Essential Vietnamese New Year Foods - Northern food

By: Nhu Tong

Tết Nguyên Đán or simply Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most festive time of year in Vietnam as well as the most busy due to the amount of preparation required. You can easily get a sense Tet’s intense yet joyful atmosphere just by watching streets crowded with a continuous stream of people busy with shopping and preparing in advance for Tet. On this special occasion, everything must be prepared carefully and early.

To get ready for the holiday in accordance with Vietnamese belief, you should clean your home, replace your outdated things with new ones and—because you’re to stop all work during Tet including household work—cook all the food you’ll eat during the holiday.

There are certain dishes like bánh chưng (square meat cake) that are like unofficial Tet mascots for their close association with the holiday. If you’re in Hanoi or somewhere else in the North, expect to see typical dishes from that region there like xôi gấc (stick rice) during this time of year.

In this series, we’re going to explore the food traditions of Vietnam’s three major regions—the North, Middle and South—going from top to bottom.

An Overview of Vietnamese Tet

The Vietnamese call this time of year Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết Ta (Vietnamese New Year), Tết Âm Lịch (Lunar New Year), Tết Cổ Truyền (Traditional New Year). As the Lunar New Year is determined according to the phases of the Moon so Tet is celebrated later than Tết Dương Lịch (Western New Year).

It has many different names, but we’ll just call it “Tet” here for short.

There is an additional month added to the lunar calendar every three years, but otherwise the the Tet window remains unchanged: the first day of the Lunar New Year is never before January 21 and never after February 19 in the Gregorian calendar. It is usually held during late January to the middle of February.

In the past, the entire annual Lunar New Year celebration used to last for about 2 weeks across two separate periods: seven or eight days of the old year and 7 days of the new year (23 December to the end of January 7).

Just like other Asian countries deeply influenced by Chinese culture, Tet holds a very important, significant meaning in the life of the Vietnamese people for many reasons. For one, it’s an opportunity for a family reunion. It’s often the occasion to welcome family members returning home after working apart all year round. Second, it’s also an opportunity to visit acquaintances, relatives, and friends during the longest leisure time period of the year.

TetImage source: ancarat.com

Getting the Meal Ready

If you asked me which of Tet’s many activities is the most fascinating, I would doubtlessly pick preparing the traditional food.

Tet foods play a vital role in worshipping the ancestors, reuniting the family and receiving the guests during the first three days of the Lunar New Year. Preparing for these dishes requires one to be meticulous and attentive to the particular traditions of your area. As Vietnamese people are creative in the kitchen, the selection of Tet’s food is rich and diverse varying from region to region.

My grandma and mom always bought and prepared loads of food in the week before Tet’s arrival because food plays such a large part in Tet celebration. Vietnamese people always make sure that there is plenty of food for the whole family to last for at least three days since it is taboo to work or cook during the first three days of Tet. It is also bad luck to run out of food during this time.

Let me show you what might be on the typical plate of a Northern Vietnamese family during this coming Tet .

Northern Vietnam’s traditional meal

A complete Northern Tet meal is considered the most traditional meal of all. Hanoi is said to have retained the the highest number of traditional dishes among all the other the northern provinces. A complete meal there calls for preparing a broad number of foods and a sophisticated presentation. Traditionally, the complete Northern Tet meal needs eight dishes—four bowls and four plates—which represent four pillars, four seasons and four directions.

The traditional Hanoian family’s meal has been simplified now compared to the amount of recipes in the past. Nevertheless, there are still some irreplaceable dishes that almost every Northern family will prepare on this special occasion.

TetImage source: murtahil.com

Bánh Chưng (Chưng cakes or Vietnamese square cakes)

This is the most well known cake of the holiday, arguably the most famous Tet dish of them all. Bánh chưng (Vietnamese square cake) is made from glutinous rice, mung beans, pork and other ingredients, which are believed to express the essence of the heaven and the earth through the skillful hands of humans, according to Vietnam’s legendary ancient chief King Hùng Vương. By this belief, making bánh chưng cake is also the ideal way to express gratitude to our ancestors and homeland. It embodies the spirit of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

TetImage source: doanhnhanplus.vn

Vietnamese families love to pack and boil bánh chưng cake together as a household around one week before giao thừa (New Year's Eve). It is also a great chance for family members to gather and spend the night together sharing neverending stories, games and conversations while waiting for the cakes to be boiled.

