Any traveler worth his or her salt knows the best and easiest way to get to the heart of a country is to experience firsthand the culinary delights that country has to offer. Lonely Planet has figured this out by publishing a series of fine, pocket-sized books under their "World Food" series, and the Vietnam tome is one of their best thanks to the zeal of the author, Berkeley-based food adventurer Richard Sterling. This book was an invaluable guide for me when I visited that epicurean paradise five years ago as he covers the vast landscape of food and drink there. Sterling moves fluidly from the culture and history of Vietnamese cuisine through the staples and specialties you would find in a Vietnamese kitchen to the nuances of regional fare, whether it's the heavy influence of Chinese cuisine in the North or the use of exotic tropical fruit in Southern dishes.
I particularly like the sections that focus on celebrating with food, the delicacies you find in street kiosks and the chapter on the bold palate, which includes dishes that use toads, cobras, rodents and of course, dogs. Obviously not all the food is meant to be savored by everyone, but this provides a comprehensive, easy-to-read guide to the variety of tastes and sensations to be experienced including a definitive culinary dictionary, a quick-reference glossary and useful phrases when you order food and drink there. Sterling includes recipes, city maps highlighting his favorite eateries, and the "Faces of Gastronomy", which highlights local chefs and food experts. In fact, when I visited Hoi An, I visited one of them based on the author's recommendation, Miss Vy, who owns the Mermaid Restaurant. I took one of her four-hour cooking classes and was able to discover for myself many of the epicurean joys found in the pages of this helpful book. If Sterling's knowledgeable prose is not enough, the wonderful photographs should convince you. Regardless of whatever guidebook you purchase for more general information, no trip to Vietnam should be without this one. Armchair travelers will rejoice as well.