The Vietnamese cuisine is one of Southeast Asia's great cuisines. Thanks to the big Vietnamese diaspora the dishes below can be enjoyed around the world. But food also has an important place in the country's culture and is in itself a reason for visiting Vietnam.
Food is at the very core 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.
Vietnamese cuisine varies from region to region, with many regions having their own specialties. Generally, northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being subtle, central Vietnamese cuisine is known for being spicy, while southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being sweet. There is also distinctive Vietnamese-Chinese cuisine to be found in Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown.
At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest about their cuisine. (An old proverb/joke says that "a fortunate man has a French house, a Japanese wife, and a Chinese chef.") High-end restaurants tend to serve "Asian-fusion" cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and occasionally French mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at street side "restaurants" (A collection of plastic outdoor furniture placed on the footpath), with most walk-in restaurants being mainly for tourists. Distinct 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 flavoured 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 savoury dish: you may 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 ngò), 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 (pronounced like the fu- in funny, but with tone), a broth soup with beef, pork, chicken or seafood and rice noodles (a form of rice linguine or fettuccine). In the south, phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs (usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chilies and scalded bean sprouts which you can add according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce, while in the north, it is usually served only with fried quẩy fritters and chilli sauce on the side. 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 types of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat, so is Phở thit lon with pork, Phở tom with shrimp, and Phở chay with tofu and vegetable stock. 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 bowl as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It's available at any time of the day, but locals eat most often Phở chay for breakfast. Famous phở restaurants can be found in Hanoi. The phở served at roadside stalls or informal restaurants tend to be cheaper and taste better than those served in fancier restaurants.
- Bún riêu - North Vietnamese noodle soup, common varieties include bún riêu cua (minced crab), bún riêu cá (fish) and bún riêu ốc (snail).
- Bún bò Huế - Soup with beef and rice vermicelli associated with Hue and the royal cuisine.
- Cơm tấm - broken rice with pork.
Seafood and fishEdit
Vietnamese waters are in danger of collapse from over-fishing. Nevertheless, for the moment if you like seafood, you may find bliss in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience may be travelling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that 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 served in friendly surroundings often with spectacular views.
Side dishes and snacksEdit
- Gỏi cuốn - Vietnamese spring rolls, also going by the name summer rolls. Ingredients including pork, shrimp and vegetables are wrapped into a transparent wrap of rice paper and unlike spring rolls they're served cold.
- Chả giò - the Vietnamese version of the fried spring roll encountered in some other Asian cuisines; fried and filled with pork and vegetables.
- Bánh mì - a sandwich made with a short baguette often filled with pork (other meats and fish may be used) and vegetables.
Vegetarian food is quite easy to find anywhere in Vietnam due in large part to the Mahayana Buddhist influence. These restaurants will run from upscale to street stall. Any Vietnamese dish with meat can be made vegetarian with the addition of fake meats. Besides the Buddhist influence of two vegetarian days a month, Cao Dai people eat vegetarian for 16 days, and followers of the Quan Yin sect eat vegan daily. Look for any sign that says Com Chay or simply remember the phrase An Chay. Even if you are not a vegetarian, a visit to a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant will add a few new flavours that you won't find elsewhere. Also vegetarian food tends to be cheap which can help eke out the most hardened meat eaters budget. Be careful at regular stalls and restaurants though, as even dishes that seem vegetarian on the surface can sometimes make use to non-vegetarian seasonings such as fish sauce.
Places to eatEdit
Most restaurants/cafes in Vietnam will have a bewildering variety of food available. It is very common for menus to be up to 10-15 pages. These will include all types of Vietnamese food, plus some token Western food, possibly some Chinese-style ribs and maybe a pad Thai as well. It is generally best to stick with the specialty of the area as this food will be the freshest and also the best-prepared. As in other South East Asian countries, the menu is often more an indication of what a restaurant can cook and not all items may be available at any given time.
In restaurants it is common practice for the wait staff to place a plastic packet (stamped with the restaurant's name) containing a moist towelette on your table. They are not free. They cost between 2,000-4,000 dong. If you open it, you will be charged for it. Also, peanuts or other nuts will be offered to you while you are browsing the menu. Those are not free, either. If you eat any, you will be charged.
Street side 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. Cơm is used to indicate eating in general, even when rice is not served (i.e., An cơm chua? - Have you eaten yet) Though they may look filthy, street side eateries are generally safe so long as you eat at places popular among the locals and avoid undercooked food.
In rural and regional areas it is usually safest to eat the locally grown types of food as these are usually bought each day from the market. It is not uncommon that after you have ordered your meal a young child of the family will be seen running out the back towards the nearest market to purchase the items.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonisers, but all three have been localised and remain popular. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost every village and on many 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. They are delicious and should be enjoyed at least once during a visit. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods.
