This blog post intends to serve as an authentic guide to eating and drinking in Vietnam. The different food, the staples and the local drinks that are available in Vietnam are touched upon below.
With a faint tinge of Vietnamese ethnicity, I asked the server who I met just three hours before if she is actually a Vietnamese. The question was certainly indecent but the blogger in me suppressed my sense of decency.
She nodded smiling all the time I was talking to her. When I told her I am a travel reporter and I am planning to cover the different exotic Vietnamese cuisine, she expressed her inability to help me. She just serves and cannot cook food.
I chided myself for crossing the boundaries of first communication, I returned home and angrily (with the self) started researching about the food in Vietnam so that I can write a useful guide to travelers to Hanoi that has been attracting tourists mostly from the Asian countries and from the United States mainly because they are still curious to know why their ancestors lost a war in Vietnam.
Vietnam is one of the Southeast Asian countries located in the South China Sea. Vietnam is a big tourist country because of very long coastline and numerous beaches. Away from the coast, Vietnam boasts of huge mountains, deep jungles and several rivers that include Mekong river, Saigon river, and the black river.
There are two big cities in Vietnam;
- Hanoi –capital of Vietnam
- Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon)
Any country’s food is decided upon its geography and Vietnam is no exception.
Similar to the South India, rice is a staple food of Vietnamese people. The rice variety that is liked by all of the Vietnamese is long-grain white rice.
The Vietnamese are productive users of their main agricultural produce. From rice they make:
- Rice wine
- Rice noodles
- Rice vinegar
Next to China, I think the Vietnamese eat more noodles; however, I think the Vietnamese invented several forms of noodles out of which, four forms of rice noodles are popular.
- Banh pho is the wide white noodles used in the quintessential Vietnamese soup, pho.
- Bun noodles (also called rice vermicelli) look like long white strings when cooked.
- Banh hoi is a thinner version of bun noodles.
- Cellophane noodles aka dried glass noodles made from a kind bean starch.
It is a fish sauce made from Anchovy (Anchovies in plural), red pepper, and common salt. The time taken to make a top quality nuoc mam fish sauce is 6 months.
Just like the Americans who dip everything in tomato sauce, the Vietnamese too, have their own alternative to the tomato ketchup. The Vietnamese dip sauce is called “nuoc cham”.
The basic ingredients of ‘nuoc cham’ are a nuoc man fish sauce, The other ingredients to make nuoc cham are:
- Nuoc mam fish sauce
- Lime Juice
It is a ubiquitous dish served in saucers and the local people of Vietnam dip every solid food such as a spring roll or a samosa into it.
What meat the Vietnamese eat?
Except for Hanoi the capital, every major city is situated on the coast and hence, seafood is eaten widely in Vietnam. Their favorite seafood is squid and eel apart from fish and shrimp. Chicken is not their preferred meat and so too the beef and pork
Like most of the Asian countries, the food of Vietnam is very spicy with generous quantities of mint, black pepper. Other herbs and spices that are used either in the food or in the garnishing are:
- Star anise (actually a native spice)
- Leon grass
- Vinegar ( it is a predominant ingredient in Vietnam food)
Similar to the Chinese and Indians, the Vietnamese eat plenty of vegetables and in fact, they prefer it raw. Cucumber, onions are eaten uncooked.
Oh yes, this beef soup topped up with noodles and or vegetables is very popular food here and every small or high-end restaurant serves this hot beverage.
Canh Bi Ro Ham Dua
This is a Buddhist food.
On twice a month meat holiday, (meat not eaten on the full moon and new moon days), the Vietnamese eat mainly vegetarian food and one very widely eaten dish is called “Canh Bi Ro Ham Dua”. Don’t try to pronounce or memorize it. Just understand that it is a Pumpkin and Coconut milk preparation. Some people add sweet potato and mushrooms too. It must be a later date innovation. For seasoning, cilantro (the other name for Coriander) leaves are added.
Abalone is a kind of sea mollusk and the Vietnamese make a soup from it and call it as sup bao ngu. It seems the Vietnamese are very fond of soups.
Shark fin soup
It is cooked during festivals only.
Banh Chuoi Nuong
It’s a banana cake made with ripe bananas, coconut milk, butter, and bread.
Below are some of the unique Vietnamese foods that you should not miss.
As I wrote earlier, do not try to pronounce or memorize the names of Vietnamese food. Just know what the name of each food means so that you need not look ill-prepared when you look at the food menu in a restaurant.
This is a type of spring roll and a very common food in Vietnam. Apart from the usual ingredients, they contain different meat such as pork or mutton. They are served with either peanut sauce or the Nuoc Cham sauce.
This steamed rice cake is a must try food item in Hanoi. They look salivating because of the pure white colored thin sheets garnished with:
- Shredded cucumber
- Fried shallots ( the small onion in India)
- Pork sausages or shrimps
Finally, when served on your table, the waiter would spray a generous dosage of the Nuoc Cham fish sauce.
