8 things you should know about Vietnamese Food culture

by Lilian Nguyen

For those who have travelled to Vietnam and enjoyed the vast variety of Vietnamese food, one could wonder what lies beneath the diversity of its cuisine. Despite the colonization and influence in Vietnam by various empires and countries throughout history, its traditional and famous cuisine kept their own unique characteristics from the cooking method to even garnishes. There are many aspects to the Vietnamese cuisine that makes it distinctive from the rest.

The sophistication and creativity of Vietnamese food culture may not be simply explained in one single article, however, exploring these 8 different characteristics may help you understand why travellers love Vietnamese food so much. 

1. Historical diversity

Vietnam is an agriculture-based country, thus, Vietnamese food culture has been influenced by the Wet Rice Civilization for thousands of years. Rice plays an important role in the life of Vietnamese people. Besides being located in SouthEast Asia with favorable conditions of nature, climate and geography, Vietnamese people have been producing an abundance of eatables, which provides good conditions for the creativity of cuisine in Vietnam. 

In the course of building and developing the country, Vietnam suffered from a series of long-lasting wars and dominations, especially a 1000-year Chinese domination as well as the French colonialism, the Vietnamese food culture, therefore, was influenced and more diversified.

Vietnamese food became more sophisticated and various, partly influenced by Chinese cuisine, but kept its own unique features that represented Vietnam itself. It was the colonialism of the French contributed to the diversity of Vietnamese food culture.

Banh mi Vietnam

2. Low in fat

Vietnamese dishes are gluten-free, really low in fat, and jam-packed with lots of healthy and necessary minerals and vitamins, which helps boost the immune system, lose extra weight, and provide the human body with the energy it needs.

Vietnamese food mainly consists of fresh vegetables or fruits paired with various types of spices and herbs, making its calorie count and fat content a lot lower than the usual dish that may contain a lot of dairy, oil or carbs. 

Most Vietnamese dressings, authentic dishes, and sauces you will find in restaurants are very low in fat and calories. Even a giant bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup (“Pho”) just provides 300 to 600 calories, and contains less than 3 grams of fat per serving, meaning that you can eat one bowl of Pho every day for dinner or for lunch as part of a low-fat, calorie controlled diet.

Vietnamese Fresh Spring rolls

Check out this recipe if you want to make your own fresh spring rolls at home

3. Rich in flavour

Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest in the world. It focuses heavily on fresh ingredients, with a few touches of fat or oil to enhance the flavour. Herbs and spices are selected carefully for optimum flavour and there are fewer blends used to ensure a precise portion of spice in each dish handmade with care. 

It would be impossible to talk about Vietnamese food culture without talking about the use of sauces in the cuisine. Vietnamese cuisine is built on these rich, salty sauces for a base flavour, but cooks are also fond of using the sauces as a finishing touch.

  1. Fish sauce is a thick condiment used in nearly every Vietnamese dish available. You will find it squirted into pho, or on grilled pork dishes. It is also popular as a base for many soups and stews.
  2. Soy sauce is another component to Vietnamese food that deserves attention. Used often in vegetable dishes, soy sauce is full of salty deliciousness and umami flavour.
  3. Chilli sauce is another common ingredient. It provides a nice kick, but it also provides a nice reddish color to some light vegetable soups or broths.
  4. Shrimp sauce is a shrimp and salt paste used for sautéing and in marinating meats.
Vietnamese Sour Soup – Photo by Huong Nghiep A Au

4. Good mix of ingredients and spices

Vietnamese dishes usually include a variety of foods such as meat, shrimp, crabs along with vegetables, beans, and rice. There are also a combination of many flavours such as sour, spicy, salty, sweet…

Vietnamese food culture varies by regions from the north to the south. 

