cuisine, traditions and etiquette
Eating and drinking in Vietnam
Vietnamese food is varied, distinctive and, because it is
comparatively low fat and high in carbohydrate, generally
healthy. Traditionally, cooking was done over a fire, so preparation
is by boiling, steaming, barbequing and frying, not roasting
A meal is a complete entity with many dishes – although these
might arrive in sequence for a large meal, there is no concept
of ‘courses’ apart from ‘soup’ which is usually a thin, vegetable
based concoction that follows the meal.
are taken communally, using bowls, chopsticks and ceramic
spoons, and are accompanied by an array of sauces, flavourings,
dips, salads and so on. Correct etiquette is to part-fill
your bowl with rice using a spoon, then use the chopsticks
to transfer pieces of meat, fish or whatever, first to the
sauce or dip of your choice, then to your bowl, and finally
to your mouth.
food on top of the rice, pouring sauces into your bowl or
transferring food direct from the communal bowl to your mouth
are all mildly frowned upon. It’s perfectly acceptable to
bring the bowl almost to your lips and use the chopsticks
to scoop it into your mouth – it avoids food in your lap –
but using the spoon to eat solid food will be looked upon
with pity by Vietnamese people.
Typically, Vietnamese food is cheap, nutritious and mostly
delicious. It can be obtained from ubiquitous street sellers,
cafes and restaurants. Most restaurants and cafés in the centres
of cities have menus in English with prices – elsewhere, English
translation, prices, and often the menu itself will be absent.
The growing numbers of high-class Vietnamese restaurants aimed
at foreigners are easier to cope with, but are considerably
Eating out in Vietnam is far more common than in Western countries
– usually, only the main evening meal is cooked at home. Breakfast
is a light meal, but is considered important and seldom ‘skipped’.
Lunch is also a light meal, usually followed by an hour’s
siesta. Dinner is the main meal. There is no tradition of
‘desserts’ in Vietnam, but main meals are often followed by
a small amount of seasonal fruit.
A street breakfast in towns and cities of the north is mostly
a variation of ‘pho’ (noodle soup with beef, chicken or occasionally
fried fish). In the south, it is more likely to be ‘hu tien’,
(noodles with chicken and/or pork, and vegetables). In rural
areas, people prefer ‘xoi’ (‘sticky rice’ – steamed glutinous
rice, often with peanuts or beans).
Lunch is usually taken at a ‘com bui’ (literally, 'dusty rice'
because the food serving counter is open to the street. This
works on a ‘point and eat’ basis – you choose little bits
from a range of dishes which are then piled up on a bed of
rice for you. It’s important to get there early – about 11.30
- because the food will be fresh and still hot. Few 'com bui'
have a means of keeping the dishes warm.
popular destination for lunch and dinner is one of the many
‘bia hoi’ throughout Vietnam. ‘Bia hoi’ is ‘fresh beer’, brewed
locally and delivered daily. It is light, refreshing and very
cheap. Many places selling bia hoi also provide food, and
are popular both for meals and drinking sessions after work.
Smaller establishments sell only beer and accompaniments,
such as ‘nem chua’, a roll of steamed spiced pork meat wrapped
in a banana leaf and eaten cold.
Green tea is readily available and often provided free at
restaurants. It is also an essential accompaniment to a discussion
at work, a visit from a friend, or just about any other conversation
that involves sitting down.
coffee is made from Robusta beans, and is very strong. Most
of the minority of Vietnamese who drink coffee take it with
condensed milk. Coffee drinking has become fashionable among
young people, and a host of coffee houses franchised by the
‘Trung Nguyen’ (Central Highlands) coffee producers have sprung
up to meet the demand
Drinking alcohol is almost exclusively a male activity. As
in many cultures, there is a competitive element at times
and drunkenness is not unusual, especially among young men.
The range is limited to fresh or bottled beer, ‘wine’ (usually
a variety of rice vodka), or various sorts of ‘medicinal’
wine composed of an infusion of rice wine with herbs, parts
of (or whole) reptiles or other creatures.
As elsewhere, drinking has its own etiquette in Vietnam. A
distinctive practice in Vietnam is an almost obsessive attitude
towards toasting at informal social gatherings, formal dinners
and weddings. A member of the group pours a round and everyone
waits until all glasses have been charged. Regardless of whether
the drinks are alcoholic or not, each person then clicks glasses
with everyone else, even if it means leaving his or her seat.
This occurs regularly throughout the meal when anyone takes
it upon themselves to refill the glasses.
There is no tradition of after-dinner conversation in Vietnam
– the meal is a purely a functional affair. As soon as most
people have finished eating, someone (usually the person of
highest status) gets