Drinking in a Vietnamese bar is a great experience. One of the interesting things is that during the day, it is almost impossible to see a bar anywhere. Once the sun goes down though, dozens appear on the streets out of nowhere.
Watch out for ice in drinks. Factory-made ice is generally safe, but anything else can be suspect. Factory ice has a hollow, cylindrical shape. Avoid irregular chunks of ice as it may be unclean.
With a bottle of beer in a supermarket costing from 9,000 dong and in a bar from 20,000 dong, Vietnam is a beer-drinker's paradise. The main brews are light lagers with a strength of 4.5-4.9%. Much research is needed to decide on one's personal preference. Don't miss out on bia hơi, (literally "air beer"), or draught beer made daily. It's available throughout Vietnam, mostly from small bars on street corners. Bia hoi bars give you the opportunity to relax, drinking in a Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Every traveller can easily find these bars to experience what the locals are enjoying. Only 5,000 dong each. The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in metal kegs. It's a very light (3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draught or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hoi is not always made in sanitary conditions and its making is not monitored by any health agency.
The most popular beer (draught, bottle or can) among the southern Vietnamese is Saigon Do (Red Saigon). For the northern Vietnamese Bia Hanoi (Hanoi beer) is the most popular brand, whereas central Vietnamese prefer Festival beer or Bia Huda. 333, pronounced "ba-ba-ba" is a local brand, but it's somewhat bland; for a bit more flavour, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle and a bigger bottle than Bia Saigon Special. Bia Saigon is also available as little stronger export version. Expect to pay about 20,000-30,000 dong per bottle of Saigon or Hanoi, slightly more for other brands, however it is still easy to find restaurants selling Bia Saigon for 10,000 dong in many cities apart from Ho Chi Minh. 'Saigon Green' delivers the best quantity versus price. Bière Larue is also good, and you can find local brands in every larger city.
The craft beer revolution has well and truly reached Vietnam and bottled IPAs, brown beers and stouts are available in the major cities. Ho Chi Minh boasts an increasing number of brew-pubs and microbreweries. These brews are available at a fraction of the price they cost in Thailand or Singapore.
It's common for beer in Vietnam to be drunk with ice. This means that the cans or bottles need not be chilled. If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink. It is also considered necessary to drink when a toast is proposed: "mot, hai, ba, do" ("one, two, three, cheers"). Saying "Trăm Phần Trăm" (100% 100) implies you will empty your glass.
Another popular drink among locals and tourists alike is the coffee (cà phê). Do be careful when drinking locally-prepared coffee as the locals tend to drink it incredibly strong with about 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup. It is usually served black or with sweetened condensed milk - usually over ice; this style is known in Vietnamese as cà phê sữa đá. Ask for cà phê sữa nóng if you want your coffee hot.
Vietnamese coffee beans are fried, not roasted. If you are picky, bring your own coffee.
Coconut water is a favourite in the hot southern part of the country. Nước mía, or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts with a crank-powered sugar cane stalk crushers that release the juice. Another thirst quencher is the fabulous sinh tố, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a big glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. You can also have it blended in a mixer. You could place any fruit-type after the word sinh tố, e.g., sinh tố bơ (avocado smoothie) or sinh tố dừa (pineapple smoothie). If you prefer to have orange juice, you won't use the word sinh tố but nước (literally: water) or nước cam if you would like to have an orange juice. Juices are usually without condensed milk or coconut milk.
Wine and liquorEdit
Vietnamese "rượu đế" or rice alcohol (rượu means liquor or wine [not beer]) is served in tiny porcelain cups often with candied fruit or pickles. It's commonly served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women don't drink much alcohol, well at least in public. It's not recommended for tourists.
Dating back to French colonial times, Vietnam adopted a tradition of viticulture. Dalat is its centre, and you can get red and white wine. There is a better range and better quality red wines than whites as reds seem to appeal more to the Asian palate. Most restaurant wine is Australian and you will be charged Australian prices as well, making wine comparatively expensive compared to drinking beer or spirits. Vietnamese wine has hit the mass market and is available by the glass or bottle in many restaurants. The quality ranges from the just-about-drinkable Vang Dalat Classic to the more than palatable Vang Dalat Premium. In supermarkets a bottle of Classic can be bought for around 80,000 dong whilst Premium is around 120,000. In restaurants a bottle of Classic costs 120,000 to 150,000 dong. Premium is less widely available in restaurants and where it is costs around 200,000 dong a bottle.
Imported wines, mainly Australian, French and Chilean are also available in supermarkets and in mid range and high end restaurants at far more expensive prices.
Rice spirits and local vodka is cheap in Vietnam by Western standards. Local vodkas cost about US$2-4 for a 750 ml bottle. Russian champagne is also common. When at Nha Trang, look for the all-you-can-drink boat trips for around US$10-15 for an all-day trip and party with on-board band.