Vietnam was one of the places I was most excited about eating on my recent Asian adventures and it did not disappoint, so much so that I spent the first few days in Hanoi sleeping off food comas with after-lunch naps.
Vietnamese food is incredibly diverse, and whilst it shares similarities with other South East Asian countries, such as bold spicy flavours, and the complex balance of sweet, sour and salty flavours. French influences are also obvious due to the colonial history and the proximity to China can also be apparent in northern cooking. Vietnam, from my experience, is far more noodle-orientated than some of the other South East Asian countries we have visited where rice is the dominant carbohydrate.
One of the most well-known Vietnamese dishes is pho, a rich, clear meaty stock filled with rice noodles and beef, (bo) as well as spring onions, beansprouts, Thai basil and fresh chillies. Many places will also offer fresh chilli sauce on the side and lime to liven it up; it can also be served with chicken (ga). Pho can vary in different areas and especially from north to south. While pho is considered to be a breakfast dish, it can be eaten at all times of the day, especially in the north where the weather is much colder in the winter months.
Banh mi is an edible fusion of Vietnam’s history, fresh single baguette, filled with pork, chilli sauce, pickled carrot, coriander and French influences, mayonnaise and pate. The bread is not quite European style, it tends to have a lighter crust and a more airy texture; It’s a definite contender for best sandwich in the world. It’s pretty much perfect travellers food; portable, cheap and filling. Herbivores will be pleased to find many places offer a tofu version, too.
Bun cha is probably my favourite Vietnamese food. Originating from Hanoi it’s a simple dish of Pork patties like tiny little burgers and strips of fatty pork meat which are seasoned with Nuoc cham; A Vietnamese fish sauce. They are cooked over smoky coals and then served with cold vermicelli noodles, mixed herbs and more Nuoc cham to serve. It’s sweet, and meaty with a hint of chilli and fresh herbs, delicious.
Banh khoai is a central Vietnamese meal, and may sometimes be called a ‘Hue pancake’. A rice flour pancake filled with meat and/or seafood. It is served with the usual Vietnamese salad of green herbs and also crunchy tart star fruit. In Hue they served it with a peanut liver sauce, a sort of offal laced satay, which although an acquired taste is actually pretty good.
Bánh Khoai, and Bánh xèo are both Vietnamese pancake dishes and may vary depending on where in the country you order them – sometimes they come with rice paper to wrap around the pancake, sometimes just with a simple side of herbs.
Nem Lui is another regional speciality of Hue, minced pork meat is moulded around lemongrass skewers and cooked over coals, it is then wrapped in a sheet of stiff rice paper, with Vietnamese herb salad and the peanut liver sauce.
Cao Lao (sometimes written as Cao Lau) is one of those regionally specific foods, like champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies. It is geographically tied to the touristy town of Hoi An because historically the noodles are made using ash from a specific type of tree on the Cham islands off the coast of the town and water from a local well. The noodles are slightly thicker, and firmer than you would get in other Vietnamese noodle dishes. Whether these historical processes are still being followed is up for some debate, it makes for a great story and ultimately, great noodles.
The dish consists of noodles and sliced pork, with croutons, which seem more like little pieces of pork crackling than the accepted western crouton. The most important part to this dish is the stock – once all the ingredients have been put into the bowl a small amount of liquid is added, just to wet the noodles, nothing more. It is not a dry noodle dish but it’s not soupy either. It’s a very enjoyable, and a must if visiting Hoi An. Another local speciality worth trying is banh bao vac, a prawn dumpling often sold as ‘white rose’ due to its similar appearance.