Exploring food and drink in an unfamiliar country is one of the greatest joys and challenges of travelling. Vietnam is certainly not an exception to that rule, and visitors may at first find themselves bewildered by the variety and the sheer difference of food available here.
Fear not— people eat here every day, including those traveling on the road. The guide below is intended to help you find what you need, even if you’re still wet behind the ears with regard to Vietnamese culture. If it’s any comfort, even the expats who have been here for a long time still don’t know everything about food and drink in Vietnam. Nor, for that matter, do the locals. Each province has its own specialties, and food varies considerably from north to south. Consider yourself an explorer and keep an open mind, and you’ll find yourself enjoying the surprises.
Finding Food on the Road
Many food options in Vietnam will be unfamiliar to visitors, so here’s a rough guide for what to expect and what to look for.
You may be unsurprised to hear that rice is the main staple of the Vietnamese diet, and is synonymous with food itself. If you see a sign that says “Cơm,” congratulations, you have found an eating establishment.
Not all eating establishments are made equal, however. Finding quality food while avoiding food poisoning is critical to maintaining good morale and health on a road trip. If you see “Cơm Bình Dân,” for example, you have found an eating establishment with very low prices but poor-quality food.
Similarly, “Bún” (rice vermicelli) is a staple in Vietnamese food. Seeing a sign that says “Bun” means you have also found food, though it can mean very different things in different provinces. Below “Bun” you will see many different options, which may include grilled pork (thịt nướng), fish cakes (chả cá), beef (bò), chicken (gà), shrimp (tôm), or any mixture of the above, dry or as a noodle soup.
“Bánh” refers to any baked goods or cake-type dish, including savoury ones. This is a wide-ranging concept, from the ubiquitous banh mi sandwich to banh beo savoury rice puddings or banh xeo crispy pancakes with shrimp and pork.
“Phở,” the Vietnamese national dish and noodle soup that has gained international popularity, is ubiquitous as well. It varies significantly from region to region and even from restaurant to restaurant, but it’s usually quite reliable and has saved many travellers from tough food decisions in a pinch.
Vietnamese people also loved grilled meat, and you’ll find plenty of establishments serving grilled food. Some of it can be a bit rough, but some of it can be truly excellent. Some options on the menu may be surprising to the uninitiated, from banal options like chicken wings, feet, or any part really, to more exotic choices like porcupine.
Fruit may be one of your best friends in Vietnam. The local fruit available in Vietnam is abundant, cheap, and delicious. You’ll see different fruits available during different seasons, but it’s a very good idea to carry some extra fruit with you wherever you go for a quick and healthy snack. It can be purchased essentially anywhere, but especially at markets.
Bear in mind that hygiene standards at restaurants are usually a far cry from what they may be in the western world. If a restaurant looks too unsanitary for you, trust your instincts. Some restaurants may cook once a day and leave their food at room temperature for many hours in a display case.
Timing is important at establishments like these. Lunch in Vietnam is early—beginning around 11 AM and ending usually well before 1 PM, especially in the countryside. Getting food early ensures that you’re getting the freshest food possible rather than something that’s been sitting around.
A good indicator of the quality of a restaurant is the quality of its chairs. Tiny plastic stools and chairs, in addition to being uncomfortable, are often a sign of poor food quality. Instead, look for metal tables and larger chairs, as these are an indication that the owner of the establishment invested real money and effort.
Finding a Drink on the Road
Staying hydrated and caffeinated is, fortunately, both easy and cheap in Vietnam. Coffee shops and similar establishments are a major component of Vietnamese social life—in fact, it’s hard to overstate just how central to society they are. Plenty of other drink options are also available throughout the country. Below, we’ll discuss the major options.
Coffee shops are almost as ubiquitous as trees, and ultra-low prices at many locations make the stop well worth your while.
Although Arabica beans are growing in popularity, the country’s preferred bean is Robusta. Robusta coffee is stronger, with a more bitter flavor that many people come to love over time. Traditional Vietnamese coffee brewing is done with a metal filter over the glass and is often mixed with condensed milk or sugar and put on ice. Most of the year, iced coffee is the way to go since the weather is so warm.
Fun fact: Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producing country in the world after Brazil. If you’re looking for an indication of how much Vietnam loves coffee, consider that the majority of the coffee produced here is consumed in-country.
In the cities, upscale coffee shops are becoming more popular. As in many other countries, upscale coffee shops will have espresso machines, air conditioning, clean bathrooms, snacks, and strong wifi.
The story in the countryside is quite different. Even just a few miles outside of a major city center, the atmosphere will change to a much more rustic and laid-back feel. There are still plenty of coffee shops—there is one literally every few hundred meters throughout the country—and the countryside versions can be quite charming.
