How NOT to Get Food Poisoning While Travelling

By: Robert Fouldes

After a quick online search for health tips and warnings about food poisoning, you may rapidly come to the conclusion that you should only eat in expensive restaurants and international hotels in Vietnam. However, don’t get too intimidated and don’t assume that high cost is a guarantee of cleanliness and good food hygiene.

food poisoningImage source: russellworthsolicitors.co.uk

Use Bottled Water, but Filtered, Boiled Water is Usually Safe Enough

When I left my cosy and secure family home in England long ago heading to the Far East for a new job, I asked my doctor what health issues I should be concerned about. My doctor was a well-travelled chap and I always remember his words of advice. “Most water will be safe enough to drink as long as it’s been boiled enough to make a good cup of tea.” Note: this refers to local drinking/potable water, not river or stream water. I’m not a big tea drinker myself, but I do drink lots of coffee and have always thought back to those words whenever I enter a new coffee or tea shop.

However, do continue to use bottled water or water from a known healthy source for personal use whenever possible. It should also put you at ease to know that most homes and businesses in Asia have their drinking water delivered in large geyser bottles.

Personal Hygiene – “Now Wash Your Hands!”

In day to day travels, our hands touch all kinds of things and all of those things have come into contact with various kinds of contaminants. Therefore, the best favour you can do for yourself is to always wash your hands before eating or handling food. The most common cause of travellers getting sick is from hand-to-mouth contact. Sharing finger foods can also be a great way to pass-on any bugs you may have picked up during the day to others.

food poisoningImage source: johnston.biz

Check the Kitchen

It’s not always possible to look over the kitchen for hygiene standards but when you approach your chosen eating place you should observe the surroundings. Glance at the rear entrance where the kitchen usually is, if possible. If you see food hanging around outdoors and unrefrigerated, you may wish to reconsider your chosen restaurant or be sure you order something that is well-cooked.

GIF source: giphy.com

Is the food hot and steaming when served? If not, then consider how and where it has been kept. Food in Vietnam is commonly pre-cooked and served with rice or a noodle dish. Do you think the food has been adequately covered and protected from contamination prior to being paired with the rice or noodles (are there any flies or insects on the food)? A judgment call may be needed on what items to order.

In a street market, you will find many vendors selling the same foods. A tip an old friend gave me (picked up during his travels across Africa) was to locate the person cooking that food, and buy directly from them. This way you will have a better idea about where the food has been and how it has been stored since it was prepared and cooked.

Meat and Fish

If you have a craving for meat, consider how the local cuisine incorporates meat into meals. In Vietnam, it’s usually served in small amounts and is often very well-cooked, boiled, fried or grilled. If you really must have that rare steak oozing blood or that seemingly fresh sushi, think about the supply chain that provided the meat and fish (do you see refrigerated delivery trucks)?

Visit a local food market and make your own judgements - food markets offer great photo opportunities too. If you are on a beef farm or at a fishing port, enjoy the local delights, if not perhaps think again.

food poisoningImage source: cloudfront.net

Dairy – Yes or No?

Usually a sniff test is sufficient to warn you off milk past its best. In today’s brand name coffee consuming culture, we get lots of dairy pressed upon us and sometimes it is difficult to know how fresh the product is when it is combined with a stronger flavour. In the past, I’ve been served sour milk simply because it is a costly item in Asia and many vendors are remiss to throw it out.

Alternatives do exist, such as soy or other vegetable sourced milks, but the same questions on freshness remain. Soy is a commonly available option in most of Asia and is a commonly consumed and familiar beverage in the Asian market. Local Asian coffee products are usually produced using sweet condensed milk, which in my experience, is far less likely to be served past its shelf life simply due to the fact that it lasts much longer than fresh milk.

Some dairy can be very beneficial to your digestive health if it suits your diet. A small amount of yoghurt daily can keep the good bacteria in your gut in good shape. If you can find it, enjoy it. Most Yoghurts in Vietnam are filled with sugar and artificial flavourings. One natural yoghurt is from Da Lat and is commonly available at most supermarkets.

