Vietnamese food festival flops amid lack of offerings

By Bich Phuong   October 23, 2023 | 11:00 pm PT
Visitors at a food festival held in HCMC last weekend were left disappointed by the lack of unique offerings, disorganized seating, and an uninformative culinary map.

The Festival "Glory of Vietnamese culinary culture" took place at the Independence Palace from Friday to Sunday, featuring around 100 stalls with dishes from various regions.

Despite free admission, attendees expressed disappointment with the lack of unique offerings at the event.

Swedish tourist Ida Bengtsson stumbled upon the festival when she visited the Independence Palace on Sunday morning. She was eager to try Vietnamese cuisine due to its good reputation, but the scorching heat and difficulty finding her desired dishes on the festival map dampened her excitement, and she settled for bamboo-tube rice and grilled pork skewers.

Du khách Thụy Điển mua cơm lam, nem nướng trong lễ hội.

Ida Bengtsson with her finished order of bamboo-tube rice and grilled pork roll skewers at the food festival. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong

"I found the festival to be crowded from the moment I arrived. Barbecue stalls were everywhere," Bengtsson said.

While there were stalls selling common dishes like beef noodle soup, beef pho, and noodles, Bengtsson had already sampled these offerings and was hoping for more unusual cuisine. The locals recommend the bamboo-tube rice and grilled pork roll skewers as "familiar dishes to Vietnamese people."

The festival attracted a high number of visitors, and it became even more crowded after heavy rain on Sunday afternoon kept people from leaving. The grassy booth area was equipped with plastic sheets for walkways, but the rain made them muddy and slippery.

Despite the high turnout, most attendees merely strolled around without purchasing food.

"Many of the dishes were priced higher than what you'd find outside, and the seating arrangements were bad. The aisles were crowded with people amid the grilling smoke. In such an environment, even delicious food loses its charm," one visitor said.

The festival layout was disorganized. Dining tables were scattered across the premises, with some visitors even moving them around at will. People resorted to sitting under umbrellas or enjoying their food on the shaded lawn of the Independence Palace.

Despite advertising more than 100 stalls offering regional specialties, grilled skewers dominated the scene, drawing in the most customers. Meanwhile, authentic regional dishes struggled to garner attention.

Thanh Huong, a member of the Saigon Professional Chefs Association, offered vegetarian banh uot (steamed wet pancakes) priced at VND35,000 ($1.40) per portion but reported slow sales compared to the skewer stalls.

She said that over the three festival days, she didn't sell all of the 15 kilograms of wet cakes. On a usual day, she typically sells more than 10 kilograms. Huong's stall, located at the far end of the festival, faced challenges due to the hot weather and fewer visitors.

"Although there are plenty of visitors, they seem reluctant to make purchases. Most just sampled the food. This is a common trend for many stalls serving traditional dishes like mine", Huong noted.

Huong served vegetarian steamed wet pancakes at the festival. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong

Thanh Huong serves vegetarian steamed wet pancakes at the festival. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong

Regional specialties occupied less than half of the festival space. Surprisingly, the festival included a sole southern-style banh xeo (crispy pancakes) stall selling dishes for VND70,000 ($2.80) each.

The Ca Mau crab stall was nestled among the grilled food stalls, offering crabs served with various sauces for just VND50,000 ($2) each, yet it failed to attract many customers.

One stall, however, featured dishes made from insects like scorpions, water bugs and coconut worms, which intrigued visitors due to their novelty.

Mai Trung, a visitor from District 5, stopped at this stall and bought a fried scorpion skewer, priced at VND20,000, only to find it unsatisfactory.

"The skewers were deep-fried, making them dry and overshadowing the marinated flavors. Despite the low price, each skewer contained only one scorpion, and the quality left much to be desired," he said.

Despite being a celebration of Vietnamese cuisine, some stalls inexplicably featured non-Vietnamese dishes like Thai papaya salad, while others sold agarwood and unrelated handicrafts.

Signature Vietnamese dishes such as Phu Quoc herring salad, vermicelli with tofu and shrimp paste, vermicelli with grilled pork, mussel rice and Quang-style noodle were absent from the festival's offerings.

Many visitors also found the festival's activities unengaging and unattractive. The only highlight seemed to be a culinary map displaying 126 specialties from the three Vietnamese regions presented as a model.

"It's a culinary map, but it lacks specific information about each dish and its regional significance," said Hoang Ha, who had come from Dong Nai which neighbors HCMC.

She proposed using more interactive technology to improve the experience and make the culinary map more engaging, rather than just having a large but uninformative model.

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