Vietnamese food, growing more popular in cities around the world, can be thought of as a compilation of influences based in its long history and geographic location. Like most Southeast Asian countries, there is a strong element of Chinese cuisine in Vietnamese dishes, both due to China’s proximity and to its history of political and military domination of peninsular Southeast Asia. This is particularly strong in northern Vietnam, which is geographically closer to the source.
The affect of Indian culinary traditions play a strong role in southern Vietnamese food, much like in Thailand and Cambodia. A French colonial history is also present, with a variety of cooking styles and techniques remaining in Vietnam post-independence (though the reliance on dairy products is still quite low). The flavors used are categorized into five types: salty, bitter, sour, spicy and sweet. These are thought to correspond with the five elements – water, fire, wood, metal and earth, and a “proper” Vietnamese meal should balance these.
The rainy subtropical climate in Vietnam, stretched along the coast of the Southeast Asian peninsula, means that the local cuisine is rice based. Rice, coconuts (in the south) ginger, garlic, and chilies are central. The coastal nature of the country means that fish is a primary ingredient. Nuoc mam, the Vietnamese term for fish sauce (made out of fermented anchovies in a few special locales in southern Vietnam, is in almost every dish. The most famous Vietnamese dish (pho, pronounced fuh) is a noodle soup, served with beef, chicken or tofu. It also has rice noodles, broth, and is generally served with a dish of fresh herbs (Vietnamese basil, mint leaves) lime, bean sprouts and a variety of sauces, to be added by the lucky diner.
Baguettes were introduced into Vietnamese cuisine with French colonization, and have stuck around afterward; personal sandwiches on small baguettes are a common, quick and cheap meal on the sidewalk, often filled with eggs, meat of some sort, cucumbers and chili sauce. Fresh tropical fruit is everywhere, some of which are varieties rarely found outside of these climates, mangosteen and durian being two such examples.