Voyage of discovery

A trip around Vietnam offers a variety of distinct cuisine from the country’s three regions

By JESSICA NGUYEN on December 10,2018 09:11 AM

Voyage of discovery

PHOTOS AN BIEN, THUY DUONG

Vietnamese cuisine is rich and diverse and every region in the country has food bearing certain characteristics. It would be a great shame if travelers weren’t able to enjoy the local delicacies found in each different place. Believe it or not, for example, it’s impossible to find a great bowl of Hanoian “pho” in central Vietnam, while an authentic “bun bo Hue” isn’t easy to track down in the country’s north.

Due to the dramatic differences in climate and lifestyles in Vietnam’s three main regions - the north, the central region, and the south - dishes vary. Regional Vietnamese cuisine carries distinctive and unique characteristics that reflect the geography, climate, and living conditions of local people. Street food, in particular, showcases the variety on offer. Many dishes are found everywhere around the country, but in different areas may use other ingredients and recipes.

With its cool climate, northern food is somewhat limited by the availability of spices and so often lacks the hotness found elsewhere. Renowned as the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, however, the north boasts many signature dishes made from rice, such as “bun”, “pho”, “banh da”, and “banh cuon”.

Conversely, the abundance of spices produced in the central highlands makes the central region notable for its spicy food. The harsh weather in the region has also perhaps influenced its cuisine, as it’s extremely hot for one half of the year and extremely wet for the other. To preserve food while waiting for better weather, food is often salted heavily and chili and salty shrimp sauces are among the most frequently used condiments.

The central region’s cuisine is a harmonious mixture of royal and street specialties. The capital of Vietnam’s last dynasty, Hue’s culinary tradition features highly decorative and colorful food, reflecting the influence of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine. There is an outstanding richness in the color of the dishes, as red and brown frequently appear in royal dishes. While court cuisine is sophisticated and luxurious, local street food is simple but still delicious. “Bun bo Hue” (a hot bowl of noodle soup with beef cooked in the Hue style), “mi Quang” (Quang Nam province-style noodles), “cao lau” (made with noodles, pork, and local greens and found only in the ancient town of Hoi An), “banh beo” (waterfern cake), “banh xeo” (sizzling pancakes), “banh trang dap” (rice crackers), and “ban cuon thit luoc” (steamed rice rolls with pork), among many others, are just some dishes travelers should simply not miss when visiting Da Nang, Hoi An ancient town, and nearby provinces.

Though lacking the long history of northern and central cuisine, southern dishes are nonetheless extremely rich and diverse. With a favorable geographic location, southern cuisine has not only absorbed the culinary elite from other regions of Vietnam but also taken on board dishes from ethnic minority groups such as the Cham, Khmer and Chinese, and been influenced by many countries from around the world. The warm weather and fertile soil of southern Vietnam create ideal conditions for growing a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and raising livestock. As a result, southern food is often vibrant and flavorful, with a liberal use of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs.

Voyage of discovery

Southern dishes are also often sweetened by sugar and fresh coconut milk as well as other ingredients found in nature. You can sample these characteristics in dishes such as “ca loc nuong” (grilled snakehead fish), “goi cuon” (fresh spring rolls), “bun mam” (Mekong seafood vermicelli soup), “hu tieu Nam Vang” (shrimp and pork chop noodle soup), and “banh bo” (steamed rice cake). One of the funkiest characteristics of southern dishes is their clear distinction. If a dish is “sweet”, it tends to be incredibly sweet, while if a dish is “spicy” it comes with maximum heat. The region’s vast shoreline also makes seafood a natural staple, with signature seafood dishes including “banh khot” and “bun mam”.

As it’s impossible to cover everything, The Guide here only recommends seasonal dishes available in the north and mountainous northwest.

NORTHERN DELIGHTS

When autumn is waning but it’s not yet winter is the best time to visit Hanoi and the nearby northwestern mountains. The heat of summer has gone but the chill of winter is yet to arrive, making it the best time for a culinary tour. Food from the north and the mountains bear distinctive characteristics that reflect the local geography and living conditions. Many dishes have a strong Chinese influence while retaining subtle differences, with the use of fresh vegetables and herbs enhancing the flavor.

Hanoian cuisine is characterized by the elegant style of the people of Trang An. Over time, it also imported the essence of cuisine from many other regions of the country. Popular dishes in Hanoi include “pho bo” (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup with beef), “bun cha” (grilled pork served with fresh vermicelli), “banh cuon” (steamed rice rolls), “Cha ca La Vong” (La Vong grilled fish served with fresh vermicelli and shrimp paste), and “bun rieu cua” (fresh vermicelli with crab broth).

“Banh goi” is an ideal dish for the winter. Known as “Pillow cake”, it is a combination of crispy bread crust and delicious and aromatic stuffing made from pork, fragrant mushrooms, dried vermicelli, pepper, and boiled eggs. The dish is best when hot, which is why it’s only sold when the mercury falls.

“Banh troi tau” definitely originated in China, as it translates as “Chinese floating rice cake”. It’s available all year round but also best enjoyed in winter. Chili gives welcome heat on a cold evening, with sweetness in the stuffing and fragrant sticky rice and a touch of ginger in the broth. One bowl has two pancakes with two types of stuffing - one made from green bean paste and the other from black sesame. The cakes float on a sweet broth sprinkled with roasted peanuts or fresh coconut slices.

Visitors to Hai Phong should spend a day tasting all it has to offer. The port city is famous for its unique cuisine, including “banh da cua” (crab soup with red rice noodles), “banh my cay” (spicy bread rolls), and, especially, “nem cua be” (fried spring rolls with sea crab).

“Banh da cua” is among the best dishes in the city. To red noodles are added vegetables, fish balls, crab, and green onions served in a piping hot broth made from pork bones and sea crab. “Nem cua be” is also rated highly, differing a little from ordinary spring rolls in being square and stuffed with fragrant mushrooms, spring onions, dried vermicelli, egg yolk, bean sprouts, and crab. Each spring roll served is cut into four pieces and accompanied by fresh vegetables, noodles, and a sweet and sour sauce.

With its cool climate, northern food is somewhat limited by the availability of spices and so often lacks the hotness found elsewhere

With its cool climate, northern food is somewhat limited by the availability of spices and so often lacks the hotness found elsewhere

MOUNTAINOUS SPECIALTIES

Visitors to the northwestern mountains in the cold season should not forget to try the special dish of the H’mong ethnic minority group in Sapa: black chicken. Also known as “evil chicken”, it is a special type of poultry, with black skin, black meat, and black bones. The most popular style is grilled over a charcoal fire, with delicious and juicy meat and crispy skin.

Drinking “San Lung” wine while eating “Thit trau gac bep” (bacon buffalo meat) with friends next to a fire on a cold night in Ha Giang province is also an unforgettable dining experience. The fragrant spicy dish, with hint of smoke, comes with fragrant rice wine and is certain to awake all the senses!

Dried buffalo meat is a specialty of most ethnic minorities but the version prepared by the Black Thai minority is the best. It’s usually made from the muscle areas of free-range buffalo, chopped into pieces, marinated with wild leaves and spices such as lemongrass, chili, ginger and “mac ken” (a special type a kind of forest pepper), and is skewed and hung over a charcoal stove for months.

“San Lung” wine is made from lowland rice and some upland herbs and considered “the wine of the Gods”. “San Lung” means three dragons. According to a legend of the Dao ethnic minority people, the wine is made to worship the gods, heaven, and earth. It has an exotic taste from the yeast of forest leaves and rice from terraced rice fields.

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