Ho Chi Minh City, Travel Advice, Vietnam

What to expect in a Vietnamese Restaurant

31 Comments 16 June 2010

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!

Your Comments

31 Comments so far

  1. Great post.

    Getting the bill in SEA always seems to be a bit of a struggle. Now, here in Korea the bill always comes with your meal. In some ways that is good, but if you want to order something else it means the bill being changed. This often make the Korean wait staff a little antsy.

    I am used to not tipping and never think twice about it now. I traveled with a friend in SEA and she was bound and determined that she was tipping everywhere. She refused to believe me, and would not read the LP. Finally, I gave up and told her to do her own thing with the tipping. One young guy at Angkor Wat was totally confused. He gave the tip back to me. I quietly added it to our slush fund and she was none the wiser:)

  2. Carrie says:

    Excellent post! I think I’d be hard-pressed to find any country in Asia that actually serves everything together at the same time, unless you’re at super-nice restaurant. Even at foreign-owned restaurants in Taiwan, it’s never a sure thing.

  3. Caleb says:

    In case any readers are curious, the points made here are almost exactly the same in China. And I assume other countries in the region. Only notable difference, most places serve hot water or tea and not iced beverages, and depending on the where you are, the beer may be kept in a chiller and actually served cold.

  4. Great advice, great photos, great post! I will definitely keep all of this in mind if I ever make my way over there… :)

  5. Quyen Nguyen says:

    Excellent post! I like it. Your writing is very close to reality and very detailed. I am Vietnamese and I would like to Thank you for showing good aspects of Vietnam

  6. Adam says:

    Great post! I really miss eating in Vietnam. Not only is it one of our favorite countries we’ve been to, but the food is just so good and fresh and tasty and crunchy and, wow, I could go on and on. And then there’s the bia hoi. YOu really just can’t beat a good glass of homemade beer for 25 cents. And the iced coffee, YUM!! I can’t wait to get back to this wonderful country someday. There were just so many things I loved about it, and the food and drinks were near the top of the list. Well done, and thanks for bringing me back.

  7. Krista says:

    What a great post! This is my first time to your site and I caught myself grinning all the way through. :-) I love these quirky insights into Vietnamese restaurant culture. No wonder you miss it! :-)

  8. jessiev says:

    GREAT tips!! yum!

  9. These are great tips, and ring true for a lot of SE Asian countries. I’m cracking up thinking about the loud popping of the wet wipe bags! Just watched a “No Reservations” episode in Vietnam and it all looked delish.

  10. GotPassport says:

    Will try to remember these tips when we are there!

  11. Mark H says:

    I found the food in Vietnam superb and flavoursome. I travelled there some years ago before tourism was very popular and hence when eating in small cafes, often there was no English or French menu. I remember learning ga for chicken and bo for beef (my entire vietnamese vocabulary!) and picking a dish second, third of fourth on the list under these headings as it was usually pretty tasty without being too adventurous.

  12. Wanderluster says:

    Great post and this really brought me back to VN. Especially the photo of you all sitting around the tiny table on the sidewalk. I MISS that the most.

    The one thing about the ice that you neglected to mention is that, while it might be filtered, it’s delivered on the back of motorbike in a big block, placed on the sidewalk and then chipped away until the proprietor has the amount that he/she wants. The dirt is wiped off by hand and then the block is chipped away for the drinks.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with this :-)

    • admin says:

      Yes Beth, regardless of the filtered ice, you still never really know how it’s being handled. I think Katherine made a good point about the ice cubes with holes in it. I’m sure that after living for a year in Vietnam my stomach was used to ingesting a certain amount of dirt…it’s inevitable! However I know that the guidebooks expressly state that you can’t drink the water…and I wanted to at least let people know about my experience in Saigon. The pollution made me sick…but never the water or food!

  13. katherine says:

    I was told that the ice that’s filtered has a hole in the middle of it and is safe to drink. The ice that comes in one big solid block could make you sick. Having lived in VN for 1 1/2 years I never got sick from the ice or water served at restaurants either. Great post Sherry! I miss the delicious food in VN as well!

  14. Lynn says:

    Wow this makes me miss eating in restaurants in Asia…I miss the waiters leaving you alone until you beckon them…I miss not getting the bill until you ask for it…I miss a Hong Kong peculiarity of them rearranging your place setting periodically – my husband would dis-arrange it just to drive them crazy! :)

    And yes Vietnamese food is maybe the best in Asia – oh those baguettes and the veggies! But the food in Laos was also pretty amazing…

  15. JoAnna says:

    So many good things to know and super timely!! I love street vendor juice, and I’m glad to hear that it’s okay to drink it in Vietnam.

    Also, I’m a disaster with chopsticks. Is it okay to ask for a fork or is that not an option?