TetImage source: 3.bp.blogspot.com

My family used to pack and boil bánh chưng years ago in a private corner right in front of our house. This is doubtlessly a precious memory to any kid growing up in the city like me. Because the making of the bánh chưng cake requires participation of all family members, each of us was involved in different parts of the process, but we shared a common joy.

Early in the morning we had to head out to market to choose lá dong (phrynium leaves). To make the cake, you must cleanse them over water, then carefully wipe up every single leaf. If you leave the leaf wet, it might ruin the whole cake.

Packing the cake is even more challenging. Bánh Chưng cake should be tightly and carefully wrapped, boiled for about 14 hours, taken out, soaked in water and squeezed using a heavy plank. That way, when bánh chưng cake is cut, it will be limber but not flabby. It will instead be fleshy and fragrant.

Nowadays, times have changed and it is hard to find a family who packs and boils bánh chưng cake by themselves in the city, but family elders still get first dibs and choose before anyone else so they get the one that’s best cooked. The cake should be made from a fragrant glutinous rice for better longevity.

Watch video of Vietnamese people making of bánh chưng cake:

Video source: Helen's Recipes (Vietnamese Food)

Xôi gấc - Red Sticky Rice

Xôi (Sticky rice) is also an indispensable part of the traditional Northern meal. There’s a selection of different xôi: xôi lạc (sticky rice with peanuts), xôi đậu xanh (sticky rice with mung bean), and my personal favorite xôi gấc (sticky rice with special gấc fruit). Among these types, xôi gấc is in my opinion the best choice thanks to its distinct red color, which signifies a good fortune, according Vietnamese belief.

TetImage source: media.cooky.vn

Generally, xôi gấc is usually served with giò chả (Vietnamese sausage) or boiled chicken in Tet meals. Sometimes it can be served with chè (sweet soup) like a dessert dish. Xôi gấc is a great start for the new year because this dish is believed to bring lots of luck and symbolise good things.

TetImage source: 3.bp.blogspot.com

Dưa hành– Pickled Onions

Fresh pickled onions are often served as a side dish alongside bánh chưng cake or high protein dishes to reduce the greasiness. Foreigners may find this dish, in a word, unfriendly as they often can not handle the alliaceous, intensely oniony smell.

But once you get along with these sweet-but-sour, slightly spicy pickled onions, you just can’t resist them. It helps elevate the flavor of Tet dishes as well as benefit our body’s digestive processes.

TetImage source: static1.squarespace.com

First thing’s first: in order to make standard pickled onions, you need to choose old onions with firm bulbs. Next, soak the onions in water mixed with borax and ash for two days and two nights. After that, take out the onions, cut off the roots, peel them, then put them into a large jar, cover them with salt and then put a thin layer of chopped cane on top. Cover the onions with layers of bamboo. After two weeks, you can get the onion bulbs out, soak them in sugar and vinegar. In three days, your pickled onions will be ready to rock.

Watch video of foreigner first trying dưa hành:

Video source: Zing.vn

Giò Chả, Giò Thủ – Vietnamese sausage, Pork Head Ham

Regardless of regional geography, Vietnamese Tet feast must contains a dish of giò (Vietnamese sausage), one of the most savoury of all Lunar New Year dishes.

Vietnamese sausage (Giò), usually made of pork, from meat finely milled in a stone mortar and wrapped in banana leaves to form a tube shape. It is then boiled or steamed. There’s also giò bò (beef sausage), which is made from finely milled beef, a specialty of central Vietnam. A well cut piece of giò must look neat, nice, and easy to pick up. The plating and presentation of this dish depends on the creativity of cooks.

