce.
Countless other types of soup are dished up at street restaurants. Bun bo is another substantial beef and noodle soup eaten countrywide, though most famous in Hué; in the south, hu tieu, a soup of vermicelli, pork and seafood noodles, is best taken in My Tho. Chao (or xhao), on the other hand, is a thick rice gruel served piping hot, usually with shredded chicken or filleted fish, flavoured with dill and with perhaps a raw egg cooking at the bottom; it’s often served with fried breadsticks (quay). Sour soups are a popular accompaniment for fish, while lau, a standard in local restaurants, is more of a main meal than a soup, where the vegetable broth arrives at the table in a steamboat (a ring-shaped metal dish on live coals or, nowadays, often electrically heated). You cook slivers of beef, prawns or similar in the simmering soup, and then drink the flavourful liquid that’s left in the cooking pot.
Fish and meat
Among the highlights of Vietnamese cuisine are its succulent seafood and freshwater fish. Cha ca is the most famous of these dishes: white fish sauteed in butter at the table with dill and spring onions, then served with rice noodles and a sprinkling of peanuts; invented in Hanoi, it’s now found in most upmarket restaurants. Another dish found in more expensive restaurants is chao tom (or tom bao mia), consisting of savoury shrimp pate wrapped round sweet sugar cane and fried. Ca kho to, fish stew cooked in a clay pot, is a southern speciality.
Every conceivable type of meat and part of the animal anatomy finds itself on the Vietnamese dining table, though the staples are straightforward beef, chicken and pork. Ground meat, especially pork, is a common constituent of stuffings, for example in spring rolls or the similar banh cuon, a steamed, rice-flour “ravioli” filled with minced pork, black mushrooms and bean sprouts; a popular variation uses prawns instead of meat. Pork is also used, with plenty of herbs, to make Hanoi’s bun cha, small hamburgers barbecued on an open charcoal brazier and served on a bed of cold rice-noodles with greens and a slightly sweetish sauce. One famous southern dish is bo bay mon (often written bo 7 mon), meaning literally beef seven ways, consisting of a platter of beef cooked in different styles.
Roving gourmets may want to try some of the more unusual meats on offer. Dog meat (thit cay or thit cho) is a particular delicacy in the north, where “yellow” dogs (sandy-haired varieties) are considered the tastiest. Winter is the season to eat dog meat – it’s said to give extra body heat, and is also supposed to remove bad luck if consumed at the end of the lunar month. Snake (thit con ran), like dog, is supposed to improve male virility. Dining on snake is surrounded by a ritual, which, if you’re guest of honour, requires you to swallow the still-beating heart. Another one strictly for the strong of stomach is trung vit lon, embryo-containing duck eggs boiled and eaten only five days before hatching – bill, webbed feet, feathers and all.
Vegetables – and vegetarian food
If all this has put you off meat for ever, it is possible to eat vegetarian food in Vietnam, though not always easy. The widest selection of vegetables is to be found in Da Lat where a staggering variety of tropical and temperate crops thrive. Elsewhere, most restaurants offer a smattering of meat-free dishes, from stewed spinach or similar greens, to a more appetizing mix of onion, tomato, bean sprouts, various mushrooms, peppers and so on; places used to foreigners may be able to oblige with vegetarian spring rolls (nem an chay or nem khong co thit). At street kitchens you’re likely to find tofu and one or two dishes of pickled vegetables, such as cabbage or cucumber, while occasionally they may also have aubergine, bamboo shoots or avocado, depending on the season.
However, unless you go to a specialist vegetarian outlet – of which there are some excellent examples in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hué – it can be a problem finding genuine veggie food: soups are usually made with beef stock, morsels of pork fat sneak into otherwise innocuous-looking dishes and animal fat tends to be used for frying.
The phrase to remember is an chay (vegetarian), or seek out a vegetarian rice shop (tiem com chay). Otherwise, make the most of the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month when many Vietnamese Buddhists spurn meat and you’re more likely to find vegetarian dishes on offer.
Vietnam has a wide range of snacks and nibbles to fill any yawning gaps, from huge rice-flour crackers sprinkled with sesame seeds to all sorts of dried fish, nuts and seeds. Banh bao are white, steamed dumplings filled with tasty titbits, such as pork, onions and tangy mushrooms or strands of sweet coconut. Banh xeo, meaning sizzling pancake, combines shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and egg, all fried and then wrapped in rice paper with a selection of greens before being dunked in a spicy sauce. A similar dish, originating from Hué – a city with a vast repertoire of snack foods – is banh khoai, in which the flat pancake is accompanied by a plate of star fruit, green banana and aromatic herbs, plus a rich peanut sauce.
Markets are often good snacking grounds, with stalls churning out soups and spring rolls or selling intriguing banana-leaf parcels of pate (a favourite accompaniment for bia hoi), pickled pork sausage or perhaps a cake of sticky rice.
A relative newcomer on the culinary scene is French bread, made with wheat flour in the north and rice flour in the south. Baguettes – sometimes sold warm from streetside stoves – are sliced open and stuffed with pate, soft cheese or ham and pickled vegetables.
With its diverse climate, Vietnam is blessed with both tropical and temperate fruits, including dozens of banana species. The richest orchards are in the south, where pineapple, coconut, papaya, mango, longan and mangosteen flourish. Da Lat is famous for its strawberries, while the region around Nha Trang produces the peculiar “dragon fruit” (thanh long). The size and shape of a small pineapple, the dragon fruit has skin of shocking pink, studded with small protuberances, and smooth, white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds. The slightly sweet, watery flesh is thirst-quenching, and so is often served as a drink, crushed with ice.
A fruit that is definitely an acquired taste is the durian, a spiky, yellow-green football-sized fruit with an unmistakably pungent odour reminiscent of mature cheese and caramel, but tasting like an onion-laced custard. Jackfruit looks worryingly similar to durian but is larger and has smaller spikes. Its yellow segments of flesh are deliciously sweet.
Vietnam is not strong on desserts – restaurants usually stick to ice cream and fruit, although fancier international places might venture into tiramisu territory. Those with a sweet tooth are better off hunting down a bakery – there’ll be one within walking distance in any urban area – or browsing around street stalls where there are usually candied fruits and other Vietnamese sweetmeats on offer, as well as sugary displays of French-inspired cakes and pastries in the main tourist centres.
Green-coloured banh com is an eye-catching local delicacy made by wrapping pounded glutinous rice around sugary, green-bean paste. A similar confection, found only during the mid-autumn festival, is the “earth cake”, banh deo, which melds the contrasting flavours of candied fruits, sesame and lotus seeds with a dice of savoury pork fat. Fritters are popular among children and you’ll find opportunistic hawkers outside schools, selling banh chuoi (banana fritters) and banh chuoi khoai (mixed slices of banana and sweet potato).
Most cities now have ice-cream parlours selling tubs or sticks of the local, hard ices in chocolate, vanilla or green-tea flavours, though it’s prudent to buy only from the larger, busier outlets and not from street hawkers. More exotic tastes can be satisfied at the European- and American-style ice-cream parlours of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, while excellent yoghurts are also increasingly available at ice-cream parlours, and even some restaurants.