Vietnamese cuisine is the product of the country's geographic location and history. While influenced by its neighbors, China and Thailand, Vietnamese food boasts a wide variety of its own unique dishes.
Those who truly want to explore the tastes and textures Vietnamese food has to offer will need to step out of the restaurants and onto the streets.
The impact Chinese occupation had on Vietnamese food can be felt first-hand when you abandon your knife and fork and pick up a pair of chopsticks.
Hot woks frying up noodle and rice dishes will live up to any traveler's expectations of food in South East Asia. However, pork sandwiches and cups of strong dark coffee are as common as the local noodle dish Pho, making Vietnam an exciting culinary crock-pot.
If you are planning on spending any time in Vietnam it is probably a good idea to brush up on your table manners. It is unlikely that local people will expect you to be familiar with every custom, but knowing the local etiquette can be an easy way to impress any friends you meet on your trip.
- When not using your chopsticks, lay them across your rice bowl instead of sticking them into your food. Buddhism heavily influences Vietnamese culture and chopsticks standing up in rice look similar to incense burned in Buddhist ceremonies.
- Feel free to hold your rice bowl up to your mouth.
- Avoid eating directly from shared dishes. Instead, move a small amount of food to your rice bowl before you eat it.
- Do not be afraid to ask for a fork and spoon if you feel like your chopstick skills are deficient.
- Take your time. Dining in Vietnam is a slower affair than in most western countries, so do not feel the need to rush.
- Eat your vegetables. Meat is expensive and only eating meat from a dish is considered impolite.
- Elbows on the table? No problem! Feel free to rest your travel-weary elbows on the table; it's not considered rude.
- Pass with both hands. Try to sample every dish on the table and when passing a dish make sure to use both hands.
- Find the bill. In Vietnamese restaurants it is considered rude of the staff to bring you your bill. In most restaurants you will need to go to the front and ask how much you owe.
Street Food All Around:Obligatory Dishes
No culinary tour of Vietnam would be complete without sampling some of the local street food. You will not be able to try all of the delicious food Vietnam has to offer in one trip, but a good place to start is by sitting down in one of the many pink plastic chairs that signify places for buying street food.
Che Com is made from sticky glutinous rice and filled with caramel, ginger, and cashews or peanuts. It can be recognized from its gingery aroma and looks something like a small round muffin.
Locals in Hanoi will tell you that no visit to the wet markets in the Old Quarter is complete without a bowl of Bun Ca. Bun translates as noodles while Ca is fish.
Variations on this dish are many and each vendor will approach it differently, but you can expect a bowl of vermicelli noodles in pork-and-fish-flavored broth. Often seasoned with dill and other herbs, Bun Ca is a staple of the Old Quarter.
If you're looking for something more filling for dinner you can try Cao Lau. This noodle dish is served with pork and crispy crackers on top.
Its rich flavors are uniquely Vietnamese, but the thin noodles and meaty sauce will be a comfort to any traveler who has spent the day sampling more exotic dishes. Find Cao Lau at any large noodle vendor's.
No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a bowl of the iconic Pho noodles. A relatively simple dish with many variations, expect a clear broth full of thin noodles, topped with spices and fresh basil. Eating a quick bowl of Pho can be a satisfying way of experiencing local culture, easy to find and easy on the stomach.
Similar to a spring roll, Be Thui is a classic dish that features roasted calf meat wrapped in rice paper. Dipped in shrimp paste or chili sauce and filled with coriander and green banana, these are spring rolls of a kind you won't be able to find at home.
Drinks All Around: Obligatory Beverages
The unofficial drink of Vietnam is green tea, but you can find a wide variety of herbal teas in the country.
Due to the warm climate, it is easy to find iced teas, but travelers should be aware that the ice has been known to cause some people to have stomach troubles. Nuoc Sam is one of the more popular varieties and boasts a nutty flavor produced by nettle leaves and sugar cane.
Since Vietnam is a major producer, you will see coconuts being sold on almost every street corner. Vendors will crack open a fresh coconut, put in a straw, and send you on your way. An excellent option for staying hydrated on a hot day.
Vietnamese Coffee (Ca Phe)
Vietnam is also a major producer of robusta coffee. Bitter and strong, a traditional cup of Ca Phe is served with a few spoonfuls of sugar. Ca Phe Sua Da (or coffee with milk) can be a gentler approach for less-seasoned coffee drinkers.
Typically served in small metal drip filters over ice, Vietnamese coffee will keep you alert and full of energy on a long trip.
After only a few minutes in Vietnam you will surely notice the abundance of fresh fruit for sale. At many fruit stalls and nearby shops you can find any number of fresh-fruit smoothies. Paired with a bowl of Pho, these smoothies make for an excellent lunch.
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