Probiotics are commonly available in drink form or capsule form in Asia. The drinks are a bit on the sweet side, but they can also work wonders in protecting you from and in aiding a speedy recovery from a bout of food poisoning.

Fruits and Vegetables

At the grocery store, many fruits in Vietnam can be found in their own packaging so we don’t always think about the hygiene risks. But be aware that peeled and cut fruit may be exposed to unclean environments or contaminated by insects carrying dirt and bacteria. If you can see the fruit being washed and cut in front of you (with clean utensils), then it’s probably a safe choice, if not, then looking for another vendor may be wise.

food poisoningImage source: media.foody.vn

Washed and cooked vegetables are unlikely to present any problems on their own, but uncooked salads and vegetables should be considered more carefully. Pay attention to the washing method before you commit your stomach to trial by bacteria.

Both fruit and vegetables are usually grown locally or on the outskirts of towns and cities. The land may be intensively farmed and the fertilizers used may be a by-product of animal waste (dung) or even human waste. This thought alone makes me extra cautious in buying fruits and vegetables, no matter where they are from. Peeled fruits are by far the wisest choice, but washing thoroughly with clean water, or soaking in salt water or vinegar water prior to washing is a good practice.

Don’t Panic. Just Stay Hydrated – but be Prepared to Seek Medical Attention

If you do succumb to a bout of food poisoning, think about the likely source and consider the options your have. Often (usually) your body will deal with the issue itself and perhaps by lunch time the next day you will be fine.

In other cases, you may be facing dangerous levels of fluid loss (always maintain body fluid levels by sipping on water or oral rehydration solution (ORS) salt drinks. It is always good to have a few of these in your luggage along with a supply of Immodium or similar medicine (Dhamotil is commonly provided in Asia).

If the problem persists or you find yourself unable to hold down any fluids, then seek medical help as soon as possible. Some victims reach straight for western antidiarrhealmedicines, some of which work by slowing down your digestive system. This may make life more comfortable, and may be very useful to make it through the journey, but if the problem persists for longer than a few days, seek medical help as soon as you can.

Video source: GRRRLTRAVELER | Christine Kaaloa

Banner Image source: musiquesattitude.com


Essential Vietnamese New Year Foods - Southern food

By: Nhu Tong

Have you ever tried Southern Vietnamese foods? If you could only use a few words to describe your Southern dish, what would they be? For some people, the answer is clear: rich, flavorful and sweet!

We have gotten to know more about Northern and Central Lunar New Year foods in the previous articles, so let’s head down to our last stop: Southern Vietnam.

Diverse Natural Resources Result in Flavour Richness

We all know that regional cuisines differ according to the climate and local products. So in Southern Vietnam, the abundance of rice, fresh fruits, veggies as well as coconuts are reflected in the dishes of this region, which tend to emphasize sweeter flavors.

southern foodImage source: vietnamworldheritages.com

The warm weather and fertile soil of Southern Vietnam create an ideal condition for growing various fruits, vegetables, and raising livestock. As a result, food in Southern Vietnam gets a more vibrant flavor profile with the generous use of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs.

Additionally, thanks to the widespread use of coconut and sugarcane, sugar is added to more food here than anywhere else in the country giving the dishes a distinctly sweet taste—just like how sweet and friendly Southern people are.

Bánh Tét (Tet Cake or Vietnamese Round Glutinous Rice Cake)

If bánh chưng is an indispensable part of Northerner’s Tet, bánh tét plays the same vital role in Central and South Vietnam. Year after year during Tet holiday, Southern families enjoy this Tet cake, the central dish of the Southern Tet celebration.

According to Southern people's belief, bánh tét is a symbol of a prosperous life. That’s why it is considered a New Year specialty although its available throughout the year.

