One of the most exciting things about visiting Vietnam for me is seeing the abundance of fresh herbs at wet markets and restaurants. I love sitting down (more often than not on a roadside plastic stool :) to a big plateful of herbs set in front of me. Many restaurants have whole baskets full of pre-picked, pre-washed herbs that the servers pile onto a plate, and after you finish your meal, they dump the remaining herbs back into the giant basket for the next guests. It may not exactly be up to the sanitation standards we’re used to in North America, but it definitely means you won’t be skimped on the herb plate! And during my last visit, I was excited to try such unusual greens as mango leaves for the first time.

Herbs and vegetables at a wet market in Hanoi.

Unfortunately, fresh Viet herbs are not so easy to come by here in DC. In recent years I’ve seen more being sold at the Korean chain HMart, as well as at Grand Mart and Lotte. But these places are all a bit of a drive for me, and the selection can vary. So I was thrilled when I got an email from a reader last year telling me about a family in northern Virginia that grows and sells Vietnamese herbs right from their home. It’s still a bit of a drive, but I had to check it out for myself, and I found the selection and quality of these herbs to be fantastic and the owners just wonderful.

It’s quite a sight coming upon this little farm out in the middle of the suburbs. The home is located in Falls Church, VA (near the Eden Center), on Annandale Road, between Rose Lane and Slade Run Drive — you can’t miss the rows of trellises lining the largest yard along that road. The husband (an American Vietnam War vet) and his wife (from Saigon) have been selling herbs and vegetables here for over 20 years. Though not officially certified organic, they do not use any pesticides on their plants. The herbs cost about 50 cents per bundle, and they are carefully picked through and trimmed, so you always end up with neat, fresh bundles. In addition to the variety of herbs, they also sell various Asian leafy greens, including rarer kinds like water spinach and winter melon greens. On my last visit a few weeks ago, they also had squash blossoms. The herbs are only in season during the summer months, and I’ve been trying to get my fill of them before fall arrives.

So what do I do when I get my hands on a nice selection of fresh Vietnamese herbs? I love making lettuce wraps, fresh rolls, and vermicelli noodle bowls (I’ll post a few of these over the next couple days). Wraps are by far the easiest way to make good use of your herbs since you can wrap virtually any kind of meat or vegetable. Sometimes my family just buys crispy roast pork and brings it home to wrap in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs and banh hoi (noodle sheets), noodles, or even rice, and then dip into nuoc cham sauce. It’s such an easy meal, especially for spring and summer months when you can grill up some meat and wrap it with whatever fresh produce you have on hand from the season.

In light of how important herbs are in Vietnamese cuisine, I thought I’d start a Vietnamese herb guide on this site to begin compiling descriptions, uses, and links to recipes for various herbs as I come across them and use them in cooking. I’ll keep adding more in the future, but for now, you can head here to check out a few of my favorites.