The most important tip I can give you on Vietnam  local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Vietnam, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.

What to Eat in Vietnam

With unbelievable abundance of fresh vegetables, herbs, fish and seafood, Vietnam has a lot to offer. It can be mentioned here a range of widely- admired dishes such as noodle served with beef or chicken( pho), spring roll, eel or snail vermicelli, crab fried with tamarind, crab sour soup, rice spaghetti, steamed rolls made of rice-flour, rice pancake folded in half (and filled with a shrimp, meat and soya bean sprouts)., etc. Food sits at the very centre of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person’s life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions – food plays a central role in each.

Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors’ deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life. Vietnamese cuisine varies slightly from region to region, with many regions having their own specialties. Generally, northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being bland while southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being spicy.

At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest about their cuisine. (And old proverb/joke says that a fortunate man has a Western (French) house, Japanese wife, and Chinese chef.) High-end restaurants may serve “Asian-fusion” cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at street side “restaurants” (A collection of plastic outdoor furniture placed on the footpath), with most walk-in restaurants being mainly for tourists. Definite regional styles exist — northern, central, and southern, each with unique dishes.

Vietnam Food photo

Photo by David McKelvey

Central style is perhaps the most celebrated, with dishes such as mi quang (wheat noodles with herbs, pork, and shrimp), banh canh cua (crab soup with thick rice noodles) and bun bo Hue (beef soup with herbs and noodles). Many Vietnamese dishes are flavored with fish sauce (n??c m?m), which smells and tastes like anchovies (quite salty and fishy) straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. (Try taking home a bottle of fish sauce, and using it instead of salt in almost any savory dish — you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.) Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called n??c ch?m, served on the table with most meals.

Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander (rau r?m), cilantro (rau mùi or rau mgò), mint (rau húng) and basil (rau húng qu?), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighboring countries, especially China. Pho Vietnam’s national dish is ph? (pronounced like the fu- in funny, but with tone), a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles (a form of rice linguini or fettuccine). Ph? is normally served with plates of fresh herbs(usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chiles and and scalded bean sprouts which you can add in according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce.

Ph? bò, the classic form of ph?, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Ph? gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Ph? is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal. Most ph? places specialize in ph? and can serve you a bowls as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It’s available at any time of the day, but locals eat it most often for breakfast. Famous ph? restaurants can be found in Hanoi. Generally speaking, the ph? served at roadside stalls tends to be cheaper and taste better than those served in fancier restaurants.

Street side eateries in Vietnam typically advertise ph? and c?m. Though c?m literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables. C?m is used to indicate eating in general…even when rice is not served (ie: ?n c?m ch?a?- Have you eaten yet) Though they may look filthy, street side eateries are generally safe so long as you avoid undercooked food. In rural and regional areas it is usually safest to eat the locally grown types of food as these are usually bought each day from the market. It is not uncommon, that after you have ordered your meal a young child of the family will be seen running out the back towards the nearest market to purchase the items.

Most restaurants/cafes in Vietnam will have a bewildering variety of food available. It is very common for menus to be up to 10-15 pages. These will include all types of Vietnamese food, plus some token western food, possibly some Chinese and maybe a pad thai as well. It is generally best to stick with the specialty of the area as this food will be the freshest and also the best prepared. Be advised that when dining in a restaurant, it is common practice for the wait staff to place a plastic packet (stamped with the restaurant’s name) containing a moist towelette on your table. They are not free; they cost between 2,000 – 4,000 VND. If you open it, you will be charged for it. Also, peanuts or other nuts will be offered to you while you are browsing the menu. Those are not free, either.

If you eat any, you will be charged. Vegetarian food is quite easy to find anywhere in Vietnam due in large part to the Buddhist influence. These restaurants will run from upscale to street stall. Basically any Vietnamese dish with meat can be made vegetarian with the abundance of fake meats. Besides the Buddhist influence of two vegetarian days a month, Cao Dai people eat vegetarian 16 days, and followers of the bizarre Quan Yin method eat vegan daily. Look for any sign that says Com Chay or simply remember the phrase An Chay. Bánh mì: French baguette stuffed with pâté, herbs and pickles Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost every village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities.

Bánh mì are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese. If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.

All Vietnamese restaurants are controlled by government, and some are fully owned by government. Most restaurants’ opening times are 10:00 to 22:00, some open at 07:00 and some at 06:00 or 08:00. In 24-hour restaurants, there will be two prices, the price is normal from 06:00 to 22:00, and doubled from 22:00 to 06:00. For example, rice (com) usually costs 10,000 dong, but if you order after 22:00, the price will be 20,000 dong. This project is made by government to discourage people from eating late. Some dishes are not served after 22:00. In restaurants fully owned by government, you will usually get “errored cuisine” such as fried fish with lemon sauce instead of fish sauce, or rice with tea instead of chili, and some dishes are not available for one month long without any announcement. Note: restaurants often offer you a wet napkin (kh?n) at the end of a meal to wash you hands. Be aware that using this incurs an extra charge on your bill.

