Northern Highlands of Vietnam Cuisine: The breath of marvellous mountains

Vietnam has long set a high standard around the world for its amazing culinary works. Vietnamese dishes are well recognized for their impressive combination of flavours, colours and smells. However, what tells the country’s cuisine apart is its cultural meaning instilled, which - at nowhere else, is told as vividly as Northern Highlands one.

1. A culture-rich cuisine

Overall, Vietnamese cuisine is based greatly on balance rules, which always have five elements in terms of taste, organs, nutrients and colours. While fundamental tastes & colours are created from 5 factors that make life: spicy/ white (metal), sour/ green (wood), bitter/ red (fire), salty/ black (water) and sweet/ yellow (earth), the rules for organs & nutrients aim for healthiness: gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and urinary bladder; powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat respectively.


(Photo: Agnieszka Kowalczyk/ Unsplash)

Yet, dishes of Northern Highlands are more distinctive since they are attached to customs of minor ethnic minorities. Almost each ethnic group has their own signature dish, which represents their core values, perception and vision the most. For example, the H’Mong has the “men men” - made from ground corns, the Tay is famous for their “Thang Co” -  a dish made from horses while the Thai is recognized by a variety of grilled foods like fish, chicken, pork,… After all, the most popular dishes of this land is those made from horses, buffaloes and fish. Your culinary experience will be completed by the place where you enjoy your meal and when it is.

Basically, traditional meals in Northern Highlands are based greatly on their living condition. Geographic feature here is mountainous, which is not so favourable for transporting regularly; hence, the food prepared should be portable, easy to conserve and high in nutrition to provide enough energy for local people. Lands are not so fertile here, either. This leads to a lack of diversity in raw ingredients and their quality as well. For that reason, foods here have been so creatively made that they may make the best of what is offered.

Unlike other regions in the North of Vietnam, foods here are usually well seasoned and can bring an explosion of tastes.

2. Medication values of the ingredients

Since normal ingredients may not be found around Northern Highlands, local people adapt themselves by using what is available. For its fertility, only herbs or medication plants thrive here, and they become the key components.

(Photo: Katherine Hanlon/ Unsplash)

Some popular ingredients of mountainous Northern area are:

  • Mac khen: It is a spice tasted the same as pepper, used for marinating food or mixing with dipping sauce to intensify the flavours.

  • Hat doi: It’s another popular spice in marinating foods for grilling like: chicken, pork, ribs,.... Usually hat doi is ground to mixed with salt, lemon and chillies to become a special kind of dipping substance, especially suitable for boiled foods to enhance and balance the flavours. 

  • Mang tuoi (fresh bamboo shoots): Mang is widely used in mountainous areas since it is easy to make and tastes good as well. Mang is rich in fibre, which helps maintain a balanced status of the body and contributes to digestive system.

  • Moc mat (Mac mat): this is a versatile plant which can be used by their leaves and their fruits as well. The leaves are used together with meat for grilling, to enhance the smell. Meanwhile, the fruits can be eaten right away, tasting as amazing as any other fruits of the delta area.

2. Signature dishes of Northern Highlands

The following list includes the most original foods that represent a whole culture and nature of Northern Highlands of Vietnam to every taste. At Lang Lieu, these dishes are meticulously made to preserve the traditional and unique flavours. For more information, please have a look at our full menu.

2.1. Com Lam (Rice in bamboo tube)

It is rice, often glutinous rice, cooked in a tube of bamboo, served with salted roasted sesame, grilled pork or chicken skewers. The bamboo chosen should be fresh and young so that the new membrane inside the tube can wrap the rice, adding it a special flavor, fragrance and sweetness. To prepare the rice, first fill the tube with about 80% of rice and 10% of water, in favor of water inherent in bamboo, then adding a little coconut water to make the rice more pleasant; wrap the tube with banana leaves and then burn it on fire until it smells pleasant.

When it is done, the singed skin of the bamboo is removed, leaving a thin cover that is also peeled away when you eat. Sniffing the blending fragrance of fresh bamboo, banana leave, and sticky rice as well as experiencing the sweet flavor of rice, bamboo, and coconut, and the greasy saltiness of sesame, or the great taste of grilled wild boar are certain to induce guests to fall in love with “cơm lam”. A tube of “cơm lam” plus fragrant grilled wild boar taken with a sip of “rượu cần” (literally “straw wine”) is enough for you fall in line with a culture-rich Northern land of Vietnam.

2.2. Thang co

The horse meat, called 'thang co', is a traditional dish of the Mong ethnic group in the mountainous north -western region.

The technique of making it is quite simple. After the animal is killed and washed, its internal parts are removed, which are later cut up.  These parts are put in a big pan and fried in their own grease. Minutes later, water is added to the pan and the meat is simmered for hours. To spice up the dish, salt and some spicy fruits including thao qua and dia dien can be added, giving to the dish an attractive aroma.


Wine is always recommended for men when they eat thang co and women often eat it with com nam (rice balls) or men men (ground maize).

