From exploring the world’s largest cave to sipping a delicious broth of phở, these 10 things will give you a taste of what Vietnam is all about.
Kicking off this list is of course, phở, quite possibly the most-loved Vietnamese dish worldwide. It’s a delicious comfort food – a bowl of hot, beefy noodle broth, topped with vegetables and herbs and plenty of meat, perfect for any time of the day. Phở is found literally anywhere in the country and luckily for the rest of the world, it’s made its way to Vietnamese restaurants in almost every corner of the world.
One of the most beautiful national costumes in the world, the elegant áo dài from Vietnam is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over trousers that emerged for aristocratic families during the Nguyễn Dynasty in the 18th century. Since then it has evolved (and tightened) over time to what it is now, thanks to French influence and modernisation. When in Vietnam, a perfectly tailored áo dài makes for a great souvenir to take back home or to gift your female friends. Male versions are also available.
Sandwiches are great, but the bánh mì is even better. Once the baguette was introduced to Vietnam by the French, the Vietnamese then completely made it their own. Adding in various meats such as grilled pork, pulled chicken, beef patties and vegetables ranging from lettuce, daikon, onions, to herbs such as basil, over a deliciously thick layer of pate, the banh mi is a sandwich of flavours like no other. These buns are easily replicated at home if you have access to a good recipe and all the necessary ingredients.
Bún chả was made popular to the rest of the world when President Obama was treated by the late Anthony Bourdain to a delicious bowl during his state visit to Vietnam. Much meatier compared to its northern rival phở, the components of bún chả arrive at your table separately. The broth is made of vinegar, sugar and fish sauce, and to it you must add whatever other ingredients you find on the table – including vermicelli noodles, grilled pork, chilli, lime and other herbs. Just don’t drink the broth.
The world’s biggest known cave is located in Vietnam, and it is large enough to house an entire New York City block. First explored in 2009, Sơn Đoòng only opened to tourists in 2012, but you’ll have to get in line to explore this beauty. Not only do you have to shell out about five grand and wait for around two years to obtain your permit, but you will also have to be extremely fit as, during the expedition, you will partake in some tough activities such as climbing, crawling, abseiling, and swimming through underground caves. There are a vast network of other caves that are more accessible in the region as alternatives.
Vietnam is full of spectacular scenery. From the cascading rice fields in the northern region all the way down the beautifully pristine coast to the sand dunes of Mui Ne in the south, Vietnam has something for everyone. Despite all this beauty, Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin remains the most visited in Vietnam. It is every bit as spectacular as people say. Here you will find over 1,600 limestone islets jutting out of the emerald waters, topped with a layer of dense jungles. Islands with beaches are hidden among them and make for a fantastic getaway from the city.
Fish sauce is a condiment made from fish coated in salt and fermented from weeks up to two years. It’s a staple in Asian countries – in Vietnam it’s called nước mắm and you cannot get away from it. Nước mắm is almost always served as an additional condiment with every meal, used either as a seasoning or as a base in a dipping sauce. Locals love adding lime and chilli peppers to the sauce to enhance the taste.
Fish sauce in Vietnam is made with only two ingredients: anchovies and salt. There are no additives like sugar or preservatives, indicating quality. Travellers often fall so in love with it that they take bottles of it back home, but certain brands such as Mega Chef, Red Boat and 3 Crabs can be found in supermarkets elsewhere in the world.
Rượu đế is a distilled liquor in Vietnam, made from rice produced by many unregistered household distilleries and sold for extremely cheap in recycled plastic bottles. A type of rice wine, rượu is traditionally made by Vietnam’s hilltribe minorities, using black or brown sticky rice, herbs, tree bark and other natural flavourings packed into a large ceramic jar and allowed to ferment for at least a couple of weeks. While rice wine is commonly available in supermarkets, ruou can is more of a unique experience had only while in Vietnam.
Water puppetry originated in the villages of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam, and dates as far back as the 11th century. Back then, when rice fields got flooded during the rainy season, villagers would make entertainment by standing waist-deep in the water and performing stories and skits over the water with puppets.
Nowadays, the puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. Shows are performed in a waist-deep pool, with puppeteers hidden behind a screen, using large bamboo rods to support the puppets under the water. The puppets appear to be moving on the water and they enact stories of legends and myths, accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra performing traditional music using drums, wooden bells, bamboo flutes and other instruments. To catch a show, head over to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi when you are around.
Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world, and they have achieved this status rather quickly over the past century. Look for Trung Nguyên ground coffee in your local supermarket – this is Vietnamese. The best way to make it is to do as the Vietnamese do: as cà phê sữa đá. As simple as it is, it seems a genius invention. Add ground coffee to a phin filter, add hot water and let the coffee seep through drip by drip into the cup below. Add condensed milk to your liking, a bunch of ice cubes to cool it off, and enjoy.