Last updated Aug 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Common Rice Eateries & Why I Love them:
It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s at least one quán cơm bình dân (common rice eatery) on every urban street in Vietnam. Even in the smallest hamlets, in the farthest flung corners of the country, they’ll be a sign saying ‘Quán Cơm Bình Dân’. The majority of these eateries are small, family-run operations, offering a wide range of home-cooked dishes at reasonable prices. Especially busy at lunchtimes, quán cơm bình dân serve customers from all walks of life: from suited bankers to overalled labourers; from uniformed students to oil-stained mechanics. They are simple, informal places with plastic stools and tables on the sidewalk. The food is displayed in trays behind a glass screen, and ordering is a matter of either shouting or pointing at what you want. Whether you’re a citizen or a traveller, common rice eateries are a great source of typical, local Vietnamese fare at budget prices. For me, eating at quán cơm bình dân is a daily pleasure and one of my favourite things about living in Vietnam.
Images of Common Rice Eateries:
The Food, not the Décor:
Aesthetically, most common rice eateries are unappealing, to say the least: corrugated iron roofs, bare brick walls, peeling plaster, tissues on the floor in puddles of spilt sauce, flies buzzing from plate to plate, dogs sniffing under tables for discarded food, chipped crockery and misshapen cutlery. But, if this puts you off, you’re missing the point. These places are all about the food, not the decor. Customers arrive, eat, drink, and leave in the space of a few minutes. This is not a restaurant; not a place to linger and chat over a meal and a glass of wine. Quán cơm bình dân are all about filling your stomach with good, wholesome, hearty food in the precious little time you have before going back to work.
Feeding the Nation:
These rice eateries are effectively feeding the nation, and, to do this, the food has to be good, but, more importantly, the operation must be smooth and perfectly choreographed. Take a seat at midday – the peak of the lunchtime rush – and you’ll see how efficiently-run they are. Orders fly-in from everywhere – shouted from seats, barked from the sidewalk, called-in over the phone – yet nothing is written down. During the busiest times, the turnover of diners is incredible: a popular rice eatery can serve several hundred customers in just one hour. The atmosphere is electric: chaotic, yes, but also controlled; you rarely get the impression that staff are flustered or that anything goes wrong. Amazingly, when it comes to paying the bill, the proprietor – who is almost always a woman – simply asks the customer, “Ăn gì?” which means ‘What did you have to eat?’ It’s extraordinary to see this level of trust and honesty, even in the middle of big cities, like Saigon – could you imagine that happening in a sandwich bar in central London or New York?
Hearty & Home-Cooked:
As for the food, well, just look at the images in this post and tell me they don’t make you hungry. These are classic, standard, earthy Vietnamese dishes that you would find on the table in any Vietnamese home. There are regional differences – some of them quite subtle – between what’s available at, for example, a common rice eatery in Saigon and one in Hanoi. But, wherever you are in Vietnam, pork and fish will always be well-represented. For me, as a foreigner, there’s a particular thrill about enjoying these homely dishes in the rustic setting of a common rice eatery. For most Vietnamese people, the food and environment is, as the name suggests, ‘common’, normal, ordinary, but for me, the experience is exotic, exciting, and fascinating. Even though common rice eateries are now a part of my own daily life – and have been for years – the novelty of quán cơm bình dân has yet to wear off, and I hope it never will. The presence and availability of good food at cheap prices in an informal environment is simply wonderful, and something that I never experienced in my home country, the U.K.
Great Food at Budget Prices:
Common rice eateries are easy to find – just look for signs saying ‘Cơm Bình Dân’, which you’ll see all over the country. Quality varies from place to place, but, in general, if you find one with a big crowd outside, it’s safe to assume you’re in for a good feed. Most rice eateries will offer at least a dozen dishes, displayed in metal trays on a ‘hot trolley’. Meat, fish, tofu, vegetables, soups are all available. Ordering is simple: just point at what you want. Every meal is served with a plate of steamed rice, a side of green vegetables, a small soup, and a glass of iced tea. Prices are around 15-40,000vnd ($1-$2) per meal. Unfortunately, because there aren’t any printed menus in common rice eateries, overcharging of foreign customers is not unusual. This can be very frustrating, but try to keep some perspective: even if you’re charged double, the cost will still be minimal.
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