"The Vietnamese are a skinny people obsessed with food"—Anthony Bourdain
People tend to know two things about Vietnam: that it endured a long and painful war, and that it has one of the richest, most varied cuisines in the world.
You're about to embark upon an intimate journey through one of the world's most widely recognized and appreciated cuisines. Our obsession is giving you the information you'll need to intelligently eat and drink your way through Vietnam on an unforgettable culinary adventure. This list is only one part of that goal, on the ground your guide, local tour managers and people you meet will provide other suggestions. Also, don’t underestimate your hotel’s restaurants and cafes, some have fabulous food, in some places ranking better to what you may find outside in smaller towns.
Vietnam is a country best told by its people, with a cuisine that can only be understood when you share the experience with a local. Our Vietnam food tours are about the cuisine but also the people who share their story with you. Like a dinner date with an ex royal artist, a bowl of pho with a decorated fighter pilot, seafood stories from conical-hatted fishermen and interactive cooking classes with the chefs behind Vietnam's international culinary prominence. Every city has its own style, each chef cooks differently, and every dish provides a new memory. This is a country with a fabulous cuisine and our Vietnam luxury tours aim to infuse diverse food into your daily experience.
We began orgainzing our Iron Chef Vietnam culinary journeys nearly twenty years ago. Why Vietnam? Of all the destinations to enjoy a culinary-focused tours, it is in Vietnam where food really shows the heart and soul of a nation. You can sense it in every meal, whether a breakfast overlooking the rice paddies or a dinner in an opulent city restaurant. Food is a topic of conversation with the locals you meet, an ice-breaker for conversing with strangers. It's an invite to explore, with markets and alleyways so vibrant in their fragrances and flavors. We can blend in a mix of culinary highlights, from informal street eats to formal dining, including specific culinary activities experiences in your trip, such cooking classes and markets. But more than that, ensure that the country's gastronomic pleasures become part of your every day, instilling the heart and soul of a country into every bite.
If cooking were painting, Vietnam would have one of the world's most colorful palettes. The great diversity of its climate and terrain can produce almost anything which can be eaten. The Vietnamese themselves have no culinary inhibitions and are always willing to try something new. When you combine the two, nothing is ruled out.
The famous dishes such as pho and fresh spring rolls are but the tip of a gastronomic iceberg. In addition to a myriad of foods and preparations, there is a staggering number of sauces and dips limited only by the imagination of each cook. The picture of Vietnamese cuisine is vast and varied, always subject to innovation, and always vibrantly colorful.
You'll encounter the wonderful and the strange, the sacred and the profane. You'll find spices that sing in your mouth, smells that trigger emotions, dishes that amaze by their cleverness and beguile by their sensuousness, drinks that surprise, fruits that will shock and creatures that will make you shriek. Above all, you'll find the people that make up Vietnam's food culture who will charm, frustrate and intrigue you.
You are about to consume a culture. A culture that is still relatively poor in goods but rich in history, art, literature, music and pride. A culture that will reveal itself to you, if you are willing and hungry enough, through the medium of its cuisine. Vietnam lays itself bare in the kitchen and at the table. Its history, its legends and its lore are all reflected in its food and drink. As you navigate these pages, we wish you a good journey and a good appetite.
Historians like to say that geography is fate. Geography is also cuisine, for it determines what foods and what people may shape it. The topography of Vietnam presents virtually every climate and microclimate capable of yielding a crop or animal, whether tropical or temperate, from fish, rice and tea to beef, coffee and cream. Â Look at the map of Vietnam. As the Vietnamese are eager to point out, it resembles a don ganh (a yoke), a bamboo pole with a basket of rice slung from each end. The baskets represent the main rice-growing regions of the Red River Delta in the north, and the Mekong Delta in the south. The other thing to notice on this highly symbolic map of Vietnam is its waters, its 2,400km of coastline and its innumerable kilometers of rivers and streams.