As we have talked about Central bánh tét in the previous article. In this article, I’m going to introduce you something totally new! The Southern version of bánh tét that isn’t well known by foreigners. This sweet and vegetarian dish is called bánh tét ngọt.

Basically, bánh tét ngọt is the ordinary bánh tét but filled with vegetarian ingredients like banana, back mung bean, mung bean instead of pork.

southern foodImage source: st.phunuonline.com.vn

The process of making bánh tét is time consuming and provides an opportunity for family members to catch up, bond and revel in the holiday spirit. In preparing this dish, glutinous rice must be carefully chosen and washed before being stir fried with coconut milk and some salt. Then the hardest part comes, filling the cake. The exact taste of the cake’s insides is up to you. This could be savory or sweet depending on the taste of each family.

Watch how Southern people make their special bánh tét:

Video source: RunAwayRice

Bánh tét ngọt also differs from region to region, as locals tend to base their recipes on what natural ingredients are close at hand put their own hallmark spin on bánh tét. For example, Can Tho is famous for its unique bánh tét lá cẩm (violet Tet cake). This bánh tét's sticky rice is soaked in purple water colured by lá cẩm (magenta leaves), which gives the cake a more eye-catching, charming purple appearance. Inside the cake, there are tasty ingredients such as mung bean, black mung bean, and sometimes salted egg yolks. All are tightly and beautifully wrapped in banana leaves. The cake is cut into pieces, which show the dark purple of banana, the yellow of green bean, and the orange of egg. The flavour of glutinous rice cake is tender and tasty.

Some just make Tet cakes for family consumption and gifts, some make it for businesses, and some have become artisans by elevating their Tet cake making to a craft.

Video source: Cooky TV

Củ kiệu tôm khô (Pickled Scallion Heads Served with Dried Shrimp)

If Central’s people like to savor bánh tét with dưa món (pickled vegetables), Southern people love to enrich their sense of taste with pickled scallion heads and dried shrimp. Even as early as mid December, the housewives have already bought scallion heads in preparation for Tet.

This rustic yet simple-looking dish, contrary to popular belief, requires an extra meticulous cooking process.

southern foodImage source: static1.bestie.vn

First things first: scallion heads are soaked for hours in water. Then the roots are carefully washed and then exposed to the sun until their leaves turn dry and wilt. Next, all the scallion heads are put into a clean jar. One layer of sugar is covered with one layer of scallion heads. After placing all the ingredients together, one must leave the jar in a dry area for about 10 days until the scallion heads are slowly fermented and eventually are ready to be taken out.

southern foodImage source: thucthan.com

Finally, one serving dish of củ kiệu isn’t complete without some dried shrimp on top. Make sure to prepare more dried shrimp in advance for our littlest diners. I assure you kids will definitely be fond of this savoury, sweet and sour dish.

And there it is! Your Southern Tet feast is halfway finished!

Thịt kho Tàu / Thịt kho hột vịt (Pork Braised With Eggs and Coconut Water)

This Vietnamese dish of braised pork with egg and coconut milk is best cooked by the Southern people. Just like other Southern housewives, my mom, a true Southerner, would prepare a giant pot of pork braised with eggs, enough for the whole family to eat during Tết.

Two days before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, my mom would go to the nearby markets early in the morning to choose the ingredients: the best meat, eggs, as well some coconuts for her giant pot of thịt kho hột vịt.

Making Southern thịt kho hột vịt is not too challenging if you just follow some tips. After watching my mom make it for years, here are some good tips that I can offer.

southern foodImage source: ukcdn.ar-cdn.com

In order to make the most delicious braised pork dish, you must choose the ingredients wisely. Pork belly must contain both fat and lean meat, or it will get unsuitably dry during the long cooking storage. This meat must be cut into large pieces, marinated with spices and fish sauce for about 30 minutes. While waiting for the meat to become thoroughly soaked, boil the eggs and remove shells.

