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Like so much else in Vietnam, the cuisine reflects long years of cultural exchange with China, Cambodia and, more recently, France. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, rice is the main staple, though bread--especially baguettes introduced by the French--is ubiquitous and usually very good. Dishes are generally served at the same time rather than by course, and eaten with long-grain rice, nuoc mam or fish sauce, and a wide range of fresh herbs and vegetables. Meals are generally eaten with chopsticks or, if European food, with knife and fork.
Some of the more popular Vietnamese dishes include Cha gio (known as nem Saigon in the north): small--spring rolls' of minced pork, prawn, crabmeat, fragrant mushrooms and vegetables wrapped in thin rice paper and then deep fried. Cha gio is rolled in a lettuce leaf with fresh mint and other herbs, then dipped in a sweet sauce. Chao tom is a northern delicacy: Ground up shrimp is baked on a stick of sugar cane, then eaten with lettuce, cucumber, coriander (cilantro) and mint, and dipped in fish sauce.
David Henley / CPA
Fried and fresh spring rolls.
Another dish eaten in a similar fashion is cuon diep, or shrimp, noodles, mint, coriander and pork wrapped in lettuce leaves. Hue, a city associated with Buddhism, is famous for its vegetarian cuisine and for its banh khoai, or 'Hue pancake'. A batter of rice flour and corn is fried with egg to make a pancake, then wrapped around pork or shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and mushrooms. Another Hue speciality is bun bo, or fried beef and noodles served with coriander, onion, garlic, cucumber, chilli peppers and tomato paste.
David Henley / CPA
Vietnamese beef and duck dishes.
Soups are popular, and generally served with almost every meal. Mien ga is a noodle soup, most popular in the south, blending chicken, coriander, fish sauce and scallions. Hu tieu is chicken, beef, pork and shrimp served with a broth over rice noodles mixed with crabmeat, peanuts, onion and garlic. Canh chua, a sour soup served with shrimp or fish head, is a fragrant blend of tomato, pineapple, star fruit, bean sprouts, fried onion, bamboo shoots, coriander and cinnamon. Perhaps the best known of all Vietnamese soup dishes, often eaten for breakfast or as a late night snack, is pho, a broth of rice noodles topped with beef or chicken, fresh herbs and onion. Egg yolk is often added, as may be lime juice, chilli peppers or vinegar. Pho is generally served with quay--a fried piece of flour dough.
Fruits, desserts and drinks
A wide range of fruit is available, including many lush tropical fruits such as mango, custard apple, sapodilla, durian, pineapple, star fruit, and rambutan. More temperate fruits such as apples, cherries and strawberries can be found in the north.
Bottled fresh water, canned and bottled soft drinks and a wide range of canned beers are available throughout the country. French and Australian wines are increasingly popular, especially at French restaurants. Local rice liquors are cheap and fierce; as a legacy of Vietnam's recent history Stolychnaya and other Russian vodkas may be found on some shelves.
David Henley / CPA
Vietnamese waitress holding a menu.
This selection from Vietnam's principal centres is listed according to the following categories: $$$ = expensive; $$ = moderate; $ = cheap.
$$ Al Fresco's, 23L Hai Ba Trung. Tel: 826 7782. A variety of steaks, pizzas, pastas and fresh salads. Be wary when ordering, the portions are huge.
$$$ Le Beaulieu, Sofitel Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen, tel: 826 6919. A Vietnamese and mainly French menu. Each morning there is a large breakfast buffet with various freshly baked cakes and breads.
$$ Cha Ca La Vong, 14 Cha Ca Street. Tel: 825 3929. They only serve fried freshwater fish, a Hanoi speciality, and it's truly excellent. There are plenty of other Cha Ca restaurants around town but this is the best.
$$ Il Padrino, 42 Le Thai To Street, tel: 828 8449. A wine bar and delicatessen, well located on Hoan Kiem Lake.
$$$ Indochine, 16 Nam Ngu Street, tel: 824 6097. One of the most exclusive Vietnamese restaurants in town. You will find most of Vietnam's speciality dishes served here.
$$ Lotus Restaurant, 16 Ngo Quyen Street, tel: 826 7618. Mainly Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine with some Western dishes.
