What to expect in a Vietnamese Restaurant

June 16, 2010 31 Comments »

Eating in Vietnam

Going out to eat at a restaurant is easy, right?
…not always.

Often when you find yourself in other countries, even though there’s a waiter, a table, you are putting food in your mouth, and there’s a bill – there are many things that can be vastly different. As I lived in Vietnam there were many little differences I noticed every time I went out to eat. Most of these things confused me at first, but most all of them I grew to love….really love. Now as I’m back in the US for a while, I miss these Vietnamese restaurant oddities!

If you are traveling to Vietnam, here’s a few things you can expect when going to eat in a restaurant – consider this pre-travel preparation!

It's safe to drink!

Drink the Water!

Yes, you CAN have ice in your drinks; and most of the time you can drink the water in restaurants. I know this seems strange, as every guidebook tells you not to drink the water or have ice. However, I lived there for a year crunching on the ice cubes and drinking the water they put in my glass at restaurants and was never sick.

There’s more than just luck and a strong stomach involved…the ice in Vietnam is frozen at a central plant before being distributed to restaurants, bars and street stands. The water that is used for the ice is filtered and pure, meaning you can enjoy cold drinks and fruit juices (even from street vendors) without worry about your health.

In the restaurants which cater to expats (most all in District 1) filtered water is always used. No one is bringing you water straight from the tap. At least they never did while I was there. I know this can be a hard thing to believe – as all of the guidebooks say don’t drink the water (or ice), but they are referring to drinking water straight from the tap; not the ice or the restaurant water. Ultimately though, the choice is up to you.

May I take your Order?

Be prepared, the waiter will stand by you as you read the menu hovering over you until you tell them what you want. They don’t bring the menu and then walk away; they stay there… and wait. Don’t let this phase you, take your time. If you think they are annoyed by your indecision, then realize that it’s you projecting your concerns onto them. They don’t mind waiting, they aren’t in a hurry!

Eat while it's hot!

Can you spare a Square?

Napkins are seldom provided. Instead you get a ‘wet wipe’ that you end up paying for if you read the details of the bill. Don’t worry, the cost if minimal…a few pennies. For real fun be sure to pop your wet wipe baggy really loudly…it’s customary!

Cold Beer Here!

If you order a beer, it will come with ice….and yes, you can drink it (see the first point). If you don’t want ice in your beer, then you specifically need to ask for beer without ice. However, unless you like your beer warm…I suggest trying it with ice!

Ms. Manners Never Went to Vietnam

Food is delivered to your table as it’s ready. It doesn’t sit in the kitchen until the whole table’s food is ready and then brought out. If the food is ready, then it’s put in front of you. It doesn’t matter if the other people you’re with ordered something at the same time. This also means that it’s totally acceptable NOT to wait for everyone to get their food before you start eating. Else you may be waiting a long time! It’s customary for you to start eating when the food is put in front of you. Throw your manners out the window in Vietnam.

Bill Charades

You always have to ask for the bill. You can sit there for hours and hours, but until you actually ask for the bill (or in my case, motion for the bill as if you are playing charades), it will never come. You will not feel rushed, in fact many times you will think they completely forgot about you and you may have to find them to get your bill.

Table for 5?

Table for 6

You often get seated at what seems to be too small of a table for the amount of people in your party. There will be enough chairs – but you might not be able to all fit around the table. This is normal. It’s normal because in Vietnam you seldom get a plate; there are no place settings in front of you. Instead you get a small little rice bowl and a set up chopsticks. You take the rice bowl off the table and cup in your hand. The food you ordered is on a big plate placed in the middle of the table. You reach to the middle with your chopsticks and grab a bit of the food that you ordered and put it into the rice bowl on top of the rice. While holding the rice bowl underneath your chin, you shovel the food in with the chopsticks. Therefore you never really need to set down your rice bowl ON the table and don’t need much table space!

Put your calculator away

You absolutely don’t need to tip. Don’t let your western guilt take over.

Happy to share my food learnings, but if you want to read about other things I learned in Vietnam, check out my Vietnam Learnings post.

What have your experiences been with eating in Vietnam? Any great stories to share?

Still hungry?  Then stop on by WanderFood at Wanderlust and Lipstick for more great food stories!

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