To start, heat up your pot, then boil fresh coconut water and add cold water if needed. Then put all the marinated pork into the pot, cook until the meat becomes soft. Now it’s time for the next step, putting the eggs into the pot. Finally, season it to match your family's taste and simmer the food until the meat becomes super tender.

The finished dish of pork braised with egg and coconut water is considered properly done if it has these two qualities: an eye-catching and distinct golden brown color and well-seasoned, tender meat.

Learn how to make your own dish:

Video source: Jamie Oliver

This is a dish were cooks have some leeway to give it their own style and spin. For example, some Southerners love to dry pork belly in the sun before braising and some others like to braise their protein with scraped coconut meat. But my mom’s recipe is done without either step.

This dish is best paired with pickled scallion heads and a fragrant hot bowl of rice.

Canh khổ qua dồn thịt (Bitter melon Stuffed With Meat Soup)

You might be wondering why superstitious people like the Vietnamese would choose a bitter dish for their very first start of year. This might surprise you, but canh khổ qua dồn thịt is a significant part of Southern Vietnamese spirituality.

It may look simple at the outside, but bitter melon stuffed with meat contains many spiritual elements according to the Southerners’ belief system. In Vietnamese, “khổ” means “hardship”, and “qua” means “pass”. So basically, Southern people eat this dish in the first days of the New Year with the hope that unlucky things in the old year will pass and that they will welcome a peaceful new year.

southern foodImage source: orsimages.unileversolutions.com

Bitter melon has a nutritious blend of bitter and sweet flavors.

Additionally, canh khổ qua dồn thịt is also good for health thanks to the cool-tasting broth, which is a relief amid the humid and warm weather in Southern Vietnam. This food is believed to help lower the heat inside our body.

Make yourself a bowl of bitter melon stuffed with meat soup:

Video source: Helen's Recipes (Vietnamese Food)

Banner Image source: static.bongdacuocsong.net


Food Bank Vietnam: Leading the Fight against Food Waste

By: Tran Thi Minh Hieu

Sitting on a street corner in Saigon, it’s easy to catch the sight of street children polishing shoes and old women selling lottery tickets. These are just a few among the many Vietnamese people who may also struggle to put food on their tables every single day. Statistics from the Vietnamese Fatherland Front show that in the first half of 2017, there were 574,000 people suffering from hunger in Vietnam.

organic wasteImage source: blog.frankiefoto.com

On the other hand, food waste is a widespread issue throughout the country at almost all stages of the supply chain. A survey by Electrolux on 4,000 households in eight Asia-Pacific countries suggested that Vietnam is the second largest producer of food waste in the region, behind China. 87 percent of the households admitted that they waste two plates of food per week on average.

There are many reasons why Vietnamese people waste so much food. Culturally, preparing more food than necessary is considered a gesture of hospitality and generosity. This has become a custom not only in families but also in restaurants and ceremonies. While Vietnamese people have a habit of saving leftovers for the next meals, nearly 50 percent of people surveyed said that they often forget about excess food or fresh ingredients left in the fridge.

organic wasteImage source: baoquocte.vn

A considerable amount of food is also lost or damaged during production, storing, transportation and distribution, due to the lack of investment in technology and infrastructure. The preference for fresh food also means that items more than a day old, though still safe to eat, are too easily considered garbage and thrown away because no one is buying them.

In Ho Chi Minh City alone, food waste accounts for more than 60 percent of the city’s 8,300 tons of solid waste per day. In previous City Pass Guide reporting, Nguyen Toan Thang, Director of HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said that up to 76 percent of this waste ends up getting buried in the city’s vast landfills, which leads to severe air, water and soil pollution in the surrounding area.

organic wasteImage source: i.imgur.com

Until now, there has been no concerted effort to collect unwanted food and distribute it to those in need, thereby preventing it from becoming waste. This is where Food Bank Vietnam steps in.

