The Vietnamese are passionate about food, which means that fresh ingredients and experienced cooks are bountiful. Whether opting for a quick bite or a full meal, visitors will find an amazing variety of eateries throughout the country, from pushcarts, roadside stalls, and sidewalk cafés to pizzerias and gourmet restaurants. Washing down tasty treats is easy as well, with hot tea or cold beer never too far away. The best news is that the prices are extremely reasonable, as the country’s eclectic and innovative culinary repertoire offers a range of delicious options to suit every budget. Increasingly, this also includes Western-style fast food, and there are plenty of Italian, American, and Indian restaurants now located in big cities and towns. The most reliable places to find well-prepared international food are high-end restaurants catering to foreign tourists and expats, while roadside stalls serving tasty Vietnamese fare provide a memorable cultural experience.
Eateries with trained waiters, printed menus, and starched napkins are found mainly in the major cities, as well as in big hotels and resorts. Sit-down restaurants that offer Vietnamese food often specialize in a particular type of dish. One of the most common is bun thit nuong, where grilled, marinated meat (most commonly beef or pork) is served on a bed of rice noodles, fresh herbs, and pickled vegetables, with a sweet and spicy fish-sauce broth. Banh xeo is a flavorful rice or cornflour pancake stuffed with pork, seafood, and beansprouts, and served with a sweet and sour fish- sauce broth. Lau, often translated as ‘steamboat’ or ‘hotpot,’ is a fragrant broth that is placed on a stove in the center of the table. It is eaten communally, and diners can add a selection of vegetables, herbs, noodles, and meat according to taste. Chinese restaurants are also common, while Vietnam’s surfeit of cafés ensures that freshly baked baguettes, hot coffees, and fruit juices are never far away. American-style diners, pizzerias, and fast-food chains such as KFC have emerged in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and major tourist destinations, and some major hotels and restaurants offer European haute cuisine.
Com and Pho
A restaurant that serves an ample portion of rice along with meat and vegetables is called a quan com (com is the Vietnamese word for rice). It is usually a humble affair, often seating as few as half a dozen people. The food is displayed in a glass case at the front, and one need only point to what appeals. Meats, either grilled, braised, or stewed, and fish in some kind of sauce are common, as are braised bamboo shoots, grilled eggplant, fried greens, and tofu preparations. Vietnam’s national noodle- soup breakfast dish, pho often features in small, family-run eateries. It is typically served with beef or chicken, and has an unmistakable star anise aroma. Fresh herbs and a variety of condiments are added according to taste.
Vietnam has a long and rich tradition of street food. Vendors in all cities and towns patrol the streets with baskets of delicious snack foods such as tamarind pods, pastries, baguette sandwiches, sticky rice, or fresh fruits. Some cooks carry savory or sweet treats wrapped in banana leaves, which are then steamed or roasted. Pushcarts can carry entire kitchens, typically offering pho, fried noodles, tofu preparations, and chao – a rice porridge also known as congee. The best part is that the food is cooked in front of customers. Some vendors carry their food in a yoke slung across their shoulder. They may offer anything from dry snack foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, while some even carry a small stove with which to prepare a hot meal on the spot.
Beer Gardens and Bia Hoi Bars
Especially plentiful in the south, where the weather never turns cold, beer gardens are always promoting one beer or another, and the brand can change every week. They usually sell snacks to accompany the beer, such as make-your-own spring rolls, which are accompanied by piquant dipping sauces. Fresh beer or bia hoi is a specialty of Hanoi. Although it can be found throughout the country, this refreshing drink is free of preservatives and costs only pennies per glass. Bars serving bia hoi are usually simple, hole-in-the-wall places, visited mostly by local men. Foreign visitors are welcome as long as they don’t mind squatting on tiny stools. These joints can be an insightful way to experience the country’s bar culture.
There are very few exclusively vegetarian restaurants in the country, but those wishing to avoid red meat will find it easy to do so. A wide selection of fish, poultry, and vegetables is always available in every restaurant. However, vegans and strict vegetarians should be aware that nuoc mam, the much- beloved fermented fish sauce, finds its way into most meals. While most restaurateurs are aware of vegetarian practice, and willing to make accom- modations, it is nevertheless necessary for vegetarians to be vocal and specific about their dietary needs and requirements.
Food will probably be the least expensive item on the budget of any visitor to Vietnam. Even a full meal in a hotel can cost less than US$15 per head, though imported alcohol can easily quadruple the price. Taxes on wine can be ruinous, but imported spirits are more manageable, and local beer is quite reasonable. Budget travelers eschewing alcohol, and dining largely in smaller eateries or on street food can eat fairly lavishly for as little as US$6 a day.
Unlike at the Western table, meals in Vietnam are not served in a succession of courses. Dishes are brought to the table as they are ready. The usual practice is to order one different dish per person, plus one for the table. Diners then proceed to sample the dishes liberally, relishing the sharing as much as the food. Table manners are simple to follow. Feel free to slurp the noodles and throw the fish and meat bones on the floor. Enthusiastic dining and loud conversations are the norm.
While tipping has not always been customary in Vietnam, it has become common in better restaurants and backpacker areas with the advent of modern tourism. If the service is good, a 10 percent tip is appreciated. Do not tip if the service is poor. In upscale hotels and restaurants, a five percent charge is usually levied. However, patrons may wish to offer a small tip in addition to that small fee.
The restaurants on the following pages have been carefully selected to give a cross-section of options from across the country – not only is there plenty of Vietnamese fare, with regional variations such as Hue Imperial cuisine, but there are also Japanese,Thai, Chinese, Indian, French, Italian and Mexican options. In fact, in tourist areas these different cuisines are sometimes listed on a single menu. Some of the more innovative places serve fusion dishes that combine ingredients and techniques from various cuisines, such as Vietnamese and French. Besides the quality of the food, these recommendations take into account the ambience and level of service. However, since taste is more important than presentation for most Vietnamese diners, many of the places listed here lack the kind of sophisticated ambience sought after by restaurants in the West. Those eateries that are particularly worth seeking out either for their culinary excellence or their memorable atmosphere are described in more detail as a DK Choice.