There’s more to Vietnam than the traditional image of rice paddies and conical hats. Here you’ll find a country bursting with energy and forward motion. You’ll feel it in the hum and activity on the streets. You’ll see it in the way Vietnamese welcome you to their homes, invite you to taste their food and proudly show you their rich culture.
Travel around Vietnam and you’ll find that tastes and dishes vary from North to South. In the capital, locals may lunch on bun cha with slices of pork belly, while the Saigonese wolf down banh xeo (crispy pancakes) rolled with greens and dipped in sweet-and-sour fish sauce. In the former Imperial City, meaty bun bo Hue is a breakfast favorite, while in Hoi An, you can’t beat a bowl of toothsome cao lau noodles for a quick snack. From simple home cooking to addictive street eats to modern Vietnamese, the delicious diversity of this country’s culinary scene is attracting foodies from all over the world. At the World Travel Awards 2019 Vietnam received its first trophy for ‘Asia’s Leading Culinary Destination’ due to its diverse, flavorful and vibrant cuisine.
The best way to experience Hue’s tremendous food culture is to take to the streets. Vietnam’s former imperial capital fostered an elegant array of dishes that continue to be the pride of its people. As Hue people say, you can get Hue cuisine elsewhere in Vietnam, but it never tastes quite the same as it does here. There’s something about the weather, the greenery and the history all around that makes eating in Hue a pleasure. Light and lovely steamed bites are even more exquisite when enjoyed in Hue’s poetic gardens and countryside.
Northern Vietnamese recipes date back hundreds of years. The food here is heavily influenced by age-old traditions and practices. Banh chung, a specialty steamed rice cake prepared on Lunar New Year, comes with its own legend. Inspired by what his land had to offer, a prince created a dish of mung bean and rice wrapped in dong leaves. This dish was so representative of the land that the king rewarded his son with the throne. Vietnamese families still gather every Tet (Lunar New Year) to make banh chưng as a reminder of their roots.
If you’re a fan of spices, sauces, and dips, you’ll love the food of Central Vietnam. Any local here will tell you that the secret to amazing food lies in the dipping sauce. Sauces in Da Nang, Hoi An, and Nha Trang go way beyond your average nuoc mam (fish sauce.) Supplied by a long coastline, Central Vietnamese cooks come up with many ways to preserve seafood. Fermented shrimp and fish paste are an essential part of any meal. It’s common for each dish to be accompanied by its own dip, making something as simple as a local lunch look like a royal feast with lots of small dishes on the table.
Just like the people here, Southern Vietnamese cuisine is open to many influences. Locals in Ho Chí Minh City bring their own cooking styles from many different parts of Vietnam, creating a culinary hub in the city. Southern dishes are often humble and casual. The popular com tam (broken rice) is a fantastic breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Made from fractured rice grains that couldn’t be sold, this once-modest dish is now a southern specialty. Served with grilled pork chops and slices of Vietnamese meatloaf, com tam is topped with a generous spoonful of green onions and sweetened fish sauce. If there is one taste that categorizes the cuisine of Southern Vietnam is has to be sweetness. Vietnam is one of those places where you can plan your whole trip around delicious eats. Not only are the country’s many dishes a treat for your palate, eating local food is one of the best ways to get to know Vietnamese culture and people.
In addition to a vibrant culinary scene, Vietnam offers visitors an abundance of attractions and activities. There are countless beaches to choose from, some well-known, others completely hidden. Vietnam’s islands of Con Dao and Phu Quoc are famous for having the most inviting water and pristine shores. Adventure in Vietnam comes in many forms – from the breathtaking mountain passes of Ha Giang, to the wondrous caves of Phong Nha, to the windswept waves of Mui Ne. If you’re an adventure seeker, you’ll find an astonishing variety of experiences to choose from here. When Vietnam was named “Asia’s best golf destination” at the 2018 World Golf Awards, it confirmed what many already knew. With numerous layouts regularly ranking among the best courses in the region, Vietnam has established itself as a golfing heavyweight for some time now.
Travel off-the-beaten-path to Cao Bang, the last town at the country’s northernmost tip where you’ll find rugged landscapes, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, challenging motorcycle rides and encounters with ethnic minorities. Until the surprise discovery of one of the world’s largest caves, Phong Nha was barely mentioned in guidebooks. Beyond exploring Phong Nha’s caves by boat and on foot, you can go deeper into nature with cycling excursions, kayaking tours, and wildlife spotting in the national park.
There is no shortage of luxury accommodations throughout the county. The Metropole in Hanoi is inarguably Vietnam’s grandest hotel. Since 1901, the elegant building at 15 Ngo Quyen has lured famous guests through its doors. The historical wing is a throwback to Old Hanoi, with canopied bed and balconies that open directly onto Ngo Quyen, while the newer Opera wing is a perfect example of modern Vietnamese luxury. Azerai La Residence, Hue is one of the most striking properties in Vietnam’s former feudal capital of Hue. Poised on the banks of the Perfume River, the original building was constructed in the art-deco style of the 1930s.
All in all, Vietnam is an idyllic travel destination for foodies and adventure seekers alike. The endless array of culinary delights is only matched by the sheer volume of exciting activities.
By Roger Sands @ Forbes