Vietnam has a special place in my heart. It was the first foreign country that I had lived for a few months, guess you could say it was my first home away from home. I had a few family members living in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in early 2000s, and I spent about 6 months there and traveled around the country before I went to college in London.
I also went back a few times afterwards, and the country has been changing like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. My recent trip to Nha Trang was yet another proof. Nha trang is a coastal resort city near Saigon probably best known for its gorgeous white sandy beaches. The beaches really are stunning, but the city has so much more to offer in terms of hustling and bustling markets, local eateries, stylish restaurants, and nightlife.
Taking a cooking class in my opinion is one of the best ways to learn and experience the local culture when you’re traveling. And even if you didn’t enjoy the cooking part, you are almost guaranteed to have the most authentic meal afterwards. The Nha Trang Cooking Class was an amazing experience for me. Even though I had some knowledge about the local cuisine prior to the class, it was the first time I gained real insight into what goes in some of my favorite Vietnamese dishes.
What most people compliment about Vietnamese cuisine is its lightness and freshness, which I believe, come from the extensive use of herbs and vegetables. Street vendors snacking on coriander and Vietnamese basil leaves on the side of the road was a common scene that surprised me when I first moved to Saigon. Vietnamese do love their greens :-). We visited beautiful vegetable and herb garden before the cooking class, and it was a real treat that gave me an opportunity for lots of stunning photos.
We made 3 dishes, my favorite Vietnamese foods that I missed so much. They are Cha gio; Vietnamese spring roll with vegetables and pork, Banh xeo; rice flour pancake (some call it crepe) with seafood, bean sprouts and spring onion, and Bun cha; barbequed pork served with rice vermicelli and vegetables.
Cha gio is the first Vietnamese food I ever tasted (even before Pho), and I knew it would become one of my favorites immediately. The biggest difference between Chinese and Vietnamese spring roll is the wrapper. Unlike Chinese spring roll, Cha gio is made with rice paper, which is delicate, brittle and translucent. Authentic Cha gio should be incredibly crispy, and fill your mouth with heavenly flavors of both soft and crunch fillings when you bite into it. They are usually served with delicious sweet and sour dipping sauce and fresh lettuce leaves for you to wrap them.
Pretty much anywhere in the world you can find their own version of pancakes, and in my opinion, Vietnam has Banh xeo. I know it is also referred to as “crepe”, but this dish reminds me of Korean seafood and spring onion pancake “pajeon” a lot, so to me it is more like pancake. It normally has seafood toppings, but you can also make it with pork or chicken. The batter is made with rice flour, coconut milk or cream and turmeric powder for color! I am using exclamation point to express my enthusiasm here, because I always wondered where the bright yellow color of Banh xeo comes from. I just guessed it would be egg yolks, I mean lots of egg yolks in order to make it that yellow, but the batter seemed a little too light to have that many yolks in. So it always had been a bit of mystery to me and I’m so glad that I learned the real trick this time 😊.
Oh, Bun cha…juicy marinated pork cooked over charcoal and served with sweet and sour dipping sauce, pillowy mountain of rice vermicelli and fragrant Vietnamese herbs. This dish, once you taste, will become one of your favorites alongside the Vietnamese national dish Pho. You can easily find locals, expats and tourists in tiny stools in the street of any Vietnamese cities devouring Bun cha. It is without a doubt one of the most popular dishes in the country.
I had my first Bun cha at a hotel buffet restaurant. I know what you’re thinking, boring…in my defence, my family was worried about me having a stomach ache (I had a really bad one about 2 weeks after my arrival) and thought it was better to be safe than sorry. And it might not have been as local or authentic as it should’ve been but the Bun cha I had was still delicious. Whether it is a fancy buffet, hole in the wall local eatery or tiny stool on the road side, Bun cha is a must-try dish when you are in Vietnam.
I think the most distinctive characteristic of Vietnamese food in general is the great balance of flavors. And I believe that is the reason why it is loved by so many people. I usually like dishes with strong chili kick, but I equally adore the beautiful symphony of sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavors I get from Vietnamese food. And it might be one or one of the very few countries in South East Asia, where you can have an awesome sandwich (like Banh mi) and a bowl of noodles at the same time.
Everything Vietnamese learned and inherited from their colonial past has created one of the most complex, intriguing and of course delicious cuisines in the world. The country is modernizing and moving forward in a speed of light it seems, but their food is still untouched by the fast food trends and as loving and comforting as I remembered. I hope you’ll go and experience it yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.