TetImage source: media.static-adayroi.com

Then you have giò thủ (pork head ham), a Vietnamese sausage made from the meat of a pig’s head. For making giò thủ, pig’s ears and head meat are not milled but diced, and mixed with other ingredients like wood ear (black mushroom), fish sauce, pepper and garlic, all of which are stir fried. They are first fried in a pan, and then stirred well on low heat. Then, wrap the pies in fresh banana leaves, tie them carefully, and boil or steam them just like how we did with giò chả. A well cooked giò thủ dish gets it marble texture with the crunchy cartilage in every bite. This chewy, meaty, crunchy dish endowed with a deep, spicy, strong favour of condiments and garlic is best paired with pickled onions and a cold glass of bia hơi (Vietnamese fresh beer).

TetImage source: jamja.vn

Thịt đông – Frozen Meat

Thịt đông is a dish particular to the winter-spring period of the Northern Vietnam, when the outside temperature is drastically cooler. Thịt đông is made from mixed protein, sometimes from chicken as well as pork and pork skin. After the ingredients are cooked in a pot, they may be left to cool down inside the pot, or divided into small bowls, depending on your preferred serving size. Then it is covered and chilled in the open air to make what you’d agree is one wonderful dish.

TetImage source: baomoi-photo-2-td.zadn.vn

The complete thịt đông dish has a thin white layer of fat on top, and the smooth jelly-like layer of frozen meat underneath. A piece of frozen meat served with pickled onions and a hot bowl of rice makes the true Northern Tet flavor. Frozen meat is typically served with a hot, fragrant bowl of rice as the heat of well-cooked rice melts down the frozen fat and soup. All harmonize into one perfect taste.

Learn how to make your own:

Video source: Feedy VN

Banner Image source: static.vietnammoi.vn


Christmas specials in Vietnam

By: Quang Mai


Christmas specials in Vietnam


With so many restaurants and hotels running Christmas specials, it’s hard to find the perfect one for your tastes. To help you along with your decision, City Pass Guide has accumulated a list of some of the tastiest venues to go for your Christmas holiday meal.


They fill up quite fast so it’s recommended to book your reservation in advance.









Club Opera Novel


One of the only places in Hanoi with an exclusively Vietnamese themed-menu with an option of free flow sparkling wine.

17 Trang Tien 04 3972 8001
Click to see details




Fortuna Hotel


The chef’s own 4-course set dinner showcasing the finest ingredients.

6B Lang Ha st. 04 3831 3333
Click to see details




Hotel L’Opera


An international buffet will delight your tastebuds while traditional Christmas songs are played live in the background.

29 Trang Tien 04 6282 5555
Click to see details






Mercure Hotel


Two different menus for Christmas Day and Eve are available and children under four eat for free.

94 Ly Thuong Kiet 04 3944 7766
Click to see details




Silk Path Hotel


A family friendly five course dinner with entertainment such as interactive games, a clown and magician along with an appearance by Santa Clause.

195-199 Hang Bong o4 3266 5555
Click to see details










Camargue


A sophisticated French inspired six course Christmas Eve dinner makes Camargue one of the most sought after dinners in town.

74/7D Hai Ba Trung st. District 1 08 3520 4888
Click to see details




Grand Hotel


Choose from a BBQ rooftop buffet or a Christmas Gala buffet complete with gifts, a magic performance and a lucky draw.

8 Dong Khoi District 1 08 3915 5555
Click to see details




Hogs Breath


Not content to only having your Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve? If not then head to Hog’s Breath where a Holiday Set Dinner runs from the 15th of December to the 25th.

2 Hai Trieu st. District 1 08 3915 6066
Click to see details







Hotel Equatorial


Enjoy your Christmas buffet while being serenaded with carols with a real Christmas tree in the background.

242 Tran Binh Trong (08) 3839 7777
Click to see details




La Brasserie De Saigon


A four course Christmas dinner featuring a glass of sparkling wine and fresh seafood awaits you at Le Brasserie De Saigon.

38 Dong Du 08 6291 3657
Click to see details




La Cuisine


Take in a five course Christmas Eve dinner at this Miele guide listed restaurant.

48 Le Thanh Ton District 1 08 2229 8882
Click to see details







La Villa


Violin and guitar players entertain while you feast on a six course dinner.

