Food sits at the very epicentre of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions - food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.
At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest about their cuisine. (And old proverb/joke says that a fortunate man has an American house, Japanese wife, and Chinese chef.) High-end restaurants tend to serve "Asian-fusion" cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at modest or even quite cheap restaurants. Definite regional styles exist -- northern, central, and southern, each with unique dishes. Central style is perhaps the most celebrated, with dishes such as mi quang (wheat noodles with herbs, pork, and shrimp), banh canh cua (crab soup with thick rice noodles) and bun bo Hue (beef soup with herbs and noodles).
Many Vietnamese dishes are flavored with fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells and tastes like anchovies (quite salty and fishy) straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. (Try taking home a bottle of fish sauce, and using it instead of salt in almost any savory dish -- you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.) Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called nước chấm, served on the table with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander or cilantro (rau mùi or rau mgò), mint (rau răm) and basil (rau húng), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighboring countries, especially China.
Vietnam's national dish is phở, a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles ( a form of rice linguini or fettuccini). Phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs(usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chilis and and scalded bean sprouts which you can add in according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phở is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal. Most phở places specialize in phở and can serve you a bowls as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It's available at any time of the day, but locals eat it most often for breakfast. Famous phở restaurants can be found in both Hanoi and HCMC.
Streetside eateries in Vietnam typically advertise phở and cơm. Though cơm literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese.
If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.
Vietnam (Việt Nam) is a country in Southeast Asia. Its neighboring countries are China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west.
Vietnam's history is a history of war, colonization and rebellion. Occupied by China no less than four times, the Vietnamese managed to beat off the invaders just as often. Vietnam's last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonize Vietnam after 1884.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1930, but in 1948 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at 17th parallel, with a Communist-led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.
US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War - although the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South's Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended, with over 50,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese killed.
The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.
- The North, around Hanoi (Hà Nội): from the Red River Delta to high mountains near China, to the World Heritage site Ha Long Bay, the North harbors some of the most magnificent views of Vietnam in an exotic context.
- The Central Coast, around the ancient city of Hue (Huế), is the home of the still recent Vietnamese kings, and features one of the nicest old seacoast towns in Vietnam: Hoi An (Hội An), A World Heritage Site.
- The Central Highlands, are hilly and covered with lush forest, features tribes and the occasional elephant, but is still accessible to the more adventurous. Dalat, the former retreat of the French is the largest city in the Central Highlands with a great golf course and the tallest mountain nearby.
- The South, is the economic engine of Vietnam, built around Ho Chi Minh City (Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh, former Saigon) but also covering the lush and little-visited Mekong Delta, the rice basket of Vietnam.
- Hanoi (Hà Nội) - the capital
- Haiphong (Hải Phòng)
- Can Tho (Cần Thơ)
- Dalat (Đà Lạt) - the largest city in the highlands
- Da Nang (Đà Nẵng) - major port in central Vietnam.
- Ho Chi Minh City (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) - Vietnam's largest city and the economic engine of the south, formerly Saigon (Sài Gòn)
- Hoi An (Hội An) - delightfully well-preserved ancient port, near the ruins of Mỹ Sơn
- Hue (Huế) - former home of Vietnam's emperors
- Nha Trang - burgeoning beach resort
- Con Dao island
- Cu Chi, site of the Cu Chi Tunnels
- The DMZ
- Ha Long Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long) - famous for its unearthly scenery
- Kontum - A relaxed little town providing access to a number of minority villages.
- Mui Ne (Mũi Né) - beach resorts
- Phan Thiet - fishing town
- Phu Quoc (Phú Quốc) - an island adjacent to the border with Cambodia
- Tay Ninh (Tây Ninh) - main temple of the Cao Đài
- Tam Coc - Near Ninh Binh south to Hanoi with Ha Long-bay-like sceneries on rice paddies
Bustling central HanoiEconomic reconstruction of the reunited
country has proven difficult. After the failures of the state-run
economy started to become apparent, the country launched a program
of d?i m?i (renovation), introducing elements of capitalism.
The policy has proved highly successful, with Vietnam recording
near-10% growth yearly (except for a brief interruption during
the Asian economic crisis of 1997), but after several decades,the
country is doing much better. The economy is much better than
Cambodia, Laos, and other neighboring third world countries.
Like most Communist countries around the world, there is a fine
balance between allowing foreign investors and opening up the
market; and being found to be against the political line. From
the government's perspective they need to follow the Chinese
model: moderate liberalization in the economy, yet little in
Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.
The South is hot, humid and tropical, with temperatures hovering
in the 25-30?C all year round, but it rains the most from May
The North has four distinct seasons, with a comparatively chilly
winter (temperatures can dip below 15?C in Hanoi), a hot and
dry summer and pleasant spring (March-April) and autumn (October-December)
seasons. However, in the Highlands both extremes are amplified,
with occasional snow in the winter and temperatures hitting
40?C in the summer.
In the Central regions the weather is somewhere in between,
only just to confuse things here the rainy season is in the
summer, not the winter.
By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, celebration of the New Year (as marked by the lunar calendar), which takes place between late January and March on the Western calendar. In the period leading up to Tết, the country is abuzz with with preparations. Guys on motorbikes rush around delivering potted tangerine trees and flowering bushes, the traditional household decorations. People get a little bit stressed out and the elbows get sharper, especially in big cities, where the usual hectic level of traffic becomes almost homicidal. Then a few days before Tết the pace begins to slow down, as thousands of city residents depart for their ancestral home towns in the provinces. Finally on the first day of the new year an abrupt transformation occurs: the streets become quiet, almost deserted. Nearly all shops and restaurants close for three days, (the exception being a few that cater especially to foreign visitors; and hotels operate as usual.)
In the major cities, streets are decorated with lights and public festivities are organized which attract many thousands of residents. But for Vietnamese, Tết is mostly a private, family celebration. On the eve of the new year, families gather together and exchange good wishes (from more junior to more senior) and gifts of "lucky money" (from more senior to more junior). In the first three days of the year, the daytime hours are devoted to visiting -- houses of relatives on the first day, closest friends and important colleagues on the second day, and everyone else on the third day. Many people also visit pagodas. The evening hours are spent drinking and gambling (men) or chatting, playing, singing karaoke, and enjoying traditional snacks and candy (women and children.)
Visiting Vietnam during Tết has good points and bad points. On the minus side: modes of transport are jammed just before the holiday as many Vietnamese travel to their home towns; hotels fill up, especially in smaller towns; and your choice of shopping and dining is severely limited in the first days of the new year (with a few places closed up to two weeks). On the plus side, you can observe the preparations and enjoy the public festivities; pagodas are especially active; no admission is charged to those museums and historical sites that stay open; and the foreigner-oriented travel industry of backpacker buses and resort hotels chugs along as usual. Visitors also stand a chance of being invited to join the festivities, especially if you have some local connections or manage to make some Vietnamese friends during your stay. When visiting during Tết, it's wise to get settled somewhere at least two days before the new year, and don't try to move again until a couple of days after.
Lesser holidays include May 1, the traditional socialist labor day, and September 2, Vietnam's national day. Around those times, trains and planes tend to be sold out, and accommodations at the beach or in Dalat are hard to find. Best to book far in advance.