Rice cultivation and the harvesting of the water world provide the cuisine of Vietnam with its two most potent symbols and substances: rice and nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce). This pair makes up the sine qua non of Vietnamese food. With them, Vietnamese cooks can go anywhere and still prepare something atleast close to their native fare. Without them, they are bereft.
In keeping with its geography, Vietnamese cooking is heavily influenced by China, especially in methods of preparation and kitchen equipment. They share the concept of `the five flavors, a balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot (spicy). A dish may be dominated by one or two of the five, but the others will usually play a pleasing harmony in the culinary tune. Stir fry is a common method of preparation but the Vietnamese generally use very little oil, displaying a lighter hand than the Chinese. The frying is more of a gentle simmering in the expressed juices of the food. Lightness and freshness are the goals.
As in China, vegetables play a central role in cuisine, but in Vietnam they are raw as often as cooked. Vietnam's fish and seafood are plentiful, and of great variety. Fish are generally alive at the time of sale to the consumer, and deftly killed and cleaned by the merchant upon selection. Vietnamese cooks rightly point out that fish are more flavorful if they are not deboned before cooking. This can be a problem for the uninitiated, as so many of the fish have numerous small bones. Vietnamese grow up practiced in the art of removing them while eating, but foreigners may find the process tiring and frustrating.
Like Chinese food, varying textures such as crunch and chewiness are prized at the Vietnamese table. Indispensable as a seasoning is nuoc mam (they seldom use soy); like a judicious splash of Worcestershire sauce, when cooked into a dish it buries itself in the flavors of the food and gives it greater dimension without altering its basic character. Also important are the fire spices, chili and black pepper. Normally they are not cooked into the food but served as condiments, and are used as commonly as salt. Sweet spices such as star anise and cinnamon, and pungent ginger are common. Vinegar is not widely used - acidity is provided by tamarind and lime.
The Vietnamese have three styles or manners of cooking and eating: comprehensive eating, or eating through the five senses; scientific eating, which observes the dualistic principles of yin & yang; and democratic eating, or the freedom to eat as you like.
In comprehensive eating, the most common form, you eat with your eyes first. Dishes must be attractively presented with a diversity of forms and colors. Then the nose follows: the Vietnamese penchant for aroma is brought to the fore, and each dish must offer pleasant odors of meat, Fish or vegetables and a sauce. When chewing, take care to feel the softness of noodles, the texture of the meat, and listen to the crackling sound of rice crackers or the crunchiness of roasted peanuts. And then you taste. The cook must see to it that each dish prepared has its own distinct flavor, and you, the diner, should take note of the differences. A dish might have all the five flavors, but none should predominate.
Scientific eating concentrates on the dualistic philosophy of yin & yang, in this case a balance between hot and cold. For instance, a fish stew would be seasoned with salty fish sauce which is yang, but balanced by he yin of sugar. Green mangoes (yin) should be taken with salt and hot chilis (yang); grilled catfish or duck (yin) must be eaten with ginger ;yang). This kind of eating is said to contribute to the good health of both mind and body.
Democratic eating is when you eat for the sake of eating. Everybody does it, but no one wants to make a habit of it.
By Richard Sterling ("the Indiana Jones of Gastronomy"), World Food Guide Vietnam (see Richard's other blog and books, including our favorite, Dining with Headhunters, a collection of currey recipes along with tall travel tales).
A table salad (xalach dia) of assorted fresh herbs, salad greens, and sprouts, and vinegared vegetables comes as an accompaniment to almost every meal, and there are always condiments on hand. One of the most pleasurable aspects of
eating Vietnamese food is the act of sampling, altering, and enhancing your food as you eat. Vietnamese soups exemplify the freshness, complex flavors, and flexible do-it-yourself aspect of Vietnamese cuisine.