14 Ngo Quang Huy St District 2 08 3898 2082
Click to see details




Monsoon Restaurant


A very Asian Christmas set dinner complete with a glass of sparkling wine.

1 Cao Ba Nha District 1 08 6290 8899
Click to see details




My Place


Choose from a three course lunch or five course dinner for Christmas.

195 Dien Bien Phu District 3 08 3829 8301
Click to see details







New World Hotel


A plethora of festive events for the holiday season including special room rates and private parties.

76 Le Lai District 1 08 3822 8888
Click to see details




Renaissance Riverside Hotel


Dine at 21 floors or have a cozy gathering of friends on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

8-15 Ton Duc Thanh District 1 08 3822 0033
Click to see details




Sofitel Saigon Plaza


There are options galore at the Sofitel Saigon with buffet and set menu options. Also celebrate at home with the “french touch” menu available for delivery.

17 Le Duan District 1 08 3824 1555
Click to see details










StarCity Saigon Hotel


Enjoy the festive holiday with an abundant seafood buffet and unlimited Tiger beer and soft drinks. Book early and get a 15 percent discount.

144 Nguyen Van Troi Phu Nhuan District 1 08 3999 8888
Click to see details




Vatel


A special French-Vietnamese buffet with a complimentary glass of sparkling wine at Vatel.

120Bis Suong Nguyet Anh st District 1 08 5404 2220
Click to see details




Wine and Brandy Bar


A five course dinner with paired wine suggestions for the wine lover.

38 Dong Khoi District 1 08 3829 3968
Click to see details




Le Bouchon De Saigon


Enjoy Christmas dinner at the friendly casual French bistro with homemade foie gras and Christmas turkey.

40 Thai Van Lung District 1 083 829 9263
Click to see details



 

 








Mui Ne Unique Resort – Mui Ne


Enjoy a beachside BBQ buffet for Christmas at Mui Ne Unique Resort. Dancers, musicians and an international DJ will provide entertainment along with a special appearance by Santa!

20 B Nguyen Dinh Chieu 062 374 1617

Call for details




Guava – Nha Trang


Enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner with roast turkey with all the trimmings for VND400,000/person.

17 Biet Thu 058 3524 140

Call for details




Kozak Mamay - Vung Tau


Celebrate a quiet Christmas eve in traditional Russian style with a traditional goose and all the trimmings

06-07 H3, Nguyen Tri Phuong

084 356 3776




The Story of Tương: Vietnamese Fermented Soybean Paste

By: Tran Thi Minh Hieu

Many people believe that shrimp paste, a typical dipping sauce of Northern Vietnamese villages, is the best sauce to pair with tofu. But since I was a child, I have always preferred my tofu to be dipped in fermented soybean paste, or tương, because its sweeter, lighter smell and taste reminds me of my grandmother, who used to make it at home.

This traditional dipping sauce enjoyed by vegetarian Buddhists is now less popular in the cities, and the recipes and techniques to make good tương are only handed down within individual families. But if you get a chance to try it and compare its taste to other fermented soybean pastes, like miso in Japan and doenjang in Korea, you will find a common, treasured food tradition.

How is it made?

The sauce has a high nutritional value because it is made from soybeans fermented with a type of mold or fungi. To make this mold, sticky rice is steamed, or alternatively, ordinary rice is cooked with less water than usual, and then scattered on a woven tray and covered with leaves to keep the heat. The rice is left to ferment for approximately 7-10 days.

Each family and each region has its own method to make the mold, but the basic principle is the same: fermented rice will generate heat and create an ideal condition for the fungi to grow. Scientists call this type of fungus A. oryzae. It’s also known as koji. This fungi helps to transform rice starch into glucose, resulting in a powdery mixture with a nice golden color and a sweet taste. It is important to keep track of the mold as it develops on the rice, as sometimes other, possibly toxic, types of fungi might develop as well, which will need to be removed.

soybeanImage source: topplus.vn

At the same time, soybeans are roasted and pounded or ground into pieces, and then boiled with water and poured into clay jars. The jars are then covered and put in a sunny ventilated place to ferment. When the rice mold is fully developed, it is mixed into the jars, and the fermentation process will continue for at least 15 to 20 days to create the final product, fermented soybean paste.

soybeanImage source: sapaviet.net

Salt is an indispensable ingredient. Adding the proper amount of salt is important to ensure good taste and long storage time. Salt can be mixed with the mold after it is ready, or added directly into the jar. Either way, the end result is a perfect combination of salty, sweet, and the umami flavour of fermented soybeans.

