Internationally speaking, Thai food may be the most heralded of all the Southeast Asian cuisines, but true connoisseurs would go for Vietnamese every time. Light, subtle in flavour and astonishing in their variety, Vietnamese dishes are boiled or steamed rather than stir-fried, and a huge emphasis is placed on herbs and seasoning – no great surprise in this land of diverse climates.
In the south, Indian and Thai influences add curries and spices to the menu, while other regions have evolved their own array of specialities, most notably the foods of Hue and Hoi An. Buddhism introduced a vegetarian tradition to Vietnam, while much later the French brought with them bread, dairy products, pastries and the whole café culture. Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the major tourist centres are now well provided with everything from street hawkers to hotel and Western-style restaurants, and even ice-cream parlours; in such places, you’ll also find a few restaurants putting on cooking classes.
The quality and variety of food is generally better in the main towns than off the beaten track, where restaurants of any sort are few and far between. That said, you’ll never go hungry; even in the back of beyond, there’s always some stall selling a noodle soup or rice platter and plenty of fruit to fill up on.
Vietnam’s national drink
Vietnam’s national drink is green tea, which is the accompaniment to every social gathering or business meeting and is frequently drunk after meals. At the harder end of the spectrum, there’s also rice wine, though some local beer is also excellent, and an increasingly wide range of imported wines and spirits.