Large bowls of pho (hot soup) are a favorite breakfast in Vietnam, and can also be found in stalls and restaurants later in the day. The soups are famously hearty and delicious. The Vietnamese are also known for their soup broths filled with noodles, bean sprouts, sprigs of fresh herbs, and lean pieces of chicken, pork, or beef. Garnish your soup with more fresh herbs or sprouts from the table salad, or with any of the many little sauces and condiments that may be set out.
Vietnamese dipping and flavoring sauces are varied, tasty, and addictive. The most common of these is known as nuoc mam, pale blend of salty, pungent fermented fish sauce diluted with fresh lime juice and sometimes vinegar, spiced with garlic and chopped chiles, and sweetened with a touch of sugar. You can drizzle it over your rice, use it as a dip for spring rolls or grilled meats, or add a spoonful to your soup. It is delightful with french fries (and the Vietnamese make soem of the best fried you will ever have). Other dipping sauces include nuoc leo, a peanut sauce from the Hue region now widely found throughout the country; tuong ot, a red hot chile sauce similar to the famed sriracha, and mam tom, a pungent shrimp sauce also from central Vietnam. One of our favorite condiments is a simple combination often served at soup stalls and restaurants: a pile of black pepper and a pile of salt placed side-byside on a small dish and served with a wedge of lime. You squeeze a little lime juice into the dish and blend some salt and pepper with it to make a paste into which you dip bits of grilled meat or meat from your soup.
Roll Your Own
The other do-it-yourself element in many Vietnamese meals comes with roll-your-own rice-paper rolls. For example, grilled chunks of lemongrass beef (thit bo nuong), grilled meatballs (nem nuong), or freshly steamed shrimp (tom) all come served with a salad plate together with a stack of moist rice papers (banh trang) or fresh rice wrappers (banh uot). You lay a wrapper on your open palm, place your ingreients into the moist, pliable rice paper to roll. If you're traveling to Halong Bay with us, you'll have a chance to prefect the spring roll with your on-board chef (right).
The Sandwich Bar
Banh mi (sandwiches) are made to order from delicious French-style baguettes and usually include pickled strips of white radish and carrot. You can choose a selection of pates and cured meats. You may want to avoid mayonnaise as a health precaution. Baguettes made from rice flour are sold in street stalls from Haiphong to the Mekong Delta from midmorning until after sunset; when there's a choice, go for the vendor who heats the bread on a grill before assembling the sandwich. You'll see a small charcoal brazier by the side of the stall or under the sandwich cart. Don't buy your sandwich late, by the afternoon the bread is now really only useful as a hard-edged weapon. To go with your bread, pate or cheese? The pate is homemade, the consistency of Spam, and wrapped in banana-leaf. As long as it's not too old, it's okay. Spam-pate is usually made from pork. Cheese is usually processed in boxed segments; try either the Laughing Cow variety (La Vache Qui Rit or Vache Jolie) or the sterner non-laughing cow (Nouvelle Vache). Palatable, but poor quality. There's a cake shop in Hanoi that makes cheese similar in taste to feta. Another topping is jam, another French transplant. Varieties include papaya and pineapple.
Which came first: the duck or the egg? In Hanoi you can have both at once. If you enjoy Andrew Zimmerman, than this dish may be for you. A duck egg is incubated to a critical moment and then boiled, which results in a soft crunchy duck emerging from the egg. Not for the faint-hearted, this dish is called trung vit lon, but get some coaching lessons on the correct tones as this collection of words can also refer to something quite rude.
