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On Vietnam and Cambodia's Spice Trail

The cuisines of Vietnam and Cambodia may be deliciously diverse, but fragrant spices are ubiquitous throughout the region. Lucy Jones explores how and where you can taste the best of both worlds. 

Vietnamese Flavours

Drawing from its neighbours as well as decades of French colonialism, Vietnamese cuisine is a captivating blend of old and new, East and West. Crusty French bread is baked daily in almost every city and is as good as you would find in a Parisian boulangerie. In the north of the country, the cuisine is influenced by China and tends towards fragrant soups and rich curries. In the south, where temperatures are higher, you’ll find more Thai-inspired spicy salads and grilled meats. Across the country, the key ingredients are fish sauce and sugar that bring a balance of sweet and salty to dishes, plus plenty of fresh, zesty coriander. 
Noodle Soup, Vietnam


Hanoi holds the title of Southeast Asia’s most elegant city, it is also the home of pho, Vietnam’s national dish. Rich, aromatic broth is filled with slippery noodles, thin slices of beef, handfuls of fresh herbs and spicy chillies. It’s served everywhere, but for the authentic experience, perch on a tiny plastic stool on a street corner and eat a steaming bowl ladled from a large central pot. You’ll see locals doing this at all hours of the day.   

Vietnam street market lady seller, Ho Chi Minh, Saigon
Bun cha is another street-food favourite: sizzling grilled pork and pork mince patties served on thin rice noodles with a fragrant salad, fresh herbs and a sweet and salty broth. You’ll also want to try cha ca (small fishcakes with turmeric, galangal and dill), xoi xeo (sticky rice topped with mung beans and fried onion) and banh cuon (a steamed crepe stuffed with ground pork and spices). 

Ho Chi Minh City

You can barely walk a few metres without coming across a stall selling Ho Chi Minh’s most famous dish, banh mi. A crusty French baguette is filled with pâté, mayonnaise, three kinds of pork, Vietnamese radish, pickled carrot, cucumbers, coriander and a good hit of chilli. They are deliciously flavoursome and cost around $1.  

Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls. Vietnam
Op la is a dish of fried eggs with slices of meat or sausage, onions, herbs and more of that wonderful French bread. Try bun mam, a fermented fish soup with vermicelli noodles, squid, prawns or pork, and slices of eggplant, sweetened with tamarind juice and sugar. For something crisp and refreshing, bun bo nam bo is a salad of grilled beef, papaya, cucumber, lettuce, fresh herbs, crunchy fried onions and crushed peanuts served over rice noodles.  

Cambodian Cuisine

Cambodian cuisine is possibly the least appreciated of Southeast Asia, yet it is a fascinating mix of rich, aromatic and unusual flavours not found anywhere else. Called Khmer cuisine after the country’s main ethnic group, many dishes are based around the spice mix known as kroeung. Ingredients can vary, but the most common are lemongrass, turmeric, shallots, garlic, chilli, galangal and lime zest, although others are added for specific dishes. Prahok (fermented fish paste) and kapi (fermented shrimp paste) are used in many dishes to give them a distinctive piquancy. Used together, they form the spicy, salty, sweet and sour flavours you’ll find in dishes all over Cambodia.  

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh was once known as the Pearl of Asia and was one of the loveliest French-built cities in Southeast Asia. Many grand government buildings remain, like the Post Office and the Treasury. The city sits at the confluence of three great rivers – the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap – and the riverfronts have become hubs for restaurants, bars and hotels.   

View of Vietnamese dishes
Forget corn flakes for breakfast in Phnom Penh. Instead, try bai sach chrouk, a dish of thinly sliced pork grilled over hot coals and served with rice, pickled cucumbers, daikon radish and fresh ginger with a side of chicken broth. Khmer red curry uses the kroeung spice paste, along with fresh coconut milk, eggplant, green beans, potatoes and meat to create a mild and fragrant dish. Try a fresh, spicy lap (a Khmer salad with beef, lime juice and plenty of herbs), nom banh chok (rice noodles with a fish-based green curry) and loc lac, a beef stir-fry dish with a sweet brown sauce.   

Siem Reap

For decades, Siem Reap was a sleepy backwater, famous for its proximity to the ancient wonder of Angkor Wat. Recently, the town has reinvented itself and is now the capital of Cambodian cool. Boutique hotels, hip bars and chic restaurants have opened up, giving rise to a vibrant and creative cultural scene.    

View of Cambodian Pork Salad
Prahok is an acquired taste, but it gives dishes a distinctive spicy and salty flavour that is strangely moreish. Prahok ktis uses the paste with pork and coconut milk to create a complex dip served with fresh vegetables and a little tamarind for sweetness. For a Cambodian take on the classic beef and basil stir-fry, red tree ants are added to impart a delicate sour flavour – along with lemongrass, ginger, garlic and with sago, mung beans and coconut cream and served with shaved ice.  

For a taste of all that Vietnam and Cambodia have to offer – food adventures, cultural discoveries and more  – why not join our 17 Day Discover Vietnam and Cambodia tour?

Images in article courtesy of kevin miller, Jennifer Schmidt at Unsplash