Eating is a great part of any trip to a new place. Food is not only to fill your stomach but also to tell us about the culture of a region or the whole country. Vietnamese cuisine is one of the richest and most diverse cuisines in Southeast Asia. The S-shaped country has dozens of traditional noodle soups, savory and sweet cakes and candies, not less than 100 amazing sweet soups and desserts. There is no shortage of snacks, salads, dried foods and fresh fruits. Highlights of Vietnamese foods include fresh ingredients. You may be served a seafood dish made from frozen shrimps at a high-end restaurant in other countries but many street food stalls in Vietnam serve you delicious meals made from live shrimps, fishes or crabs. How to avoid getting sick from eating Vietnamese foods? Food poisoning may ruin your trip so that it is a must to learn about food safety and hygiene in Vietnam. This is an ultimate guide to food safety in Vietnam, written by a local foodie who is passionate about Vietnamese foods, eat at hundreds of places in the country, and have designed many food tours, including customized street food tours in Vietnam to meet tourists’ expectation.
Choose foods wisely
Did you think that all foods are safe at a trusted restaurant? Did you think that a street food stall that looks dirty serves bad foods? Choosing your foods wisely helps you to avoid lots of health issues in Vietnam.
Foods served hot vs foods served cold
A soup-like dish is usually served hot in Vietnam. Hot food is more easily digested, tastes better, prevents allergies. In Vietnam, they sometimes cook cold foods, arrange them in food cabinets but not a refrigerator, and serve them to customers when they order. So that a food which is served hot is better than cold food in Vietnam. Piping hot food is the best because it is the most delicious and healthiest.
Some foods which must be served piping hot include noodle soups such as Pho (Phở), Hue beef noodle soup (Bún bò Huế), Soup cake with pork, pork leg, crab, seafood, duck (Bánh canh lợn, giò heo, cua, hải sản, vịt), Rice noodle soup with fish cake (Bún chả cá), Clear rice noodle soup Nam Yeung/My Tho, with beef/seafood/pork (Hủ tiếu Nam Vang, Mỹ Tho, bò, hải sản, lợn). The noodles are not always hot, toppings are not always kept warm in pots of boiling broth but they always cover noodles and toppings with boiling broth. Many chefs blanch noodles in boiling water before serving rice noodle soups. So these piping hot dishes are my favorite when I feel not good on my trip to different regions in Vietnam.
The boiling broths do not cover the noodles of Cao lau (Cao lầu) and Mi Quang (Mì Quảng) so that it is not as safe as noodle soups with broths covering toppings and noodles.
Vietnamese hot pots (lẩu), Rice congee with chicken/duck/seafood/fish (Cháo gà/vịt/hải sản/cá) and soups such as the famous Sweet and sour soup (Canh chua) must be served piping hot.
Some popular foods which are usually served cold include Grilled pork rice noodle salad (Bún thịt nướng), Woven rice vermicelli (Bánh hỏi), many Vietnamese traditional cakes such as Square sticky rice cake (Bánh chưng), Mung bean cake (Bánh đậu xanh), Pia cake (Bánh Pía) are served cold. Hue cakes such as Bloating fern shaped cake (Bánh bột lọc), Pork and shrimp dumplings (Bánh nậm), Sticky rice dumplings with shrimp, pork and dumpling (Bánh ít trần) can be kept warm in steamers and served warm or served cold. However, its toppings are usually served cold.
The majority of restaurants serve hot Wet cake (Bánh ướt) and Steamed rice roll (Bánh cuốn), the cakes are only steamed after they are ordered. However, its toppings are usually served cold.
All of the “chả” (Vietnamese sausages which are made from meat/seafood/fish) are served cold. Some Vietnamese sweet soup is served hot, some are served cold, the others are served with ice.
Besides, a portion of Vietnamese food can be “hot (nóng)” and “cold (lạnh)”. For example, the chef can fry some Vietnamese pancakes (or Can cake Bánh căn) and arrange them on a plate in the kitchen. The pancakes can be served to customers right after frying or after up to 20 minutes. The chef only fries new pancakes after serving all of the cooked pancakes. It is recommended to eat at popular local restaurants which have a large number of customers and always serve hot foods although you may wait for your food for a while.
