Firmly in the pantheon of great world cuisines, Vietnamese fare is a varying treat, from the sweet-and-spicy plates of the south to the rich and complex flavours of Hanoi and the north. Our 10-day Vietnam Culinary Adventure is the ultimate exploration of the country's appetite. Get to know your pho from your kho-to with our quick guide to Vietnamese food.
A north-south trip of Vietnam reveals one of the world's great cuisines to be a varied pleasure, the approach to cooking and ingredients used shifting with climate and geography, from Hanoi's French-infused streets to the fertile plains and waterways of the Mekong Delta. Here's a whistlestop tour to whet the appetite.
Those who make their home in the country's south may tell you that Hanoi cooking tends towards the bland. Respectfully disagree. Hanoi's cuisine may lack the spice of southern Vietnamese cookery, but it is a subtle treat, and few places are as fun to eat in as the country's capital. Follow your nose and find a plastic seat at one of the countless kerbside one-dish eateries, or join a queue at a soup stand, then dive in. Some essentials: pho - a noodle soup made with shallots, meat (try the beef), and herbs - is a daily staple and an integral part of the capital's street culture. You haven't really visited Hanoi unless you've supped on some pho, ideally for breakfast. Cha ca is another favourite: a spicy fish fry-up, where whitefish is flash-fried in peanut oil with dill, turmeric, rice noodles, and peanuts, ideally all washed down with an icy beer.
The French-colonial influence lives on in the local palate, classically French fare like snails, for example, given an Asian twist by being steamed in lemongrass, or banh mi, a gallic style baguette of pork liver livened up with chilli sauce and fish oil. Our cookery class in Hanoi takes place in KOTO, a restaurant and charity which helps disadvantaged kids off the streets and into work.
The Central Coast - Hue and Hoi An
The most famous cookery component of Vietnam's centre is its royal heritage. The country was once ruled from Hue, the emperors drafting in the country's finest chefs who helped give birth to the ostentatious, complex flavours that exist on today's plates. Feasting at a banquet is the best way to dig into the area's flamboyant creations, where a cavalcade of complex, colourful dishes, each tapas-size and invariably beautifully presented, arrive at your table.
Such lavish creations however give an incomplete portrait of the area's cuisine. Other, less elaborate dishes, such as river fish from the country's interior enlivened with herbs, duck boiled and served with green bananas and figs, have been passed down from the days of the royal court and are worth seeking out. Snacks originally created for royalty make for great street food nowadays - keep an eye out for beo (streamed flour cupcakes) and nam (wrapped shrimp pies).
In Hoi An, one dish that is a must is cao lau - a creation that will get any pork-lover swiftly salivating. Slices of stewed-until-tender shoulder or leg swim in an unctuous dark broth, where crunchy squares of dough and wheat noodles also bathe. Bean sprouts and a bushel of herbs - typically thai basil and mint, wild pepper leaf and rice paddy herb - complete the dish. Add a little of the region's spicy chili sauce and enjoy. Hoi An's market is a good bet for getting a good bowl.
10-day Vietnam Culinary Adventure heads into the countryside near Hoi An to explore the herb gardens and markets before cooking up some regional specialities.
Southern spice - Saigon and the Mekong Delta
Chinese immgrants have helped shape the south's cookery, a sweeter, herbier concoction than northern dishes, with chilis taking the place of black pepper in providing spice and a menu that is typically heavier on meat and fish than the north. The south is where many of the country's noodle dishes originated, so seeking out bun mam (rice vermicelli served with shrimp paste soup) in Saigon is time well spent. Saigon is Vietnam at its most vital, a clattering, freewheeling city that rewards exploration. It's also a great place to eat, with many of the country's top chefs working here and a mean line in street food. A couple of tips when you're choosing what to eat: ca kho to, a southern staple and family favourite, is fish cooked in a dangerously addictive caramelised sauce, while the soft shell crabs, preferably cooked up with tamarind, will have you ordering second, and maybe third, helpings.
Further south, the Mekong Delta - where houses and markets float on countless channels and canals all amid lush, tropical vegetation and fields of rice in emerald green - is a tantalising place to explore, both for the sights and for the food. You can easily get your hands on dishes that are made with somewhat questionable ingredients (bats and snakes often feature) but more interesting are other local specialities, not least elephant ear fish, a freshwater flatfish served with thai basil and rice pancakes.
Wherever you go in Vietnam, interesting food, well prepared is a virtual certainty. Why pick one region when you can dig into the food of all three, however? See the full details of our Vietnam Culinary Journey.