Food feels almost political among expats in Vietnam. Eat too much Western fare and you’re not truly cultured. Opt only for foods even the Vietnamese won’t eat and you fast become that guy. I’ve never been or wanted to be that guy—the one who enjoys trứng vịt lộn, fried bọ cạp, or sầu riêng not for its taste but as a conversation piece. I also don’t eat three Western meals per day; it’s simply cost prohibitive in a place like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
My eating habits in Vietnam are most impacted by four factors. The first is that I’m single and live alone in a studio-sized bed and breakfast room; I do no cooking for myself here. The second is that my stomach has very little tolerance for ill-preserved food, something that’s found more often than not at Vietnamese food stands, especially towards the end of the day. The third factor is that I’m on the move a lot; my location often determines what I eat. And the last is that I simply miss the United States sometimes, in particular not only its flavor-laden fatty foods but also its high quality organic offerings.
For breakfast this morning I ate phở, but only because Hanoi is still very much in post-Tết hangover mode. My usual morning plate of xôi xéo with a side of seasonal fruit hasn’t been available for several days now and I’m fast becoming a bit sick and tired of noodle soup.
There’s a Vietnamese idiom that goes, “Ngán cơm thèm phở.” Literally translated it means that one is tired of rice so he craves phở. As most Vietnamese funny-isms go, though, the humor in the statement is derived from its second meaning, wives being viewed as rice, —always there for the taking and a bit boring—and mistresses being viewed as phở (in a word, desired). I often joke with my Vietnamese friends that I’m “ngán phở thèm xôi”. Phở is fine, but I can at most take a bowl per week. It just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
I should probably take a step back and talk about a fifth factor: money. Normally I spend anywhere from $250 to $400 USD per month on food, depending on where I’m at and whether or not I’m staying with friends or family.
|Example 1:Solo||Example 2: Dinner w/Friends||Example 3: Tea/Coffee Noon Date||Example 4: Going Swank|
|Bfast||Xôi xéo, seasonal fruit, and iced coffee with milk||Bánh cuốn w/bánh bột chiên, iced coffee with milk||Xôi xéo, seasonal fruit, and iced coffee with milk||Bánh cuốn w/bánh bột chiên, iced coffee with milk|
|Avg. Cost||45.000 VND (~$2.30 USD)||25.000 VND (~$1.28 USD)||45.000 VND (~$2.30 USD)||25.000 VND (~$1.28 USD)|
|Lunch||Foodshop 45, The Oasis, Kitchen, Juice, Annam Gourmet Market, or Sushi||Leftovers or fruit||Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, Park Hyatt Saigon, My Way, or Factory||Leftovers or fruit|
|Avg. Cost||150.000 VND – 250.000 VND (~$7.70 USD – $12.83 USD)||N/A||100.000 VND – 200.000 VND (~$5.13 USD – 10.26 USD)||N/A|
|Dinner||Leftovers or fruit||Quán ăn ngon, chả cá Lã Vọng, bún chả, Puku||Leftovers, dinner with family, or bún đậu||Square One, Lá, or Quán Hải Sản Ngon|
|Avg. Cost||200.000 VND – 300.000 VND (~$10.26 USD – $15.39 USD)||125.000 VND – 225 VND (~$6.41 USD – $11.54 USD)||175.000 VND – 275.000 VND (~$8.98 USD – $14.11 USD)||525.000 VND – 1.025.000 VND (~$26.93 USD – $52.58 USD)|
|Daily Cost||200.000 VND – 300.000 VND (~$10.26 USD – $15.39 USD)||125.000 VND – 225 VND (~$6.41 USD – $11.54 USD)||175.000 VND – 275.000 VND (~$8.98 USD – $14.11 USD)||525.000 VND – 1.025.000 VND (~$26.93 USD – $52.58 USD)|
When I’m tight on cash or too lazy to make a trip to the ATM I eat with family and friends. If I’m feeling active then I’ll go to West Lake or near Hoan Kiem Lake for my meal. Most times I order in, spending my lunch hours in the comfort of my home.
What I eat is entirely at the mercy of how I’m feeling when I’m hungry. I don’t second-guess spending money on food; it’s the one thing I rarely, if ever, turn into a social statement or use as proof that I’m faux-Vietnamese. I actively avoid eating with people who view food as a storyline rather than a source of sustenance, and without hesitation I mock hipsters who seek valor in dog meat and bull penis.
It’s nearing lunch time now. I’ll likely order in from The Oasis, a grocery store and gourmet shop located near West Lake. I frequent The Oasis or Annam Gourmet Market, both located on Xuân Diệu, at least one time per week. Their cheeses are of the highest quality, their meats and vegetables are the type I’ve come to expect to eat as a Texan, and their breads are filling and stick-to-your-bones. Vietnamese food offers an injection of freshness and fulfillment, but it’s too short lived. It feels like the rice and noodle carbs burn too quickly through my body, leaving me hungry only a few hours after eating.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Vietnamese food. I do, a lot actually. But outside of Quán Ăn Ngon, Chả Cá street, bún chả eateries, or bánh cuốn nóng stands I all but refuse to eat Vietnamese food if it’s not cooked at home by friends or family members. Vietnamese food prepared in restaurants is over-oiled, over-MSG’d, over-salted, and just not right. Yes, there are exceptions. Ông Táo in Huế is among one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in which I’ve ever eaten; there’s also a random cháo joint in Ho Chi Minh City to which I’m addicted. I never remember the names of the best places; I just remember where they’re located.
Point is, I eat very well in Vietnam. Whether it’s a day of eating solo at home in Hanoi, spending all mealtimes around the table with my family in Can Tho, or going on the restaurant circuit in Ho Chi Minh City with friends, not a day passes by that I’m not satisfied. I imagine most people who live in international cities feel this way; Hanoi just happens to be my baseline, and a good one at that.