By learning Vietnamese eating habits, you can further immerse yourself in the local culture — and make new friends.
The debate rages pretty much everywhere: Vietnamese food is among the best in the world. It’s healthy, absolutely delicious, and with so much variety that even after years in the country you can still discover a new dish from time to time. But Vietnamese eating habits are not easy to get used to, at least initially.
You have to keep an open mind. You have to be willing to sit on those small plastic red chairs on the sidewalk and be ready to forego the uncleanliness of some places. And you have to be willing to endure service that sometimes seems lacking.
We’ll try to give you some pointers to overcome those obstacles. Because the reward is absolutely worth it. For a fraction of what we are used to paying in most Western countries, you will get access to an almost infinite array of complex textures and contrasting tastes.
When do Vietnamese people eat?
This one is easy: the Vietnamese people eat when they are hungry. Unlike most Western countries, there are no predetermined times for meals in Vietnam. The philosophy behind this is simple. If you are hungry, you eat. It’s the reason many Vietnamese will snack multiple times a day. Also, don’t be surprised if a Vietnamese friend invites you to eat with his family at 4 in the afternoon. It’s perfectly normal!
What do Vietnamese people eat?
The goal of this article is not to list all the different dishes in the country. You need a book to do that! Know this: Vietnamese eat whatever they want whenever they want. There are no unique dishes for breakfast or any other meal. Pho is eaten at any time, day or night. So is com tam (the traditional dish of rice, meat and veggies). While some Vietnamese have their preferences, nobody will sneer at you for having fried eggs and a baguette at 9pm. And frankly, it’s kind of liberating.
You will likely get two kinds of service a local establishments not frequented by tourists: attentive, or nothing at all. Don’t take the second one personally. Vietnamese people are often not strong on etiquette. You will see most patrons barking what they want to no one in particular, and they always get what they ask for. Get the attention of a server or go directly in front of the cook and say what you want. If you don’t speak Vietnamese, point at it!
Order like a local
Learn the following phrases. It should help you a great deal.
Em Oi: To get the waitress’ attention (if it’s a young man or woman)
Chi Oi: if it’s an older woman
Anh Oi: If it’s an older man
Khong: No (no ice = Khong Da)
It: A little (A little sugar = It Duong)
Nhieu: A lot or Very
Giay: Paper tissues
Menu: Menu (hey this one is easy!)
Tinh tien: The check!
By Western standards, some of those little Vietnamese restaurants can appear downright dirty. Vietnamese eating habits include throwing bones and table garbage directly on the floor, and it can be shocking to see. It is cleaned when the guests leave. Vietnamese weather also tends to wear everything down rather quickly. Humidity creates stains on the wall that no amount of soap can make disappear. Rest assured that most restaurants are thoroughly cleaned after closing time and the food is generally fresh.
Now sometimes you might find yourself with a fragile Western stomach. It can be difficult to get used to some of the local ingredients. But I’ve found that most of the time expats get food poisoning in Vietnam, it’s after a meal in a Western restaurant!
If you eat with Vietnamese people, you will notice a small ritual before every meal: they will clean their utensils and chopsticks with a little piece of paper. That’s to make sure no dust covers them, not because they’ve never been washed. They will also prepare their little dipping sauce, as most Vietnamese dishes come with a different one. It can be soy, chili, fish sauce, salt and pepper with lemon juice, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask them to help you.
When the food arrives, it is customary for the oldest people to be served first and to start eating before everyone else. When dining, always hold your bowl with both hands when you are given food. Never place your chopsticks vertically in the middle of a rice bowl. It’s how Vietnamese place the incense sticks during Buddhist ceremonies and would be seen as disrespectful. It’s also considered impolite to eat directly from the serving dish. On the other hand, it’s entirely acceptable to hold your rice bowl up to your mouth, and no one will bat an eye if they see you putting your elbows on the table.
Ultimate tip on Vietnamese eating habits: Serving the food by putting it directly in your neighbors’ bowls shows that you care about them. Always give priority to older people and listen to them carefully during the meal. Showing respect to the elders in Vietnam will score you big points with everyone.
Take your time. Meals in Vietnam are a slower affair than what Westerners are used to. Enjoy every bite, talk, drink, laugh, cheer. And make sure to finish your rice! While it’s customary to leave some food in the communal plate, it’s considered wasteful to leave some in your own bowl.
Remember that the Vietnamese like it simple and casual. So shrug off all your worries and enjoy the meal.