    • admin says:

      Sure – you can always get a fork at a restaurant. Not from street vendors though. If you are going to Saigon and need restaurant recs I’m happy to provide them…I have some great ones! True local places and nicer expat places…

  16. I so loved the food in Vietnam! Especially those “restaurants” that were on someone’s front patio, with a dozen women cranking away on sewing machines in the “living room.” I ate from street stands, drank the water, never got sick. Many Americans are too fearful, in my opinion, which keeps them from experiencing the full culture of a country.

  17. Great post.

    So many people get turned off by street food. Just because something looks strange doesn’t mean it will be bad. Eat anything at least once, you may be pleasantly surprised.

    Another useful tip: If there are plenty of locals eating then the place is usually clean (enough).

    Keep up the good work, I always like to read positive things about Vietnam, the people and the food.

  18. Ryan Aldred says:

    Great post! What was your favorite restaurant in Saigon? My bride-to-be and I will be going there for our honeymoon this November. Thanks!

  19. Huong Vu says:

    Love all the way u write about Vietnam and the other country too… Pop out loud the wet wipe, how could u remember that ?!

  20. Diana Nguyen says:

    I’m smiling b/c this article hits the nail on the head although I’m not sure if I’m in agreement with “Drink the water” statement (this, of course, is a total fear-based comment, on my part). I will say “Drink the iced tea” [that sometimes takes place for water] and continue buying bottled water. :) Great article.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I know most people don’t feel comfortable drinking the water…but I did live there for a year and always had water with ice in the restaurants in HCMC. In my apartment though I always brushed my teeth with bottled water! The restaurants around HCMC use filtered water – but certainly don’t drink from the tap!

  21. nyonyamandor says:

    Hahaha … I enjoy how the way you wrote, really open my knowledge about the differences of the culture. I never thought that there is a prohibition to drink the ice in Asian. Hahahaha … And yeah, eating on the street in Vietnam is the one that I miss the most.

  22. ryan says:

    Sherry, thank you for all your posts..they’re great. Each of your post brings me back to a very specific time and place that is still very fresh in my memory, well it’s been only two weeks since returning from my trip to Vietnam. I did the whole Asia trip thing with a couple of friends and Vietnam being the first stop of our trip and to be honest, the latter parts of the trip just doesn’t quite compare to our stay in Vietnam. I’m Vietnamese so I might be a bit biased.

    My family escaped from VN when I was 6 years old and I have never been back until now, 25 years later. My family have always urged me to go back but I’ve always resisted and instead traveled to other parts of the world, VN just was never a desired destination for me. Finally this year a couple friends of mine wanted to go on an Asia trip and VN is on their itinerary. Not know what to expect, VN hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve never been to a place so ALIVE.

    On the taxi ride from HCMC airport to our hotel, my head spun in amazement to all directions seeing how ridiculous the traffic was. Motorbike, cars, trucks and bicycles coming from all directions and how they were all able to avoid one another(at the last second and inches from disaster) blew my mind. I was not a bit scared, I was fascinated, eyes fixated on the madness that surrounded me. I made sure to document all of this to show to all my friends back in the states, this was too good to pass up. The motorbike riders with face masks reminded me of the bird flu pandemic in China a few years back. I initially thought to myself that we got ourselves a pissed of taxi driver only to later realize that the constant honking of the horn is not because he’s had a bad day but to let others in front know of his exact location.

    The food in VN was amazing. I’m not sure how many different kind of snails I ate, most were pretty good. Razor clams were excellent, giant prawns never disappoing but our daring adventure with the cobra was a major disappointment. It was chewy to say the least and the snake blood in vodka didn’t sit well with anyone of us. Oh how I miss eating and drinking on the sidewalk, sitting on little chairs and shoulders to shoulders around a tiny table all the while little kids, old women and disable people bombarded us with lottery tickets. 10,000 VND per ticket or $0.50 US. How could anyone say no to these people? I guess the motto for lottery is the same everywhere you go, “everybody wins except you”. I can see how noise created by the millions of motorbike day and night can get to some people, it didn’t bother me one bit. Crazy as this sounds, I actually miss it. Funny how a country once so foreign to me now calls to me like a home I never left. I miss it so bad. The people, the food, the crazy traffic, the liveliness, the hospitality, the new friends, the old relatives, the country. I miss home.

    Thanks for bring it all back to me with your great posts.

  23. James Dickson says:

    i like to comment about the ice, im an expatriate and live here almost 4 year, as a hotelier, i just advise you to take an ice only in hotel only. I saw hot they prepare the ice, how they cut the ice and how is the ice shop, i saw how the ice laying on the dirty floor for sometimes…that is my last day i took the ice on the street.
    I always passed by the ICE shop, you will never believe what you see until you found it out yourselves.


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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