By exotic, we mean fruit you have never seen nor tasted if you've not been tot he region before, a definite highlight of your Vietnamese culinary explorations. The country offers a profusion of tropical fruit, especially in the Mekong Delta. These exotic specimens will tickle your taste buds, quench your thirst, or at the very least arouse your curiosity. Among the rarer and more exotic are dragon fruit (thanh long), found in the Nha Trang area, and water coconut (dua nuoc) and a three-segment coconut (that lot) from the Mekong Delta. Juice bars in the south turn out concoctions with crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk and other murky mixtures, called che bap. Fruit is also used to make a variety of jams and jellies. You can also get exotic items like custard apple ice cream in Saigon. Fruit is seasonal, and offerings vary from north to south. Durian (sau rieng) is a round, greenish fruit studded with sharp spikes. It's the size of a football, can weigh up to twenty pounds, though is available in the summer in the south. Broken open with a sharp knife, it reveals white podlike sections that have the texture of a very ripe French Camembert, which is why the fruit is nicknamed "the cheese that grows on trees." Despite its awful smell, durian has an exotic taste, described by 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russet Wallace thus: "A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities." In Asia, the smooth and highly nutritious flesh of the durian is reputed to be an aphrodisiac.
Also in the football-size league is the jackfruit (mit), a cousin of the durian. Jackfruit is bright yellow and very sweet and crisp with a sweet fragrance. The large hard seeds can be steamed, shelled, and eaten. Jackfruit can grow to monstrous proportions, with some specimens weighing in at 40 kilograms. As the fruit ripens, the skin turns from green to brown, and is covered with blunt spines. The tender fruit is either eaten raw or cooked in various sweet and savory dishes.
Rambutan (chom chom) has hairy reddish spines surrounding a translucent fruit that tastes like lychee. Similar tasting, but with a smooth exterior skin, is the smaller longan (trai nhan). Mangosteen (mang cut) has a leathery maroon husk with soft, delicious white flesh inside. The taste reminds Westerners alternately of cream, lemonade, and fragrant apple. When eating this fruit, avoid the large seed in the center, which can be bitter if bitten. Also watch out for mangosteen juice, which stains. Some fruit is used in salads or for other purposes. A fresh young coconut is often cut in half and the flesh scooped out with a spoon-ice cream and candied fruit can then be served in the shell along with the coconut I flesh. Star fruit (trai khe) is used in salads and juices; you'll know the cool, watery fruit inside is ripe when the waxy skin turns from green to deep yellow. Star fruit is also known as the star apple, or carambola.
A bit more familiar in taste for Westerners is the pomelo (buoi), a relative of the grapefruit and tasting similar, though it has a huge, husky exterior. Watch out for the translucent segment skin, which can be very bitter. Uglifruit (cam sank) is a grapefruit-tangerine hybrid, with dark green or mottled skin. It is often used for orange juice that is guzzled in Saigon. The persimmon (bong) looks like a tomato but has a stretched bright orange glossy skin. Inside, the fruit offers a smooth firm flesh.
The Java apple (man), also known as rose apple, is bright red, pale pink, or greenish, and has a sweet-and-sour acquired taste. The tiny Vietnamese apple is extremely sour; a bite will bring tears to your eyes, though it doesn't appear to have much effect on the locals who happily munch away. Locals in the south also feed on tamarind, a bean-like fruit with a brittle skin, and pods that will make you pucker like you've never puckered before. The flesh is used to flavor curries, and also used for cleaning brass.
Quite unlike any apple you've seen before- or are likely to see again-is the custard apple (mang cau), a round fruit with a scaly, bumpy, green exterior. It looks like something from the Twilight Zone. Inside lies a white heart with black buttonlike seeds. Custard apple is excellent in fruit juices with a dash of orange juice. Pureed custard apple, watered down and pepped up with a little lime or orange juice, makes an exotic milkshake. In the same fruit family, with a similar taste but an entirely different appearance, is the spiny soursop (mang cau xiem), a longish fruit with a thin skin that has rows of dark green curved spines. The white pulp offers a delicious soursweet flavor.
Most exotic of all is dragonfruit (thanh long), so named because it grows on a creeping cactuslike plant said to resemble a green dragon. The fruit is oval-shaped, about the size of a small pineapple, magenta in color, with a smooth skin sprouting green petals. Inside, the pulpy and translucent white flesh is scattered with thousands of black crunchy seeds. The succulent flesh is an excellent thirst-quencher. The fruit is grown mostly in arid parts of Binh Dinh province around Qui Nhon, and is in great demand, with exports to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. Dragonfruit is in season May-September.
