Bordering China and Laos with four comprising localities, northwest Vietnam, or Tây Bắc, lures travelers in with its magnificent alternating alpine landscapes, valleys, and caves. The region rests atop an impressive range of altitudes that rise as high as 3,143 meters above sea level at the Fansipan summit, which is often nicknamed “the roof of Indochina.”
With a large number of its inhabitant being different ethnic minorities in Vietnam (and there are an impressive 54 of these in the country), the northwestern region is also a melting pot of authentic cultural practices, beautiful tribal costumes, unique languages, and mouth-watering regional cuisines that never fail to steal the heart of its visitors.
An inseparable part of any trip, local dishes give away important information regarding the locals’ lifestyle, history, and engrave the journey with more personal experiences by evoking all our senses. On your next trip to Tây Bắc, don’t forget this bucket list we made of must-try northwestern dishes that are not only rich in flavor but also in culture.
To round out the exciting experience, wash these dishes down with a wide selection of acclaimed home-brewed alcoholic drinks that Tây Bắc’s got to offer, all made from the region’s local ingredients, like fermented docynia indica, corn, or sticky rice wine, to name a few.
Five-color sticky rice
An indispensable part of the Tày ethnic community in the provinces of Ha Giang or Sapa, five-color sticky rice was once a special dish only served in wedding or death ceremonies, Tet, and other major holidays. Now, the dish is prevalent in almost every meal of the locals, and is an indication of the host’s hospitality towards their guests. Interestingly, the more color there is to a serving of five-color sticky rice (the maximum is five), the more special and respected the visitor is to the family.
The five colors of the dish are white, green, purple, red, and yellow, with natural food colorings extracted from local ingredients. After grinding the coloring plants for the paste, sticky rice is soaked up overnight or at least for a couple of hours in the diluted solution before getting drained and ready to cook.
Sounds easy enough, yet the dish takes some effort and practice to master: for the result to not be soggy or burnt, sticky rice has to be put in a wooden steamer over medium heat of thoroughly lit charcoal or wood, and the rice has to be stirred frequently in order to be cooked evenly.
Why five? According to Tày people, white represents loyalty in love; red — the color of fire, represents passion; green as crops and plants; purple symbolizes the fertile soil; and yellow as abundance or prosperity. Much as the meaning may vary, together, the colors carry hopes of happiness, favorable weather for successful harvests, and prosperity. At the same time, the number five represents the five elements, a tenet stemming from Chinese philosophy that aims at deciphering the origin of the material world.
Pa pỉnh tộp
With a history along riversides or lakes, the Thái ethnic minority are skillful fishermen, hence pa pỉnh tộp, a traditional Thái dish that translates literally into “folded grilled fish”. Not only a specialty spared for special occasions and an offering to ancestors, pa pỉnh tộp is also a down-to-earth, informal dish gifted to others as an act of hospitality or brought along as Thái And is now a popular tourist dish served in every restaurant.
Even though the species of fish used for pa pỉnh tộp may vary, what’s important is that they weigh an average of half to less than one kilogram. After removing the scales and gut, the fish is cut in a fillet manner from behind the head to the tail except that the belly remains intact for the next step.
For the seasoning, spring onion, dill, basil, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic are crushed together with a special northwestern aromatic seed of mắc khén, which is strong and tangy in flavor. The fish is then marinated, horizontally folded in a way that the tail and the head touch, and secured in place using two bamboo sticks with rope knots on both ends. This way, all the spices, and seasoning are kept inside as the fish is slowly cooked over well-burnt charcoal. The result is an aromatic, intricate dish that tastes as indelible as it appears on the outside.
Traditionally a Chinese delicacy from the province of Yunnan, thắng cố is a characteristic dish of the H’Mong people that later on got adapted by the Dao, Tày, and even Kinh communities. Once only available in horse meat, as the dish spreads in popularity, people have expanded the options to beef, pork, and buffalo meat.
A typical dish served in celebrations, fairs, or gatherings, thắng cố is a popular dish that has transcended its purpose as cuisine to become a bonding method between groups and communities.
With cooking methods no different from that of a hotpot, thắng cố leverage all parts of the animal, both the meat and the organs. On a large old pan, the parts with the most fat are rendered together until the meat comes to a golden, crunchy texture. After that, the cook adds water and the bones, then leaves the mixture to stew for hours while attentively and carefully skimming excess fat for a flavorful and clear broth.
A signature thắng cố dish is always seasoned with black cardamom, kencur, cinnamon, roasted and ground lemon leaves both in the meat and the broth. Once the broth’s ready, leave it to simmer on small heat, add side dishes of green vegetables, and enjoy a steaming bowl of delicious thắng cố in the chilly weather of northwestern Vietnam.
Smoked buffalo meat
Often found in the provinces of Son La, Lao Cai, or now every part of Vietnam as the dish grows hugely in popularity, smoked buffalo meat, or “trâu gác bếp”, got its Vietnamese name from the Black Thai’s unique way of smoking the meat. Initially invented as a food preservation method, the delicacy caught on thanks to its sophisticated seasoning and processing method.
Lean meat parts of tenderloins or muscles are processed to consist of absolutely no tendons or fat, then seasoned with ginger, pepper, chilly pepper, and mắc khén to remove the signature odor of buffalo meat.
After marinating for a couple of hours, strips of buffalo meat are threaded onto skewers and hung atop a wood-burning stove for weeks until the meat evaporates and turns into a darker color on the outside, while the flavor slowly builds up.
The smoked meat is then stored for later use. Before indulging in the strong and earthy flavors of this unique dish, remember to reheat it by steaming or grilling, before smashing and tearing it into smaller strips, similar to the way we enjoy a dried grilled squid.
Bamboo sticky rice
An indispensable part of any northwestern meal, bamboo sticky rice, or cơm lam, originated as an essential food that harnessed the very basic ingredients available in a hiking trip: rice, bamboo sticks, water, and fire. Gradually, as Tây Bắc got significantly more popular with domestic and international travelers, the dish became a phenomenon and a symbol of beautiful simplicity.
Surprisingly, cơm lam also plays a spiritual role in the lives of the minorities here, reflected in the way it’s presented as an offering to ancestors, or how Thai ethnic women exclusively dine on this dish while being pregnant.
In the making of cơm lam, hollow bamboo canes are carefully selected in length and age. If a cane is too old, the rice will end up reeking the smell of wood, and a length from 25 to 30 centimeters is preferable. Once placed inside the cane, the sticky rice is gently pressed down and banana leaves are used to cover both ends of the cane.
Upon grilling, it is important to constantly rotate the bamboo so that the rice can cook evenly until the cane feels light, which means the rice is ready. The dish is often served with grilled chicken, fish, or pork and is ubiquitous in almost every Vietnamese restaurant, both in the northwest and across the country.