Most Vietnamese restaurants have a menu with plenty of fish and other seafood on it, because of the people’s close relationship with the sea. This is true of most other Southeast Asia countries, but Vietnam has a special relationship with the sea. While the country isn’t an island, it is a thin country with a very long coastline—more than 2,100 miles, not including its many islands and rivers. In only one small area of the far north is it possible to be more than 100 miles from the sea, and the food in Vietnam has always relied heavily on fishing. In fact, in many places, such as beautiful Halong Bay, there are actually entire floating villages of fishermen who live entirely on their boats.
Rice is another Vietnamese cuisine staple, and a great deal of the country’s land area is devoted to rice cultivation. This has been true throughout the country’s long and rich history. Other ingredients important to dining in Vietnam include peanuts and fresh herbs. Vietnamese cuisine is particularly aromatic and delicately flavored thanks to a liberal use of herbs. In fact, the Vietnamese term for herbs (“rau thom”) means fragrant vegetable. One herb used often is “rice paddy herb,”, which as its name suggests is cultivated side by side in the fields with rice. You will see this aquatic herb growing during many tours of the countryside. It has a lemony citrus fragrance and flavor, and is often used with seafood and fish soups. While heavily influenced by China, Vietnamese cooks use far less oil in their cooking, and this is one of the reasons that the diet is one of the healthiest in the world.
Food in Vietnam
Food in Vietnam can be roughly divided into three regions—north, south, and central. In the north, you will find numerous stir fry dishes as well as heavy use of soy, as well as fish and prawn sauces. There is less fish and meat in the north because of the harsher weather and less developed agricultural infrastructure. You will find the food saltier and less sweet in this region. The center of the country is dominated by the city of Hue, an imperial royal capital city for prolonged period of the country’s history. Many rich and complex dishes were developed here to satisfy the sophisticated palates of kings and royalty. In the south, there is a much larger amount of fish in Vietnamese restaurants, including a variety of dried fish. You will also find the dishes here sweeter, with common added ingredients being coconut milk and sugar. More liberal use of chili peppers also means southern food is spicier.
Restaurants in Vietnam
Some Vietnamese restaurants aren’t actually restaurants at all. They are mobile vendors on the streets of towns and cities. While the government has made some attempts to “clean up the streets,” and there are fewer vendors than there once were, no visit to the country is complete without enjoying traditional Vietnamese street food. You will find the best of this food in Vietnam in the streets of Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City. If you are at all unsure about what to eat where, trust your guide’s advice if you are on organized tours or vacation packages, and ask the concierge or front desk at hotels. Sick tourists only hurt tourism, and you can generally trust the advice of these people. Also, don’t turn your nose up at “street food.” This kind of food, from chicken wings to spring rolls is so delicious that these are the dishes you often find on the menus of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.
The experience you have while on your vacations will be enriched if you learn something about both Vietnamese cuisine and dining customs. Restaurants that cater to a large number of Western tourists will have forks and knives, but most of the people use chopsticks, spoons, and their fingers. Many finger foods, like cakes, are wrapped in coconut or banana leaves for ease of handling. Many restaurants serve meals family style, with the food placed in the middle of the table for easy access by all. Each diner has a small bowl to eat from and chopsticks to serve themselves from the serving dishes.