A teacher and writer, Kim Jane Saunders is a graduate of international politics and history, and holds a master's degree in education. She has lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and has traveled extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia. Currently living in Singapore, Kim acts as lecturer and consultant on issues relating to contemporary Asian culture.
Baguettes, bouillon, coffee, and crepes—not to mention wine, pâté, and haute cuisine—are just part of the fabulous French culinary legacy incorporated into Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnam’s history has largely shaped its palette—1,000 years of Chinese rule followed by the French Colonial era, combined with the country’s tropical climate, long coastline, and rice paddies in the mountainous and northern highlands, have all contributed to a unique fusion cuisine.
The French influence is immediately apparent in the daily profusion of freshly-baked baguettes, filled with cheese or pâté. Vietnamese pâté is made using the quintessential Vietnamese Nuoc Mam, a pungent fish sauce; the baguettes are made from rice flour and wheat, making them lighter and crispier than their French counterparts. Called banh mi, or literally bread wheat, the baguette is found throughout Vietnam; for me, the best are from Nha Trang.
The French introduced coffee to Vietnam in the early 19th century and it grew well in the south; the Robusta variety gives Vietnamese coffee its distinctive strong and chocolaty consistency. Café culture is very important in Vietnam; Café 252 in Hanoi opened in 1990 and boasts Catherine Deneuve as its most famous patron; while filming Indochine, she reputedly came to the café for homemade yogurt.
Viticulture was also introduced in the 19th century; although the vineyards around the hills of Dalat, north of Saigon, were better suited to the production of fruit wines such as mulberry. By the late 20th century, there was a renewed interest in producing wine in Vietnam.
Last but not least, the French introduced potatoes, carrots, asparagus, artichokes, and onions to Vietnam, and Frogs Legs, Snails, and Crème Caramel are to be found on Vietnamese menus.
Vietnamese cuisine has recently hit the international arena with shows from Luke Nguyen airing on the Food Channel and Nigella Lawson teaching us how to make Vietnamese rice-wrapped spring rolls. The crepe, or pancake, is yet another aspect of the French legacy which the Vietnamese have made their own. Whether deep-fried pancake rolls, known as nem ran, or wrapped with wafer-thin handmade rice wrappers, they are found everywhere. The Imperial cuisine that evolved in Hue includes an especially delicious pancake—crispy on the outside and filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, and shallots on the inside.
Even Ho Chi Minh, the revered and beloved founding father of modern Vietnam, has a culinary connection, having trained as a kitchen hand and pastry cook’s assistant before finding work on a French steamer bound from Saigon to Marseille in 1911. In 1914, he moved from Paris to London, working in the kitchens of the Carlton Hotel.
No matter where you are in Vietnam you can eat like an Emperor on a pauper’s pocket, from street food on every corner to haute cuisine in fine dining restaurants. One of my many favourite restaurants is Hoa Sua, now located at 28 Ha Hoi Street in Hanoi. It was set up as a culinary training school by a French NGO in 1994 to train orphans; today, it serves a wonderful fusion of French and Vietnamese dishes. The recently refurbished Press Club Hanoi, opposite the new wing of the old Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel has a two-star Michelin rated executive chef. Heading south to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, once a bustling international port town from the 16th – 18th centuries, cafés, cooking schools, and restaurants abound—some even set in old French colonial villas. Brothers Café is just one of so many that are excellent.
Like Hanoi, Saigon has a distinctive French ambience. The Hotel Continental and Hotel Majestic were built in Colonial style in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Caravelle and the Rex Hotel, both have famous roof bars and the Caravelle has an excellent fine-dining restaurant, Reflections.
For more information on our upcoming expedition to the region, visit Cultural Treasures of Northern Vietnam & Laos.