As someone who loves food I would be remissed if I didn’t discuss the fine Vietnamese cuisine we encountered during our trip to Vietnam. Over the two weeks we were traveling there really wasn’t anything that I tried that I didn’t enjoy. In general, I had no problem eating anywhere in Vietnam. Now, I am not at all a picky eater so that made it a little easier to find a place to eat. While it is true that at times you do need to be careful where you eat and what you eat (as there are some exotic items to be found on local menus and some issues with sanitation at other restaurants), generally speaking, being a little adventurous and open minded will lead you to some amazing meals and culinary experiences.
Simply put, the food in Vietnam was fantastic. As you could probably guess, typical ingredients in Vietnamese dishes include rice, noodles and fresh vegetables / fruits / herbs (lemongrass, basil, etc.) and fish / meats (beef, pork and chicken). The fresh ingredients from fruit to meats and spices are a critically important part of Vietnamese dishes and are readily available at the local market or a street vendor. It was not at all unusual to see vendors processing fresh meat or fish right out in the open on the street (this does raise some interesting questions regarding sanitation, but, I will note that no one on our trip suffered from any serious stomach or digestive bugs). Interestingly, you don’t see much about “organic” and “non-organic” products. This is due to the fact that pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and genetically modified foods are not nearly as common place in Vietnam as they are in the U.S. and other developed nations.
Another interesting observation is that most food (being sold by local vendors or restaurants) is prepared, cooked and served right on the street. Throughout Ha Noi and Ho Chi MInh City you would see these small “food stands” where one person was preparing maybe one or two dishes (usually a variation of Pho, a noodle soup) on demand. There were larger restaurants where you would sit down at a table and order a meal, however, most locals tend to eat at these small food stands. In some cases, families would prepare their dinner in front of their store / home and friends, neighbors or extended family may simply stop by and grab something to eat. So, at times it was tough to tell if someone was preparing food to sell or preparing food for their family. I guess you could say this is the equivalent of grilling out and having neighbors over for dinner. Cooking the food typically involved using boiling water (for fish, meats or noodles) or cooking over an open flame. You would also see a lot of stir fry dishes, however, this was done with minimal oil. I was surprised by the number of fried dishes found on local menus. Perhaps these dishes, or simply the taste for fried foods, comes from the west and our fast food culture. There were a few fast food restaurants in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City (KFC and Dominoes) so the Vietnamese may be developing a taste for western foods. Though, I really hope these influences do not find any traction and simply remain a very small part of the local cuisine. Although the food was generally the same throughout Vietnam, if you are observant, you can probably discover the subtle differences in the food between the Northern and Southern portion of Vietnam. Due in part to the climate, the foods in the north are not as spicy or as sweet as the foods in the south. The cooler (not by much) climate in the north limits the production of spices and fruits. Other than this observation, there really wasn’t a huge difference that I could tell with the food sold and eaten throughout Vietnam. Based on my experience it is obvious that Vietnamese cuisine is influenced by a number of external sources including China (noodles, wontons) , France (coffee, french baguettes, sandwiches, salads, etc.) and India (curry).
Some common dishes we saw and enjoyed included Phở (a noodle soup with a clear broth and made with boiling meat and a variety of spices), Gà nướng sả (grilled chicken with lemon grass) and Gỏi cuốn(Vietnamese summer rolls). Really, over than the noodle soups and spring/summer rolls, there really wasn’t a dish that was dominate throughout Vietnam. As you can see from the pictures we had a chance to try a wide range of foods. If I have to characterize the food I guess there were some common themes. Generally speaking, dishes with meat were VERY
common (though tofu was also available for those who are vegetarian), cucumber was probably one of the more common vegetables and you rarely saw a dish that wasn’t cooked in, or came with, a sauce or paste of some sort. Just like with the food, when it came to beverages there was a ton of choices. Soda was very common and widely available (and very cheap, $0.40 – $0.75 for a 12oz can), however, local favorites included Cà phê sữa đá (a strong iced coffee served with sweetened condensed milk), Nước mía (sugar cane juice served on ice), tea or Bia hơi (draft beer produced locally in very small batches). I’m a casual coffee drinker and before this trip I was never a fan of iced coffee, however, that has now changed. The iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk is probably one of the most delicious drinks I have ever encountered and Vietnamese coffee is probably the BEST coffee I have ever tasted. In fact, I brought home some Vietnamese coffee and have already had two cups (one hot and one iced, both with sweetened condensed milk). I’m not sure what I’ll done once I go through the coffee, as our coffee (even with the sweetened condensed milk) just does not come even close.
Since returning I’ve already staked out three restaurants in Charlotte that serve traditional Vietnamese cuisine and one of the three serves my new favorite iced coffee drink. Although it won’t be quite the same, whenever I miss my Vietnam experience and/or want to indulge in one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, I know exactly where to go. One of the many many perks of traveling aboard is the chance and opportunity to explore new foods. If you ever have a chance to travel to a foreign land, definitely (even if you are a picky eater) do not pass on exploring the local foods and drinks. This will add to the experience and will open your world to new smells, tastes and experiences!
NOTE: If you click on the images in this post you can view them in a larger size. Additionally, If you would like to see more food related pictures taken during our trip, you can view them at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pillarfamily/sets/72157630001438504/