Project founder Nguyen Tuan Khoi shared his vision for Food Bank Vietnam. “We want to build not only a charity project distributing food for poor and disadvantaged people, but we also aim to engage businesses such as restaurants, food producers and supermarkets, in the movement to save food, avoid wastage and supply food for the people who actually need it,” he said.

The project is a non-profit project established by Development and Sharing Foods (DSF) and C.P. Vietnam. C.P. Vietnam is a branch of Thailand-based C.P. Group, one of the largest Thai conglomerates in agriculture and food processing.

To do this, Food Bank Vietnam plans to start with supporting ten community houses and homeless centers in 2018, by providing them with free food, such as pork and rice, on a regular basis. It will also organize cooking sessions with the ingredients collected from donors, and distribute the meals to disadvantaged groups in Saigon through the help of a team of volunteers.

organic wasteImage source: ibb.co

In April 2018, Food Bank Vietnam will organize a seminar called Chong lang phi thuc pham (Fighting Food Waste) for representatives from the food and beverage industry to raise awareness among them about reducing food waste and ask for them to redirect their excess food from the waste stream.

In the long term, it plans to develop a system of “Mobile Food Banks”, or stations to receive and give out free food, as well as “Food Bank Eateries”, selling low-priced meals for the disadvantaged throughout the country.

Another important part of the project is to build an emergency food bank to provide food during natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, which happen every year in Vietnam. With support from the Vietnamese Committee of Red Cross and the Youth Social Work Centre, the project founder is optimistic that this is achievable within five years and will be sustainable in the future.

Banner Image source: markhamreview.com


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)

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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.

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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



A Dash of Vietnamese Spice History

By: Zoe Osborne

Herbs and spices are an everyday staple for any kitchen cupboard, in homes all around the world. Without them the myriad of intricate flavours and aromas that distinguish between cuisines today would be lost, leaving everyone with the same, bland bunch of vegetables, proteins and complex carbohydrates. I love plain vegetables, don’t get me wrong, but pair a humble potato with garlic, salt and a spot of chili and it suddenly becomes something far more exciting. Herbs and spices elevate and diversify our food, and for that they are completely invaluable.

Different cuisines around the world are defined by the herbs and spices they use, and how they are prepared. Vietnam’s own national cuisine is one of the most unique in the globe, partly because of the way it is eaten, but largely because of its huge emphasis on herbs, spices and strong, salty sauces. In particular fish sauce, which has to be one of the most pungent and yet most delicious acquired tastes out there.

There are a range of factors that have influenced the use of spices and herbs in Vietnamese food, from geography to religion and foreign settlement. But to truly understand it all, we will first go back to the very beginning.

A Brief History of Spices

Spices are an everyday product now - just little bits of dusty plant that sit in our cupboard, on our shelves, and disappear into our pots and pans. But the spice trade was once comparable, in terms of importance, to that of gold or precious stones. Did you know that nutmeg was once worth more in weight than gold?

The spice trade originated in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago. It was initially controlled by Arabic spice merchants, bringing spices back from China and India to the West over land on a route now known by historians as the Silk Road. This trade road connected Asia with the Mediterranean world, via North Africa and Europe, enabling the development of some of the greatest civilisations in history, from Rome to the ancient Chinese Empire.

Silk Road Map

At the turn of the European Age of Discovery in about 1500, colonising nations such as Portugal, France and England began to expand the spice trade around the globe, setting up companies and trade centers on Asian coasts. The Portuguese were the first to successfully find their way through Africa to India, and the Spanish, English, Dutch and French followed.

With the rise of the middle class over the Renaissance period came a similar rise in the demand for spices and herbs, and the growing competition among empires to produce and trade these spices sparked bloody conflicts over the control of the spice trade. Wars over the spice industry lasted for several centuries from 1500 to 1700, and by the time the U.S. entered the industry in 1800 the spice trade was in need of a change. The U.S. began to work directly with Asian growers rather than with European companies, establishing their own businesses around Asia and contributing their own spices - from chili powder to dried onions and garlic.