Watch a traditional fermentation method:

Video source: VTC14 - Thời tiết - Môi trường & Đời sống

Where can you find it?

In Vietnam, fermented soybean paste is mainly used as dipping sauce for dishes served with rice, such as tofu and boiled vegetables. It can also be used as a seasoning when cooking braised fish or braised vegetables. Especially in the North, bánh đúc lạc is a popular snack in rural markets. It is a savoury cake made of rice flour and peanuts, which is then dipped in fermented soybean paste.

soybeanImage source: 1946.vn

Watch this video to learn how to use soybean paste to improve your health:

Video source: sharecare.com

The regions in Vietnam famous for their tradition of making fermented soybean paste include: Bần village in the Hưng Yên province near Hanoi, Cự Đà village in Hanoi, and the Nam Đàn district of Nghệ An province. Many people use tương and tương bần interchangeably to refer to fermented soybean paste. The Bần village has been famous for this product since the late nineteenth century.

In Southern Vietnam there is a type of fermented soybean paste called tương hột. It is made from whole-grain boiled soybeans mixed with ground roasted soybeans, fermented by rice or corn mold, or using ready-made soy sauce to speed up the fermentation process. Tương hột is also used as a condiment for braised fish, tofu or vegetables. When blended it can be used as a component in the dipping sauce for fresh spring rolls.

soybeanImage source: 2.bp.blogspot.com

Vietnamese tương and Japanese miso

If you love Japanese cuisine, you have probably tried miso soup, the Japanese comfort food made with miso paste, seaweed, tofu and green onions. However, not many people know that miso is actually the Japanese version of fermented soybean paste. Miso is similar to Vietnamese tương in components and production methods but with some differences.

First, in Japan soybeans are not roasted before boiling. They are soaked overnight instead, so the boiled beans are much softer and can be pounded into a thick, fine paste. Second, steamed rice is mixed with industrially produced koji starter, and fermented for a few days, to become kome koji (rice mold). Finally, soybean paste and kome koji are mixed together with salt and put into a jar. The ingredients need to be weighted to pressurize the mixture. This is done with a heavy bag as in this video. The jar is then covered for a month-long fermentation process.

Video source: JapaneseCooking101

Vietnamese fermented soybean paste is just as nutritious as its Japanese cousin, and even more versatile. It can be added to variations on the country’s much-loved braised fish (cá kho), used as a dipping sauce for the famed gỏi cuốn, or used as a condiment in many vegetarian dishes. The options are endless.

Banner Image source: web.media.danviet.vn


2016 Valentine’s Day Deals in Vietnam

By: Trung Vo

Love is everywhere this season! Valentine’s Day is approaching fast - do you know what you’ll be doing for you special someone? Check out our lovely Vietnamese Valentine’s Day deals below - we chose the most romantic venues and the best offers so you won’t be running around like mad this February 14th. Moreover, for local insight and extra information about great dining places, lovely sights and cool drinks, see the rest of our website, where you can always find some places to fit you and your partner. Put on your best suit/dress and impress your loved ones with your marvelous preparation.


SHERATON HANOI HOTEL

Time: 6th - 14th February

Oven D’or Restaurant

  • VND1,300,000 ++/ set, includes 01 glass of Rose sparkling wine, free flow of beer, wine and soft drinks.

Hemispheres Restaurant

  • VND3,000,000++/set (wine pairing set dinner)

Reservation and more


SOFITEL PLAZA HANOI

Summit Romance

A magnifique date with roses, flavorful cocktails, desserts with live entertainment under the star-studded sky.

