Dining in Vietnam is one of the highlights for visitors, and the secret is out, thanks to a proliferation of good, affordable, authentic Vietnamese restaurants springing up in the West. Characterized by the light, subtle nature of this cuisine, where ingredients are left alone to work their magic, Vietnamese gastronomy is getting the international kudos it well deserves. Take places like New York and Los Angeles, for example, where you can find an authentic bowl of pho (noodle soup) or fresh spring rolls, and where Vietnamese ingredients -- from rice paper and green papaya to rice whiskey and nuoc mam (pungent fish sauce) -- are influencing some of the finest Pacific fusion restaurants. Gourmets have discovered Vietnam, and many are making their own long-haul flights to experience the real deal.
The 1990s saw a resurgence of French-influenced cuisine after years of harsh restrictions on Western influence. A few staples like good baguettes and some French dishes survived the purges, but it took the cultural reopening of Vietnam under the Doi Moi policy to see a real resurgence of international cuisine and all kinds of creativity come into the better kitchens of the land.
Vietnam relies on wet rice cultivation -- and short-grained white rice is more than a staple; it defines the Vietnamese soul and is the backbone of the economy. Because of the nation's heavy population density, it seems like every piece of arable land is farmed, mostly for rice paddies as well as fruit orchards and vegetable farms. "South ships north" is the old adage about food production, as the Mekong Delta is the nation's breadbasket, providing most of the country's rice and much of its produce. The diversity of a chef's palate in tropical Vietnam -- with its many herbs, spices, and fruit that just falls from the trees -- makes for some great dining adventures. Below is a short primer in some of the basic dishes. Dine out with locals wherever possible. Even if you foot the bill for the whole table, the cost is still a pittance.
Vietnamese cuisine relies heavily on fresh ingredients and the right mix of herbs and spices. Look for the following in any dish you experience in the country: Mang (bamboo shoots) are the tender young stalks of a thick bamboo that's usually sliced thin and served fresh, dried, boiled, or as pickles; bap chuoi (banana blossom) is a red flower bud used in salads or as garnish; la chuoi (banana leaves) are used to wrap small portable meals of cakes or meats; and kho qua (bitter gourd) is used as a garnish. Ot (red chilies) are a common ingredient and add a real zing to any Vietnamese dish.
Fresh fish is available anywhere in Vietnam -- you're never very far from the sea or a river -- and meat and poultry are locally farmed.
Herbs and fresh vegetables are used both in cooking and as condiments at the table. With most Vietnamese meals, you'll be offered a plate of rau que (raw basil), which comes in several varieties, as well as ngo (coriander) and lettuce. The use of lemon grass, mint, coriander, ginger, basil, and garlic creates light, fresh, and flavorful fare. Vietnamese foods are also part of the intricate system of Chinese medicine, and the many herbs and spices in Vietnamese cooking serve multiple purposes. Ginger and garlic are part of many remedies, and aromatic teas, roots, and herbal poultices come with doctor's orders.
Sadly, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is used widely in Vietnamese fare. In fact, the Agi No Moto ("More Taste") brand from Japan is offered on some local tables as a condiment. If you have a hard time processing MSG (that is, you get headaches, shortness of breath, or MSG "seasickness"), ask for food without it.
Nuoc mam is the famous -- or notorious -- Vietnamese fish sauce; its pungent flavor (and more pungent aroma) sets Vietnamese food apart. Nuoc mam is olive oil, soy sauce, and ketchup all rolled into one: the universal condiment of Vietnam. What is it? Simply put, it is fish that has been fermented in salt water, but the subtleties to nuoc mam production are as calculated as the making of fine wine or olive oil. Sadly, touring production facilities in places like the island of Phu Quoc to the far south and the town of Phan Thiet near Saigon is not as rewarding -- pretty stinky really -- as visiting a vineyard or an olive grove. The taste and smell of nuoc mam is overwhelming to the Western palate, but a true appreciation of Vietnamese food brings understanding of nuoc mam's importance. Did someone say "acquired taste"? Nuoc cham is the most popular tabletop alternative, and mixes the pungent standard nuoc mam with sugar, vinegar, and seasonings for a more pleasant introduction to this unique Vietnamese flavor -- you gotta try it once.
