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Flavors of Vietnam

Rice noodles and fresh vegetables aside, the food in Vietnam varies dramatically between the northern, central, and southern regions. Fresh herbs like basil, mint, and coriander are commonly served throughout the country on platter with chilies, lime, and cucumber. Other popular ingredients are lemongrass, ginger, and cinnamon. Plan to eat plenty of pho during your travels, as this staple rice noodle soup is served three times a day, and then some.

Vietnamese dishes balance textures and flavors by blending spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. Despite being a former Chinese colony, Vietnam has forged its own culinary path by replacing soy sauce with fish sauce and stir-fried dishes with those that are simmered. Meat is treated as a condiment and very little oil is used in cooking. Some northern cities, however, have been influenced by China's culinary traditions due to their proximity to the border.

The cuisine in the northern region has fewer vegetables and spicy herbs than in areas near the Mekong Delta. When visiting the north, be sure to try cha ca, fried turmeric fish cooked over hot coals and served with noodle soup, vegetables, and shrimp paste. Other popular dishes include bun rieu (meat rice vermicelli soup) and banh cuon (steamed rice noodle roll stuffed with pork, mushroom, and shallots).

With its Cambodian influences, Southern Vietnam is known for its spicy chilies and fresh fruits that are incorporated into many dishes, like curries and bánh xèo, a fried turmeric pancake made with pork, shrimp, and coconut milk.

In the central region, particularly in Hue, you'll find a heavy influence of royal cuisine. Food is spicier and plates are ornately decorated with carved fruits and vegetables. Typical Hue dishes include bún bò (beef vermicelli) and com hen (rice with mussels). Meals in the central region are typically served as smaller portions with many dishes covering the entire table at once.

No matter where you travel in Vietnam, don't leave the country without trying the ubiquitous pho, and goi cuon—fresh spring rolls packed with herbs, bean sprouts, shrimp or pork, and served with a side of dipping sauce.

Updated: 2013-07-30

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