For most of its history, the majority of Vietnam was populated by poor farmers menaced by war, natural disasters, and devastating famines. In these circumstances, the people of Vietnam found creative ways to sustain themselves on some unlikely sources of nutrition, creating unique dishes that became delicious legacies for peacetime – even if they might sound terrifying or revolting to modern people or foreign friends.
Trứng vịt lộn (fertilized duck eggs)
Also known elsewhere by its Filipino name, balut, this surprisingly delicious creation is a staple of reality shows and eating challenges. The most popular way to eat this is boiled, with salt, julienned ginger, rau răm (laksa leaf) – warm herbs to counteract the egg’s cold energy.
The egg is then cracked into a small bowl, revealing a savory broth, a soft and rich yolk, a duck embryo, and a hard white part (cùi dừa, “coconut meat”) that some people discard. A similar process can be done with chicken and quail eggs, but duck and quail (trứng cút lộn) are the most popular. All of these eggs are considered a nutritious delicacy, but eating too much can cause stomach pains.
Tiết canh (blood pudding/blood soup)
Unlike its British and Irish cousin by name, black pudding, this dish actually resembles creamy puddings in its jelly-like texture. The resourceful cook who invented this must have wanted to make sure nothing goes to waste. Blood is thickened by being poured over a minced mixture of boiled meat and cartilage, then served with chopped peanuts, sliced liver, herbs, and rice paper in some regions.
Worms are great sources of protein, and across the country cooks have taken advantage of them. Silkworms are cooked after they were finished spinning silk for weavers to create art in fabric form. Sá sùng is a silvery worm that can go for astronomical prices, but add divine flavors to dishes. Finally, đuông dừa are fat, white, chewy, slightly sweet Asian palm weevil larvae that can be cooked, but is best enjoyed alive and wriggling with fish sauce.
Thắng cố (horse stew)
A pot of thắng cố is made by carefully simmering nearly every part of a horse – meat, skin, bones, innards, blood, etc. For accessibility (and to adapt to the tastes of diners from elsewhere), thắng cố can be made with horses, cows, or water buffaloes. However, for the most authentic experience, a trip to Lào Cai for horse thắng cố made by local H’Mông people is in order. It may be an acquired taste, but gets more delicious with every bite.
Twenty minutes from the center of Hanoi lies Le Mat village, where snakes have been farmed for generations. These fearsome reptiles can be made into perfectly innocuous- looking and delicious dishes, ranging from stirfries to spring rolls. However, adrenaline junkies can have snake blood wine or heart wine. The snake will be killed at the table, and its blood or still-beating heart will be dropped into a small shot glass of vodka.