Vietnamese cuisine, traditions and etiquette
Eating and drinking in Vietnam
Vietnamese food is varied, distinctive and, because it is comparatively low fat and high in carbohydrate, generally healthy. Traditionally, cooking was done over a fire, so preparation is by boiling, steaming, barbequing and frying, not roasting or baking.
A meal is a complete entity with many dishes – although these might arrive in sequence for a large meal, there is no concept of ‘courses’ apart ‘soup’ which is usually a thin, vegetable based concoction that follows the meal.
Meals are taken communally, using bowls, chopsticks and ceramic spoons, and are accompanied by an array of sauces, flavourings, dips, salads and so on. Correct etiquette is to part-fill your bowl with rice using a spoon, then use the chopsticks to transfer pieces of meat, fish or whatever, first to the sauce or dip of your choice, then to your bowl, and finally to your mouth.
Piling food on top of the rice, pouring sauces your bowl or transferring food direct the communal bowl to your mouth are all mildly frowned upon. It’s perfectly acceptable to bring the bowl almost to your lips and use the chopsticks to scoop it your mouth – it avoids food in your lap – but using the spoon to eat solid food will be looked upon with pity by Vietnamese people.
Typically, Vietnamese food is cheap, nutritious and mostly delicious. It can be obtained ubiquitous street sellers, cafes and restaurants. Most restaurants and cafés in the centres of cities have menus in English with prices – elsewhere, English translation, prices, and often the menu itself will be absent. The growing numbers of high-class Vietnamese restaurants aimed at foreigners are easier to cope with, but are considerably more expensive.
Eating out in Vietnam is far more common than in Western countries – usually, only the main evening meal is cooked at home. Breakfast is a light meal, but is considered important and seldom ‘skipped’. Lunch is also a light meal, usually followed by an hour’s siesta. Dinner is the main meal. There is no tradition of ‘desserts’ in Vietnam, but main meals are often followed by a small amount of seasonal fruit.
A street breakfast in towns and cities of the north is mostly a variation of ‘pho’ (noodle soup with beef, chicken or occasionally fried fish). In the south, it is more likely to be ‘hu tien’, (noodles with chicken and/or pork, and vegetables). In rural areas, people prefer ‘xoi’ (‘sticky rice’ – steamed glutinous rice, often with peanuts or beans).
Lunch is usually taken at a ‘com bui’ (literally, 'dusty rice' because the food serving counter is open to the street. This works on a ‘point and eat’ basis – you choose little bits a range of dishes which are then piled up on a bed of rice for you. It’s important to get there early – about 11.30 - because the food will be fresh and still hot. Few 'com bui' have a means of keeping the dishes warm.
Another popular destination for lunch and dinner is one of the many ‘bia hoi’ throughout Vietnam. ‘Bia hoi’ is ‘fresh beer’, brewed locally and delivered daily. It is light, refreshing and very cheap. Many places selling bia hoi also provide food, and are popular both for meals and drinking sessions after work. Smaller establishments sell only beer and accompaniments, such as ‘nem chua’, a roll of steamed spiced pork meat wrapped in a banana leaf and eaten cold.
Tea and coffee
Green tea is readily available and often provided free at restaurants. It is also an essential accompaniment to a discussion at work, a visit a friend, or just about any other conversation that involves sitting down.
Vietnamese coffee is made Robusta beans, and is very strong. Most of the minority of Vietnamese who drink coffee take it with condensed milk. Coffee drinking has become fashionable among young people, and a host of coffee houses franchised by the ‘Trung Nguyen’ (Central Highlands) coffee producers have sprung up to meet the demand
Drinking alcohol is almost exclusively a male activity. As in many cultures, there is a competitive element at times and drunkenness is not unusual, especially among young men. The range is limited to fresh or bottled beer, ‘wine’ (usually a variety of rice vodka), or various sorts of ‘medicinal’ wine composed of an infusion of rice wine with herbs, parts of (or whole) reptiles or other creatures.
As elsewhere, drinking has its own etiquette in Vietnam. A distinctive practice in Vietnam is an almost obsessive attitude towards toasting at informal social gatherings, formal dinners and weddings. A member of the group pours a round and everyone waits until all glasses have been charged. Regardless of whether the drinks are alcoholic or not, each person then clicks glasses with everyone else, even if it means leaving his or her seat. This occurs regularly throughout the meal when anyone takes it upon themselves to refill the glasses.
There is no tradition of after-dinner conversation in Vietnam – the meal is a purely a functional affair. As soon as most people have finished eating, someone (usually the person of highest status) gets.