Steamed rice (Cơm), Broken rice (Cơm tấm) and Steamed sticky rice (Xôi) are kept warm in pots on stoves because no Vietnamese people love to eat cold steamed rice. At some budget restaurant, savory dishes served with steamed rice are not warmed before serving with steamed rice. At higher end restaurants, steamed rice, soups, braised/grilled/stir-fried dishes, are served hot.
Finger foods vs foods eaten with utensils
Grilled beef in wild betel (Bò lá lốt), Grilled pork (Nem nướng) in Nha Trang, Dew wetted rice paper and boiled pork – a specialty food of Tay Ninh, Vietnamese pancakes (Bánh xèo), Bánh khọt, Bánh khoái in Hue are considered finger foods. Vietnamese people love to wrap the foods, pickles, vegetables in rice paper. Then dip the rolls in dipping sauces before eating. You have no better way to use your fingers to eat these foods in proper ways and enjoy them at the best. A food eaten with clean utensils such as fork, spoon or chopsticks is safer than foods eaten with your fingers. Make sure to wash your hand with soap and water or hand sanitizer before eating finger foods in Vietnam.
Foods not served in vessels
At higher-end restaurants, dinner wares and utensils are sterilized before serving foods to customers. Lots of restaurants and most of the street food stalls do not sterilize anything. Vietnamese sandwich packed in a paper packaging is safer because no dinner ware nor utensil.
Pickles, salted and fermented foods
Vietnamese pickles, salted and fermented foods can be stored for a long time, they are usually made when they harvest lots of vegetables or seafood. They are said to improve digestion and served with greasy foods and high-fat foods. Some people have digestive problems after eating pickles and salted foods in Vietnam. Carrot and daikon pickles are usually served with Steamed rice, Broken rice, Rice noodle and grilled pork salad.
Fermented fishes, shrimp, acetes are favorite foods of Vietnamese people. They may eat these foods with vegetables, herbs and steamed rice. Stay away from them if you have a weak stomach. Tofu rice noodles with fermented shrimp (Bún đậu mắm tôm) has become one of the most popular foods in Vietnam although it originated in North Vietnam. Consider eating this food in Vietnam if you are not familiar with eating fermented foods at home. The broth of the famous Hue beef noodle soup is cooked from fermented acetes (mắm ruốc). The broth is cooked for a few hours so that it is safe to it. The Fermented fish noodle soup contains the broth which is cooked from fermented fishes (mắm cá). It is also safe for you to eat.
Fish sauce is as safe as other dips and sauces
Although fish sauce (nước mắm) is manufactured through fermentation process for at least 3 months, in which fishes and salt are the main ingredients, it is delicious, safe and healthy. The majority of foreigners find no eating disorder. However, fake and low quality fish sauces which are cheaply-priced are popular. Some restaurants serve you cheap nước mắm in order to maximize profits.
Sautee which consists of chili, cooking oil and lemongrass is rather safe to add to or dip your Vietnamese food.
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In Vietnam, many salad dressings are made from lime juice, sugar, salt, fish sauce and broth mix (or monosodium glutamate). They usually cook meat, poultry, seafood before mixing. Other ingredients for Vietnamese salad are vegetables, green (unripe) fruits such as mangoes, papayas, lotus stems, banana palm hearts, banana blossoms, and herbs which are only washed with water and are not cooked. If you eat uncooked vegetables without any eating problems at home, you can try delicious and healthy Vietnamese salads.
Uncooked vegetables and herbs served with noodle soups
Vietnamese people love to eat piping hot noodle soups with fresh vegetables and herbs. Some of them prefer to add the vegetables and herbs to the bowl of noodle soups, mix the broth, toppings, broths and vegetables before eating. Uncooked bean sprouts, shredded morning glory, shredded banana blossoms, herbs might be sprayed with pesticides or contain flatworms, tapeworms or flukes’ eggs. What to do? You can ask the chef to blanch (trụng) the vegetables and herbs in boiling water before serving them to you. Or you can also add them as quickly as possible to the piping hot bowl of noodle soup after the bring the bowl to you.
