Vietnam: Food & Drink / Restaurants

  • © winni,

    © winni,

Plain rice or a colourful fruit platter – whatever you choose, you will have to learn how to balance those delicious morsels on your chopsticks

Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled the country from Hue between 1847 and 1883, had a passion for fine food. At every meal he wanted 50 dishes, prepared by 50 chefs and served by 50 waiters. The kitchen staff did their utmost to comply with his wishes… and that’s the reason why traditional Vietnamese cuisine boasts over 500 different dishes.

All the dishes you order − meat, fish and seafood, eggs, vegetables, salads and soups − are served at the same time, plus of course com trang or boiled rice. On the table will be plates with finely chopped vegetables or fresh herbs, such as basil, coriander, parsley, mint or lemon grass, which can be scattered over the dishes as required; lettuce leaves are also often included. Also, small but very good baguettes are served everywhere, a legacy of Vietnam's French colonial masters.

Rice noodles or egg noodles are mainly included in soup (bun or pho). One variation could be mien luon, a noodle soup with chunks of eel. Wherever you go, you will find mien ga, a noodle soup with chicken, mushrooms, shallots or vegetables. A large bottle of nuoc mam, the fish sauce made in factories in Phan Thiet and on the island of Phu Quoc, is a standard condiment and should be sprinkled liberally on every dish. The meal opens with the words xin moi (please tuck in), whereupon everyone takes their chopsticks to fill their rice bowl and starts eating.

Restaurant choices

Restaurant choices range from fine dining to small, roadside food stalls. In up-market restaurants you will find western-style à la carte menus. In fact, in many hotel restaurants chefs pander too much to the perceived preferences of western diners. Hot flavours are toned down and a lot of fats are used. The many speciality restaurants in the major cities and tourist areas, however, are often excellent − proper gourmet eateries serving authentic dishes in a sophisticated ambience. Because of the cooler climate in the north, the emphasis tends to be more on braised, deep-fried and panfried dishes, and also on rice porridge.

In the emperor's heartlands around Hue, the people eat accordingly: a number of restaurants geared towards tourism there specialise in the dishes once favoured by the Imperial court, so the food is not just splendidly garnished, piquantly seasoned, but also appetisingly presented. If you are in Hue, then you are sure to see banh khoai on the menu: crispy pancakes with prawns, pork, bean sprouts and a sauce made from peanuts and sesame seeds.

In the south, more exotic, sometimes fiery, ingredients find their way into the pots and pans. The mixture is stirred briskly, sautéed briefly, grilled and seasoned generously, sometimes with hot spices in curry style.

Food stalls and chopsticks

But no trip to Vietnam is complete without sampling the fare at one of the wayside food stalls. You can usually get a tasty soup or a stew for between 10,000 and 20,000 dong. Outside the main cities, look out for restaurants advertising com pho (rice soup). Few people speak English in the rural areas, so ask to see the price written down.

Visitors to Vietnam are often advised to get some practice in using chopsticks. You can always ask for a knife and fork, but it‘s much more fun to ‘do as the Romans do‘ and that means holding the two sticks delicately between thumb, forefinger and middle finger. Please note: the superstitious Vietnamese believe that chopsticks should never be left standing upright in your bowl. This gesture is used to honour deceased family members. It is impolite to poke around in the food, it‘s better to just pick out individual morsels, and pointing at people with chopsticks is also considered to be bad manners.


You will find many different kinds of delicious desserts in Vietnam, and banh bao are a good example. These are small, sweet dumplings filled with meat and vegetables. Banh deo are sticky rice cakes soaked in sugar water and filled with fruit and sesame seeds. Banh it nhan dao, cakes made from mung bean starch, rice flour and sugar, are steamed in banana leaves. If you fancy candied fruit – it could be fruit or vegetables – then order mut. Usually served with Vietnamese tea are sugar-sweet, jellied mung bean cakes, known as banh dau xan, and as a speciality for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year festival, it has to be banh chung, sticky rice cakes filled with beans and meat.

The fruit selection is seemingly endless. Incidentally, you will often see fruit used as sacrificial offerings in temples, but each one has a particular symbolism: a coconut, for example, stands for frugality, a papaya for pleasure, a cherimoya fulfils a wish, plums are for longevity, the dragon fruit gives strength, and the ‘eyes of the dragon’ (longans, similar to lychees) are said to have a relaxing effect.


Quench your thirst with mineral water (nuoc soi), but if you prefer something sweet, then you will have no problem finding all kinds of colas and soft drinks. But do not overlook drinks such as the ubiquitous green tea (che), fresh coconut milk (nuoc dua) or the tasty tropical fruit juices (sinh to). Rice wine may not be to everyone’s taste, but few people could dislike the beer – either as a bia hoi (draft beer) as Castel, Huda (from Hue), Saigon Export, Bia Hanoi, Salida or 333 (say ba ba ba) − and at 15,000 dong a glass very affordable.

Vietnamese coffee is very good and very strong. When coffee is served, placed on top of the cup will be a special metal filter and ground coffee. Boiling water is then poured on to the coffee, which drains through into the cup containing a generous quantity of condensed milk.

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