$$ Nam Phuong, 19 Phan Chu Trinh, tel: 824 0926. A pleasant atmosphere to savour the authentic southern Vietnamese dishes.
$$$ Piano Restaurant, 50 Hang Vai Street, tel: 823 2423. Vietnamese and Chinese menu in a stylish location. Live, Western classical music on most nights.
$$ San Ho Restaurant, 58 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, tel: 822 2184. For great seafood look no further than this place.
$$ Seasons of Hanoi, 95B Quan Thanh Street, tel: 843 5444. Classic Vietnamese cuisine in a beautiful French-style villa with live traditional music.
$$ Tandoor Restaurant, 24 Hang Be Street, in the Old Quarter near the Hoan Kiem Lake, tel: 824 5359. Excellent North Indian and vegetarian curries.
$ Thuy Ta Café, 1 Le Thai To, tel: 828 8148. Right at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake. A great place to take a break and try the good selection of coffee, cakes and ice cream on offer.
Ho Chi Minh City
$$ Ancient Town, 211 Dien Bien Phu Street, tel: 829 9625. Specialities from all corners of the country served in a beautiful villa.
$$ Givral, 169 Dong Khoi Street, tel: 824 2750. An extremely varied menu encompassing French, Japanese, Chinese and of course Vietnamese. Also serves cakes, yoghurt and ice cream.
$$$ Lemongrass, 4 Nguyen Thiep Street, tel: 822 0496. Superb food served to the sounds of traditional Vietnamese music.
$$ Mandarine, 11A Ngo Van Nam Street, tel: 822 9783. A fabulous selection of traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
$$ Maxim's Dinner Theatre, 15-17 Dong Khoi Street, tel: 829 6676. A mix of Chinese and French food. After the meal carry on upstairs and enjoy the free nightclub. It's probably best to book ahead at the weekend.
$$ Q Bar, City Concert Hall, 7 Lam Son Square, tel: 823 5424. The classiest bar in town.
$$$ Vietnam House, 93-95 Dong Khoi Street, tel: 829 1623. A restaurant in an old colonial villa with live music on each floor. Your choice of a four-piece traditional group or a pianist.
$$ Hoa Mai Restaurant, 2nd Floor, Huong Giang Hotel, 51 Le Loi Street. Vietnamese and Western dishes and Hue specialties including sweet soups.
$ Lac Thien Restaurant, Dien Tien Hoang Street. Some of the best food in Hue, but the décor is almost non-existant. Try the dried noodles with beef. The staff are very friendly and provide a lively atmosphere.
$$ Ong Tao, 43 Dinh Cong Trang Street, tel: 823 031. Next to the Citadel's Hien Nhon Gate, a restaurant serving Hue specialities in a pleasant garden setting.
$$ Song Huong Floating Restaurant, 3-2 Le Loi Street, tel: 826 655. A floating restaurant on the Perfume River next to the Trang Tien Bridge.
$$ Tinh Gia Vien, 20/3 Le Thanh Ton Street, tel: 822 243. Serves lunch and dinner in a beautiful garden setting with over 200 bonsai trees. They serve Imperial meals with as many as 12 dishes. If you want to dress for dinner Imperial costume will be provided.
$$ Christie's, 2nd Floor, 9 Bach Dang Street, tel: 826 645. Set above the waters of the Han River. Serves a fine selection of Vietnamese and European food as well as some Australian specials.
$$ Songhan Restaurant, 56B Hoang Van Thu Street, tel: 816 005. This floating restaurant next to the Cham Museum serves a wide variety of central Vietnamese dishes. The portions are enormous, so be careful when ordering.
$$ Nhu Y or Mermaid Restaurant, 2 Tran Phu Street, tel: 861 527. Vietnamese cuisine in a family atmosphere.
$$ Thanh Thanh Restaurant, 4 Tang Bat Ho Street, tel: 821 836. Probably the best restaurant in Dalat. Excellent Vietnamese salads and other traditional dishes.
$$$ Ma Maison, 89 Tran Hung Dao Street, tel: 852 015. An exclusive French restaurant with beautifully prepared dishes.
$$ Vietnam Restaurant, 23 Hoang Van Thu Street tel: 822 933. A special seafood restaurant, everything fresh from the South China Sea.
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