Traditionally, Vietnamese people dry raw foods under the sun at least one day to make Vietnamese dried foods such as dried shrimps, squids, fishes. The foods are not completely protected from dust, dirt and insects. Although some dried foods are dried with machines, we can not distinguish dried foods dried under the sun and dried foods made with machines. Vietnamese people sometimes eat dried shrimps as a snack and it is not recommended for foreigners. Dried squids, dried fishes are usually grilled before serving so that it is safe to eat. Dried shrimp is used to cook stir-fried dishes or soups, these foods are safe to eat. Dried chicken, dried beef and pork floss can be eaten without cooking.
In fact, they may add some banned ingredients to dried foods in order to make the foods attractive, extend the expiration date and maximize profits. Dried foods which are packed in boxes or packagings and produced by trusted companies such as Vissan, Tuyền Ký, Hải Châu are rather safe. Dried foods which are arranged on trays at local markets are not worth a risk to buy as gifts or to eat in Vietnam.
There is no shortage of live seafood in Vietnam and prices are not too expensive so that the best choice is live seafood in tanks at restaurants or local markets. After choosing a live fish or a live lobster, you can tell them how it should be cooked. You may see lots of dead seafood arranged on shelves in front of a restaurant or at a seafood shop at local market. If you are experienced in choosing seafood, fresh dead seafood is not a bad choice. In Vietnam, never buy dead crabs, ocean crabs, lobsters (tôm càng), clams (nghêu), blood cockles (sò huyết) because they taste terrible. It is difficult to find live squids, fresh dead squids still taste great. Live shrimps are recommended but fresh dead shrimps are not too bad.
Unfresh seafood does not only ruin your meal but also make you sick. For your information, sellers may use chemicals such as ammonia and formalin to keep seafood fresh. It is one of the reasons why I advise you to eat foods made from live seafood.
How about eating raw seafood, sushi, sashimi and other foods containing uncooked seafood? You should eat them at higher end restaurants, restaurants meeting international standards. Make sure that your seafood dishes are well-cooked. Ask them to cook it again or just threw it away if you find that it is rare. Similar to uncooked seafood, rare or medium-rare seafood should be eaten at the top restaurants in Vietnam.
Snail means “ốc” in Vietnam but “ốc” refers to not only snails but also shellfishes. Lots of foodies are excited at eating snails in Vietnam but they wonder if these foods are safe. It is true that snails have lots of health benefits but snails that are not prepared and cooked carefully and in proper ways may make you be infected with tapeworms, cause digestive disorders, have a stomach and other health problems.
Similar to seafood, snails must be well-cooked. Vietnamese chefs usually cook blood cockles medium rare because medium rare blood cockles taste better and are good for the health. Tell them to cook your blood cockles well done.
Vietnamese mints are usually served with snail dishes, they support the digestion so that I would like to recommend you to eat the herbs with snails. Do not forget to eat at least one starchy food before eating snail dishes. Vietnamese people love to eat seafood and snails at night so many restaurants specialized in these foods are usually open when the sun goes down. I would like to recommend you not to eat seafood and snails too much at night.
Fertilized duck egg is safe
Fertilized duck egg (Balut, Hột vịt lộn) is one of the foods fear factor in Vietnam. Although the edible parts of the egg look scared, it is safe to eat. As you can see, Balut is protected by the shell so that it does not contain any bacteria or tapeworm which may harm your health. In Vietnam, they usually boil Balut until well done, then serve it to you or stir-fry it with tamarind sauce before serving you. A Vietnamese person can eat more than ten fertilized duck eggs at the same time. One or two eggs are safe for you if you try Hột vịt lộn for the first time.
It may be recommended by someone that it is better to not peel apple because peels are packed with nutrients. In Vietnam, I would like to recommend to peel all fruits before eating. Fruits might be sprayed with pesticides by farmers or sprayed with chemicals that keep the fruits from rotten by sellers. Fruits are smuggled from China and other countries are low quality and poisonous.
Fruits at supermarkets and some trusted fruit shops are safer than fruits sold at local markets. On tours to the countryside in Vietnam, tourists are usually served fresh fruits that have just been harvested in lush orchards.
