AT ITS BEST, Vietnamese food combines the precise cutting and rapid cooking of Chinese food with the complexity of French seasoning and the visual enticement of Japanese cuisine. There are little surprises of contrast-raw onions and beef stirred into hot soup at the last minute, delicately flavored shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane, fish sparked with pineapple. And there is the underlying exotic tang of the fermented fish sauce which is the Vietnamese equivalent of soy sauce, and tastes as little like fish as soy sauce tastes like soybeans.

A few years ago Washington and Annapolis had the only two Vietnamese restaurants on the East Coast. Now, Washington has at least ten, four of them in the city proper, and cha-gio, the rice-paper-wrapped cousins to egg rolls, are suddenly recognized as one of the memorable dishes from the Eastern world. For a start, herewith a review of Washington's four in-town restaurants, listed in order of my preference.

Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight. No credit cards. No reservations.

Next door to Viet Huong by Accident rather than design, Vietnam-Georgetown pulls its share of fans. The menu is slightly less comprehensive, the decor slightly less sophisticated, and the food a shade more bland. But the pho and cha gio, which, after all, are mainstays of Vietnamese menus, are good.You may have to perk up the dishes with a sprinkle of the fish sauce which sits on the table, but worth looking into are skewered pork faintly anise-and cinnamon-scented, a slightly lemony grilled skewered chicken, and shrimp with sugar cane. Wines are reasonbly priced, desserts are forgettable, but you have a wide choice of entrees for under $4.