Food & water in Vietnam

Famous for its lively, fresh flavors and artfully composed meals, Vietnamese food and cooking is the true 'light cuisine' of Asia. Abundant fresh herbs and greens, delicate soups and stir-fries, and well-seasoned grilled foods served on, or with, rice or noodles are the mainstays of the Vietnamese delicacies. Even the beloved sweets for snacks or desserts are often based on fresh fruits served with sweetened rice or tapioca. Rarely does any dish have added fats.

1. What is the Vietnamese Food like?

While the Vietnamese cuisine relies on fresh vegetables, subtle seasonings and rice, Vietnamese cooking also reflects its Chinese and French influences and it has numerous regional difference.

In the south, look for plentiful fresh seafood and in the colder north, you'll find slightly heartier meals with beef. In central Vietnam, around the ancient royal capital Hue, the food may contain influences of the former court cooks.

But regardless of the region, home-style Vietnamese cooking calls for an array of simple dishes that make complementary partners at a family's communal meal.

Dinners customarily call for a soup, probably a platter of leafy greens accompanied by rice papers and a dipping sauce, seafood or grilled meats or poultry, a vegetable stir-fry, and rice or noodles in some form - with hot tea as the preferred beverage.

While such meals may look complex to outsiders, most dishes come together easily, and some call for advance preparation to avoid last-minute conflicts. And, as in any type of cooking, planning ahead makes putting together meals much easier.

Modern cooks with well-equipped kitchens and handy appliances will find preparing a Vietnamese meal both rewarding and relatively easy. And with the widespread popularity of Asian recipes and foods, locating ingredients is not a challenge as most supermarkets carry such basics as fresh ginger and spring onions, lemongrass and chilies, even coconut milk and Asian noodles.

2. What general food and water precautions should I take?

We advise you to use bottled water, even to clean your teeth. Always wash your hands thoroughly, particularly after handling local money. Ensure meats are thoroughly cooked. It is not necessary to avoid salads and herbs out of hand but remember uncooked foods do carry a greater risk.

In general, establishments that cater to Western tourists make their own ice on the premises from bottled water. Elsewhere, ice is made from filtered water that is delivered in blocks from local factories. If in doubt as to the origin of ice, it's a good idea to ask.

3. Should we eat out in the street of Vietnam?

Vietnam has a rich eating-out tradition. Most of the dishes can be made at home, but many Vietnamese prefer to eat out. Restaurants are usually famous for one specialty. Many recipes have been passed down from generation to generation.

Restaurants themselves vary greatly. Some are just little stalls on the streets with a mini stove and plastic chairs. Some are prestigious family restaurants that have existed for centuries, operated by the whole family, with smoky walls and wooden chairs.

Even though street stalls or small restaurants seem closer to tradition and excel in taste, tourists who are not used to Vietnamese food should watch out for their health and safety. Street stalls and cheaper restaurants also take less care in food safety and quality of ingredients.

4. Is there Vegetarian food and Western food available?

Vegetables and vegetarian dishes feature prominently in Vietnamese cuisine, though even vegetable dishes may use fish sauce as a base so if you are a strict Vegetarian it's a good idea to ask about the ingredients used. Western food is widely available in major centres though is generally more expensive than Vietnamese.

5. I have special dietary requirements/allergies-can these be accommodated?

It is generally possible to accommodate special dietary requirements and allergies, though it is a good idea to have someone prepare a Vietnamese translation of the details of your needs to show restaurant staff. Even non-seafood dishes may feature shrimp or fish sauce as a base.

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