Fortunately, the majority of popular fruits in Vietnam have inedible peels. Fruits with thicker peels such as pomelos, dragon fruits, star apples, jack fruits, bananas, pineapples, watermelons, tamarinds are safer. They may serve you unpeeled guavas, grapes, apples, green mangos. You should peel the fruits yourself with your fingers or a knife.
In addition, you should wash a safe apple at a supermarket with bottled water instead of tap water which may get you sick if you digest it.
Check out Mekong Delta Tour on which tourists visit lush orchards and enjoy delicious seasonal fruits.
Foods with wraps are better
Some Vietnamese traditional cakes and sausages are wrapped in banana leaves, “dong” leaves. These foods are safer than cakes and sausages without wraps.
If you love to try dangerous foods or food fear factors, Vietnam has blood soup, snakes, mouses, clam worms, Sa sung earthworms, stewed organ meats, Tylorrhynchus heterochaetus (rươi), coconut worm (đuông dừa), fertilized duck egg (hột vịt lộn).
Some Vietnamese foods support digestion
Ginger is a common folk treatment for upset stomach and nausea. Instead of ordering a stir-fried squid dish, you can order Steamed squid with ginger and onion. Garlic has the ability to boost the immune system. Fortunately, Vietnamese people use garlic to cook many foods. Stir-fried blood cockle with garlic is a good choice at a snail restaurant in Vietnam. Vietnamese mints not only balance snail and seafood dishes but also help digestion.
Banana is very good for digestion so that you can eat a banana instead of another fruit or a sweet as a dessert after a meal.
Diets, food allergies and restrictions
Because Vietnamese foods are diverse and lots of them are rice-based and plant-based, they are able to accommodate most popular diets, food allergies and restrictions.
Read more about The ultimate guide to eating gluten free in Vietnam
How much should I spend on a safe meal in Vietnam?
If you have enough money to eat pricey foods in Vietnam, the risk is reduced. Budget travelers must plan their trip carefully and must calculate how much they will spend on foods. Not all expensive foods are good and not all cheap foods are bad in Vietnam. $5 USD is enough for buying three meals including breakfast, lunch and dinner in the country.
The average price of a Vietnamese sandwich in Vietnam is VND 15,000 (~ $1.25 USD). At some famous Banh mi shops, a Banh mi costs up to $40,000 VND (nearly $2 USD). Never buy a Banh mi which costs only VND 10,000.
Cơm dĩa or Steamed rice plate is one of the most common meals in Vietnam. Cơm dĩa is healthy and delicious, it contains steamed rice, a món mặn cooked from meats, seafood, poultry, vegetables, a món rau/xào cooked from vegetables, or simply fresh vegetables and herbs, a món canh – soup. It usually costs from VND 25,000. At some big cities, it costs up to VND 50,000. I am not sure about the safety of a Steamed rice plate consisting of a roasted chicken drumstick which costs only VND 20,000 because a raw drumstick costs about VND 15,000. A broken rice plate (Cơm tấm) made from safe pork chop costs from VND 25,000. Similarly, a noodle soup bowl should cost more than VND 25,000.
Noodle soup with seafood is more expensive and meals with seafood and beef are also more expensive than meals with pork, chicken. A portion of seafood that costs VND 30,000 contains a small amount of food or made from unfresh ingredients. A bowl of Pho with beef that costs VND 30,000 contains only a few slices of beef.
Eat at the right restaurant
Guess prices at a restaurant
Prices depend on the locations of restaurants in Vietnam. For example, prices of foods at a restaurant in District 1 is always hight than prices at a restaurant in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the luxurious restaurants in Nguyen Hue walking street serve expensive foods. Prices in Bui Vien walking street in Saigon Backpacker Area are cheaper. Separated from District 1 by a bridge, District 4 is a crowded night street food for local people to gather and enjoy reasonably-priced foods. At restaurants with air conditioners, beautiful design and well-trained staff in uniforms, prices are higher than at street food stalls on the streets. If you see lots of cars in a parking lot for a restaurant, prices at this restaurant are high. In the contrary, the foods are cheaper if customers go to restaurants by motorcycles.