In Northern Vietnam, Vietnamese food is characterized by light and balanced flavours as the harmonic combination of many ingredients. Northern Vietnam is seen to be the cradle of Vietnamese civilization in general and Vietnamese cuisine in particular with many notable dishes like Pho, Bun Rieu, Bun Thang, Bun Cha, Banh Cuon, etc. Then, food culture in Northern Vietnam became popular in Central and Southern Vietnam with suitable flavours in each region. 

In Central Vietnam, the topography is characterized by mountains, thus, the regional cuisine of Central Vietnam is famous for its spicy food, which differs from two other parts with mostly non-spicy food. Hue cuisine is typical Central Vietnam’s food culture. Dishes of Hue cuisine are decorative and colorful, which expresses the influence of Vietnamese royal cuisine in the feudal period. Food in the region is often decorated sophisticatedly and used with chili peppers and shrimp sauces, namely, Bun Bo Hue, Banh bot loc, or Banh beo, etc. 

In Southern Vietnam, the region is characterized by warm weather and fertile soil, which creates favorable conditions for planting a variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock. Thus, food in the region is often added with garlic, shallots and fresh herbs. 

In particular, Southerners tend to use sugar a lot and often add sugar in almost all their dishes. The Vietnamese cuisine also takes a lot of influence from other cuisines both Asian or Western, such as Chinese, Indian, French or Thai.

Pho – The iconic Vietnamese Beef Noodle

5. Delicious and healthy

Vietnamese cuisine is a combination of dishes and flavours to create a unique feature. Although many of the ingredients are inexpensive, the meticulous and balanced preparation and taste of these meals shows the work that has gone into them for many years.

As Vietnam went through long periods of war and political conflict, it became a tradition to use fresh and local ingredients in order to save money, and not waste a thing. If an animal was purchased, every part was used in some way. Vietnamese cuisine is not known for its high quality cuts of meat and expensive organic fruits and vegetables, but for the way that simple staple ingredients can be used to create dishes with extraordinary flavours.

One of the most interesting parts of Vietnamese cuisine is their concept of opposites and balance, or yin and yang.  Vietnamese cuisine observes five basic elements: wood, fire, earth, water and metal. These elements in turn correspond with five flavour elements: sour, bitter, spicy, sweet and salty. Each meal contains each of these different flavours, which are in turn balanced by each other.

When we think of opposites in a culinary sense, we typically think of colours, textures and temperature. When it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, individual types of food in the same category (for example different types of meat) can be considered either hot or cold. In a meal, a food is considered hot, cold, warm or cool. For every food that is considered “hot”, there must be a balancing food that is “cool” or “cold”.

Sweet and sour salad

6. Use of chopsticks

Picking is an art, pick up properly, do not let food fall … The use of chopstick is an essential part of the Vietnamese food culture. Vietnamese chopsticks are used in every family meal, even in the BBQ party, Vietnamese people rarely use a fork to skewer food like the Western people.

Chopsticks are used to transfer pieces of meat, fish or whatever from the communal dish to a small bowl of fish sauce and then to your bowl. It is definitely acceptable to bring the bowl almost to your lips and use chopsticks to scoop rice into your mouth. This way might prevent food from dropping in laps.


7. Serve in a tray

A Vietnamese meal is the combination of many dishes which are laid on the tray at once. All family members will share daily meals together. There is no course in typical Vietnamese meals. Each member will have a bowl of rice, but eating other dishes, soup and fish sauce together. Vietnamese people use chopsticks and ceramic spoons in their meals. 

Family meal

8. Sense of community

The Vietnamese tend to eat in groups, rarely alone—in most traditional Vietnamese restaurants, you’ll be seated at a table with several dishes placed in the centre. The food in the middle of the table belongs to everyone; you’ll help yourself to your share of the dishes in the middle, filling your own plate as needed.

Vietnam’s rivers, rice paddies, mountains and deep blue seas are deeply ingrained in the local culture. Because of this, it’s rude to leave food uneaten, especially when we are in someone’s home and they’ve cooked for us. 

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Lilian Nguyen

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