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Eating Out in Vietnam

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Going out to eat in a country where you don’t speak the local language can be a daunting task. Multiple difficulties loom upon entering the establishment: How will I know what they are serving? How will I ask for drinks? How will I ask for an extra fork, if need be?

I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City for seven months now, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been a complete and utter failure at learning anything beyond the most basic Vietnamese. I blame this, partly, on the fact that the language uses five different tones, so by mispronouncing cat, you could accidentally call someone a jackass. (That’s a fake example, but you get the idea.) Actual examples of this difficulty are beef and avocado, both of which are spelled bo but, depending on where the accent is, mean completely different things. I certainly wouldn’t want to eat grilled avocado, or have a beef smoothie.

Fortunately, the Vietnamese use a Roman alphabet, unlike their Chinese and Cambodian neighbors. (All thanks go to the French for that.) Therefore, if you learn a few words, you can figure out a decent chunk of most menus. Even if you do know some basic food words and adjectives, however, eating in an entirely Vietnamese restaurant is an experience. Here’s how it might go.

There won’t be a front door, or any windows, or even any exterior walls. You will simply walk in from the street and choose your seat; which is usually a simple plastic chair, but sometimes you’ll be stuck with a tiny plastic stool, designed for toddlers, but employed everywhere around here to support adults.

Then, a waiter will approach and, hopefully, hand you a menu, if not then you’ll have to resort to pointing at what someone else is eating. As previously mentioned, though, even if you get a menu, there will still be problems. For example, I know the words for the major food groups: chicken, beef, pork, fish, etc., and major descriptors like fried and grilled, but beyond that I am useless. So, I can tell if I’m about to order grilled squid, but I have absolutely no idea what kind of sauces, spices, or other extra ingredients will be added. Many a time my friends and I have pointed at something on a menu and been completely surprised by what appeared on the table. Fortunately, Vietnamese cuisine is excellent, so almost anything you order will be fantastic.

I should probably go back and discuss waiters here. Service is efficient, especially by regional standards. If you eat with a group of people in, say, Cambodia, someone’s food will inevitably come out a half hour after everyone else’s. The quick service is commendable, but it is also usually rather brusque. I often have to ask them to wait to take everyone’s order, since they often take off after just one dish is ordered. Few, if any, pleasantries are exchanged. The staff also cares little for who ordered what, so they usually just plop a dish down in the middle of the table, or in front of whichever chair (or stool) they are closest to, and wait for the diners to sort everything out.

Waiters also range widely when it comes to how much English they know, or how well they are able to understand butchered Vietnamese. Some don’t know a word of English, and look at you as if a third arm has just sprouted out of your head when you try to order iced tea in Vietnamese. On the opposite end of the spectrum, at one restaurant a friend of mine tried to order in Vietnamese and the waiter, in unaccented English, said “Please, order in English, it’s easier.”

When it comes to decor, well, there isn’t really any. At this point I should clarify that I’m talking about the cheap eateries that line almost every street in Ho Chi Minh City. There are certainly some beautiful Vietnamese restaurants here, but the vast majority are geared towards quick, delicious food, with little effort expended on atmosphere. Most establishments have simple white, or maybe light-blue, walls. There may be some random pictures of rural Vietnam, or perhaps a few tiny Buddhist shrines, but most places are completely bare. By and large, this is the wrong city to be in if you like aesthetics with your food.

One of the best parts about eating in a local Vietnamese place is observing the locals. At night there will inevitably be a group of ruddy-faced, middle-aged men, downing round after round of beer, 40-ounce bottles of Tiger creating a veritable traffic jam on their table. Children play with each other, and the waiters horseplay in between taking orders.

Going out to eat in Vietnam, then, is certainly an experience. I even made it this far while barely mentioning the main event: the food itself. The cuisine is so fresh and creative that all of the challenges and annoyances of dealing with a restaurant are meaningless. It’s all about the food, and that’s all that matters.

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About Mike Tatarski

  • Craig Wilson

    Hi Mike-

    Enjoyed reading your blog about eating in Vietnam. Just a point on your example of the similarities between the words beef and avocado. Actually, the difference between these words is two ways: the vowels are different, as well as the tones. Vietnamese has the advantage of usually showing what the pronunciation of the vowel is, in contrast to English, which has fewer clues.

    Best wishes on your work there.