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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Vietnam

Historic Diet

Vietnamese Food - Pho

Vietnam is made up of mountains and shoreline and this diversity if represented in the country's historic diet and native plant life. Due to elevation changes, numerous plants can be grown in Vietnam and animals of all types can survive.

The historic diet of the people of Vietnam was plant-based, but fish was also common, especially along the long coastlines. Bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, kampot peppers, durian, mangosteen, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, and beans were all common historic foods in Vietnam and made up a great percentage of the diet. While some meats were eaten, fish was more popular, including freshwater trey dang dau, carp, and catfish inland as well as mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab in the oceans.

Culinary Influences

Vietnam's food is strangely diverse as influences have arrived in multiple centuries and from multiple regions. Although most of these influences are from neighboring countries, introductions from nearly every part of the world have arrived and made a significant impact in Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnamese Food - Spring rolls
Spring rolls

The first, the greatest, and still the most obvious change to the diet of Vietnam came with the arrival of ethnic Chinese people thousands of years ago. The Vietnamese today are related to these people and the two countries still share a similar diet and during many periods in the past, a similar history, leading to foods that are very similar. The Chinese brought numerous foods to the region, including rice, noodles, and soy sauce, all of which are common ingredients in the food of Vietnam today. The Chinese also brought vegetables and entire dishes to Vietnam which can be found nearly everywhere today.

Along with the Chinese, neighboring people also greatly influenced the cuisine of Vietnam in one way or another. Prahok, or fish paste from Cambodia is now common in Vietnam and sticky rice from Thailand is now common in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

In the 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region and brought new foods from both Europe as well as the Americas through trading, but these outside influences didn't truly arrive to Vietnam until closer to the 1700s. During this time the greatest introductions, although nearly all came with the spice trade, originated in numerous places. From the Americas came maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. From Europe came breads, pastries, cakes, onions, carrots, and some dairy products, including butter and cheese. Most importantly, from India came new spices and the introduction of curries.

As the Europeans became more engrained in the region, the French colonized Vietnam in the 1800s and made some of the above foods more common. French cheese and, more importantly, the baguette was popularized and today it is still a common food found throughout the country.

Since the 1950s the country has gained a growing presence of foods from Russia as the communist government closely allied with the Soviet Union. Foods like beets and cabbage became more popular, although these never gained widespread acclaim, especially when soups made from these ingredients were competing with the national favorite, pho.

During the same time the communists controlled the north, a very pro-western government ruled the south until the 1970s and this government's allegiances brought in foods to the south. These foods and the "ethnic" restaurants that serve these foods are a reflection of both locals tastes as well as politics as French, American, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian, and Chinese restaurants are all common in any major city, but more popular in the south.

Staple Foods

Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Rice: rice is usually cooked and served as sticky rice and accompanies most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Nem/Cha Gio: spring rolls commonly filled with vegetables and served with fish sauce or soy sauce
Pho: numerous styles exist, but at its base, pho is a noodle soup served with onions and usually a meat with any combination of spices
Northern Vietnam: seafood rules here, especially crap and prawns
Central Vietnam: the foods from this region tend to be spicy
Southern Vietnam: more vegetable-based diet with plenty of seafood

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Vietnam may seem a bit confusing at first as most people eat with chopsticks, but with a little practice and some etiquette tips you'll be sure to fit in with the locals in no time.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to eat at a local's house be sure to bring a small gift to show your appreciation; fruit or pastries are good choices. When meeting locals, try to arrive on time and remove your shoes before entering the house or restaurant if others have done so before you. Greet everyone upon arrival, beginning with the elders. Also wait to be shown a seat as elders are generally seated first and your host may show you to a pre-assigned seat.

As you sit down you'll be greeted by chopsticks and little else. Sometimes a fork and spoon will be offered, but usually you'll only get chopsticks along with perhaps a spoon, a saucer, and a welcoming host. The chopsticks are obviously for eating (never place these sticking up in the rice, it's a sign of death), the spoon is for the soup, and the saucer is a "discard tray" of sorts; reserved for bones and shells that you pick out of your food.

When the meal arrives, the dishes are placed in the middle of the table. Serving and eating begin in order of honor (and men are served first, then women) so don't begin until you're directed to do so by your host. If serving yourself, be sure to never touch the serving spoon to your plate or if no serving spoon is present, take foods from the communal bowls with the back end of your chopsticks. Among the dishes will probably be soup and a starch, typically rice. The rice is the main course and must be treated as such, while the soup, starch, and any other food in a bowl should be eaten by bringing the bowl up to your mouth. In order to accomplish this you are expected to have both hands on the table at all times, even having your elbows on the table is acceptable in most situations.

When you are finished eating, be sure to finish all the food on your plate and in your bowl, this is true of all foods, but especially rice as leaving any behind is considered wasteful and rude. Once the food is done, place your chopsticks together on top of your rice bowl or on the chopstick rest next to your plate if you have one. You may then join the locals with a tooth pick in hand to clean any remaining food from your teeth.

If you are dining in a restaurant you will have to go to the register to get and pay for your bill as the Vietnamese find it odd and somewhat rude to bring a bill to your table. In restaurants catered to tourists a service charge of about 5% is usually included so look for this on your bill. If no service charge is included tipping is at your discretion; in most nice restaurants tips of 5-10% are expected, but in local restaurants and in towns or villages tips are not expected or required.

Celebrations & Events

Nearly every celebration in Vietnam is brought in with a traditional meal simply translated as "feast." This dining event is served at weddings, funerals, anniversaries, birthdays, and other large events. Like many Vietnamese foods, this is centered around rice, but beyond that nothing remains the same. "Feast" is a time for specific dishes and generally these don't coincide with common Vietnamese dishes. This meal generally includes noodles, bamboo shoots, chicken, meat balls, sausage, salad, spring rolls, and stir-fry. This main course is then followed by nearly as many desserts.


Vietnamese Food - Coffee

Most of Vietnam's drinks are sweetened beginning with their tea and coffee. Both of these drinks are usually served with sweetened condensed milk. Local juices are also popular, including sugar cane juice, coconut milk, and even a soy bean drink called sua dau nanh, which is again usually sweetened. Fruit smoothies are also common and include everything from standard strawberry or mango to bean or avocado. Soft drinks and other international beverage are also available nearly everywhere.

If you want an alcoholic drink in Vietnam try the beer, which is the most popular drink among the locals. Most of the beers available are regional beers, but most popular international brands are also accessible. Whiskey is also popular in Vietnam and can be found in most hotel bars and restaurants, both those catered to foreigners and locals alike. Most other hard liquors and wines are available in hotels, but for a local taste try the rice wine called ruou de, which is similar to sake.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Vietnam, but in limited areas it might be safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013