- Venue: Summit Lounge, 20th floor

- Price: VND880,000++/couple

Romantic Dinner

A lovely dinner with Champagne Cocktail, Seafood and Carvery Buffet plus special gifts for the ladies and live violin performance.

- Venue: Brasserie Westlake Restaurant

- Price: VND2,250,000++/couple

Reservation and more


HOTEL DE L'OPERA HANOI - MGALLERY

Some Enchanted Evening

Venue: Cafe Lautrec

Price: VND1,400,000++/person, five-course menu and a glass of champagne.

Reservation and more


HILTON HANOI OPERA

Immersed in a truly romantic atmosphere, enjoy this special menu for Valentine’s Day with your loved one at Hilton Hanoi Opera.

Price: VND1,355,000++/couple (included 02 glasses of champagne/wine/beer)

Additional beverage packages:

- VND300,000++/person for free flow of champagne, house wine, beer, soft drink.

- VND200,000++/person for free flow of house wine, beer, soft drink.

Express your feeling to your sweetheart in a unique way and make this an unforgettable day for both of you.

Combo of Valentine cakes with tea/coffee: VND250,000++ at Lobby Lounge Hilton Hanoi Opera

Reservation and more


NOVOTEL DANANG PREMIER HAN RIVER

- Package 1: The Cupid's Arrow – Priced at VND 1,999,000++/couple 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. at The Square Restaurant (level 4)

- Package 2: Endless Love – Priced at VND 2,333,000++/couple 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. at Premier Executive Lounge (level 29)

Reservation and more


NOVOTEL NHA TRANG

Be my Valentine

Special dinner by the pool for VND 735,000++/ person, includes chocolate, 5 dishes with pairing wines and romantic live acoustic music.

Reservation and more


NEW WORLD SAIGON HOTEL

In the Mood for Love

Time: 14th February 2016

- Parkview: Lunch buffet for VND610,000++/person- Dinner buffet for VND910,000++/person, feature seafood including lobster, sparkling wine, chocolate, and a keepsake photo to mark the occasion.

- Dynasty: Set menu for two for VND1,500,000++/ couple, inclusive of complimentary sparkling wine, on-premise photos and a takeaway gift.

Reservation and more


LE MÉRIDIEN SAIGON

Valentine 2016 is coming along with the Lunar New Year, on this 14 February, choose out of the couple Romantic Valentine’s dinners at Le Méridien Saigon:

- Latest Recipe – Dinner Buffet from VND1,100,000++ per person

- Bamboo Chic – Set Menu from VND1,300,000++ per person

Complimentary a lovely rose and a glass of Champagne for couples.

Reservation and more


INTERCONTINENTAL ASIANA SAIGON

Romantic Valentine’s Day

February 14th from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

- Market 39: Buffet dinner from VDN1,688,000++/person, includes free flow of champagne, wine, beer and soft drinks.

- Residences: Romantic Set Menu for VND1,488,000++/person and VND2,800,000++/couple, includes two glasses of Bollinger Rose champagne, free flow of beer or house wine.

Reservation and more


EASTIN GRAND HOTEL

Sweet Indulgence, Sweet Valentine

Time: February 1st- 15th

Accommodation: VND1,800,000++/couple, inclusive of:

- Accommodation with an upgrade to Deluxe Room for an overnight stay or day use

- Breakfast Buffet for 2 persons

- Complimentary bottle of sparkling wine when dining at the Grand Buffet Dinner or enjoy 25% off our Grand Buffet Dinner

Reservation and more


THE LOG RESTAURANT AT ROOFTOP GEM CENTER

A Sweet Love Story on a “Tree - House”

A detectable candlelit night out filled with roses, indulge in the irresistible flavors of premium culinary cuisine at the unique rooftop dining space.

- Set Menu: VND1,400,000++/pax, 5 courses featuring Duck Breast Stuffed With Foie Gras Served With Melon Salad In Honey Sauce, Grilled Lobster In Orange Butter Sauce, Baked Tenderloin In Apple Sauce...

