Asian food is beloved the world over, yet when you’re visiting Vietnam you’re going to find a commitment to cuisine quite unlike anywhere else. Yet one factor that unites Vietnamese food, from its bustling street carts to its classiest restaurants, is a love of simple dishes with rich flavours. Blandness doesn’t come into the equation here, but the food is also among the healthiest around, and will often fit the bill even if you’re a veggie or a vegan.
Take a look through our recommendations for both Vietnam’s most famous dishes, as well as a few of the country’s hidden treasures.
Influencing the flavour
Both history and geography have guided the evolution of the Vietnamese palate.
Being a country bordered by such culinary greats as China, Cambodia and Thailand has made for a menu brimming with broths, noodles, rice and fresh vegetables. Meanwhile, historic interactions with the French have added a distinctive twist to the classic Asian staples you know and love.
However, two dishes stand out as among Vietnam’s most beloved. Well, more specifically a dish and a condiment found with almost everything you’ll eat across the gorgeous country. That condiment is nuoc cham, a dipping sauce that’s a clear orange flecked with spicy reds. Sticky, sweet, sour and tangy, you’ll find it tucked beside your dish wherever you eat, and tastes great with spring rolls, skewered meats or any other savoury delight.
As for that famous dish we mentioned, you’ve likely already guessed it. It’s pho, a noodle soup whose flavours are as versatile as its ingredients. The name comes from the core ingredient though, the stringy rice noodles to which the other flavours are added. Some diced lime and veggies, a helping of beef or chicken slices, and either a fish or chilli broth, and you’ve got Vietnam’s most affordable and beloved national dish. People cluster around street stalls to slurp it down all hours of the day, and even the most upmarket restaurant in the country will offer it among other options.
Bread and crepes
Looking a little deeper into the French influences on Vietnam, two tasty options jump to mind. The first of those, banh mi, is a big crusty baguette stuffed with fillings of a distinctly Asian persuasion. Think meatballs, fish cakes, shredded pickles and carrots, as well as hard-hitting chilli.
On a similar but perhaps more versatile note, check out banh xeo. Those are crispy crepes cooked in a way that’s pretty different to the batter you’re used to, thanks to the principle ingredients of turmeric, rice flour and coconut milk. Banh xeo are golden brown, wrapped up in half-moon shapes and packed with lettuce, beansprouts, pork, shrimp and herbs. That’s a lot of nutrition in a bite-sized package.
Something a little sweeter
Snacking is as popular in Vietnam as anywhere else in the world, as are delectable desserts. Owing to their healthy lifestyle, Vietnamese people often choose peanuts, fresh fruit slices or sweet potato for their grazing choices, although lots of sweeter offerings also exist.
Banh cam is a great example. Think of little round morsels of fried goodness, speckled with sesame seeds. They’re crispy on the outside but soft and gooey within, and full of mung bean paste, one of Vietnam’s sweetest confections. The country’s various festivals also give rise to plenty of desserts that are nowadays enjoyed all year round. Banh tet, the traditional New Year gooey rice cake, is definitely one of the more popular and more delicious options, and again makes superb use of mung bean paste.
In fact, even Vietnamese salads, known as goi, will tickle your sweet tooth. They forgo lettuce to instead be formed from a base of papaya or mango, with plenty of cabbage, lotus root and the national green of choice, water spinach.
Altogether, Vietnam has a dish for every palate, and we’re only glimpsing at the country’s marvellous menu. Make sure you eat as much as you can during your Vietnamese visit, and remember that even a given dish will have some key flavour difference depending if you’re north and south.