Vietnamese food is characterized by a balance of understated flavors emphasizing lightness and freshness. Common ingredients include rice, seafood, pork, vegetables, chicken, beef, lemongrass, and herbs. Dipping sauces -- nuoc nam (a ubiquitous fish sauce), chile sauce, lime juice, and toppings -- bean sprouts, basil, mint, garlic, coriander -- are provided at the table.
Pho: Hearty, filling soup with beef or chicken, rice noodles, and herbs. You add the garnishes. The sodium in this dish may be high, so go easy on the soy sauce and nuoc nam.
Bun: Grilled pork, beef, or shrimp marinated in a sweet/hot/sour/salty mixture and served over rice noodles and often topped with nuts. You add your own sauces and seasonings.
Grilled lemongrass chicken: This dish is served with rice papers, lettuce, and fresh herbs that you make into a roll and dip in the sauces of your choice.
Surprise thumbs-up to:
Beef fondue: Not the usual oil-based fondue, this dish features meat in a vinegary broth with aromatics and no added fat.
Tips for the savvy Vietnamese diner:
Ask if meat or fish can be cooked or sautèed in broth instead of oil.
Nuoc nam is high in sodium, so use it sparingly.
Clay-pot dishes tend to be heavy on fat and sodium. Ask if the meat or fish in them is fried. If it is, you may want to try something else.