Eventually, as is the way with any commodity, the supply of spices began to outgrow the demand and with that the value of spices fell. People began trading not only the spices but the spice plants themselves, and these aromatic essentials of any fine dish became not only widely available, but widely used among the top and bottom tiers of society alike. Today, spices are valuable not as a commodity but as an agent to individuality. Without them our food would be very mundane!

How Did the Use of Herbs and Spices Develop in Vietnam?

Vietnamese cuisine is a product of a number of cultural, historical and religious factors, but the country’s nation-wide focus on fresh herbs and vegetables, delicate balance and clean aromas was there from the start. It all comes down to geography.

Both the availability and therefore the use of spices in North Vietnam are limited, due to its colder climate. Northern Vietnamese tend to use black pepper, a locally grown spice, to season their dishes rather than chili which requires a warmer climate. Chili, brought to Asia originally by the Portuguese, is not native to Vietnam but now holds a very significant position in southern Vietnamese cooking.

Central Vietnamese cuisine is notable for its fragrance, and for the abundance of spices that grow in the area due to its mountainous, humid terrain. The warm weather and rich soil in the South allow for an even wider range of crops, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and it is this area of Vietnam that is responsible for Vietnamese curries.

The influence of various cultures on Vietnamese food is also a key factor in the use of spices around the country. The South of Vietnam is known for being the most widely affected by the spice trade, with its convenient coastal location making it a perfect trading spot, and its warm climate making it perfect for growing key imports such as chili from the Americas and spices from India. The South is perhaps the most diversified in terms of cuisine given its involvement in trade, and the influence of nearby Cambodian culinary tradition1. The middle regions2 of Vietnam are perhaps the most interesting examples of this, with the royal culinary traditions of the Nguyen Dynasty in the 19th Century leaving its mark on the area, with colourful, rich, almost regal foods still around today. Hue was originally the citadel of the Nguyen Dynasty. It was a cultural hub for the nation, bringing together intellectuals, Confucians and creatives, and it was the area in which the idea of “Royal Food” for Vietnam originates.

Vietnamese food is also heavily influenced by its various periods of foreign settlement, from Chinese settlement in 111 to French colonisation in the mid 1800s3. When the Chinese incorporated Vietnam under the Han Empire, they brought both Buddhist and Confucian beliefs and culture into the country. With this came the idea of yin and yang - the balance of opposites - and the concept of applying this principle to cookery4. The Vietnamese apply the idea of balancing the five elements (metal, wood, earth, fire, water) using colours and spices that correlate to an element.

The colour white represents metal, as does a touch of heat/spiciness; a sour taste and the colour green represents wood; yellow and a sweet taste is for earth; the colour red and bitterness symbolises fire; and salty flavour and black colouring represents water. It is the balance between these tastes, colours and hence elements that underpins Vietnamese cooking5. The North of Vietnam remains the most heavily Chinese-influenced area of the nation, and rich, fried food and ingredients similar to those in Chinese cooking are more common here.

This idea of balance was elaborated and altered by the French when they settled in the nation many centuries later. Bringing their own range of European standards, delicacies and principles to Vietnam, the French left the Vietnamese people with some of their modern staples - banh mi baguettes with pate and cold roast pork, baked croissant-like cakes and the Vietnamese sponge cake. The French also brought some key European products to the region, such as potatoes and asparagus.

How Are Herbs and Spices Used in Vietnamese Food Today?

In the modern world, Vietnamese cuisine is known for its delicate aromas and huge base of fresh vegetables and herbs - it’s like a garden on a plate! As an export, it is gaining a reputation around the globe as the next big healthy but delicious alternative, while Vietnamese cuisine in Vietnam remains just as aromatic and herb-filled as ever.

