Food sits at the very centre of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions - food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.
Vietnamese cuisine varies slightly from region to region, with many regions having their own specialties. Generally, northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being bland while southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being spicy.
At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest about their cuisine. And old proverb/joke says that a fortunate man has a Western (French house, Japanese wife, and Chinese chef.) High-end restaurants tend to serve "Asian-fusion" cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at street side "restaurants" A collection of plastic outdoor furniture placed on the footpath, with most walk-in restaurants being mainly for tourists. Definite regional styles exist -- northern, central, and southern, each with unique dishes. Central style is perhaps the most celebrated, with dishes such as mi quang wheat noodles with herbs, pork, and shrimp, banh canh cua crab soup with thick rice noodles and bun bo Hue beef soup with herbs and noodles.
Many Vietnamese dishes are flavored with fish sauce nÆ°á»c máº¯m, which smells and tastes like anchovies quite salty and fishy straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. Try taking home a bottle of fish sauce, and using it instead of salt in almost any savory dish -- you will be pleasantly surprised with the results. Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called nÆ°á»c cháº¥m, served on the table with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander or cilantro rau mÃ¹i or rau mgÃ², mint rau rÄm and basil rau hÃºng, accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighboring countries, especially China.
Vietnam's national dish is phá» pronounced like the fu- in funny, but with tone, a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles a form of rice linguini or fettuccine. Phá» is normally served with plates of fresh herbsusually including Asian basil, cut limes, hot chiles and and scalded bean sprouts which you can add in according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce. Phá» bÃ², the classic form of phá», is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef skirt, flank, tripe, etc.. Phá» gÃ is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phá» is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal. Most phá» places specialize in phá» and can serve you a bowls as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It's available at any time of the day, but locals eat it most often for breakfast. Famous phá» restaurants can be found in Hanoi. Generally speaking, the phá» served at roadside stalls tends to be cheaper and taste better than those served in fancier restaurants.
Street side eateries in Vietnam typically advertise phá» and cÆ¡m. Though cÆ¡m literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables. CÆ¡m is used to indicate eating in general...even when rice is not served ie: An cÆ¡m chua?- Have you eaten yet Though they may look filthy, street side eateries are generally safe so long as you avoid undercooked food.
In rural and regional areas it is usually safest to eat the locally grown types of food as these are usually bought each day from the market. It is not uncommon, that after you have ordered your meal a young child of the family will be seen running out the back towards the nearest market to purchase the items.
Most restaurants/cafes in Vietnam will have a bewildering variety of food available. It is very common for menus to be up to 10-15 pages. These will include all types of Vietnamese food, plus some token western food, possibly some Chinese and maybe a pad thai as well. It is generally best to stick with the specialty of the area as this food will be the freshest and also the best prepared.
Be advised that when dining in a restaurant, it is common practice for the wait staff to place a plastic packet stamped with the restaurant's name containing a moist towelette on your table. They are not free; they cost between 2,000 - 4,000 VND. If you open it, you will be charged for it. Also, peanuts or other nuts will be offered to you while you are browsing the menu. Those are not free, either. If you eat any, you will be charged.
Vegetarian food is quite easy to find anywhere in Vietnam due in large part to the Buddhist influence. These restaurants will run from upscale to street stall. Basically any Vietnamese dish with meat can be made vegetarian with the abundance of fake meats. Besides the Buddhist influence of two vegetarian days a month, Cao Dai people eat vegetarian 16 days, and followers of the bizarre Quan Yin method eat vegan daily. Look for any sign that says Com Chay or simply remember the phrase An Chay.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cÃ phÃª below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost every village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities. BÃ¡nh mÃ¬ are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pÃ¢tÃ©, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese.
If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.
All Vietnamese restaurants are controlled by government, and some are fully owned by government. Most restaurants' opening times are 10:00 to 22:00, some opens at 7:00 and some at 6:00 or 8:00. In 24-hour restaurants, there will be two prices, the price is normal from 6:00 to 22:00, and doubled from 22:00 to 6:00. For example, rice com usually costs 10,000 dong, but if you order after 22:00, the price will be 20,000 dong. This project is made by government to discourage people from eating late. Some dishes are not served after 22:00.
In restaurants fully owned by government, you will usually got "errored cuisine" such as fried fish with lemon sauce instead of fish sauce, or rice with tea instead of chili, and some dishes are not available for one month long without any announcement.