How is Vietnamese Food Different than Chinese?

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I pretty much love all types of Asian food, and while I know a great deal about each type, I have wondered specifically how is Vietnamese food different than Chinese?

Here’s what I’ve learned through some tasty exploration:

Both Chinese & Vietnamese food share rice, noodles, sweet & salty sauces, and a love of garlic & ginger. However, Vietnamese food is usually healthier & lighter. The French occupation of Vietnam also brought ingredients like potatoes, asparagus, and baguettes and further accentuated the differences with Chinese food.

But there’s a great deal more to know about these wonderful cuisines; not only how they differ, but which is healthier. It’s also really interesting to note how both cuisines compare to Thai food.

So let’s dig in!

Is Vietnamese food similar to Chinese?

The short answer is that all types of Asian food (Thai, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese being the biggies) share certain commonalities in ingredients and flavors, such as:

  • Rice or noodles as a base
  • Not much dairy
  • Fresh ginger
  • Chili sauce

The Mongolian invasion of Vietnam in the 13th century also brought Vietnam and China closer from a culinary standpoint. But, soy sauce dominates Chinese food whereas Vietnamese food uses fish sauce much more often.

What is Vietnamese food known for?

Vietnamese food is also generally considered much healthier with fresher ingredients, less fried foods, with lighter ingredients like rice noodles, basil leaves, mung bean sprouts, and an abundant use of fresh vegetables.

The big differences between Vietnamese and Chinese food come into play when you consider the French occupation of Vietnam.

The introduction of French culture, including French cuisine, changed the face of Vietnamese food forever and creates the most striking differences between the two.

France & Vietnam relations began in the 17th century.

At that time, Catholic missionaries from France went to Vietnam. Eventually, the French colonized both Vietnam and Cambodia in 1887.

France didn’t leave Vietnam until 1954 following the Geneva Accord, but they left a lasting impression on Vietnamese cuisine and are responsible for the introduction of the following in Vietnamese cooking:

  • Asparagus
  • Potatoes
  • Baguettes (as seen in the delicious banh mi sandwich)

Is Indian food considered Asian food?

Technically India is part of Asia, so Indian food is considered Asian food as well.

I do find, however, that Indian food is fairly different than other types of Asian cuisines in that it doesn’t use noodles much, uses a lot of beans, and often has heavy cream as a sauce base.

Indian food also uses ghee (clarified butter) for most of the sautéing, compared to peanut and sesame oil which dominates most other Asian cuisines.

Indian food, however, is known for curry, which also has a place in Thai food especially, but in other Asian cuisines too.

One key difference between Indian food and other Asian food is how often the food processor gets used in Indian kitchens.  There’s actually a ton different things Indian chefs use their food processors for, from naan bread dough to fresh chutneys.

I wrote a recent article which breaks down the 11 ways a food processor helps in preparing Indian food, so if you’re curious and especially if want to see how surprisingly easy it is to make homemade naan bread, take a look.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

How spicy is Vietnamese food compared to Chinese food?

Honestly, I don’t find either Vietnamese or Chinese food to be very spicy. Thai food is much hotter than both of those.

What is notable about Vietnamese foods is that in Northern Vietnamese there’s a cultural preference for saltier flavors. In the south, by contrast, they tend to prefer sweeter flavors.

Northern Vietnamese foods are much more heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine and don’t use a lot of sugar or sweet sauces.

In the south of Vietnam, the food is more influenced by the tastes of The Khmer Empire, also called the Angkor Empire which is now modern-day Cambodia. These culinary influences brought fresh herbs, leaves, an abundance of dipping sauces, and pickled vegetables.

In China, again, much of the food is not especially spicy.

Szechwan cuisine (Sichuan, Szechuan), from the Sichuan Province, tends to have some of the spiciest dishes, blending a lot of garlic, chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns.

But again, neither cuisine is especially spicy, especially compared to nearby Thailand.

Is Vietnamese food healthier than Chinese food?

Yes, the short answer.