Dining & Etiquette
Vietnamese are very hospitable, and there's a good chance you'll be invited to eat with a local family or join a Vietnamese group at a restaurant -- you don't want to pass up the opportunity if it presents itself.
Etiquette is a rather casual affair -- meaning that there are few "no elbows on the table" kinds of restrictions -- but there are a few things to remember. The order of who is served, of who is given the choicest delicacies, and of who eats first is very important. When in doubt, wait. It's best to see that the eldest member of the group is served first and given the choicest fare -- a whole egg from the top of a hot pot, a shrimp, or piece of steak.
Meals are slow, friendly affairs surrounding a banquet, usually on the floor, with everyone sitting in a circle. Courses come out of the kitchen in succession, and don't expect to get away with just eating like a bird -- mom or grandma is sure to be a full-on food pusher and it's hard to say no (once a friendly host just kept filling small bowls and shoving them my way). Expect lots of comings and goings and lively discussion. Shared dishes are picked up with either chopsticks or forks -- both are okay -- and eaten in a small hand-size bowl. It's okay to sip or slurp from the bowl, and shovel the last bits of a meal using your chopsticks. Also note: It's okay -- customary even -- to wipe utensils before eating.
As the old saying goes, "An army runs on its stomach," and Vietnamese are proud of what they endured for their autonomy; years of grinding poverty and crippling malnutrition was how most experienced the long war years. Viet Cong troops are said to have lived on a diet of one handful of rice and a handful of bullets each day, a fact that confounded U.S. attempts to cut off supplies (their enemy fought on with so little). Troops supplemented their diet with some jungle vegetation and the likes of Vietnamese tapioca, a tasteless sweet potato that you might have the chance to try when visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon. At train stations, look for the dried rice cakes pressed with oil and peanuts; these were a portable, preserved dish for soldiers on the run that remain popular -- a source of pride and symbol of self-reliance, really. You might also have a chance to try ca muoi or ca dua, simple sour pickles that, for many years during and after the war, were the only flavor added to a spartan portion of rice each day. I visited a Vietnamese family, and they were sure I should taste this bitter staple to perhaps better know what life was like during Vietnam's long struggle. These dishes are still popular and a source of pride for Vietnamese fortitude.
The Tet holiday, or Lunar New Year, is the Vietnamese version of an American Thanksgiving, and dining at Tet is a lavish affair. Tet dishes include banh bhung, which is made of sticky rice, beans, and pork cooked in a banana leaf -- this portable dish was the fuel for early armies, particularly during the victory of Nguyen Hue over the Chinese at the battle of Dong Da, which took place during the Tet holiday. Tet fare, just like the Tet celebration, varies in different parts of the country, and you'll find all kinds of good dishes if you're lucky enough to be invited into a family's home at Tet time.
Authentic Vietnamese cuisine is best enjoyed alfresco at streetside, where food is cooked fresh and served, without any pomp and circumstance, on squat stools at a low table, often under an umbrella -- a great way to meet local people (folks will be amazed/excited/appalled that you're there) and pick up some language. The food does the talking in Vietnam, though. Below are a few of the kinds of dishes you can sample. Get adventurous. Go where locals go. Look for stalls that are packed, or storefront restaurants that have a line out the door, and walk in, smile, and point or just say, "One, please," holding up a finger. The entry fee is low, usually $1 or less per dish. Order up!
