Back in February of 2016, I had the chance to visit Vietnam for the first time. That trip is one of those memories I’ll always cherish not only because I got to experience its culture that is rich and intact, or saw many picturesque sights, but largely because of my enjoyment for their food. From time to time, I would crave for that fresh, light and healthy taste of Vietnamese food that is quite distinct from its neighboring Asian countries. Here’s a simple guide on what to enjoy beyond your typical Gỏi cuốn with peanut sauce.
1. Coffee culture
Vietnamese coffee is known for the rich aroma and roasted taste that is simply enjoyed either on it’s own, with sweetened condensed milk or interesting things like eggs and even mangoes. Their coffee can be served hot or cold, sometimes even with a coffee drip but one thing’s for sure: it’s freshly brewed. Similar to some of its neighboring asian countries, their coffee culture involves lounging in little plastic chairs out on the streets in the afternoon and just chatting away with your friends as a pastime.
It is so easy to find coffee to bring home as there’s lots of shops selling beans by the bulk, they even offer cheap coffee drips for your personal use. They categorize their coffee by the number, depending on the darkness of roast and bitterness of coffee. If you cannot commit to coffee beans, their G7 instant coffee mixes are just as good. Trust me.
Vietnamese cuisine has so much to offer than what you typically see in commercial restaurants. If asked to describe what it is like, I would say it’s the kind of cuisine with a flavor profile that’s not too overwhelming but sure is enough to make you love it.
One thing you’ll notice and definitely enjoy is the freshness of the ingredients, whether that would be the vegetables or seafood. The preparation is not that complex, but they make sure that each flavor of the components are pronounced. It is always never too salty or too oily. Vietnamese love their spices as well – don’t be fooled by that bowl of sliced chilis on the side; it really packs a punch but makes the whole food experience even more amazing.
One thing I will never forget from my trip to Vietnam is that seafood spread we had when we visited Ha Long Bay. We were seated on the side of the road in those plastic chairs enjoying the winter air and the server just put down a plateful of oysters fresh off the grill. It tastes heavenly and was really juicy that you can just taste the sea. We partnered our steamed rice to plates of grilled fish, crabs and shrimps, clam soup and it was amazing. It’s really fresh, big and flavorful seafood that’s served hot with just a side of lemon and chili. Aside from the taste, you’ll also enjoy it because it’s relatively cheap, especially if you come in groups and try out different dishes together.
4. Street food
Like anywhere in Asia, street food is always the interesting part. It is the cheap, fast, readily available fried little things that you can enjoy while doing just about anything. What makes street food in Vietnam interesting is that it is diverse – from fried spring rolls with glass noodles and hints of vegetables and meat, bowls of rice noodles with beef flanks and herbs, french baguette with meat and other savory fillings, to cut up fresh fruits sprinkled with chili, lime and salt. It is a beautiful marriage of fried and fresh things together that you almost don’t feel like you’re eating traditional book-definition of street food. Good food that’s guilt-free? Count me in.
5. “Souvenir” Treats
Of course, every trip wouldn’t be complete without anything to bring home as giveaway to your family and/or friends, or simply for your own pleasure. From my experience, Vietnam isn’t really that big on specially-packaged or ‘export quality’ souvenir treats aside from packed banana or vegetable chips, or chocolate-covered dried mangoes. They are more on the typical touristy things like shirts, hats, fridge magnets, key chains and whatnot. What you should look out for however are the local goodies like dried/preserved fruits and nuts, coffee beans, local tea blends, spices and/or instant Vietnamese rice noodles. It’s available almost anywhere, in any shop. If I actually had a choice, I would bring home bags and bags of their sweetened plain yogurt.