Customers go by car or motorcycles
Empty vs crowded restaurant
On the same street, both restaurants sell grilled foods and there is no clear difference between them. However, a restaurant is nearly empty while the other is packed with customers. How do you think? Eating at the crowded restaurant, you must wait for your foods but you do not worry about food safety, high prices and scams. So that the best choice is a not too crowded but not too sparse restaurant.
Review about restaurant
It is important to research, research, research before your trip or going to a restaurant in Vietnam. Although you should not believe all the reviews, some positive reviews and ratings are left by owners, staff and their friends, negative reviews can be left by competitors or trick customers. Sometimes, a customer ate at another restaurant before eating at the restaurant you are learning about. No one knows which restaurant serves bad foods making his stomach hurt.
TripAdvisor.com – one of the world’s largest travel platforms providing more than 850 million reviews of more than 8.5 million accommodations, restaurants, experiences, etc. Foody.vn provides information including photos, opening hours, prices, menus, reviews about restaurants and coffee shops in Vietnam. It is the top food and beverage review website in the country. The highlights of foody.vn include lots of local restaurants and street food stalls that are not available on Tripadvisor.com. Although most of the reviews on foody.com are in Vietnamese, you can learn about the ratings on this site.
Local market, convenience store or supermarket
At local markets in Vietnam, you can see raw food areas and prepared food areas. Food stalls are usually arranged close together, a food stall at a market has a capacity for about 10 customers. It is not very bright in indoor markets, it is not comfortable to eat at food stalls in outdoor markets when it is rainy or the sun is too strong. Eating at local markets is an interesting thing which you should not miss. Research long-standing food stalls at top local markets in Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Ho Chi Minh and enjoy authentic Vietnamese foods.
At supermarkets, all the foods are preserved well, the foods are safe and dining areas are usually modernly designed. When I am in a hurry and do not want to enjoy local foods and learn about local restaurants, I came to the nearest supermarket and enjoy safe foods in the clean and comfortable dining area.
Vietnamese street foods – great but full of risk
Must-try Vietnamese street foods
Firstly, I would like to confirm that Vietnamese street foods are really tasty and spectacular. So that street food should be included in your trip to Vietnam. Which exotic foods are there?
Try at least one Vietnamese sandwich (Bánh mì, Banh mi) in Vietnam. Why? It is cheap, delicious, healthy, easy to buy and eat.
Savory Vietnamese pancakes
Vietnamese pancakes (Bánh xèo), Vietnamese mini pancakes (Bánh khọt) are crispy outside and tender inside, topped with meats, seafood, or tofu, bean sprouts, mung beans. To eat, wrap a piece of a cake, vegetables and herbs in rice paper or a lettuce or mustard greens leaf, dip it in a fish sauce dip.
Bloating fern shaped cake (Bánh bột lọc), Pork and shrimp dumplings (Bánh nậm), Sticky rice dumplings with shrimp, pork and dumpling (Bánh ít trần) are served with crispy toasted bread cubes, beef roll (chả bò), ground dried shrimp and dipping fish sauce.
As mentioned above, Pho (Phở), Hue beef noodle soup (Bún bò Huế), Soup cake with pork, pork leg, crab, seafood, duck (Bánh canh lợn, giò heo, cua, hải sản, vịt), Rice noodle soup with fish cake (Bún chả cá), Clear rice noodle soup Nam Yeung/My Tho, with beef/seafood/pork (Hủ tiếu Nam Vang, Mỹ Tho, bò, hải sản, lợn) are safe street foods in Vietnam.
Grilled pork rice noodle salad (Bún thịt nướng), Woven rice vermicelli (Bánh hỏi), Cao lau (Cao lầu) and Mi Quang (Mì Quảng), Tofu rice noodles with fermented shrimp (Bún đậu mắm tôm).
Steamed sticky rice
Steamed sticky rice with savory toppings (Xôi mặn) or Sweet steamed sticky rice (Xôi ngọt)
Spring rolls (Gỏi cuốn), Fried rolls (Chả giò), Pork patties – specialties of Nha Trang, Dew wetted rice paper and boiled pork, Rice paper roll (Bánh tráng cuốn).
