Light and aromatic: Take a trip into Vietnamese cuisine

April 28, 2000
(CNN) -- On a recent two-week tour of Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh City in the South to Sapa near the Chinese border, travelers and journalists were able to sample and explore the nation's diverse cuisine, from the finished dishes of restaurants and roadside stands to the raw ingredients of open air markets and floating boat markets.

Vietnamese food is coming into its own on the world's food scope. Long dwarfed in Western countries by Chinese and Thai, and often fused with French food in high-end colonial-style restaurants, the country's distinctive flavors are now gaining ground all alone.

Emphasis on fresh ingredients and the minimal use of fat in cooking preparations have given the cuisine a healthy reputation. And while Vietnamese do not shy away from meat, beef, chicken, pork and seafood are used only in small, flavorful amounts.

Organized by the Culinary Institute of America, the tour was led by Mai Pham, a successful cookbook author and chef with her own Vietnamese/Thai restaurant in Sacramento. The focus of the trip -- Vietnamese cuisine and culture -- was a first, and just one example of how tourism to the country is expanding.

The cuisine lessons included a traditional morning meal of noodle soup and sticky rice from a streetside vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

"To me, it's so enlightening and inspiring to come here to this market and eat sticky rice from the woman across the street who's been here selling one dish for the last 35 years," Pham says.

Another morning, a lesson on pho bo, a beef noodle soup with a soothing broth -- a celebrated national dish for Vietnam.

"Each and every chef has his or her own way of making the broth," Pham says.

Regional styles

Vietnam is long and slender, following the coast from the southern delta to the mountainous northern region. This geographic variation has nursed regional variations in cuisine.

In the South, dishes reflect the Indian influence prevalent in neighboring Cambodia and Thailand. Food tends to include more chiles, herbs and spices -- a result of the year-round growing season and the region's location in the crossroads of trade.

Hearty soups and stews are common in the North, where a harsher climate means fewer herbs and less favorable growing conditions. The classic pho bo beef soup traces its origins to the northern city of Hanoi.

In the middle of the country, centered in the ancient imperial city of Hue, is a cuisine with a history of sophisticated and complex specialties including pork sausages and fancy rice cakes. Of the regional cuisines, it most reflects Western influences.

Vietnamese food is a historical blend that incorporates the foods and cooking styles of former ruling countries. From China, the use of chopsticks and stir-frys; from Mongolia, the incorporation or beef; and from nearly a century of French colonial rule, a lasting love for butter, breads and coffee.

While French and Vietnamese styles are often found combined in restaurant settings around the world, French food in Vietnam is more of a "romantic notion," Pham says. "In reality, for most practical purposes, most Vietnamese did not enjoy it."

The blend of flavors, textures

Vietnamese food, while often associated with Thai, is not nearly as spicy, but is just as aromatic due to the inclusion of fragrant herbs such as lemongrass, mint and cilantro. Bold flavors are often found in sauces, chiles, and condiments accompanying a dish. Different textures and tastes are contrasted.

A typical spring roll may seem bland -- a combination of thin rice vermicelli noodles, unseasoned shrimp, carrot, lettuce leaves and bean sprouts wrapped in rice paper. But you wouldn't dare eat it without dipping it into a salty and tangy fish sauce (Nouc Cham) to bring the flavors to life.

Such distinctive combinations may seem exotic to the Western palate. And that's why a culinary tour offers the perfect introduction to this important aspect of Vietnamese culture.

CNN Travel Now Correspondent Carolyn O'Neil contributed to this story.

Vietnam's street food

By Carolyn O'Neil
CNN Travel Now

April 28, 2000
(CNN) -- From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, the swirl of traffic starts at dawn and on the sidelines, up and down those busy streets, vendors set up their stalls with small charcoal fires to cook and sell all manner of Vietnamese foods to go. Bowls of noodles, spring rolls, rice cakes in banana leaves, spicy beef on a stick, baguette sandwiches and sweet warm soy milk are just a few of the hundreds of different dishes offered by enthusiastic cooks with tiny portable "kitchens."

Seeing foods chopped, grilled and steamed literally on the sidewalk is disconcerting at first. As a registered dietitian and correspondent covering nutrition and food safety for CNN, my first reaction was a common one -- it looks good but could this be safe to eat?

"You know when you say 'street food' to an American, maybe it sounds like they are actually eating off the street," says Greg Drescher, Director of Education for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

He has visited Vietnam seven times, doing research on the food to organize special tour groups interested in the country's traditional cuisine. He says many of these street food vendors are experts in the particular dish they prepare day after day -- even year after year -- on the same stretch of sidewalk.