A number of locally grown herbs and spices are considered staples to the Vietnamese diet, as well as a number of imported elements such as chili and turmeric. Thai basil and Vietnamese mint are some staple examples of this, used in noodle soups and broths such as sour canh chua and sweet canh ngot. Lime leaf is another example, and lemongrass, perilla leaf and black pepper are all staples for a range of Vietnamese foods, from bo kho to the various types of hu tieu6.

Vietnam is also now an active member in the spice export trade, adding a range of spices, most prominently black and white pepper, to their already flourishing global trade in arabica and robusta coffee. Before the 1990’s the nation barely made enough pepper to use domestically, but with a stagnant domestic market and a growing international demand, Vietnam’s pepper exports are through the roof7.


3 Vietnamese Soups You Must Try

By: Quang Mai

Our writer makes you discover his top 3 Vietnamese soups you must try if you travel to Vietnam.

In my opinion, one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling is the discovery of new cuisines. I guess that’s why I always gain weight during my holiday. Having traveled across Vietnam, I have tasted and discovered many new cuisines which I consider not-to-be-missed. I believe that traveling independently is perfect for me. If I took a package tours which usually has set menus for meals, I would never discover the different tastes (even unpleasant ones) of special local dishes.

My favorite type of soups are the sour ones because they are said to be cooling during hot weather in tropical countries like Vietnam. Furthermore, they are especially nutritious and refreshing. Here are my top 3 Vietnamese soups:

Catfish and Vegetable Sour Soup (Canh chua cá bông lau) - South Vietnam :

Thanks to a wealth of vegetables, this sour fish soup is very colorful. The sour taste comes from tamarind and indian taro, okra, spring onions, along with herbs bring out the taste of the catfish.

The same recipe and process can go with many types of ray-finned fish but Catfish is much better than others. The soup only contains the head and tail of the fish and is served with an array of vegetables and flavorings. The rest of the fish is usually served in combination with the soup on the side so you can experience the combinations of different flavours in one meal. It is usually served simply on a side dish with fish sauce or gets caramelized and served in a clay pot. The tastes will last for a long time in your palate so prepare to drink much water during and after the meal.

Do not feel distraught when you only see the head and the tail in the bowl of soup. The restaurant includes them on purpose. It may look weird to westerners unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine but this is the way canh chua is done in the south. This happened to Charly, City Pass's marketing manager. On his first time seeing a fish head in his "canh chua", he complained to the restaurant because he thought they didn’t have any fish fillets to put in the soup so they put in what they had left. But in fact, locals consider the head to be the best part of this soup.

I will recommend you to try this one first if the trio are placed up at the same time. But hey, don’t think that I am region-biased. It is said that this is the traditional dish that welcomes travelers to southern locales, so it’s worth it to have this soup first.

Sour Bamboo Shoot Soup (Canh măng chua) - Central Vietnam:

Sour Bamboo Shoot Soup

Fish also features in this soup, but light sour flavor complements due to the pickled salted bamboo shoots. A bit of green onions and dill are added and the soup is served with raw vegetables. This soup is very healthy.

Carp is usually served with this soup to make a perfect combination of sweet from the fish and salty and light sourness from the bamboo shoots. The soup has a light sour taste which makes it different from the strong flavours of the Southern version which definitely puts your taste buds at ease.

Mussel Soup (Canh chua hến) - North Vietnam

Mussel Soup

A species of small freshwater mussel found on lake-and river-bottoms is used to make this tasty soup. After being cleaned, the tiny mussels are removed from their shells and cooked with tamarind. Spring onions and various herbs add to the sweet and sour flavor.

Mussels aren’t as expensive as fish but in term of taste, they bring a very special flavour to anyone who has not tried them before. The mussels are fried with garlic and other spices until the flavours meld together. Then the mussels are poured into a sour broth of carambola or green banana. Though it has a light sour taste, the inherent sweetness of the mussels make this soup different than the others in the country.

These are my top three Vietnamese Soups, are you ready to try one of them? Share me your top 3 so that I can put on my "must try" list for my next holiday!

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