Here's how you can enjoy the full Vietnamese dining experience, complete with their bubbly and energetic atmosphere: go explore and savor ingredients that produce delicious dishes.
The sun seems to rise early in the morning in Vietnam. And mornings always seem busy, too. Motorcycles cut through morning traffic, with stalls lining up narrow sidewalks. And people sit down on small plastic chairs (ones you'd find in public baths in Korea) for breakfast. The Vietnamese often eat their breakfasts outdoors. Pho bo, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup and the best-known Vietnamese dish in Korea, is a popular choice for breakfast. Of many different types of noodle dishes, Bun Bo Hue, a staple in central Vietnam, is said to give you a jolt in the morning. One scoop of the soup, and the scent of herbs and lime will stimulate your sense of smell. The deep flavors of ginger, lemongrass and spicy Vietnamese pepper blend in perfectly in your mouth. And it will send warmth through your body. And what about Banh Mi, made with Vietnamese baguette that's crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside? Spread pate or cheese on the baguette, and stuff it with meat, ham or omelet, before putting the finishing touch with pickled carrots and radish to get the delicious mix of sweet and sour taste. It's almost impossible to just walk past these tasty offerings on streets.
A market in Ho Chi Minh ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
The Vietnamese cuisine seeks to emphasize the original flavors of the ingredients, and it's important to achieve the balance between taste and texture.
Vietnamese food is considered healthy for a reason. The Vietnamese cuisine seeks to emphasize the original flavors of the ingredients, and it's important to achieve the balance between taste and texture. The harmony of yin and yang, so valued in Oriental philosophy, is at the heart of the Vietnamese cuisine. For instance, when using ginger, which can warm your body, they mixed it with cooling herbal leaves. Fruits and vegetables grown in the highlands of Da Lat in southern Vietnam can produce spectacular dishes for vegetarians. The key to understanding and appreciating the Vietnamese cuisine is to respecting the natural properties of ingredients and achieving balance with other ingredients.
1Fragrant and fresh herbs
Assorted herbs and vegetables ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
Local markets offer a wide variety of herbs. Thai Sweet Basil is a popular garnish in Vietnamese food. Phos and Bun Bo Hue, and other soup dishes are always topped with this type of basil. It has the similar taste with aniseed, a type of spice. Mint, also known as Vietnamese Lemon Balm, is widely used in spring rolls, salads, chicken and fish. You can boil tea with it or use it as garnish in noodle soups. Cilantro is also a fixture with soup and stir-fried dishes. You can also put tiny coriander leaves into salad.
(Left) A vegetable shop at Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh ⓒ Ahn Jina / (Right) A Vietnamese family meal, with fresh herbs on appetizers ⓒ Ahn Jina
Pandan leaves have a distinctive scent and can be found across Southeast Asia. They can be used in main dishes and desserts alike. You can make ice cream or cake, and even tea with them. If you wrap meat or fish in pandan leaves, it will help you add flavors while removing some fishy smell. Shiso, or Perilla, is a spicy herb used in China and Japan, and has the scent similar with cinnamon or fennel. In Vietnam, people mix it with salad or use it for summer rolls and cold noodle dishes. Wild Betel is a vine belonging to the pepper family, and its leaves have the peppery scent. The large and round leaves are known to be quite nutritious, and they're used as garnish in soup dishes. Those leaves can be found in spring rolls, and you can also wrap meat with them.
2Sauce with ocean's flavor
Nuoc Mam Cham ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
At Vietnamese restaurants and markets, strong scents of salted seafood will grab your attention. Nuoc Mam is the most common type of fish sauce in Vietnamese cuisine. It's made from anchovies or fish mixed with salt. Korea also uses its own type of fish sauce, called 'aekjeot,' and even a tiny bit of Nuoc Nam can add much depth to Vietnamese dishes. Add sugar, garlic and lime juice to this fish sauce for Nuoc Mam Cham, a dipping sauce that can be easily found in typical Vietnamese homes. Mam Ruoc, or Dried Shrimp Paste, is the thick, brown-colored sauce with a distinctive aroma. In markets, it comes in a bottle, a plastic container or wrapped in paper. People only use small portions for soup dishes or make this a dipping sauce, because of its strong taste and scent.
A market with all types of street food ⓒ Ahn Jina
There's a Vietnamese expression, 'An choi.' It can be translated into, 'To eat playfully.' It provides a glimpse into the fun and joy with which the Vietnamese people consume their food.
3Noodles with various textures
Dried pho noodles ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
There are many different types of noodle dishes in Vietnam, depending on noodle's ingredients, thickness and shape. The noodle in a typical Pho Bo is called Banh Pho, characterized by its width. 'Bun,' another type of noodle for Pho, can come in fresh or dry forms.
Beef pho bo ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
Pho noodle in a bowl ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
Glass Noodles or Cellophane Noodles are transparent types made of starch. They're called 'Mien' in northern Vietnam and 'Bun Tao' in southern Vietnam. The thin vermicelli noodles go well with grilled meats. Chinese yellow egg noodles have the distinctive yellow color, and are used in noodle soup or fried noodle dishes.
4Fruits and vegetables
Starfruit ⓒ SHUTTERSTOCK
Banana Blossom, or Banana Flower, is the purple flower from the banana tree. It's beloved not just in Vietnam but across Southeast Asia, and it's mostly used in salads. You should peel off the purple petals on the outside and use the whiter part on the inside for food. Markets usually sell shredded banana flowers. These crispy leaves taste like artichokes. Water Spinach, also called 'Morning Glory' or 'Kangkong,' is 'Rau Muong' in Vietnamese. With its crunchy texture, this vegetable is used in a wide range of Asian dishes, and both the leaves and the stalks are edible. 'Taro' resembles potatoes and contains a lot of carbohydrates. Peel it off and it will still look a bit like potatoes but the tastes couldn't be more different. Taro has a bit of a sweet edge to it. It's usually grilled or fried when served. Starfruit is a tropical fruit in the shape of a star. It's usually cut to small pieces and eaten raw. A young fruit has a sour taste, and is served with a young banana as dessert. Lotus seeds, with their nutty flavor and a hint of sweetness, are often eaten as desserts or used in salads.