You will come across the word ‘Banh’ as the first word in the majority of the Vietnamese dishes. ‘Banh’ means a cake or bread. I think they mean something solid which acts as base food.
It’s an occasional dish and the occasion is the lunar new year that is called Tet in Vietnam. It is made of rice cake, pork and green gram which is known as the ‘mung bean’ in Vietnam. The dish is then wrapped in banana leaf.
It’s sticky rice dish cooked on the same lunar New Year and the food is dedicated to the ancestors.
I think finally, the French baguettes are made to good use. The French bread is generally tasteless but the Vietnamese make a sandwich out of them! As far as the fillings are concerned, any one of the following is used:
- Tofu or Sardine
It is also garnished liberally with cucumber, carrots, radish, cheese, red chilis and coriander leaves.
Here is one more variety of pancake. The basic ingredient is rice flour (don’t they ever use wheat flour?) and again they use a generous quantity of coconut milk to make the dough and fill it with fried shrimp or pork and sprouted beans and deep fry the wrap so that the edges become crispy to bit.
Finally a Vietnamese sweet.
The ‘Banh Ran’ is a dessert in Vietnam. It is nothing but a glutinous rice ball mixed with sweetened green gram paste that tastes crispy to bite but once the outer layer gives way to the inner stuff, it gets chewy.
Goi is a mixed vegetable and mixed meat salad in Vietnam, especially North Vietnam. The vegetables used in Goi are cabbage, papaya, cucumber, kohlrabi (Knul Khol). The meats added in Goi are boiled pork and fried shrimps. For seasoning, they add vinegar, cilantro, peanut powder and black pepper powder.
Here is one more soup dish that contains tamarind sauce. The swimming creatures in this soup would be lobsters or shrimps. A few shops will add white fish to.
Some other ingredients thrown in this soup are interesting. They add:
- kosher salt that is ideal for seasoning the meat,
- Stems of elephant ear plant
- Okra (the ladies finger)
- Rice paddy herb (a typical Vietnamese aromatic herb)
I read the preparation and it is definitely not my cup of soup.
Here are some more Vietnamese (only) food items:
- Sizzling Pancake called Banh Xeo.
- A dish made of broken rice called Com Tam
- Bun Rieu is tomato soup with crabs swimming in it.
- Banh Khọt is a kind of mini pancakes that are fried.
- A soup called Bun Bo Hue (oh, another soup!) made with beef, vermicelli, and rice. (What a combination!)
- Ca Kho To is a dry dish made with fish and caramelized onions
- A fried rice dish called Com chien
Beverages in Vietnam:
Tea is taken before and after meals but without milk. Coffee is cultivated in Vietnam.
Trivia: The coffee is called ‘caphe’ here and sounds like ‘kapi’ as it is called in South India.
Now, more about the Vietnamese Ca Phe and this would surprise any coffee lover, who has been drinking coffee for over 50 years because of the most unique varieties of coffee brewed in Vietnam.
Instead of milk the Vietnamese people drink coffee by adding sweetened condensed milk.
Below are of some of the ‘unheard of’ coffee varieties in Vietnam.
- Yoghurt fee (sua chua ca phe)
- Egg coffee ( egg yolk is added and whipped)
- Avocado coffee (avocado milk shake is mixed with coffee)
Similar to Indians, the Vietnamese drink Lemon Soda and they call it “Soda Chanh. However, instead of salt, they add sugar.
ALCOHOLIC DRINKS IN VIETNAM
There is nothing much about the alcoholic drinks in Vietnam. Both the beer and the whiskey are consumed. Locally made whiskey is called Mekong whiskey. You would be surprised to know it is made from sugarcane and rice.
Beer is also brewed in Vietnam and sold in several brands that include:
- Saigon Lager
- Bia Hoi
- BGI lager
If you have liked the western beer such as the Carlsberg or Heineken beer (they are also sold in Vietnam) varieties, you won’t like the local beers that are said to be watery and bland.
The Tiger beer that is widely drunk in Singapore is also available.
For hard liquor, the rice liquor Ruou is brewed in Vietnam.
Whiskey made from seahorse
A strong alcohol I would say because of 37% alcohol, the Real Sea Horse Whiskey is really made from Sea Horse. It has a unique taste and believed to act as ‘aphrodisiac’. I think most of the people in the world will buy anything it is said to possess aphrodisiac qualities.
Another aphrodisiac whiskey is said to be made from vine snake is brewed in Vietnam.
Sea Horse and vine snake farms.
There are separate farms to raise seahorse and vine snake.
Beer made from toads.
Yes! If they make a liquor from snake and seahorse, why not toads; the other ingredients of this whiskey is ginseng roots.
Vodka and Rum
Both the Vodka and the run are brewed locally in Vietnam. I don’t think I will like them because they are pre-mixed with coffee flavor or strawberry flavor.
Whoops! Those Vietnamese food and drinks names are real tongue twisters-eh? Nevertheless, the food looks definitely unique with that Nuoc cham and those ‘Banh’s. The drinks would disappoint even an occasional drinker.