Fresh coconut milk is not only a delight but refreshing in the tropical climate. Vendors cut the top off a young coconut and provide a straw. After you drink a young coconut, give it back to the waiter and he'll hack it open for you and provide a spoon to scrape out the flesh. Some vendors serve coconut milk with the fleshy bits floating in it. Coconut milk is safe to drink while still fresh in the shell; it may be a different story if transferred to a glass with ice added. Fresh fruit juice is another thirst-quencher, but untreated water may be added, or suspect ice. Bottled water is widely available and of decent quality-make sure it's sealed when you purchase it.
Mainstream drinks are tea and coffee. Often, upon entering a house you may be offered green tea-a Chinese-derived habit. In caf€s, you can also order black tea with lemon. Most Vietnamese prefer to drink tea, but in the cities you can easily find coffee. The coffee plant was introduced to Vietnam in the 19th century under the French. The most sought-after beans are Robusta, grown in Dak Lak province, and Arabica, grown in Lam Dong. Filter kits are provided to the caffeine-addicted in cafes. The waiter brings an individual filter cup containing a few teaspoonfuls of coffee grains; this sits over the regular cup and you wait about 10 or 15 minutes for piping-hot water to filter through. A variation of this is called French Press. This method mixes coarsely ground coffee and justoff-the-boil water for a few minutes, after which the wire mesh filter is plunged through the brew to trap the grounds at the bottom of the pot. The Vietnamese add butter to their coffee to counter the bitter flavor, and some Hanoi cafes serve yolk-cream coffee-egg yolk mixed with sugar and butter. A large dollop of sweetened condensed milk is an ingredient in addictive caphe suda, or iced coffee.
See how to brew Vietnamese coffee at How Daily
Tea Master Mr. Hoang Anh Suong is the foremost tea expert in Vietnam and a journalist with deep experience in Buddhism, Zen & Spirit including two months traveling along with Monk Thich Nhat Hanh throughout the U.S. Meet with Suong in his tea house to enjoy special teas, and to learn more about Vietnamese tea culture, Buddhism and Meditation. Suong is fluent in English.
Imported wine is widely available but expensive in Vietnam, but local wines can be a challenge except for sweet varities. Dalat mulberry wine looks and tastes like port; Sapa wine tastes like a plum wine. The local firewater is rice wine. You may find some imported Eastern Bloc bottles of champagne on the dusty shelves of a cafe-good for bathing in, but not much else. Beers are cheap and safe to drink. Brasseries et Glacieres d'Indochine (BGI) is a company that brewed in French colonial times, and is back again, this time with local partner Tien Giang. BGI has breweries in Saigon, Mytho, and Danang. Huda, from Hue, is a joint-venture Danish beer; Vinagen is Canadian; Halida is a joint venture with Carlsberg; Tiger Beer comes from Singapore. Popular local brands include 333 and Saigon Export. On the streets, the locals make their own brew, called bia hoi, literally meaning "fresh beer." It's siphoned from a curbside keg and costs a pittance.
Browse a few of our restaurant recommendations in Saigon and also restaurants in Hanoi. For a complete list, login into our client site.
Luke Nguyen and Anthony Bourdain have many entertaining pieces from travel in Vietnam, focused on cuisine, on YouTube. Bourdain also has a book with sections on Vietnam in his Chef’s Tour. The rare World Food Vietnam by Lonely Planet is no longer published and if you find a rare copy, it’s a great resource on Vietnam, regardless of focus on cuisine.
For blogs, we like the Hanoi-based Sticky Rice: http://stickyrice.typepad.com
For our dining recommendations (wher will arrange reservations and transport for you) in each city, please login into our client Web.
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