Food in Vietnam
Food is at the heart of Vietnamese culture: every important holiday in the Vietnamese cultural calendar, every important stage in the life of a Vietnamese person, even most important daily events and social interactions – food plays a central role in each of them. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, as well as for the anniversaries of ancestors’ deaths. Business is more often concluded at the table than in conference rooms, and when friends meet, they eat together. Preparing meals and eating together are central to family life.
Vietnamese cuisine varies slightly from region to region, with many regions having their own specialities. In general, Northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being bland, Central Vietnamese cuisine is known for being spicy, while Southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being sweet.
At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest when it comes to their cuisine (an old saying or joke goes that “a lucky man has a French house, a Japanese wife and a Chinese cook”). Upscale restaurants tend to serve “Asian fusion cuisine”, with a mix of Thai, Japanese and Chinese elements. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found in street “restaurants” (a collection of outdoor plastic furniture placed on the pavement), although most street restaurants are mainly for tourists. There are clearly defined regional styles: north, central and south, each offering unique dishes. The central style is perhaps the best known, with dishes such as mi quang (wheat noodles with herbs, pork and shrimp), banh canh cua (crab soup with thick rice noodles) and bun bo Hue (beef soup with herbs and noodles).
Many Vietnamese dishes are flavoured with fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells and tastes like anchovies straight from the bottle (quite salty and fishy), but blends very well with the food. (Try taking a bottle of fish sauce home and using it instead of salt in almost all savoury dishes – you will be pleasantly surprised by the results). Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water and spices to make a tasty dip/condiment called nước chấm, which is served with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, including Vietnamese coriander or cilantro (rau mùi or rau ngò), mint (rau răm) and basil (rau húng), accompany almost all dishes and help make Vietnamese cuisine much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of neighbouring countries, especially China.
Vietnam’s national dish is phở (pronounced like fu- in funny, but with sound), a soup broth with beef or chicken and rice noodles (a form of rice linguine or fettuccine). Phở is usually served with plates of fresh herbs (usually Asian basil), chopped lime, chilli peppers and scalded bean sprouts, which you can add to taste, as well as chilli paste, chilli sauce and sweet soy sauce. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is prepared with a beef broth that is often boiled for many hours and may contain one or more types of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phở is the original Vietnamese fast food that locals tear themselves away from for a quick meal. Most places in phở specialise in it and can serve you a bowl as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It’s available at any time of day, but locals usually eat it for breakfast. There are some famous phở restaurants in Hanoi. The phở served in street stalls is usually cheaper and tastes better than that served in upscale restaurants.
Street restaurants in Vietnam usually advertise with phở and cơm. Although cơm literally means rice, the sign means that the restaurant serves a plate of rice with fish or meat and vegetables. Cơm is used to indicate that you can generally eat even if they do not serve rice (e.g. An cơm chua? – Have you eaten yet?). Although they can look dirty, street restaurants are generally safe as long as they do not avoid undercooked food.
In rural and regional areas, it is usually safer to eat locally grown food, as it is usually bought daily at the market. It is not uncommon for a young child in the family to run to the nearest market to buy the items after ordering food.
Most restaurants/cafés in Vietnam offer a bewildering variety of dishes. It is very common for menus to be up to 10-15 pages long. This includes all kinds of Vietnamese dishes, but also some Western dishes, possibly Chinese dishes and maybe a Pad Thai. It is usually best to stick to the specialities of the region, as these dishes will be the freshest and also the best prepared.
In restaurants, it is common for waiters to place a plastic wrapper (with the name of the restaurant) with a wet wipe on your table. These wipes are not free. They cost between 2,000 and 4,000 dong. If you open it, you will be charged. You will also be offered peanuts or other nuts as you browse through the menu. They are not free either. If you eat them, you have to pay for them.
Vegetarian food is quite easy to find everywhere in Vietnam, mainly due to the Buddhist influence. These restaurants range from upscale to street food. Any Vietnamese meat dish can be made vegetarian by adding artificial meat. In addition to the Buddhist influence of two days of vegetarianism per month, Cao Dai people eat vegetarian for 16 days, and followers of the Quan Yin sect eat vegetarian every day. Look for signs indicating Com Chay, or just remember the term An Chay.
Coffee, baguettes and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonisers, but all three have been localised and remain popular. More information on cà phê below, but there are cafés serving light meals in almost every village and on many street corners in the big cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches, freshly baked white bread sticks topped with grilled meat or liver or pork pâté and fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops offer a variety of sweets and quick meals.