Pho -- This classic Vietnamese noodle soup has become a staple all over the world. Vietnamese -- and increasingly their Western visitors -- are almost fetishistic about their interest in the intricacies of its preparation. Pho bo (noodle soup) is a dish of wide rice noodles done in a beef broth; flavored with ginger, black pepper, lemon, and shallots; and topped with thin slices of roast beef and fresh greens like basil or coriander. Pho ga (noodle soup with chicken) is the same as pho bo, but with shredded chicken on top. Pho's simple formula keeps people searching the length of Vietnam looking for just the right combination. Everyone is loyal to a favorite stall, though, so ask for a recommendation. Locals eat phoany time -- for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and as a midnight snack after a night on the town.
Com -- The very definition of "eating" is to an com, or "eat rice." Vietnam's staple plays a part in nearly every meal, whether as whole kernels or mashed and processed into rice paper, rice noodles, or fermented into rice wine. And Vietnamese com shops (the o in com is pronounced like the elongated ou in the word should) line every street. Com restaurants serve all manner of stir-fries or curries, often quite spicy in the south, along with a bowl of "Vietnamese bread." If you're out in the sticks a lot, you'll want to learn to say the likes of com trung, or "rice with egg" and com chien or "fried rice."
Bun -- Vietnamese bun (the u in bun is pronounced like a shortened oo in wood) is rice vermicelli, a fresh, light rice noodle with a slightly pungent aroma to it. Bun-style dishes are many, usually a mix of herbs and spices served with broth as a one-dish meal. Bun bo is rice vermicelli with shredded beef, usually in a fiery sauce. Bun rieu is a hearty stew of paddy crabs cooked in curry and shrimp paste and served with fresh rice vermicelli and greens. Avoid the various pig intestine varieties of bun dishes, the likes of bun moc or bun gio heo, and if you're eating at a local stall -- unless you're an aficionado -- ask the owner to go light on the nuoc mam.
Nem ran (called cha gio in the south) -- This is the classic fried Vietnamese spring roll, a delicious appetizer of ground meat or fish mixed with shrimp paste, mushrooms, spices, and some greens, folded into a thin rice wrapper and dipped into a sweet and sour sauce. It's an especially popular dish during the Tet holiday.
Banh xeo -- A thin pancake of rice flour folded with chicken or pork and topped with onions, sprouts, and greens, banh xeo is a popular treat in the south.
Banh cuon -- Banh cuon is a variant of the standard spring roll. Made with a thick rice wrap, like a heavy crepe cooked in fat, banh cuon are stuffed with chicken, beef, or shrimp (lots of varieties) and steamed. A Hanoi specialty.
Cha ca -- A classic Hanoi specialty that has found its way into restaurants along the length of Vietnam, cha ca is a delicious meal of delicate whitefish, fried at high heat in gobs of peanut oil with dill, turmeric, lemon shrimp paste, and a dash of rice whiskey. You prepare the dish yourself over a small brazier of coals that heat the frying pan. In a small rice bowl, diners each add a portion of the flash-fried fish to fresh bun (rice vermicelli) and fresh greens and peanuts. The best place to sample cha ca is at Hanoi's famed Cha Ca La Vong.
Nem nua -- These are my favorite: fresh spring rolls you make yourself, popular all over Vietnam and a great light, low-budget snack. You're given a plate of rice wraps, bowls of condiments like pickles and sour eggplant, and a dish of pork, shrimp, or vegetables (your choice); you're left to do the origami to put it all together. Vietnamese people get a real kick out of watching unpracticed Westerners fumble with this, and someone is always on hand to show you how to put it all together and dip it in the spicy sauce.
Daofu chien -- Here's a popular dish available just about everywhere -- a good one to learn by heart and order when you're out in the boonies. It's a basic dish of fried tofu with lemon grass, delicious with rice and a side of rau mouang xao chau, fried morning glory (a kind of stringy spinach) with oyster sauce.
Cha tom -- Popular in tourist restaurants, this sweet, savory dish appeals to the foreign palate. Cha tom is ground, seasoned shrimp grilled on a stick of cut sugar cane. It's a delicious appetizer.
