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For Foreigners, Eating in Vietnam not Always as Easy as it Looks

Vietnam is world renowned for its food, confirmed by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey who have dedicated entire TV specials to the country’s culinary soul. And for those of us who live here, we can wholeheartedly confirm this. But while street food is all around us, for foreigners, the intricacies of the local fare can sometimes be elusive. Matt Gross, a former English teacher in Saigon, just wrote a fantastic article for the New York Times detailing his obsession with Vietnamese food. In it, he muses about various street food no-nos such as eating pho for lunch and the linguistic and social barriers that sometimes curtailed his gastronomic exploration. Perhaps this sounds familiar?

Matt moved to Vietnam in 1996, just as Vietnam opened its arms to the West. Having sampled Vietnamese food across the US, he felt destined to unlock Vietnam’s seemingly unlimited culinary secrets. But linguistic and cultural differences often created barriers between his stomach and the local cuisine:

"All around me, I was fairly sure, were amazing food experiences waiting to be had, yet I couldn’t figure out what to eat, how to order, and where, and when, and why…Knowing only a small subset of dishes, and only a few words of Vietnamese, I didn’t even know what to commit myself to. I knew that I should just blindly walk in, point to whatever I saw on other tables, and enjoy the result, but fear and shyness kept me at bay. Is there anything more alienating than not knowing how to eat?"

Even after years of living in Vietnam, these feelings are very familiar to me. Even with a decent collection of food related vocabulary, I’m still overwhelmed by the hundreds of epicurean options I whiz by on my motorbike every day. Other than the basics – pho, bun bo hue, com tam, banh mi, etc., I’ve relied on Vietnamese friends to introduce me to some of the more exotic options. But, as Matt discovered, there’s always the old standby, com binh dan, “the people’s food.”

The full article is well worth the read for foreigners (who may commiserate with author) and Vietnamese (who can laugh at us) alike.

[Image via Victo Ngai]

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