For example, plenty of coffee shops in the countryside feature hammocks as their main ‘seating’ option. For road-weary travelers, a stop to have a quick lay down and perhaps even a snooze in a shaded hammock can be a wonderful respite. Many locals will spend a large part of their day in such establishments chatting, smoking, or playing traditional board games. A coffee in one of these establishments may set you back anywhere from 15,000-30,000 dong (around $.60-1.50) and is usually served with a glass of iced tea on the side.
Don’t expect food at these establishments, or, if they serve food, don’t expect great quality. Additionally, don’t expect full-service toilets—sometimes the toilet may be a simple squat toilet, with no toilet paper and often no soap. Carrying hand sanitizer is highly advisable.
As the signs in the countryside are rarely in English, look for signs that say “Cà phê” which simply means coffee. It sounds just like “Café” as it’s a word borrowed from French.
Sugarcane, juices, and coconuts
Finding other hydration options are quite straightforward as well, if you know what to look for. Most coffee shops and restaurants will sell some variety of fruit juices: look for “Nước ép” (fruit juice). These juices are usually fresh-pressed and may run slightly higher prices than coffee, but not much. As the fruit is often on display, you can generally point to what you’d like.
A note: Vietnamese people generally like their drinks sweet, so they often add extra sugar to fruit juices. If you’d like your juice without sugar, say “Không đường” (no sugar).
Along the side of the road and at many coffee shops you may notice a cart that says “Nước mía” (sugarcane juice). It’s made from sugarcane run through a press and is put on ice with a squeeze of lime or kumquat.
While, to many visitors, this drink may sound overly sweet, it’s in fact delightfully refreshing and has numerous health benefits. Because it’s raw and unprocessed, the body processes it differently than, say, a soda.
Similarly, drinking fresh coconut juice has a great hydrating and thirst-quenching effect. Because Vietnam is a thoroughly tropical country, coconut trees and thus coconuts are widely available. Even if they’re not listed on a menu, if you see a pile of coconuts outside of an establishment the odds are very high that the owners will be happy to cut one open and sell it to you. If you’d like to ask, try saying “Dừa” (coconut) which sounds like “you-a” to the English-speaking ear.
Beer and liquor
A cold beer after a long day on the road can be one of life’s great joys. Fortunately, Vietnam has an ongoing love affair with beer. To wit, Ho Chi Minh City is consistently ranked in the top-10 beer-consuming cities on Earth both in terms of per-capita drinking and overall consumption. The trend is much the same throughout the rest of the country. Beer in Vietnam is simply known as “Bia” and is one of the easiest words in the language to say.
Because beer is considered a food by the government, it’s taxed at the same rate as food. In other words, it’s essentially not taxed. This leads to it being very affordable—indeed, travellers are often surprised and very pleased with the price of beer in Vietnam.
Vietnamese drinking culture, however, is quite different to western drinking culture. As an example, while Vietnamese men are very comfortable with drinking, the women rarely drink.
While bars exist in huge numbers in major cities, in the countryside they may be few and far between. Vietnamese prefer to do their drinking at restaurants, frequently called “Nhau,” which are somewhat of a mix between a bar and a restaurant.
It’s quite common to see a group of Vietnamese men at a Nhau with a bevy of cans or bottles scattered around them on the floor along with the remains of chicken bones or other such food remnants. The atmosphere at these restaurants is quite relaxed and jovial, and occasionally loud.
Especially if you’re in the countryside, locals will be curious about foreigners and may want to share a drink with you. They have a tendency to ‘cheers’ very often and are interested to know how much westerners can drink. This is all in good fun, so if a local asks you to drink a beer with him do so with a smile.
In the countryside, beer is often served on ice since refrigeration is still uncommon in many places. Since most of the beers are simple warm-weather lagers, diluting the beer with a bit of ice does not have a major effect on the flavor.
Outside of the cities, the most common liquor consumed is “Rượu gạo” (rice wine). Ruou in Vietnamese refers to any kind of alcoholic beverage besides beer, so ‘wine’ is a bit of a misnomer with ruou gao: it’s strong stuff, usually in the 30-40% alcohol by volume range. It’s usually consumed as in small shot glasses and you may even see it poured from a gasoline can or some similar container since it’s often homemade.
Onyabike Adventures’ Thoughts
Everyone who’s been in Vietnam for a while develops their own preferences, and our team is no different. When you’re with us, you’ll be sure that we’ll give you plenty of options and we’ll point you in the right direction. There’s a whole world of interesting and delicious food in this country, and the exploring never stops. Even President Obama made sure to stop by a local Hanoi eatery with Anthony Bourdain to try some Bún chả (Vermicelli with grilled pork and vegetables in a tangy broth).
Always feel free to ask our guide about food options or suggestions. Of course, let us know if you have any food allergies or requirements and we will do our utmost to look after them.