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Food and Culture in Vietnam

Sherry Ott
by Sherry Ott

September 05, 2019

8 minute read

As in most countries, when you eat the local food there, you suddenly realize that the food you’ve been eating in the US under the same ‘ethnic name’ is not the same as the real thing. Thai food is much spicier in Thailand. Italian pizza is not really like the pizza you find in the US. There are no fortune cookies found in China – that’s an American thing. And when you go to Vietnam, you’ll quickly learn their food is way more than simply Pho.

I lived in Vietnam for one year and had the chance to go deep into their culture. The first thing I learned is that food is one of the pillars of their society. In fact, I found it to be a little like Italy, a family affair where socializing takes place as you cook; and nurturing those relationships is an important part of the recipe.

Since I often found myself eating out, I also spent time learning about Vietnamese cuisine and food culture. Going out to eat at a restaurant is easy, right? Not always.

Often when you find yourself in other countries, there are many things that can be vastly different from what we are used to. There were many little differences I noticed every time I went out to eat in Ho Chi Minh City.

So what should you expect when you go to a Vietnamese restaurant to quell those hunger pains?

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Don’t Sweat the Ice

It’s hot in Vietnam at any time of year, and the best way to cool down a drink is ice. Yes, you CAN have ice in your drinks; and most of the time you can drink the water in restaurants. I know this seems strange, as normally you are told not to drink the water in a developing country however there is an exception in the big cities of Vietnam.

The ice in cities is filtered and frozen at a central plant before being distributed to restaurants, bars and street stands. The water used for the ice is filtered and pure, meaning you can enjoy cold drinks and fruit juices (even from street vendors) without worrying about your health.

In the restaurants which cater to tourists filtered water is always used. No one is bringing you water straight from the tap. I know this can be a hard thing to believe – as all of the guidebooks say don’t drink the water, but they are referring to drinking water straight from the tap; not the ice or the restaurant water. Ultimately though, the choice is up to you. However, you will miss out on some of the best drinks if you say no to ice; like iced coffee – ca phe sua da (pronounced café soo-a da)! If you are ever in doubt of the ice or water in a restaurant, just ask your guide or the waiter if it’s filtered.

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Order Hovering

Be prepared, the waiter will often stand by you as you read the menu hovering over you until you tell them what you want. They typically don’t bring the menu and then walk away; they stay there… and wait. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but don’t let this phase you, take your time. If you think they are annoyed by your indecision, then realize that it’s you projecting your concerns onto them. They don’t mind waiting, they aren’t in a hurry!

Don’t Wait for the Table to Be Served

Miss Manners tells us to wait until everyone at the table is served before you dig in. Vietnam is a place where you can throw those manners out the window! Food is delivered to your table as it’s ready. It doesn’t sit in the kitchen until the whole table’s food is ready and then brought out. This also means that it’s totally acceptable NOT to wait for everyone to get their food before you start eating, else you may be waiting a long time! It’s customary for you to start eating when the food is put in front of you.

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No Table Necessary

You’ll feel like a giant most of the time in Vietnam, whether it’s sitting in the tiny plastic chairs on the street or going to eat at a restaurant. Restaurants often seat you at what seems to be too small of a table for the number of people in your party. There will be enough chairs, but you might not be able to all fit around the table. This is normal. It’s normal because in Vietnam there are no place settings in front of you. Instead, you get a small little rice bowl and chopsticks.

You may wonder how you are supposed to eat without a plate! It’s simple, fill the little bowl with some rice, then take the bowl of rice and hold it in your hand. The servings are normally family style, so they place the big plate in the middle of the table for everyone to share. You reach to the middle with your chopsticks and grab a bit of the food and put it into the bowl on top of the rice. While holding the rice bowl underneath your chin, you shovel the food in with the chopsticks. Therefore, you never really need to set down your rice bowl ON the table and don’t need much table space!

Note: if you don’t use chopsticks, don’t worry, you can always ask for a fork!

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Bring Your Own Napkins

It’s always a good idea to have a few napkins with you when you travel in Vietnam! Napkins are seldom provided at restaurants. Instead of a napkin, you get a ‘wet wipe’ in a little plastic bag. If you look closely at your bill, you’ll see that you get charged for the wet wipe, but the cost is minimal - just a few pennies. If you want to feel like a local, then be sure to pop your wet wipe baggy really loudly - it’s customary!

Ask for the Bill

Just like restaurants in Europe, you will have to ask for the bill. You can sit there for hours and hours, but until you actually ask for the bill (or in my case, motion for the bill as if you are playing charades), it will never come. You will not feel rushed, in fact many times you will think they completely forgot about you and you may have to find them to get your bill!

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Foods Not to Miss

Now that you’ve mastered the restaurant culture, here’s a few things you should definitely try in a restaurant or from the street stalls while you are in Vietnam.

Banh Mi for breakfast – this popular sandwich on a delicious crunchy baguette is popular for breakfast. You can find it sold from street vendors, and be sure to get ‘everything’ on it - just like the locals!

Vietnamese Pancakes (banh xeo) – these aren’t like American pancakes; they are savory and thin like Crepes. The pancake is normally a yellowish color due to the turmeric in the batter. They are often filled with shrimp, sprouts and veggies and are a little crispy on the outside.

Corn Milk (sữa bắp) – if you love corn, then be sure to try this drink! It’s a creamy yellow color and it has a delicious sweet taste! Grab a bottle and try it – you may love it!

Morning Glory (rau muong) – Also known as water spinach, it is a leafy swamp vegetable that grows in abundance in Vietnam. It’s crunchy, healthy, and great over white rice. They normally serve it stir fried with lots of garlic – so be aware, you may need a mint afterward!

Fried Spring Rolls (nem rán) – Try the fried spring rolls; they are different than what you normally see in America. In Vietnam they are always served with some greens and lettuce. Those greens are not just for looks; you actually use them! Take the lettuce leaf and wrap it around your fried spring roll – that’s how the locals eat them!

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Snails in coconut milk (oc len xao dua) – Anything in coconut milk is delicious – including the snails! The snails are cooked in coconut milk with fresh lemon grass, garlic, Vietnamese Coriander and chili. The fun part of the dish is extracting the snail from the shell by sucking on it!

Sweet Soup (che) - desserts are very different in Vietnam, often you’ll get fruit for dessert, but if you want to try something different then ask for che. Che comes in many different styles, but it’s normally a sweet syrup or coconut milk poured over beans and served in a glass. It sounds a bit strange, but that’s all the more reason to try some!

One of the highlights of traveling in Vietnam is the food, so try a bit of everything, your taste buds will thank you!


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