Bo bay mon -- This is "beef served seven ways." A Saigon specialty, this succession of beef dishes includes fondue, fried, barbecued, and soup. It's a real treat.
Goi ngo sen -- A lotus root salad served with pomelo.
Ca hap -- Steamed fish served as you like.
For Vegetarians -- Just say "An chay" ("I eat vegetarian"), and you'll be met with approving nods, as vegetarian cooking is the province of tonsured Buddhist monks and, like anywhere, the health-conscious. Any dish can be altered for vegetarians, and good vegetable dishes like rau mouang xao chau (fried morning glory with oyster sauce) or the standardrau xau (mixed fried vegetables) are available anywhere. That said, strict veggies, the likes of vegans, will find themselves trying to convince chefs not to include fish sauce, eggs, and cheese, for example, which are considered permissible for monks and Vietnamese vegetarians.
Always look for regional specialties. Hue cuisine, for example, is famous for its light specialties, such as bun bo hue and good spring rolls. In Hoi An, try the Vietnamese raviolis, and in Hanoi the great pho, dog-meat dishes, and cha ca . Keep your eyes open for the fish sauce of Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc; duck dishes and spicy curries in Saigon; and many other regional favorites. Explore. Ask what's good. Make sure it's not guts or frogs, unless you want to try guts or frogs, and bon appétit!
Eew, What's That?!
Vietnam is home to some of the world's most exotic fare, with the likes of dog, snake, deer, jungle animals, and frogs gracing menus at the finer local restaurants, as well as any sea creature that moves -- one man's bait is another man's dinner.
Thit co (dog meat) -- a delicacy of the north -- is reputedly prepared by beating the animal with a rubber hose to tenderize its flesh before it's slaughtered. A meal of dog is usually eaten family style, almost exclusively by men to celebrate business deals (the meat is said to increase one's virility). Similarly, thit ran (snake meat) is a popular dish in Hanoi and is served in the Le Mat section north of Hanoi -- now a popular tourist night out.
In the mountain towns of the Central Highlands and far north, you'll find such delicacies as wild boar, venison, and goat. Chinese restaurants everywhere serve the likes of frog and eel.
One of Vietnam's rarest culinary oddities is cafe cut chon, a beverage made from average Vietnamese coffee beans that have passed through the most bizarre process. The beans of this coffee are served after being digested and passed -- I choke on that euphemism -- by a civet, something like a jungle fox (in reality, a relative of the mongoose). The taste? Earthy, they say, and strong. There are lots of shops in the Central Highlands towns that claim to have the real deal, but who knows if this fox poop is genuine?
You can find tea, whiskey, beer, coffee, delicious shakes, and fruit juices -- hot or cold, sweet or mellowing -- anywhere in Vietnam.
Small cups of hot, bitter Chinese tea (called tra) are de rigueur for a first meeting, for a business situation, and for just killing time -- say, during check-in at a hotel. The cups just keep getting filled up, and this casual offering of Chinese tea is an important component of hospitality. Note: When pouring more, fill your host's cup first and your cup last.
Tea follows hundreds of years of Chinese tradition -- under Chinese tutelage -- in the provinces of Thai Nguyen and Lao Cai, for example, where estates date back centuries. Vietnam's plantations produce all varieties, standard black and green as well as fine jasmine tea, and fine teas are imported from China.
Tra da is iced tea, a standard pot of bitter Chinese tea poured over ice, usually unsweetened. Local restaurants serve tra da gratis from large pitchers. It's a great way to cool down on a hot day (although you should beware of drinking ice that's made from unfiltered water, especially if you have a sensitive stomach).
Local bia hoi, a cheap draft beer of watery lager made in every region, is served cold on tap in every town, usually in small storefronts crowded with squat stool tables and lots of revelers. You can expect a fun night of "Chuc mung!" ("Cheers!" or "Good luck!") all around.
