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Vietnam - Food and Drink
Popular meals enjoyed today in Vietnam reflect its traditional use of locally sourced ingredients from the fields, jungle and sea. Fish, vegetables, rice and herbs are the cornerstone of recipes, with small quantities of meat added for those who can afford it. Coconut milk, lemon grass and chilli provide plenty of flavour.
Influences from nearby China, laos and Cambodia have helped to create regional variations, with the northern regions using more soy sauce than you will find elsewhere. The colonial days of French rule and other European visitors have also left a legacy with foods such as pate and baguettes, albeit developed with a Vietnamese twist. The consumption of snake, turtle and dog has greatly reduced from previous generations but still happens on a scale that Westerners might find surprising.
Fish sauce is an essential element of Vietnamese food. Combined with lemon juice, chilli, sugar and pepper, it is added to a variety of foods.
Pho pho is a cheap noodle dish that is widely available and delicious. Fresh rice noodles, meat and herbs are cooked in a salty broth. The vermicellli noodle dish called bun bo nam bo contains slivers of beef mixed with peanuts, bean sprouts, chilli and herbs. It has fish sauce added instead of broth. Cao lau is yet another noodle dish, this time with thick udon-style noodles. Won-ton crackers and pork show an influence from China, but the combination of herbs and broth give it a distinctive Vietnamese flavour.
Sticky rice is a popular dish served in homes and as street food. A combination of meat, vegetables or eggs can all be mixed in, with dried shallots on top completing the dish.
Vietnam has its own version of the crepe, called the banh xeo. A filling of pork and seafood is mixed with bean sprouts and herbs, and the dish is served with a dipping sauce.
Baguettes, or banh mi, are popular in Vietnam, but with very distinct regional variations for the fillings. In the north of the country, more Western styles of fillings, such as pate, are the norm. In the south, there will be a wide variety of meats, tinned fish, cheese and vegetables used as fillings, usually with a good dose of chilli sauce.
One of the popular street food snacks in Ho Chi Minh City is bot chien. In this dish, fried rice flour cooked with egg is served with a mixture of shallots and papaya, spiced up with pickled chilli sauce.
Sticky rice is the basis for the pudding called che, which is mixed with beans.
The drinking culture in Vietnam is very male; men drink together to socialise and bond. Traditionally, women were not welcome unless they were working in the bars. These attitudes do still exist to some extent.
Alcohol is available for sale across Vietnam. Many households still continue the anti-colonial tradition of homebrew, which produced a variety of liquors, but the quality and safety of these drinks will be unpredictable. If you are offered unreasonably cheap bottles of imported alcohol with brands you recognise, they will be fakes. The contents will not taste anything like the brand, and could cause health problems.
The alcoholic drink most widely consumed is rice wine, most typically produced from fermented sticky rice.
Domestic beer is produced in Vietnam, including the popular Hanoi Beer, 333 Beer and Saigon Beer brands. Imports, such as Tiger Beer and Heineken are readily found in tourist areas and big cities.
Other liquors are also produced in the country, such as the Hanoi Vodka brand.
In the past, medicinal wines had a whole snake, gecko or scorpion placed inside the bottle. Today, these bottles are sold to tourists as souvenirs.
Green tea is a popular drink and one you are likely to be offered if attending a meeting or visiting someone at home.
Breakfast is usually taken early, although eateries will continue to serve breakfast after 9am for tourists and informal business meetings. The food is very different to Western breakfast fare, and is dominated by savoury dishes. Pho-noodle soup, rice congee with minced pork, rice crepes, baguettes and sticky rice are some of the popular options.
There are rarely coffee breaks between meals.
Lunch breaks are typically taken anytime between 11.30am and 1pm. A popular street food lunchtime dish, called bun cha, is fast and filling. Fish, meat or tofu are cooked over a charcoal fire and then combined with rice and vegetables. Fried crab spring rolls are a good accompaniment.
At home, Vietnamese families will normally eat their main meal of the day between 5 and 6pm. Usually prepared by the women of the household, the dinner will consist of several bowls of food placed on a tray at the centre of the eating area. Traditionally this is on the floor, but dining tables are becoming a feature of modern family homes.
Each person receives a bowl of rice. They help themselves to a portion of food from the shared dishes, which will be a selection of boiled or stir-fried vegetables, stewed or steamed meat, with some fried fish and possibly a bowl of broth.
Eating out was always a luxury to celebrate a special occasion, but is becoming a more frequent leisure activity as the middle class grows in Vietnam. Although as mentioned, Vietnamese people will eat their main meal around 5 and 6pm, restaurants will be happy to serve later, as tourists often arrive between 7 and 8pm. This will be after the main rush of local diners has ended. You may find the men in your group are served first, according to traditional Vietnamese ways.
Traditional open-air markets and food stall are often run by women who pass the business down to their daughters. They prepare just one dish and the price is very low.
Etiquette is an important part of eating. If you are invited to someone’s home, do not forget to take a gift for the host. Only sit down when your host indicates your chair, as age and status are important. Once the eldest guest has started to eat, everyone else may do so.
If you are handing round dishes, be careful to do so with both hands and not to spill the food. When choosing a shared dish, take a sensible portion that leaves food for others, especially with meat dishes. Place the food in your rice bowl; never eat directly from the shared dishes.
When eating, lift the rice bowl to your face with one hand and hold the chopsticks with the other. This is the opposite to polite Western eating habits, but only plates should remain on the table.
When you pause to take a drink or speak, place the chopsticks on the small chopsticks holder next to your place setting, so they do not make a mess. Never leave them sitting in your bowl of food, as this is seen to be rude.
It is also rude to leave food uneaten, so clear your bowl. As soon as you are finished and too full to eat any more, place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of your host offering another portion, which you would be expected to accept. There are likely to be several courses.
Tipping is not part of traditional Vietnamese culture. However, the country is now a popular tourist destination and expectations are changing. Many people serving the public are working for extremely low wages; thanking them for working hard to deliver good service by leaving a tip can make a real difference to their family.
Tips can be made in the local currency, the Vietnamese dong (VND) or in the widely accepted US dollar bills.
Restaurants aimed at the tourist and business market may add a service charge to the bill, but as waiting staff are unlikely to receive much of this, you may wish to tip an individual as well. Food stalls do not expect tips, but will be very pleased if you offer one, as will bar staff.
If you take a taxi ride home after an enjoyable night out, the taxi driver will not expect a tip. However, you may wish to round the fare up if they have been pleasant and efficient.
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