Vietnam has a variety of eateries, from street peddlers selling food and drinks from handcarts or shoulder poles to elegant international restaurants. In between are small, basic Western-style restaurants serving Vietnamese food; stalls or stands on the street, surrounded by small plastic stools, serving very cheap and often quite good rice and noodle dishes; hip venues (including hotel restaurants) serving Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, French, American, Italian, or other international cuisines; and tourist cafés, which cater primarily to budget travelers and serve mediocre Western and Vietnamese dishes.
Keep in mind that Vietnam's best eating isn't found only in elegant restaurants or hotel dining rooms, but also at stalls on every street corner and in every marketplace. To taste Vietnamese favorites, you need only step out of your hotel and onto the streets. These soup, rice, noodle, and seafood kitchens are usually run by several generations of a single family, and sitting down on the low plastic chairs at one of these self-contained sidewalk operations for a bowl of bun cha (chopped grilled meat over vermicelli-style rice noodles) feels like joining in a family gathering.
If you stick to local restaurants, food will constitute a minor part of your travel costs. Smaller restaurants—even those serving international cuisines—are surprisingly cheap. Expect to pay international prices at hotel restaurants.
Upscale international restaurants to suit nearly every palate can be found in all major tourist destinations throughout the country. The nation's top hotels have won over an expatriate clientele with their superb cuisine. French, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Thai, Californian, and, yes, certain configurations of fast food are all represented in the northern and southern hubs. And if onigiri are your favorite, you're in luck; Ho Chi Minh City alone has more than 30 Japanese restaurants. Family-run restaurants and cafés with fresh seafood offerings, delicious meats, and tasty an chay (vegetarian dishes) are nearly everywhere.
Good, strong coffee and Vietnamese tea are served with breakfast, after dinner, and any time of day at local cafés.
It's important to be careful of what you eat and drink in Vietnam. Fresh, leafy vegetables are known to carry parasites, so avoid those of dubious origin or those likely to have been washed in tap water. That said, dining at street-side food stands can be as safe as or safer than eating in restaurants, especially in cities. Ho Chi Minh City in particular has a celebrated street-food scene. The stands often serve fresher food than many restaurants because they have a faster turnover; they also prepare the food in front of you. Be more cautious with food stands once you are out of urban areas. It is imperative that you avoid drinking tap water, ice is always made from pure, filtered water in large factories and then delivered to households, street food stands and restaurants, ask if you are unsure. Most decent restaurants either make their own ice using filtered water or buy ice in bulk from the freezer warehouses. Your best bet is to drink bottled water, particularly La Vie and Aquafina brands; be sure to check the spelling on the container as there are many knockoffs, some quite amusing, and check the seal on the cap to make sure the bottle hasn't been refilled.
Keep in mind that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is used in many dishes in Vietnam, particularly in the ubiquitous pho. If you don't want MSG in your food, ask—the cooks may not have already added it to the dish. Many people are unfamiliar with the term MSG, so try referring to it by a popular brand name, Ajinomoto, or in Vietnamese, mi chinh.
Meals and Mealtimes
Despite their slim build, the Vietnamese graze throughout the day and unless you are in a very small village after 8 pm you only need stand outside your hotel for two minutes before a mobile food vendor crosses your path. Breakfast vendors usually set up at first light, serving noodle soup, pho or bun bo, rice congee, chao or baguettes, banh mi, most usually sell out by 9 am. Small local restaurants offering a similar menu open at around 7 am. Tourist restaurants generally open around 8 am and hit the floor running with their full menu, including a few Western breakfast options like bacon and eggs and fresh fruit. Practically every hotel will include a breakfast buffet of Vietnamese and Western staples in their rates, although standards vary. Lunch is typically served between 11:30 and 2 and dinner is available anytime after 2:30, and usually before 8. Restaurants are generally open daily (except major holidays), and although the Vietnamese eat dinner fairly early, most city restaurants remain open well into the night, even after they are supposed to close.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listedare open daily for lunch and dinner. As a rule the only restaurants that accept credit cards are the more upscale places. However, if you do pay with plastic, these places normally add a 5% service charge to your bill.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you plan on dining in a popular restaurant. In some places it's expected, and in upscale hotel restaurants non-guests are often turned away unless they have made a reservation. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can, and reconfirm as soon as you arrive in the locality. Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy. We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wine, Beer, and Spirits
You'll find Heineken, Carlsberg, Tiger, and San Miguel, along with local beers such as Saigon Beer, Tiger, Ba Ba Ba (333), La Rue, Huda, and Halida. Bia tuoi (also known as bia hoi in Hanoi and Hoi An), a watery draft beer, is available on many city street corners; look for low plastic stools occupied by jovial, red-faced men. The popular rice wine (ruou or deo), which is similar to sake, is highly inebriating. You may want to skip the snake rice wine (with a cobra in the bottle) made "especially for men." Imported French, Italian, Australian, Spanish, Californian, and even Chilean wines are available in all main tourist destinations. Brave souls may want to pop open a bottle of the locally produced wine, Vang Da Lat, which bears the label "Product of the Thanh Ha Fertilizer Company."