The Different Flavours of Vietnamese Cuisine
Exploring Vietnam’s culinary scene from north to south is like tasting several countries for the price of one.
Its long, slender and unique geography plays an important role in its cuisine because of how the climate affects the availability of certain food and spices within each region.
Travelling from northern Vietnam, through its central belly and down to its southern tail you will see not only different ingredients being used but varying styles and approaches to food and its preparation.
The food in Vietnam’s northern region is often influenced by tradition.
When Vietnamese ancestors settled in the northern deltas, there was a large amount of importance placed on food and clothing among the community. Hung Kings, for example, would hold cooking contests for simple foods like steamed rice and rice cakes.
Such traditions can still be seen today, with families using strict cooking methods as well as specific ingredients and food pairings to make the perfect dish.
Being located so close to the border of China, Chinese influences can be spotted within Vietnam’s mountainous provinces west of the Red River Valley.
However, the northern delta does also make use of native ingredients like fish sauce and shrimp paste to show that it is not dependent on its giant neighbour.
In former hill station Sapa, where the climate can be cooler, cooking methods like stewing are popular.
This is changing, however, and tourism is having a hand in modernizing Sapa’s towns, with many non-Vietnamese restaurants opening up to satisfy Western demand.
Head slightly south to Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi and the simplicity seen in the far north of the country is still evident.
Pepper, which is more readily available, tends to replace spices, which are seen more frequently in the central and southern regions.
The embodiment of Hanoi’s simple cuisine can be found in Vietnam’s national dish, pho. Each Vietnamese region has its own take on pho, but arguably the best and most basic is found in its birthplace, Hanoi.
Image source: kenh14.vn
Traditionally, pho is a simple noodle soup, the base of which is made from beef bones. It is served with banh pho noodles, rare beef and/or brisket and herbs.
The further south you head, the more you can find an “anything goes” approach to pho, with more flavors added to the broth and more herbs added as accompaniments.
Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam and as such its food tends to be more luxurious with more spices used and greater care taken over presentation to reflect its ancient royal past.
This attention to detail can also be seen in likes of Hoi An’s famous dumpling dish Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc, which is also commonly known as White Rose dumplings due to their pretty, flower-like shapes.
Image source: travellingtovietnam.net
One is also much more likely to see a banquet-style, multiple course approach to serving up food in Hoi An and Hue, compared to other regions of the country.
The south is known for its warmer weather system and fertile soil.
This means a greater variety of fruits and vegetables grow here and the region benefits from a higher number of rice harvests per year compared to the north.
As a result, southerners tend to be more liberal with their ingredients and the flavours used are bolder, more vibrant and sweeter.
This can particularly be seen in the south’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City, where desserts are more popular.
One good example of this is the south’s sweet version of the savory snack bánh tét. This is made with banana, sweet red beans and sticky rice, all rolled into a cylinder. It is then boiled, cut up into chunks and served with a custard-like sauce and sesame seeds.
Image source: 123amthuc.net
As with many large cities around the world, tourism is changing Ho Chi Minh’s cuisine on a daily basis, with many new restaurants opening up.
The demand for different types of food is also driving change in the city, with the likes of popular Japanese/Italian fusion restaurant, Pizza 4P’s, producing their own cheese to plug a big gap in Vietnam’s cheese-producing marketplace.
Regional differences can still be seen when you travel to Vietnam’s southern coastline to places like Mui Ne and Vung Tau, where you will be greeted with a high number of seafood and BBQ venues. Then when you enter the heart of the Mekong Delta, which is further south still, you will see an abundance of coconut, palm sugar and tropical fruits, which is not seen in the north.
Vietnam’s great regional variation makes it a must see place for any food lover, with unique experiences to be had across the country.
About the Author
Robyn Wilson is a freelance journalist currently based in Asia. Formerly the news editor for a popular B2B publication in London, Robyn now writes on food, travel, culture and history. She blogs at: www.weirdfishes.org
Banner image source: tcndulichhanoi.edu.vn