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Some people travel to destinations solely for its food and so far, I never quite understood the appeal. I mean, I love digging into some spicy papaya salad, I look forward to sushi for days and I probably couldn’t live without the occasional mango sticky rice, but usually I have other reasons to visit a destination. But then I got to Vietnam, and although I loved exploring Hanoi, visiting the tombs in Hue and wandering through Hoi An, my main past time in the country was simply filling my stomach with as much of the delicious food as I could. And now, having been out of Vietnam for a few weeks, I find myself toying with the idea of returning – simply to get my hands on some Bún Chả again!
Fact is, that food in other parts of the world – while it might be really good – just doesn’t quite reach the Vietnamese level of oh-my-god-I-want-to-bathe-in-this. Most recipies in Vietnam involve light ingredients and use herbs, garlic, shallots and fresh vegetables. Meat is only cooked lightly and everything is prepared to not only please the tastebuds to the max, but also to appeal to the eyes.
The amazing thing is, that Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t rely on fancy ingredients. Due to the past conflicts and wars, a big part of the population lived in poverty – and still does in more rural areas – and accordingly, all ingredients are simple and inexpensive. But the lightness and balance to the flavours is simply astonishing and I haven’t found anything so intricately prepared before or since. In the end, it all comes down to the importance of food in Vietnamese culture and how it is prepared in accordance to a pretty fascinating philosophy.
Vietnamese cuisine knows five elements: earth (sweet), water (salty), fire (bitter), metal (spicy) and wood (sour). These, in turn, correspond with the five organs gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and urinary bladder and the five types of nutrients, which are powder, water, mineral elements, protein and fat. On top of that, Vietnamese dishes also try to appeal to the five senses, making sure to produce the right sounds with crisp ingredients, spices for the tongue, herbs and other aromatic elements for the nose and finger foods for touching. The eyes should be pleased with the five colours yellow (earth), black (water), red (fire), white (metal) and green (wood) and a nice food arrangement.
Fairly complicated, and you probably need to look at a spreadsheet to understand all these relations. But the basic idea behind the concept is, that all these elements and categories correspond to the Yin-Yang philosophy, which requires a balance between the “cooling” and “heating” properties of the ingredients.
While cool and cold dishes are preferred in summer, hot or warm dishes dominate the winter months. Different illnesses of the organs are either Yin and Yang and must be treated with the opposing force. Accordingly, good health is attributed to a well balanced Yin-Yang and harmony is found in equilibrium.
It all sounds a bit complicated, and it definitely isn’t easy to figure out the intricate Vietnamese food rules as a traveller. In fact, it can even be a bit intimidating because, on top of everything, dishes should also be eaten according to the time of day and the seasons.
Want some Phở Bò in the afternoon? Well, you’re out of luck, it is only served for breakfast in the morning. Fany some Bún Chả? Better get there around noon.
A lot of restaurants the locals frequent – especially the smaller places and street food stalls – only serve one dish and that only at a certain time of day. If a place serves more than one dish, it’s probably for tourists and not the best in town anyway. While at first glance complicated, this also makes navigating the food scene a fair bit easier. Since most Vietnamese don’t speak any English and the language barrier is strong (attempts to pronounce anything are usually answered with a blank look or a laugh), it’s way easier to just point, sit down and receive what everyone else is eating. That doesn’t mean there can’t be any miscommunications though – for my first meal in Hanoi I ordered soup, but got beer instead.
A good place to try and start getting familiar with the cuisine is, to simply wander the streets and eat where there are already lots of people seated. You’ll have it figured out within a few days. And as always, asking the locals or the staff at your hotel or hostel doesn’t hurt. Many of the best cafés and restaurants are tucked away in small alleyways or on the third floor of some residential looking building and as a foreigner, you’d have a hard time finding any of them on your own.