Vietnamese waters are in danger of collapse due to overfishing. Nevertheless, for now, if you like seafood, you can find your happiness in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience can be a visit to a coastal village or southern resort to sample the local seafood restaurants serving prawns, crabs and locally caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant. The food will still be swimming when you order it, it is well prepared, very affordable by western standards and served in a friendly environment with often spectacular views.
All Vietnamese restaurants are controlled by the government and some are even fully state-owned. The opening hours of most restaurants are from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm. Some open at 7:00 am, others at 6:00 or 8:00 am. In restaurants that are open 24 hours a day, there are two prices. Prices are normal from 06:00 to 22:00 and then double from 22:00 to 06:00. For example, rice normally costs 10,000 dong, but if you order after 22:00, the price is 20,000 dong. This policy is imposed by the government to discourage people from eating late. Some dishes are not served after 10pm.
Drinks in Vietnam
Drinking in a Vietnamese bar is a great experience. One of the interesting things is that during the day it is almost impossible to see a bar anywhere. But as soon as the sun goes down, dozens of bars pop up in the streets, as if from nowhere.
Watch out for ice cubes in drinks. Factory-made ice is generally safe, but anything else can be suspect. Factory-made ice has a hollow cylindrical shape. Avoid uneven pieces of ice as they may be contaminated.
Don’t miss the bia hơi, (literally “air beer”), or draft beer brewed daily. It is available all over Vietnam, mainly in small bars on street corners. Bia Hoi bars are a great place to relax and drink in a Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Any traveller can easily find these bars to discover what the locals enjoy. Only 5,000 dongs each. The beer is brewed daily and each bar receives a new batch in metal barrels every day. It is a very light (3% alcohol) and refreshing lager at a fraction of the price of keg or bottled beer in western style bars. Bia hoi is not always produced under hygienic conditions and its production is not controlled by any health authority.
The most popular beer (draft, bottled or canned) among South Vietnamese is Saigon Do (Red Saigon). For Northern Vietnamese, Bia Hanoi (Hanoi Beer) is the most popular brand, while Central Vietnamese prefer Party Beer or Bia Huda. 333, pronounced “ba-ba-ba” is a local brand, but it is a bit bland; for a bit more flavour, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle and a larger bottle as Bia Saigon Special. Bia Saigon is also available in a slightly stronger version for export. Expect to pay around 20,000 to 30,000 dongs per bottle for Saigon or Hanoi, slightly more for other brands. Larue Beer is also good and you can find local brands in all major cities.
In Vietnam, it is customary to drink beer on ice. This means that the cans or bottles do not need to be chilled. When drinking with Vietnamese, it is considered polite to refill their beer/ice before refilling your own drink. It is also considered necessary to drink when giving a toast: “mot, hai, ba, do. ” ( 1, 2, 3, cheers ). When you say “Trăm Phần Trăm” (100 % 100), it means that you empty your glass.
Coffee (cà phê) is another popular drink for locals and tourists alike. Be careful when drinking locally prepared coffee as locals tend to drink it very strong with about 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup. It is usually served black or with sweetened condensed milk – usually on ice.
Vietnamese coffee beans are roasted, not roasted. If you are picky, bring your own coffee.
Coconut water is one of the most popular drinks in the hot south of the country. Nước mía, or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts equipped with a sugar cane stalk crusher operated by a crank that releases the juice. Another way to quench your thirst is the fabulous sinh tố, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a tall glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. You can also puree it in a blender. You can put any type of fruit after the word sinh tố, for example sinh tố bơ (avocado smoothie) or sinh tố dừa (pineapple smoothie). If you prefer to have orange juice, do not use the word sinh tố, but nước (literally water) or nước cam if you want orange juice. The juices are usually without condensed milk or coconut milk.
Wine and spirits
Vietnamese “rượu đế” or rice wine (rượu means liquor or wine [not beer]) is served in tiny porcelain cups, often with candied fruits or cucumbers. It is usually served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women do not drink much alcohol, at least not in public. It is not recommended for tourists.
Since French colonial times, viticulture has a long tradition in Vietnam. Dalat is its centre and you can get very good red and white wine for about 2-3 dollars, but it is very hard to find. Most restaurant wines are Australian and you also have to pay Australian prices, which makes wine relatively expensive compared to drinking beer or spirits.
Rice liquor and local vodka are cheap in Vietnam by Western standards. Local vodkas cost around 2 to 4 USD for a 750 ml bottle. Russian champagne is also common. In Nha Trang, a day trip and party with live band on board the boat costs about 10-15 USD.