"In Saigon we met people who had been doing the same sticky rice recipe for 25 years and that's all they do. And think about the quality you can deliver in that case, not having to be responsible for a long menu," Drescher says.

Drescher does offer some tips on choosing where to stop and eat. Ask the locals, the concierge at your hotel or a taxi driver which vendors seem to do a lot of business. If it's a popular stall, the food is more likely to move quickly and be freshly prepared.

Also, use your eyes. "Anything that looks good to you that's hot and steaming and has been really cooked, you're in good shape. And much of the culture, it's noodles coming out of boiling water, it's things coming off the grill -- all of the grilled items are sliced very thin and so they're cooked all the way through, so you're going to be fine with a lot of these items," Drescher advises.

Since so much of what's fun about travel is being adventurous and trying new things, it would be a shame to miss out on the flavors of Vietnamese street food because you're not in a standard restaurant. The price is right, too. Most dishes sell for under a dollar. So, with the right attitude and guidance from locals, hitting the streets may be the most delicious way to discover Vietnamese cuisine.

An Intriguing Mix of Past and Present
With more than half of its residents under 25 years of age, Ho Chi Minh City is one of Vietnam's most youthful cities. Yet it's still making a career largely from its past. The tropical capital's greatest landmarks and its basic urban layout owe much to the 86 years of French rule. There are grand hotels (many recently refurbished), a baroque post office, the famous Opera House in the heart of the city, as well as numerous gothic churches, including Notre Dame Cathedral at the top of stylish Rue Catinat (now known as Dong Khoai, or Uprising Street). These are the remnants of the "Paris of the Orient" that the French and allied Vietnamese enjoyed in the colonial era.

But if reliving a lost era is the aim of many French tourists--who have been coming to the former Saigon for years--most first-time visitors to hcmc prefer to delve into the more recent American chapter of the city's history. Now that the former U.S. Embassy has been replaced by a new consulate, most of this story is contained in museums.
What makes HCMC so engaging is that much of real life takes place in the streets, unavoidable even for the most determined museum-goers. Most of the city center is ideally explored by walking, especially if you are popping in and out of the handicraft and art boutiques that line Dong Khoi or Nguyen Hue Street, or around the gingerbread City Hall. For longer trips--for instance, between museums and Antique Street, where you are advised not to underestimate Vietnamese skill at forgery--the foot-pedaled cyclo is the way to go. Snuggled in antiquated comfort, you can move about at a leisurely pace that allows you to take in the vibrant city. School girls wearing blindingly white ao dais glide past on bicycles like graceful swans. The rest of the traffic is pure cacaphony--the noise of a population of 5 million that is expected to double in another decade.

When you grow weary of the chaos, stop by the Rex Hotel's famous rooftop bar for a cocktail or, for a better view, visit the breezy lounge atop the newly rebuilt Caravelle Hotel. There are scores of reasonably priced restaurants serving Vietnamese or international cuisine, but for a taste of old Saigon, try the bistros on Ngo Duc Ke, Givral on Dong Khoi, or Camargue in a restored French villa on Thi Sach. During the war, diners at the Club Nautique could sip wine and watch firefights across the Saigon River. These days, the view is less pyrotechnic, but still worth the trip.



Looking for a value-for-money meal in Ho Chi Minh City? You always get twice as much as you expect at the Sinh Doi restaurant. The name translates loosely as Twins, which is the head-turning theme at this boisterous downtown eatery. You're guaranteed to be seeing double long before last call here. Identical twins seat and serve customers, who tuck into scrumptious Vietnamese meals while watching singing and dancing in a twin-bill stage show featuring--what else?--twins.

Wildly popular among locals, the year-old restaurant was launched by Phu and Quy Nguyen, identical twins who learned their culinary craft at their family's restaurant in the coastal city of Nha Trang. The brothers are as tight as can be, finishing each other's sentences and sharing a home and a single business card; it lists them both as Phu-Quy. "We're really the same person," says Quy. "People just call us Phu-Quy," adds his brother. On stage as masters-of-ceremonies, the pair are world-class jokers, bringing guests on stage and conducting impromptu talent contests. The shows are entirely in Vietnamese, and the restaurant has become extremely popular for weddings and birthday parties.

But what makes Sinh Doi unique--aside from homegrown appeal in an era of Hard Rock Café imitations--is the food. Unlike theme restaurants that splurge on decor and skimp on substance, Sinh Doi offers great fare. These include Nha Trang's mouth-watering seafood recipes, fresh spring rolls, garlic shrimp, zesty noodle dishes and cha ca, or filleted fish dishes.