During the group meal of thang co, participants exchange stories about crops, hunting, villages and daughters-in-law. For young bachelors and bachelorettes, it can be a good opportunity to make new friends and even find a future husband or wife.

2.3. Trau Gac Bep (Dried Buffalo Meat)

Trau Gac Bep is known as dried or smoked buffalo meat, which is a traditional food of Thai ethnicity in Northwest of Vietnam. The lean parts as filet, corn, and back of the buffalo are sliced into bars. Then, they are soaked in hot spices such as chili, pepper, ginger … and an indispensable “soul of Northwest spice”: Mac Khen seeds. After the meat is soaked, it is hung on the kitchen. Through weekly hang on the kitchen, every stripe of meat absorbs the natural smoke. The spices also slowly leach soaked the meat inside. After a few months or even a year, the buffalo meat shrinks. Outside of the meat bar is dark brown but the meat inside is still rosy and has a strong taste. When you want to eat, just steam, smashed, tear and dip the buffalo meat with “cham cheo” salt (a special Thai spice) to add flavor to Trau Gac Bep.


2.4. Xoi Ngu Sac (Five-Colored Sticky Rice)

Xoi Ngu Sac is a kind of sticky rice that Tay ethnicity usually make on the occasion of New Year, which is very spectacular and delicious. Tay people think that Xoi Ngu Sac, which consists of blue, crimson, white, black, purple or other colors, represents the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, earth. The talents of ethnic people are reflected in the use of natural materials to dye for sticky rice. With the color white, people simply use sticky rice. The blue and red ones are made from “Com Xoi tree”. For the black or purple colors, the cook uses “Gun leaves” to soak the rice.

This dish is based on the holly 5 - 5 colours, 5 tastes, 5 organs and 5 nutrients. It represents balance and good luck.

2.5. Chao Au Tau (Medicinal Porridge)

As a unique dish, showing the culinary characteristics of Ha Giang, Chao Au Tau is made from a very poisonous bulb called “Au Tau” that usually grows on rocks in the northern hills. Poisoning of Au Tau bulbs can be deadly, but it is also a precious medicine. Through the skillful processing of ethnic minorities, Chao Au Tau is good for health with a special flavor. Bulbs after soaking in rice water for one night will be stewed for 4 hours with glutinous rice, minced meat, and bone marrow. The ingredients are quite simple but with the special processing of the people here, the porridge has become very unique and greasy.


2.6. Reu Da Nuong (Grilled Moss)

A Thai ethnic dish that makes all visitor curious is grilled moss.  Grilled moss is a specialty only in the Northwest areas of Vietnam. Moss often cling to the stone mounds where the stream bed. This grilled moss has a very simple processing but a very exotic delicious taste. Moss after being cleaned will be marinated with salt, Mac Khen seeds, ginger, and chili. Then, it will be wrapped with a layer of green leaves and grilled on a charcoal stove. This dish is often eaten with sticky rice.

Reu Da Nuong is a favorable dish in Son La Province, Ha Giang Province, and Lai Chau Province.

2.7. Fish Pa Pinh Top

Pa Pinh Top is the traditional dish of Thai ethnic people in the Northwest. Food is the pride of the Thai people and arouse curiosity of many phượt obvious when visiting the villages .

Pa Pinh Top can be made from any kind of fish, but especially stream fish or carp  during longer fresh. The fresh fish is brought cleaning to stuffed spices then grilled over hot coals until cooked fish scented aromatherapy still fat and delicious pastries.

According to local people, especially the most points to become the  Pa pinh Top Northwest specialty lies in spices for cooking. Also ingenious mix and reasonable between spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet peppers, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, getting certifications and herbs, Pa Pinh Top will be marinated with chili  dry powder should the new fish grilled marinated dark delicious and a little more salt than fish brought. Cham Cheo is not an official dish, it is a condiment slow particularly people of the Northwest. it is a familiar sauce in Thai meal in northwest region which is used to eat with dishes such as sticky rice, cement, vegetables, meat, fish…

2.8. Pig “theft armpit” (Lon cap nach)

Cap Nach pigs is not strange breeds , local breeds that have been genetically purebred stocking upland people naturally since we new birth. Because pigs only 20kg . so people can give to the basket, handed or even hold in the armpit so the name "Armpit pigs" nascent. 

Pigs are natural stocking up, meat is very firm, sweet and fragrant flesh is like wild boar . Because the Armpit  pigs small armpit should also very lean , can be easily processed into a variety of delicious food.

Pigs "Armpit  " has many different ways of preparing dishes such as Bacon, hams used for steaming; shoulder meat from older used in baked goods; prime meat to cook  fake cooked civet; dew stew to soup . Not to mention the most delicious dishes and meat sausage belly lap remaining mixed with steamed ribs , stuffed crushed dots mixed duet, green peppers. Taste slightly sour and aroma of nuts Doi, Lemon leaves met  bacon will have a special flavor.

Overall, Northern Highlands Vietnam culinary works reflect culture, local customs and the natural conditions there as well. Each dish is unique on its own, with distinctive flavours being combined differently. And with your experience at Lang Lieu, a true breath of Vietnamese mountains can be sensed right on your plate!