Vietnamese cuisine is one of the most flavoursome, fresh and healthy in the world. Many of its basic principles involve satisfying every taste bud with the perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, umami, bitter and hot flavours — then combining perfect textures, such as silky meat or fish with crunchy vegetables, herbs and noodles to satisfy the bite, and explode with flavour.
The Vietnamese borrow many of their culinary ideas, but they do have a knack for turning everything into their own. And there’s much that’s only available in Vietnam and some things only in specific regions. Plus nothing is comparable to the greatness of the Vietnamese noodle soups.
Vietnamese food is full of fresh, crisp and vibrant flavours. These come from newly harvested herbs, vegetables and the use of fish sauce dressings and dipping sauces. Although chillies are a staple ingredient, the food is not usually prepared hot — it’s instead left to the eater to make their dish as spicy as they wish.
People believe it’s important to eat lightly. The food should never weigh you down and stop you getting on with life.
In general, snacks are known as ‘gifts to the mouth’. They’re gifts you give to yourself and those around you several times a day. This is why street food is so popular. The snacks are usually presented to also please the eye; they include rolls, banana-leaf wraps, or dumplings packed in lotus parcels — not to mention the endless buns, cakes and colourful drinks.
There are three major regions: northern, central and southern. The north’s food is more savoury; in central, they love pepperiness and the south prefer things sweet. As you travel along the country and dig deeper into the regions, you’ll find that the major differences and preferences in dishes are related to history, geography and climate.
As I’m southern, I’d recommend Saigon, where it’s not touristy and where you see locals eating. I love sitting on a child’s stool, enjoying the ‘its-so good’ quietness, or crouching over a bowl of bun thit nuong — a sweet, grilled pork noodle salad with treacly smoke that tends to perfume Saigon during lunchtime. The city of Hue is also amazing for discovering food gifts. There are lots of things wrapped as presents. They use spices and beautiful herbal combinations that are really pleasing to the palate. My favourite is bun bo hue, a spicy, lemongrass pork and beef noodle soup that’s only available until 8am.
If you’re new to Vietnamese cuisine, start with a steaming hot fragrant pho.This is a star anise beef noodle soup laced with fresh lime juice, basil, coriander and chillies. Then bite into an airy, crispy, meaty-yet-refreshing banh mi (baguette). Savour a traditional family style lunch (com) with fried fish with green mango or a herby chicken and rice with a delicious ginger dipping sauce. Finish with a fresh rice-paper roll (goi cuon), filled with plenty of aromatic herbs, pork and prawns dipped in moreish hoisin peanut sauce.
A lot of Vietnamese food is adapted from French favourites. Yet most of the cuisine is gluten- and diary-free. However, there’s a love for wheat and butter, which are seen as treats.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)