Scattered meals: how urban life is reshaping family dining in Vietnam

By Phan Duong   May 17, 2024 | 12:34 am PT
Ever since her younger brother went to university, Khanh Vy’s family has stopped taking their meals at home together.

Her mother, a kindergarten nanny, eats with colleagues. Her farther, a silversmith working from home, eats with neighbors. Her brother, whose university is 20 km away, eats his meals out with friends.

Vy, a 28-year-old employee at a Ho Chi Minh City event planning company, eats whenever it’s convenient because she’s often out on business.

"We’re still a close-knit family, it's just that we rarely have meals together nowadays," she said.

Many families in Vy’s District 8 neighborhood are the same these days, sometimes eating out more than eating in.

In Hanoi, where home meals are often considered very important, it’s a serious tradition among most northerners, Ngoc Anh, her husband, and their two-year-old son still prefer to eat out. They buy breakfast from nearby vendors and more than half their lunches and dinners are take-away.

She said that in one week she counted that the family visited at least 6 restaurants and a street food vendor, eating dishes such as sushi, Thai food, spring rolls, and roasted goose.

"Every day I work three shifts and my mind is tired by the end of the day, so I don't want to cook anymore," said Anh, who works as a dermatologist.

Her family often visits trendy places or restaurants inside shopping malls so her son can have a place to play. Each meal cost from VND400,000-800,000 ($15.71-31.42), meaning the family spends a total of VND8-10 million monthly eating out.

Ngoc Anhs family dining at a restaurant. Photo courtesy of Ngoc Anh

Ngoc Anh's family dining at a restaurant. Photo courtesy of Ngoc Anh

Vy and Anh's family lifestyle reflects the bigger picture.

The Culinary Business Report in Vietnam released by iPOS, a company providing restaurant and cafe management solutions, at the end of March showed that Vietnamese people are eating out more often in 2024 than in 2022, with more than 17% eating out every day, nearly 30% eating out 3-4 times a week.

And interestingly, recent economic difficulties seem to have not affected this trend. In 2023, Vietnamese people also spent more money on lunches and dinners while eating our than in previous years.

Food delivery app Grab's December 2023 report showed that more Vietnamese users like to use the Grab app to explore and experience new restaurants, and more than 50% said they use Grab when they do not know where they want to eat.

Previously, a survey by Vietnam market researcher Q&me also showed that urban people, especially those with high incomes, eat out more, with 36% saying they cook at home far less ever since the pandemic lockdown ended.

"Family meals are disappearing," said family psychologist Hong Huong, from Hanoi. According to her, the hustle and bustle of urban life is pushing out the time for family meals in Vietnamese society.

Because of busyness, the pressure of work, and the inconsistent schedules of family members, it is difficult to maintain cooking habits. Even eating is different now, as some don’t want to just fill their stomachs: many follow strict diet regiments, some people fast, and not everyone eats the same foods as each other anymore.

Folklore researcher and culinary expert Vu Thi Tuyet Nhung, from Hanoi, calls going to the market for ingredients to cook "an old way of life."

Her children and grandchildren like to eat out. When she asked why her children don’t just cook the simple dishes they order in restaurants themselves, they reply that they "don’t have time."

Even if they do cook, her children often buy ingredients that were already prepared or marinated and just need "a quick round of cooking."

People queue to eat pho at a restaurant in Hanois Hoan Kiem District, in April 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

People queue to eat pho at a restaurant in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District, in April 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

An unhealthy habit?

Nutrition expert Dr. Nguyen Trong Hung of the National Institute of Nutrition, said that as eating out becomes a way of life for many urban families, it is accompanied by increased risks of bad food hygiene and safety, and more cases of food poisoning.

The Ministry of Health’s Department of Food Safety said that up to 70-80% of street food has been determined to be contaminated with bacteria such as E. coli, which causes diarrhea and intestinal diseases.

Vietnam recorded 125 cases of en masse food poisoning nationwide in 2023, in which more than 2,100 people were infected and 28 people died. This is an increase of more than 70 cases compared to 2022.

Most recently, on April 30, a sandwich poisoning case in the southern province of Dong Nai sent 568 people to the hospital.

There is scientific evidence that eating junk food is linked to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Data from the Institute of Nutrition also shows that the rate of overweight and obese children in Vietnam has doubled over the last 10 years.

Hung said the excessive salt, grease, and additives used by eateries make it hard to control the body’s energy intake. "Try to maintain family meals even when you eat out often, because only then can you control food intake and proper nutrition," he advised.

When families do eat out, he recommended that everyone check for food safety and hygiene certificates, observe the ingredients used, the processing and cooking environment, and whether the seller uses gloves, utensils, and separate tools for handling food, clean bowls and chopsticks.

"It's best to choose boiled or steamed dishes when eating out, which will be safer than dishes that were marinated, fried, mixed, or minced, since it is easier to determine the original ingredient and whether they are safe or not," Hung suggested.

Even though they always choose restaurants with good reviews and prices that are not cheap, Anh's family still cannot avoid getting food poisoning several times a year. "I know that eating out too much is not good, but with my current busy job, eating out is a way to relieve stress," Anh said.

Vy's family recently began to worry when more and more people around them were diagnosed with cancer. Last month, Vy worked on a campaign about cancer and came into contact with many patients, so she became even more worried about her eating habits.

The whole family has now set the collective goal of cooking more at home, especially on weekends. Vy is also planning to take a cooking course."For me, cooking for myself is like a survival skill, if not for my health, then at least to avoid situations like the pandemic when we were stuck at home," she said.

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