Vietnam has a unique cuisine that’s not just pleasing for your taste buds, but also gives you an experience you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere. In this article, we’ll go through what makes Vietnam’s cuisine so special, and provide some general tips for travelling to Vietnam to try it yourself, such as getting the right visa.
Five balanced flavours
Many Vietnamese dishes combine the five fundamental flavours (spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet). Common ingredients include shrimp paste, fish sauce, bean sauce, rice, fresh herbs (such as lemongrass, ginger, mint, coriander, Thai basil and chilli peppers), fruits and vegetables.
These five flavours are used not only to create a balanced dish, but also for a balanced body and mind. In this principle of ying and yang (m dương), contrasting textures and flavours and the "warming" and "cooling" properties of the ingredients play an important role. Some dishes are served in certain seasons to provide contrasts in the temperature and spiciness of the food and the environment. Some examples are:
- Duck, which is considered "cool", is served in the hot summer with ginger fish sauce, which is "warm". In winter, on the other hand, chicken ("warm") and pork ("hot") are eaten
- Seafood ("cool") is suitable to be eaten with ginger ("hot")
- Spicy food is balanced with acid
Cooking and eating play an extremely important role in Vietnamese culture. For example, salt is used as a link between the world of the living and the dead, Bánh phu thê (a dessert made of rice with a filling of mung beans) is used to remind new couples of harmony at their wedding, and food is also often placed as an offering for the dead on special occasions (such as the Lunar New Year).
Vietnam's cuisine can be divided into three zones:
- the northern zone is known for fried foods such as prawn rolls or wontons
- the southern zone favours fish, vegetables and seafood
- the central zone is more colourful and spicy with unique flavours
Traditional Vietnamese cuisine is greatly admired for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of dairy and oil, many textures, low sugar and gluten content. Vietnamese cuisine is therefore considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. French cuisine has also had a great influence on Vietnamese cuisine, due to French colonisation.
A well-known dish is Vietnamese Phở, a noodle soup with a rich, clear broth, of which there are many variations. Phở is usually served with spring onions and slices of beef cooked in broth. After serving, basil, lime, mung bean and chilli pepper are added to taste. In the South, bean sprouts, hoisin sauce, sriracha and other spices are also often served to add to the Phở.
The origin of this dish is not entirely known. It is probably based on regional, similar noodle dishes. It was eaten even before the French colonisation, but the dish did change under the influence of the French. Before the colonial era, Vietnamese people used cattle mainly as working animals and beef was not eaten much. Due to the presence of the French, the consumption of beef increased and, as a result, more beef bones were available. These (cheap) bones were then bought by workers and used for a soup with rice noodles, meat and vegetables.
Heading to Vietnam
It’s one thing to read about Vietnam’s wonderful cuisine, it’s another thing entirely to taste it yourself. And what better way to do it than in the country itself? Before you book your trip, however, make sure you get your visa sorted out first. Unexpected delays with visa approval can always happen, and you don’t want to have booked your tickets and hotel, only to find that your visa is still pending a day before your trip. Some nationals, such as British citizens, can stay in Vietnam for up to 15 days without needing a visa. If you plan to stay longer, a visa is mandatory.
The Vietnam visa can be applied for online. This saves you the cost of the stamping fee (25 to 50 dollars) and the queue for the visa on arrival at the airport.
The visa is valid for 30 days, which is also the maximum length of stay in Vietnam. Time enough to try some dishes of the fantastic Vietnamese cuisine!