- Buffet dinner: VND1,600,000++/pax dinner with more than 120 amazingly delicious dishes. Full of choices from fresh seafood such as lobsters, oysters, crabs…to an array of mouthwatering international dishes, freshly made soups, salads and even dim sum.

Price includes free flow of soft drinks

Reservation and more


LA VILLA FRENCH RESTAURANT

Special Valentine Menu prepared by Chef Thierry Mounon

Price: VND1,990,000++/person (violin players during dinner)

Reservation and more



Vietnam’s Food Exports: High Output, Low Value

By: Tran Thi Minh Hieu

Vietnamese people drink tea on a daily basis, and you’ve probably tasted the slightly bitter Vietnamese green tea, not to mention its watered-down iced version in Saigon’s restaurants. But have you ever heard of a brand of Vietnamese tea?

Even though Vietnam is one of the top 10 tea exporters in the world, branded, industrially produced tea is still a foreign concept.

Thang*, a former employee of Vinatea JSC, the largest tea producer and exporter in Vietnam, talked to us about the market for Vietnamese tea. The company exports to over 50 countries. The biggest markets are Pakistan, Taiwan and Russia.

food exportImage source: cdn.pixabay.com

“Most of the tea products from Vietnam are exported under our brand, but they are not final products for direct consumption. The high volume exports are black tea in primary forms, used as ingredients for further processing by the importers, to add more value and suit their customers’ taste,” Thang said.

Video source: Vietnamese SMEs Support Program VIETRADE

“We still lack the final-stage technology to produce black tea for consumption, so our products are exported at a low value. We only process green tea and some speciality varieties such as oolong tea for consumer products, but the output is low.” He added: “Green tea and black tea are produced from the same plant, but with different technical processes.”

food exportImage source: 1.bp.blogspot.com

With more than 125,000 hectares of tea plants in Northern and Central mountain provinces, such as Thai Nguyen, Son La and Lam Dong, Vietnam produces more tea for export than for domestic consumption.

Thang explained, “In these mountainous provinces, the land is most suitable for growing tea plants, so the plant provides the livelihood for the people there. That’s why we grow more tea than we consume domestically.”

Chasing After High Value

However, high quantity doesn’t equal high value, and the story of Vietnamese tea is also typical of other agricultural products aimed at exports.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Nguyen Xuan Cuong, told Vietnamnet that even though Vietnam is one of the 15 largest agricultural exporters in the world, 90 percent of export products are in “crude” form, with a low level of processing and low value. These products are often further processed and distributed under foreign brands, bringing the added value to the importers.

food exportImage source: media.bizwebmedia.net

For example, according to the Vietnam Cashew Association, Vietnam has been the number one cashew exporter for the past 12 years, processing more than 50 percent of the world’s output. However, Vietnam only participates in the preliminary processing stage, equal to 18 percent of the value chain. The most profitable stages of salt roasting and distribution, accounting for a total of 60 percent in value, are not the strengths of Vietnamese companies.

Vietnam is also the second-largest coffee exporter of the world, behind Brazil, taking up 10.5 percent of global coffee exports. However, according to the Vietnam Coffee-Cocoa Association (Vicofa), processed, roasted, ground and instant coffee only account for over 10 percent of total export value.

Jonas van Binsbergen, owner of Shalom Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City, who has had many years working with Thai Hoa Group and contributed to making it one of the largest private coffee exporters in Vietnam, said that the company produced and exported for big global brands such as Nestle, Kraft Foods and Lavazza.

Video source: Nestlé

Similarly, though vegetable and fruit exports reached their highest ever peak of US$3.45 billion in 2017, Vietnam mainly exports fresh vegetables and fruits, with few companies investing in processing technology.

Due to the short storage time of fresh products, most vegetable and fruit exports from Vietnam go to China, the largest importer with over 75 percent market share.

Defining Quality

Another challenge is in ensuring the quality of export products, especially regarding food safety. Quality assurance in every stage of production and packaging is the first step for Vietnam’s agricultural products to penetrate more discerning markets.

