One of the most common reasons cited by expats for loving life in Vietnam is the food. Food is, after all, a huge part of life, and the cuisine you have easy access to on a day-to-day basis makes a huge difference in quality of living. Here are a few more of the top reasons expats love Vietnamese food.
It’s Fresh and Flavorful
Many foods from Western countries are processed or pre-prepared, and it makes a huge impact on the taste. “Back home,” for example, the tomatoes you buy have likely been pumped full of preservatives or frozen at least once before they are placed in the produce section. In Ho Chi Minh City, however, there is always a “wet market” nearby selling tomatoes that were likely picked from the vine early that same morning and never tampered with. (Fun fact: “Wet markets,” the crowded outdoor markets that are popular in Asian countries, are called as such because they are cleaned by being hosed down and tend to remain wet because the sellers do not allow time for the water to evaporate.) The fresh tomato is sure to have a more vibrant taste. Now picture an entire salad made from fresh lettuce, fresh tomatoes, fresh mushrooms, and free-range eggs, all available for negligible prices at wet markets. Compare that to a mess of previously frozen vegetables, and I’m sure you can guess which one will be tastier.
Another example is something as simple as peanuts. I thought it was strange when I first came to Vietnam that I could buy uncooked peanuts, something which I had never seen in the US. It seemed like it was just making the decision to snack on some nuts into a chore. I was proven wrong, though, when I actually fried some up, sprinkled on a bit of garlic salt, and sampled them. They had a complex, woody flavor that peanuts which were cooked weeks or months in advance do not. This illustrates that Vietnamese food can be a bit more work than western food, but it is worth it.
Of course, most expats will be eating out fairly often. Rest assured that, unless you are eating at the cheapest of street food stands, the ingredients used are more often than not locally sourced and as fresh as the ingredients you would pick out yourself.
This is partially tied into the last point, as fresh food that has not been doused in fertilizers or growth hormones is always healthier than the alternative. You have to be careful when eating out if you want to find the healthy stuff, though, as many inexpensive street food places go with the cheapest option possible, chemically treated produce usually from Vietnam’s northern neighbor. If you’re willing to pay an extra dollar, though, you’ll have no trouble finding somewhere with health-conscious ingredient sourcing. A good rule of thumb for finding healthy street eats is that an indoor food prep area, which usually means refrigeration, suggests fresh food.
Another factor that contributes to the positive health benefits of Vietnamese food is the fact that generous portions of vegetables are served as optional garnish with almost everything. Walking along one of the crowded thoroughfares of District 10 and order a bowl of phở? You’ll receive a large plate of mint and fresh oregano with it, in addition to the bean sprouts and shallots already included in the dish. Ordering a dish of bánh khọt while on a day trip to Vũng Tàu? The savory fried cakes will come with a heaping side of lettuce and mustard plant leaves to wrap them in before dipping the whole package in a small bowl of radish- and carrot-infused fish sauce. It’s no wonder you almost never see overweight Ho Chi Minh city natives — the local cuisine fills them up on fresh, healthy vegetables.
It’s incredibly Inexpensive!
Vietnamese food is impossibly cheap in Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City in particular. You’ll have no problem finding a delicious street food meal in almost and neighborhood in the metropolis for under 1.50 USD, although you may want to raise your budget all the way up to 2.50 USD if you want to ensure a healthy and hygienic eating experience. You can add a fresh-squeezed fruit juice of an astonishing variety of types or an authentic Vietnamese coffee for 0.70 USD, and you’ve got enough delicious and nutritious fuel to last you at least a few more hours of your schedule.
Foreign cuisines are a different story, and you can expect to spend what you would in most of the world’s biggest cities if you’re in the mood for Indian, Italian, or Mexican. Luckily, Vietnam has an extremely diverse culinary landscape, and there is enough variety in the cuisine to keep the palette entertained for quite a while.
You’ve probably heard the old piece of wisdom that says things are always better if you’ve worked for them. This can apply to a lot of different areas of life, but one that seems especially applicable here is the Vietnamese cuisine. Most western foods are engineered for convenience. Restaurant soup comes to the table pre-seasoned, fresh spring rolls in a restaurant come pre-wrapped, and bottled hot sauce will be provided at your table instead of anything fresh. In Ho Chi Minh City, soup is served with a smorgasbord of sauces, spices, and vegetables so the eater can carry out the last step of cooking at the table. An order of spring rolls might consist of rice paper, meats, and vegetables all served separately so the diner can assemble their own fare. And a bowl of fresh chilies, one of which can be selected and crushed with a spoon before adding it to food, is provided at the table. The Vietnamese dining culture involves a bit more elbow grease on the part of the customer to customize the meal, and the food tastes all the better for it.
While most Western dishes utilize oven roasting or at least a few minutes of cooking time on the stove, Vietnamese food is mostly flash fried. That usually means it is cooked and ready to serve in a matter of seconds, if it is supposed to be cooked at all — Vietnamese vermicelli, the base for several dishes, does not involve cooking. The cooks have to be prepared for the fast cooking times by having all the ingredients at hand and ready to throw in the pan when the cooking begins. Customers can be more leisurely, though, and the lightning-fast preparation times means they will not have to wait long for their food to be ready.
Cooking at home is always an option, and Saigon’s many international groceries make it possible to capture any kind of cuisine you like that way. There are also lots of foreign restaurants scattered all over the city. The local cuisine will always be the most inexpensive, quickest, healthiest, and most authentic way to eat in Ho Chi Minh City, though, so knowing the local food scene and being able to assess its benefits is definitely a game-changer.
To find out more about some of the great street food places available in Saigon, checkout our street food interactive map here: http://www.saigonexpatservices.com/map-of-saigon/saigon-street-food-map/