What to Drink in Vietnam

The legal purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18. However, there is no legal drinking age. Do not drink tap water, it’s a game of Russian Roulette. Drink only bottled water. Watch out for ice in drinks. Factory-made ice is generally safe, but anything else can be suspect. Pubs/bars Drinking in a Vietnamese bar is a great experience. One of the interesting things is that during the day, it is almost impossible to see a bar anywhere. Once the sun goes down though, dozens seem to appear out of nowhere on the streets. Beer Wikitravel founder Evan quaffing bia hoi in Hoi An Don’t miss out on bia h?i, (literally “air beer”), or draught beer made daily.

It’s available throughout Vietnam, mostly from small bars on street corners. Bia hoi bars will give you the opportunity to relax drinking in a typical Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Every traveler can easily find these bars to experience what the locals are enjoying. The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. It’s a very light (3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draft or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hoi is not always made in sanitary conditions and its making is not monitored by any health agency.

Though fun for the novelty factor, this beer may produce awful hangovers for some. For those people, sticking with bia chai (bottled beer) might be more advisable. The most popular beer (draft, bottle or can) among the Southern Vietnamese is Saigon Do (Red Saigon). For the Northern Vietnamese Bia Hanoi (Hanoi beer) is the most popular brand, whereas Central Vietnamese prefer Festival beer or Bia Huda. 333, pronounced “ba-ba-ba” is a local brand, but it’s somewhat bland; for a bit more flavor, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle and a bigger bottle than Bia Saigon Special. Bia Saigon is also available as little stronger export version.

Vietnam Drinks photo

Photo by Abulic Monkey

Bière Larue is also good, and you can find local brands in every larger city. It’s regular practise for beer in Vietnam to be drunk over ice. This means that the cans or bottles need not be chilled. If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink. It is also considered necessary to drink when a toast is proposed…mot, hai, ba, do (one, two, three, cheers). Mot tram, mot tram implies you will drink 100%. Microbreweries Beer consumption is dominated by bottled beers and bia hoi but there are also plenty of microbreweries in Vietnam. You can find microbreweries in Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Mui Ne, Hai Duong, Hai Phong and Hanoi. Most of them make Czech styled beers with imported malt and hops. The marketing of these breweries is more or less non-existent so they can be hard to find, but the full list can be found online.

The price of a 300mL glass of beer is normally VND30,000. Most of the breweries serve one black and one blond beer, are small and produce about 3-4 thousand litres a month. There are more than thirty microbreweries in Vietnam which is more than in many other countries in the region. Wine and liquor Vietnamese “ruou de” or rice alcohol (ruou means alcohol) is served in tiny porcelain cups often with candied fruit or pickles. It’s commonly served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women don’t drink much alcohol, well at least in public. It’s not recommended for tourists. Dating back to French colonial times, Vietnam adopted a tradition of viticulture.

Dalat is the center of the winelands, and you can get extremely good red and white wine for about USD2-3, however this is very hard to find. Most wine is Australian that is served in restaurants and you will be charged Australian prices as well making wine comparatively quite expensive compared to drinking beer or spirits. Coconut wine – R??u d?a – ruou dua :ive This is special Vietnamese wine that has the acidity and alcohol concentration of grape wine, but the taste and fragrance of coconut. It makes an attractive drink because it is served in the whole coconut and sipped through an aluminum tube.

It is made by placing traditional ingredients such as sticky rice and pure sap into a whole coconut to ferment. It is believed the copra (the white meat) of the coconut can purify aldehydes that are typically found in rice wine which can cause hangover symptoms such as headaches and tiredness when consumed in excess. So you can feel more free to drink to your drinking partners health! Rice spirit and local Vodka is incredibly cheap in Vietnam by western standards. Russian Champagne is also quite available. When at Nha Trang, look for the ‘all you can drink’ boat trips for around US$10-15 for an all day trip and party with on board band.

Soft drinks Coconut water is a favourite in the hot southern part of the country. n??c mía, Sieu Sach or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts with a crank-powered sugar cane stalk crushers that release the juice. Another thirst-quencher is the fabulous sinh t?, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a big glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk which should cost 20,000 dong at maximum. You can also have it blended in a mixer. You could place any fruit-type after the word sinh t? – e.g. sinh t? b? (avocado smoothie) or sinh t? d?a(pineapple smoothie).

If you prefer to have orange juice, you won’t use the word sinh t? but n??c (literally: water) or n??c cam if you would like to have an orange juice. Juices are usually without condensed milk or coconut milk. Coffee Another popular drink among locals and tourists alike is the coffee (cà phê). Do be careful when drinking locally prepared coffee as the locals tend to drink it incredibly strong with about 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup. It is usually served black or with sweetened condensed milk. Definitely an acquired taste. Vietnamese coffee beans are fried, not roasted. If you are picky, bring your own coffee.