To really understand the flavors of Vietnam, it's helpful to look at a map first.
Shaped like an elongated S, the skinny country is about the size of Italy, with China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east. The 3,000-kilometer coastline snakes down, marked by Hanoi in the north, the rugged central highlands, the sprawling Hoi Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) in the south, and the fertile Mekong delta ("the rice bowl of the country") at the bottom hook.
The food of the north is heavily influenced by China with its stir-fries and noodle-based soups. As you move south, there's more flavor-blending with nearby Thailand and Cambodia. The tropical climate down south also sustains more rice paddies, coconut groves, jackfruit trees, and herb gardens. The food in southern Vietnam is typically sweeter: sweeter broths for pho, more palm sugar used in savory dishes, and those popular taffy-like coconut candies made with coconut cream.
It's hard to talk about Vietnamese food without mentioning French colonization, which began with missionaries arriving in the eighteenth century and didn't end until 1954. Clearly it had a lasting effect on the country, the people, the architecture, the land, and the flavors. Most obvious might be the banh mi, where the foundation is a crusty French baguette and the insides are often slathered with meat paste, aka pâté. But the Vietnamese have taken this sandwich and made it entirely their own with grilled pork fillings, fish patties, sardines, cilantro, chili-spiked pickled carrots and daikon.
Pho (pronounced fuh, like "fun" without the "n") is another example of French colonialism leaving its mark—the soup is a blend of Vietnamese rice noodles and French-minded meat broths. One theory contends that pho is a phonetic imitation of the French word "feu" (fire), as in pot-au-feu. Some say that French colonialists slaughtered a bunch of cattle in Vietnam to satisfy their appetite for steak, and the ever-resourceful Vietnamese cooks used the scraps, bones, and any other rejected bits to create pho.
Basic Elements: Rice and Fish Sauce
Travel all over Vietnam and you'll quickly find two universal themes. Rice and fish sauce.
Vietnam is the second-largest rice exporter in the world (after Thailand). Rice is grown all over the country, most bountifully so in the Mekong Delta down south, which can grow enough rice to feed all 87+ million people of Vietnam, with plenty of leftovers beyond that. (So much rice.)
Rice appears at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. There's rice-rice of course as well as rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, rice porridge, sticky rice with fruit, fried rice, puffed rice snacks, and rice wine. I don't think I ever went more than a few hours in Vietnam without consuming some form of rice.
One local told us that instead of saying gesundheit in response to a sneeze, you can say cơm muối, meaning "rice and salt." So, rather than blessing someone or wishing them good health, just say rice and salt, and that should cure whatever's ailin' them.
Most salt intake in the Vietnamese diet is delivered in the form of fish sauce. Salty, funky, fermented fish sauce, or nước mắm, is used in marinades, soup broths, salad dressings, spring roll dips, and it's really hard to think of some dish where it's not used. The national condiment is nước chấm, where the fish sauce is diluted slightly with a splash of lime juice, sugar, chilies and garlic.
People say the most prized fish sauce comes from Phu Quoc, an island near the Cambodian border. The waters around Phu Quoc are rich in seaweed and plankton, keeping the local anchovy population very happy. While any kind of fish can be used to make fish sauce, anchovies supposedly produce the ultimate fish sauce and Phu Quoc sauce only uses anchovies harvested around the island.
"We like our fish sauce like you like your cheese—pungent," said one of our Vietnamese guides. I actually spent a few minutes inside a fish sauce factory in the Mekong Delta (it was a challenge to breathe in there, oh boy) and saw the huge wooden barrels where the wee fishies and salt are aged for at least six months. I felt like fish sauce and I reached a new dimension in our friendship together at that moment. It was like visiting the childhood home of a friend for the first time and understanding them better—it was a powerful moment in that stinky room.
Herbs and Aromatics
Vietnamese food makes extensive use of fresh herbs, spices, and aromatics. Sometimes they go into a steamy pot of pho, sometimes wrapped up with spring rolls, sometimes enclosed with a banh xeo pancake.
The freshness of each ingredient is crucial. When we met a popular chef in Hoi An, Trinh Diem Vy, she said her highest-paid employee (and she has 280 employees across all her restaurants) is her market shopper. There's a lot of pressure on that nose to whiff through the chaos of the market to locate the very best and brightest ingredients.
Here's a quick primer:
- Cilantro: In salads, soups, spring rolls, and beyond. Widely used as the finishing touch garnish. Depending on your genetics, might taste soapy.
- Mint: Several varieties grow in Vietnam. Some are fuzzy, some taste lemony, some spearminty, others are spicy...
- Fish Mint or Fish Leaf: Ever tried fish mint? Wow, it's really fishy. Appropriately named, this leafy herb has an awfully pungent smell and taste. You'll think you wrapped actual fish into your spring roll, but really it's just this sneaky leaf.
- Basil: More popular in Thailand but still makes an appearance in pho and on herb plates.
- Lime Leaf: Bright green and shiny. Somewhat bitter oils.
- Lemongrass: Tastes and smells, not surprisingly, like lemon. Used in both sweet and savory dishes.
- Green Onions and Scallions
- Garlic Chives: Flat leaves with a delicate onion and garlic flavor.
- Perilla Leaf: Green on top, purplish on the underside with a complex flavor that combines licorice, mint, and lemon all in one leaf.
- Dill: Hardly associated with Southeast Asian cuisine but used in a famous Vietnamese fish dish called Cha Ca, where it's treated more like a veggie than an herb.
- Turmeric: Sometimes called poor man's saffron, it adds a vivid goldenness to fried foods and some peppery flavor.
- Ginger and Galangal: Both knobby rhizomes, both pervasive in Vietnamese cooking.
- Saigon Cinnamon: There are different species of cinnamon in the world, and this one is indigenous to Vietnam. Woody, earthy flavor and aroma. Important in pho.
- Tamarind Pulp: Maybe this doesn't belong on this list, but it needed to go somewhere. The sweet-sour pulp is used in noodle soups and curries.
No Fresh Dairy, But Lots of Sweetened Condensed Milk
Egg coffee in Hanoi. That top layer of sweetened condensed milk is whipped up with a raw egg!
The French colonists didn't seem to leave behind any wheels of Brie or Camembert. You're not going to find much cheese, butter, or cream in Vietnam but the people still get their required dosages of calcium by way of fish bones and shells. No need to de-shell that shrimp tail, just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Mmm, crunchy.
In lieu of fresh milk, you'll find cans upon cans of sweetened condensed milk, famously used in "white coffee." The sweet, lusciously thick blanket of milk gets mixed with Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee individually brewed from a small metal drip filter into each cup. Usually there's more sweetened condensed milk than actual coffee in the cup. Unapologetically sweet and amazing, it's also dangerously strong. I wasn't sure why I couldn't fall asleep in Vietnam for several nights and then realized, oh right—might have been those three cups of coffee I drank daily.
Fruit: As Vegetables and Dessert
Unripe fruits are considered more like vegetables. Crispity and crunchy, a green papaya and mango or banana flower becomes the base for salads instead of leafy greens. The unripe fruit-meat is usually a bit sour, pairing nicely with fish sauce, chili, garlic, dried shrimp, and finely chopped peanuts.
Ripe fruit, on the other hand, is sweet and wondrous. Instead of cakes or cookies for dessert, usually a meal ends with a hot teapot and big platter of indigenous tropical fruits. Slices of banana, mango, pineapple, watermelon (the redder the insides, the more good luck awarded to you!), dragonfruit, papaya, rambutans, and lychees.