Vietnamese whiskey, called ruou, comes in many varieties, and most of it could thin paint and is sure to cross your eyes in due time -- go easy with the stuff. I've had offers at dawn, and traveled with locals who knocked the stuff back all day long. Hospitality is one thing, but it's also okay to say, "No, thank you." Nep moi is the standard variety, and it's sold in stores throughout the country, as well as in most bia hoi bars and roadside restaurants. In the Central Highlands, don't miss an opportunity to slurp from a long reed straw from a massive pot of ruou can, a particularly potent local brew made by ethnic-minority groups.
The hills of Vietnam's Central Highlands, from Dalat all the way up to Kontum, look something like a Colombian landscape, with high, rolling hills as far as the eye can see sprouting coffee like a giant Chia pet -- you almost expect a grinning Juan Valdez to pop from behind a bush with a steaming cup any minute. Vietnam is the second-largest coffee grower in the world -- just behind Mr. Valdez's cohorts -- and though roasting techniques are primitive, choice Vietnamese Robusta coffee is delicious.
Small coffee joints can be found on every corner. Look for the Trung Nguyen brand, Vietnam's Starbucks of coffee. And because coffee is made with boiled water, it's okay to drink. Trung Nguyen stores might look like a chain, but franchising in Vietnam is limited to getting a free sign (you will see TRUNG NGUYEN everywhere) in exchange for buying and serving Trung Nguyen coffee, so individual outlets are all independent and distinct. Also look for the fine Highland Coffee outlets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Filter coffee is served in small cups with stainless-steel filters of coffee over the top. You pour your own hot water and wait for the slow filtration process -- part of the experience really, and a good lesson in patience (the Vietnamese even have a saying about the patience required to sit and watch a filter coffee drip).
Vietnamese coffee is usually served with sua, or very sweet condensed milk. Say "Ca phe sua chut-chut" if you want only a little of the saccharine sweet stuff (a bit too much for some), or order a "café den" for black coffee. Rarely will you find sua tuoi (fresh milk) -- only in the big cities -- but you'll always find duong (sugar) on the table. Ordering ice coffee at a local alfresco stand just means the same rig as above, accompanied by a glass of ice -- all very do-it-yourself -- just say "Ca phe sua da" and wait for the drip and pour it on ice.
Nuoc Khoang is Vietnamese for "drinking water," which is available in bottles everywhere. Just say "Cho toâi nuoc khoang" (pronounced Jya toy nook kwang). Even locals drink bottled water (tap water is never potable), and all ice or drinking water provided is usually boiled or filtered and is just fine. Kids love the popular nuoc mia, or sugar-cane juice. Also popular are cool drinks with lemon: Nuoc chanh is lemonade and soda chanh is a lemon soda. Ask for it with or without sugar (duong). This is the hip expat drink of choice.
Che is a popular dessert dish of rice gelatin sweetened with Chinese litchi fruit and sugar. Kem (ice cream) is available everywhere, both Western-style ice cream (as taught by French colonists) and the local variety made with soy and coconut.
Sinh to is a delicious soy-based sweet shake made with the fruit of your choosing. Find little sinh to stands just about everywhere, popular at night market areas, and enjoy this sweet treat on the go, slurping it through a straw from a plastic bag. Shakes are made with sua, the same ultrasweet condensed milk that's popular in coffee. Ask for khong sua (nosua) or sua chut-chut (just a little).
Tropical Vietnam offers a wide variety of fruit, sometimes served with da ua (fresh yogurt). Find the likes of chuoi (banana), tao (apple), xoai (mango), du du (papaya), mang cut (mangosteen), nhan (longan, a sweet palm-size fruit), vu sua (the star apple or star fruit), dua hau (watermelon), buoi (grapefruit, which comes in many varieties), chom chom(rambutan, which is like a litchi with a spiky rind), dua (pineapple), and sau rieng (durian, the "smelly jackfruit" of renown), among others. Fresh fruit is affordable and available everywhere.