Binsbergen said, “A lot of [previously] state-owned enterprises are active in inspecting export products, such as CafeControl and VinaControl.” Industry groups including Vicofa are also involved in setting standards. On the other hand, inspection on the importing side is not done by the government of the destination country. “Usually the buyers have, and inspect by, their own standard.”

food exportImage source: coffeehunter.com

As Thang put it, “Quality of tea depends on everything from the material to the process. There is a right time to harvest the tea buds and to bring them into processing. We must also follow industry standard and international standard, including criteria for food safety such as pesticide residue and concentration of metal elements.”

This has to be done at the local farms and factories, before delivery to headquarters for packaging and shipping. Thang also shared how each importer has different requirements for packaging. For example, some require five protection wrapping layers or wooden boxes, and for consumer products, some specify exactly how they want the tea bags made.

Without proper investment in processing and packaging technology, as well as development in marketing and branding solutions, Vietnamese agricultural exporters will likely remain in the lower links of the global value chain.

This also applies to the domestic market with an increasing presence of international brands, filling in the gaps for processed food that local producers are leaving open.

*Name has been changed.

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How to Experience Vietnamese Comfort Food

By: Tran Thi Minh Hieu

Living in Hanoi, Vietnam, a tropical country with a lot of sun and rain, has conditioned me to enjoy food that provides a balance against the fickle weather. From noodle soups to snails, fried tofu to pork skewers, here are the foods that bring me back.

Goodness in a bowl

There is a reason soup-based noodles make up a large proportion of Vietnamese cuisine, with their most famous representative being phở.

Like a cup of hot tea, the fragrant broth infused with herbs and spices will wake up your senses and send “comfort waves” to your brain. This is why it is best eaten in the early morning or at night, when you want to refresh your mind.

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For many, the best noodles should be home cooked, and I couldn’t agree more. However, when what you need is a quick mood fix and not an hour in the kitchen, you’ll be grateful for the noodle stalls on the street.

My go-to noodle soups when I need to feel better are phở, bún (rice vermicelli), hủ tiếu and Vietnamese wonton noodles.

Hot, Hot, Hot!

Warm and soft rice porridge, or cháo, that makes your tongue sting a little is a good call on a chilly day, or when you feel tired and need comfort. Vietnamese believe that porridge with spring onions and shiso leaves can help with treating the common cold.

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In Hanoi, porridge is usually thicker and smoother, and can be made with pork ribs, pork organs, chicken or freshwater mussels. In Saigon, it is common that rice grains remain, and ingredients vary from chicken or duck to fish or squid. Century eggs can be found as a side dish in the South, but rarely in the North.

Charcoal and Smoke

Skewers are among the most favourite snacks for schoolchildren and nostalgic adults. The sweet, spicy and fatty pork skewers can make you feel full and satisfied in an instant.

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However, what really takes me back to my childhood is grilled corn. If you have been to Hanoi during winter, you will see many street vendors grilling and selling corns and sweet potatoes on the spot. Burning hot in your hands and heavenly sweet in your mouth, these winter treats also bring together generations in a family, as they used to be the common food in the past when rice was scarce.

In Saigon, you can also find grilled banana wrapped in sticky rice, an adorable comfort food especially on rainy days.

Snails Anyone?

It would be a mistake not to mention snails and shellfish (ốc) as a unique comfort food in Vietnam. While the snails themselves don’t really have any taste, the different sauces that accompany them sure do. Chilli, lemongrass, tamarind, you name it, the feast of spice in chewy bites will satisfy your taste buds and leave you a happier person.

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And what’s best? You can go to the store alone and order a bowl of steamed snails or clams, or a dish of superbly cheap grilled oysters, and nobody would bat an eye. Having such a treat all to yourself is one of the most satisfying things ever.

Family First

My favourite comfort food, which I missed a lot during the years I spent overseas, is fried tofu. Vietnamese fried tofu is different from what you can find in other Asian countries, but more than that, it reminded me of meals with my family.

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Family is very important in Vietnamese culture, and meal time is when the family sits together and shares stories. We bond over our homemade food, and when we are away from home, Vietnamese food always reminds us of the coziness and familiarity that sometimes is lacking in the big, wide world.

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