While either cuisine has elements of fried foods or overly sweet sauces, Vietnamese food tends to be lighter in texture, with fewer fried foods, fresher vegetables, fresh herbs and sprouts, and lighter sauces.

Vietnamese food also relies heavily on rice noodles, compared to Chinese food’s reliance both on fried rice and wheat-based noodles.

Chinese food, by comparison, can have dangerously high levels of sodium, according to the American Heart Association.

Why is it so salty? One tablespoon of soy sauce has a whopping 1,005 milligrams of sodium!

Going back to the American Heart Association, they recommend 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. So if 1 tablespoon of soy sauce has 1,005, you can see how you could blow your daily allowance easily and many times over with just 1 Chinese food meal.

Another deadly ingredient often used in Chinese food but typically absent in Vietnamese (and Thai) food is MSG (monosodium glutamate).

MSG is an artificial flavor enhancer which is similar to the naturally occurring chemical glutamate. Unfortunately, many people react and, according to the Mayo Clinic, can have side effects from MSG including:

  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating

CNN selected Vietnamese food as one of the 10 healthiest ethnic cuisines, along with Japan, Thailand, and India. Chinese food, however, did not make the cut.

They noted the following qualities as part of their study:

  • Fresh herbs
  • Lots of veggies
  • An abundance of seafood
  • Lighter sauces
  • Less frying
  • Pho noodle soup (they described as “full of antioxidant-packed spices”)

Do the Vietnamese use chopsticks?

Yes is the short answer.

But don’t think that chopsticks are used in all Asian countries. Chopsticks are primarily used only in 4 Asian countries:

  • Vietnam
  • China
  • Japan
  • Korea

In the US, of course, where we Americans are easily confused about stuff like that, it’s not uncommon to see chopsticks in Thai or Cambodian restaurants, but chances are they have those mostly for their American patrons.

Because of all the different influences in Vietnam, though, it’s not uncommon to see a blend of eating utensils.

At a typical Vietnamese restaurant, you might see both chopsticks, and a fork and knife. But that might also be in addition to Chinese soup spoons or regular soup spoons.

How do Chinese and Vietnamese food differ from Thai food?

Thai food is fairly different from Chinese food but also has some noteworthy differences with Vietnamese food too.

If there are similarities, Thai is more likely to be similar to Vietnamese food rather than Chinese.

Like Vietnamese food, Thai food often has rice noodles as a base, although rice is common too as it in with Chinese food.

If you look at the region as a whole it might make more sense. China (and Japan and Korea) are located in the east. Vietnam and Thailand, by comparison, are both in the southeast.

The most striking difference, however, is in Thai curries.

Thai curry uses a curry paste blended into a base of coconut milk to create a rich, spicy sauce. They have a number of different curry pastes including:

  • Green curry
  • Red curry
  • Yellow curry
  • Panang curry

Each curry paste is different, but essentially a blend of chilies and garlic with the possible addition of lemongrass (also prominent in Vietnamese food) and shrimp paste.

Ginger is more common with China and Japan, whereas both Vietnam and Thailand prefer fresh herbs such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, mint, cilantro, basil, and galangal (a root similar to ginger).

In some ways though, because all Asian countries have different regions and (in some cases) drastically different cuisines in those regions, it’s actually hard to generalize and compare.

So do what I recommend, and try ’em all!

If you are as confused as I used to be about the differences between Thai and Indian curry, definitely check out this article I wrote which breaks down the key differences.

What really surprised me was how the leaves of the curry plant get used in Indian food.

Did I cover all you wanted to know about how Vietnamese food is different than Chinese?

In this article, we took a look into the world of Asian cuisines.

We explored ingredients, cultural similarities, and differences between the countries, and examined things like spiciness, and even which Asian countries use chopsticks (hint: it’s not all of them).

But specifically, we answered the question of how is Vietnamese food different than Chinese?

What is your favorite Asian cuisine?

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.


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Jeff Campbell

Jeff was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades and is now a recovering foodie. When he's not spending time with his wife & 3 daughters, he can usually be found practicing martial arts, making music, blogging on his main blog over at newmiddleclassdad.com or, of course, in the kitchen.

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