Inside Asia Tours: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

Food in Vietnam

Southeast Asia is home to some seriously delicious cuisine, from Vietnamese pho noodles to Cambodian curries and everything in between. Each region has its own mouthwatering delicacies to try, its own flavours and smells, its own ways of cooking, and its own etiquette and eating customs.

This section will provide a very brief overview of the culinary traditions of Vietnam, to whet your appetite and help you understand a little more about the eating habits of the region.

For more information, don't forget to check out our blog and twitter feed, where we frequently rhapsodise about our favourite Southeast Asian dishes!

Vietnamese cuisine guide

Vietnamese cuisine offers a fragrant blend of tastes and smells, with pungent fish sauce, shrimp paste and soy sauce typically combined with a variety of fresh flavours such as lemongrass, ginger, mint, lime, basil and coriander - plus spicy overtones of chilli and cinnamon.

Aside from some regional differences (which we'll explain below), cuisine throughout Vietnam shares some fundamental features. Food is generally served as fresh as possible, with most meats are only briefly cooked to preserve their original textures and colours. Vegetables are eaten fresh; if they are cooked, they are boiled or only briefly stir-fried. Herbs are essential to many Vietnamese dishes and are often abundantly used, whilst broths and soup-based dishes are common across all regions of the country. The most famous of these dishes is undoubtedly pho, Vietnam's signature noodle soup, which is not only popular throughout the country but also commands a significant following across the globe!

Philosophical importance

Vietnamese cuisine is underpinned by the traditional Asian principle of the five elements. Balance is sought through the combination of the five fundamental taste elements throughout the meal: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). The five elements also influence the chosen colours, textures and nutritional content - all aiming to create a culinary experience that provides a balance that is beneficial for the body.





Vietnamese eating customs

Vietnamese food is usually eaten with a spoon and chopsticks, with many dishes also served wrapped in banana or dong leaves.

A Vietnamese meal will typically consist of several dishes - usually steamed rice, soup, a meat or a fish dish, and a boiled or stir-fried vegetarian dish - which are eaten communally, with each party filling their own bowl from the table using chopsticks.

If you are a guest in a Vietnamese home for dinner, you should wait to be told where to sit, and then wait for the eldest member of your party to start eating before you dig in. Communal dishes should be passed between diners using two hands, and if you are not using your chopsticks they should be placed on the table.

At the end of the meal, it is customary to lay your chopsticks across your rice bowl as a signal that you have finished eating, and if you use a toothpick after your meal it is polite to cover your mouth with your hand.

Vietnam's street food: an insider's guide...

Vietnam is a Goliath of the culinary world, with a national cuisine that is adored all over the globe.

Whether it's a fried spring roll or a bowl of pho, the chances are you've tried Vietnamese at some point in your life - and if you haven't, you're in for a treat!

Have a look at our Insider's Guide to the best of Vietnam's street food



International influences on Vietnamese food

Vietnam's neighbours have, over the centuries, influenced both the ingredients and cooking styles commonly used throughout the country. Beef, now a staple of the northern diet in the form of pho bo (beef noodle soup) and bo bay mon (beef cooked seven ways) was introduced by the invading Mongols.

The Chinese, who dominated Vietnam for many centuries, taught the Vietnamese stir-frying and deep-frying, as well as the use of chopsticks. In the south, neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and Thailand introduced such ingredients as flat, Cambodian-style egg noodles, spices, chilli, and coconut milk. From the sixteenth century, the arrival of explorers and traders from more distant shores introduced new and exotic produce, such as potatoes and tomatoes. The colonising French took this Westernisation further by bringing with them the staples of Gallic life: baguettes, pâté, coffee with cream, milk, butter, custards, and cakes, many of which remain an integral part of modern Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnam's geography and its influence on culinary tradition

The geography of Vietnam plays an important role in the country's cuisine. Rice, the mainstay of the Vietnamese diet, is grown throughout the country but particularly in the Red River Delta in the north and Mekong Delta in the south. As an illustration of its importance, the Vietnamese say that their country resembles a bamboo pole (the narrow central region) with a basket of rice at each end. Although three-quarters of the land in Vietnam is hilly or mountainous, the long sea coast and inland waterways provide the fish and other aquatic species that are staples in the Vietnamese diet.

The food of northern Vietnam

Climate affects the availability of ingredients, which in turn affects the types of dishes that dominate a particular region. Most northern Vietnamese foods feature light and balanced flavours that result from subtle combinations of many different ingredients. Freshwater fish, crustaceans, and molluscs, such as prawns, squid, shrimp, crabs, clams, and mussels are widely used, flavoured with fish sauce, soy sauce, prawn sauce, and limes.

Being the cradle of Vietnamese civilisation, many national signature dishes, such as bun rieu, and banh cuon, originated in northern Vietnam and were carried to central and southern Vietnam as the southerly migration progressed. During the winter months in the north, families gather around a big bowl of seasoned broth and cook vegetables and meat in it for sustenance and warmth. A fish dish called cha ca, which is cooked in a similar fashion, is also quite common. The charcoal brazier that keeps the broth boiling sits on the table and keeps the family warm.

The food of central Vietnam

The abundance of spices grown in central Vietnam's mountainous terrain make this part of the country notable for its spicy cuisine, which sets it apart from the two other regions. Once the capital of the last royal family of Vietnam, the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue's culinary tradition features highly decorative and colourful food, reflecting the influence of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine. The region's cuisine is also notable for its sophisticated meals comprising many complex dishes served in small portions. Chilli and shrimp sauces are frequently used ingredients; some signature dishes produced in the region include bun bo hue and banh xeo.

The food of southern Vietnam

In the south, the climate is more tropical and constant; conducive to a long growing season and a greater range of produce. The typical diet, therefore, contains a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and in the south, sugar and sugarcane are used more often than in the north. A popular dish in the region is cha tom (shrimp wrapped in sugarcane). Reflecting the tropical climate, foods in the south are cooked for a shorter length of time than in the north. Vast shorelines also make seafood a natural staple for people of this region.