Why wonderful Vietnamese food fails first impressions

By Dinh   June 26, 2023 | 06:25 pm PT
Why wonderful Vietnamese food fails first impressions
A foreign man walks past a pho restaurant in HCMC's District 1, June 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Many praise Vietnam as a food heaven, but there are several problems in the way we promote our foods.

First, we tend to introduce foreigners to the food that we like, no matter how exotic it might taste to our guests.

I work for a multi-national company and many times when I invited colleagues from Europe, Japan, Singapore and the U.S. to lunch, my Vietnamese colleagues chose the dishes they love: duck embryos, or pork and beef served with fermented sauce.

After such meals, my foreign companions often conclude that Vietnamese food is too heavy and does not suit them. They then lose interest in trying more Vietnamese foods and prefer to choose a buffet restaurant when we go out, so they can have different choices.

The second problem is the food we serve in hotels is subpar.

Most people when coming to a different country will arrive at their hotel first, and eat at least a meal there. Many foreign guests that I know have tried pho when they arrived at the hotels here, because Vietnamese pho is so famous.

But the sad truth is pho served in many hotels is terrible. The broth is basically made from seasonings and artificial aroma. I, a Vietnamese, cannot finish it, let alone my foreign guests. Once I had to explain to them that they should try pho at long-standing restaurants outside the hotels, and it's really good. They reluctantly smiled and promised to give it a second try.

The third problem with our food promotion is the way we serve it.

Although hotels' food can be bad, it is served with clean and polite service, which cannot be guaranteed at many restaurants outside.

I once took my foreign guests to a famous pho restaurant in downtown Hanoi. While bringing the bowls over, the waiter accidentally touched a finger tip into the soup.

My guests still went on and ate the soup, but I think they did not feel great about it. If the waiters wear gloves, the diners, especially foreign ones, might feel more comfortable.

Another time, I took my niece who was born and grew up overseas to a 50-year-old steamed rice roll shop in Hanoi, as I wanted to introduce her to such an iconic Hanoi food at an established restaurant. When we arrived, used tissues and discarded vegetables were all over the floor. My niece frowned upon what she called "unhygienic."

As a Vietnamese, I had no problem with that scene, but a Westerner can easily see it as a major food safety violation.

Some Vietnamese habits at the dining table can also scare foreigners away.

Out of good will, we tend to pick up food for other people at the same table, with the same chopsticks we have put in our mouth.

Some Vietnamese people and most foreigners are not comfortable with this, fearing it might transmit diseases.

So, to wrap up, if we want to promote wonderful Vietnamese cuisine to foreigners, start with dishes that are easy to swallow, such as pho, banh mi, spring rolls... instead of those with fermented sauce. Then we should serve them in polite and hygienic ways.

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