Snacks made from rice paper salads
Rice paper salad (Bánh tráng trộn), Vietnamese pizza (Bánh tráng nướng), Papaya and dried beef salad (Gỏi khô bò đu đủ).
Vietnamese sweet soups, Tofu pudding, Flan cake, Mixed fruits.
Styles of street food business in Vietnam
Mobile street food business includes street food shoulder poles, street foods on motorcycle/bicycle/automobile three-wheel vehicle (xe ba gác), rolling food cart (xe đẩy). Vendors do not need to rent any house or land so that prices of foods are cheap. The vendors can be caught by the police at any time. The food quality is usually worse than at temporary street food stalls due to the shortage of space, utensils, dinnerware and very small cooking area.
Temporary street food business includes street food stalls at local markets, street food stalls on streets or alleys, street food restaurants in shophouses in apartment buildings, street food restaurants in houses on streets or alleys, outdoor street food restaurants.
Which eateries serve safe food?
Vietnamese street food vendors are not trained on food safety and hygiene so that street foods in Vietnam are not fully safe. How to choose the best of street food stalls?
- Street food stall must have at least some customers, eating at an empty local restaurant is not worth a risk. Most of the crowded restaurants in Vietnam sell good street food. However, you may wait for your foods for a long time at crowded stalls. It is great to eat at a restaurant which is not too crowded but not too spares.
- If foods are not protected carefully, they will not be safe. If foods are arranged in glass food cabinets or covered with plastic sheets, the foods are protected from insects including flies, dust and bacteria. Do not eat a local restaurant where you can see flies on foods and nothing is used to contain or cover the foods.
- Do not eat at street food stalls where you something smells bad. Stay away from eateries near drains or garbage dump.
- Never eat at street food stall where leftovers and tissues are everywhere on the floor. The vendor may not have enough time to arrange furniture and clean the floor frequently.
- Eating foods at a restaurant where they serve your foods without gloves or utensils is not worth a risk.
- Observe how they wash dinnerware and utensils. At some street food stalls, they wash dishes next to the cooking areas. See how many changes of water they wash the dishes, if they wash dishes with dishwashing liquid, if they dry the dishes after washing with water.
Street food tour – a good choice
In order to eat safe street foods in Vietnam, I would like to recommend you to go to street food areas with local friends. If you have no local friend, you can simply book a Vietnam street food tour on which local guides take you around and serve you the most delicious and safest foods.
Use separate utensils for foods
If you are served a separate meal, it will be great. Sometimes, they serve a set menu for all tourists who join the same group tour. You will have separate bowl, chopsticks and spoon. Do not use your utensils to get foods from plates or bowls of foods for the whole group. They usually put a ladle in the bowl of soup so that you can get the soup easily. If you see one of the other people in the group use their utensils to get foods, you should get the foods one time.
Do not eat foods that must be served hot but are not kept hot on the buffet table. It is recommended to not use many items of tableware and utensils when eating buffet in Vietnam if you are not sure that they sterilize the items after arranging, washing and putting them back on shelves. Do not use wet tableware and utensils.
Be careful when going to restrooms in Vietnam
Not all restrooms in restaurants are clean and equipped with modern facilities. They sometimes do not provide free toilet paper. You should bring your own toilet paper. Cleaning toilet seats before sitting is recommended. It helps to prevent infection with some infectious diseases.
Clean your hand and dining ware before eating and after going to the toilet
Washing your hands before eating is very important. You can wash your hands with soap or liquid handwash and water in restrooms of restaurants. Some restrooms are dirty and stinky, you can not stand being there. Eating at a large number of street food stalls, you may not find a basin to wash your hands. Bringing and using a hand sanitizer is recommended.
“Sterilize” utensils before eating
Clean utensils such as forks, chopsticks, spoons, knives with utensils using lime wedges that are available on dining tables. Use tissues to dry and clean utensils. Then enjoy the great foods with “clean” utensils.
Bring some light foods with you
On a full-day or multi-day trip, you should bring some cakes or snacks with you. They are useful if you can not eat the foods served on the tour.