ON THE GO

Cơm bình dân offer the chance to try some local food and get a sense of everyday Vietnam.

By SAM PATERSON on April 20,2018 11:33 AM

ON THE GO

Photos: KANT TRAN

It’s fair to say my early impression of Vietnamese buffet rice (or cơm bình dân as it is often referred to) was not a good one. Returning from the toilet, I found my half-eaten meal had mistakenly been cleared away to clear room for an incoming throng of customers. As I navigated my way to the front to communicate my problem, a crowd of diners watched on in amusement. As it became clear what had happened, the restaurant burst into laughter, completing my embarrassment.

Cơm bình dân literally means ‘rice for the people’ or ‘popular rice’, which may at first seem an odd suggestion for a top place to eat. After all, the food you can eat there is not famous for travellers to the land and is even overlooked by many local people. Yet the sometimes maligned shops are in many ways perfect to get a grip of everyday Vietnamese life, from the food on your plate to the fellow diners.

Take a walk down any road or alleyway in Hanoi and you’ll be greeted by the same familiar sight. A small sign heralds the shop’s existence, but you’re more likely to be drawn by the front counter, where all manner of food is on display. As the name buffet rice suggests, the food is pre-cooked. Primarily the style of preparation reflects no more than a need to be functional. For Vietnamese at least, eating there is less about eating out than eating up and quickly, as lunchtime and evening sittings serve Vietnam’s hungry workforce. This need to be efficient and quick probably explains why my food was whisked away from me. It’s not just the style of preparation that is set up for efficiency. The inside is typically an open area lined with long tables and chairs closely arranged, with a few exceptions made for style. If you’ve ever eaten at a roadside vendor you’ll get the idea.

ON THE GO

The appeal lies in the food. There is a wide array of delicious options. A selection of meat and vegetables - I’d recommend the braised pork - is accompanied by various goodies to complete your meal. Choose from eggs in different styles, tofu fried with or without a sweet and sour sauce, spring rolls, and even insects for the more adventurous; all different tastes and colours that often makes rice the only common ingredient in your meal. With such variety there are plenty of options for vegetarians. Popular rice means appealing to many, and as my friend says, cơm bình dân can serve as ‘three restaurants in one’.

Rice, perhaps surprisingly, is not a key component of dining out in Vietnam. A Vietnamese friend explained to me that rice is the staple of every family meal so eating out is an opportunity to try something new. For foreigners then, cơm bình dân offers one of the best chances to eat the everyday fare of local people. There are tales of the mixed quality of the food, as cheap prices and high demand can sometimes combine to cause a decline in standards, but most are fine, as the hordes of customers packing them out proves.

Sitting there eating your meal, there’s an opportunity to (almost literally) rub shoulders with other customers. Despite its primary goal of being cheap and efficient, these places don’t lack atmosphere. I’ve witnessed many an animated cross-table conversation. A great example of this was during the recent U/23 football competition, where Vietnam’s progress was charted by diners who entered separately but were keen to talk together.

These restaurants are very much at the heart, or stomach, of Vietnam’s working culture. A quick look around on a recent visit revealed the blue-collar nature of most customers. Motorbike taxi drivers in their livery and construction workers in hard hats take their seat. A friend even called it an example of the ‘socialist idealism of Vietnam’; a grandiose claim to be sure but perhaps one that is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Rice for the people certainly has a certain ring to it, and the name of these restaurants is closely tied to the socialist roots of independent Vietnam.

I find it interesting to note those who don’t dine there as much as those who do. The majority of customers are male, perhaps reflecting the type of work many of the diners do, but women are not the only notable absentees. Vietnam’s recent social changes have seen a wider range of food options available, and many youngsters, unlike their parents, are prepared to pay more to avoid eating at these places. Many Vietnamese I spoke to cited the cleanliness of some of the places as a primary concern, but interestingly were happy to admit to eating there in their ‘poorer, student’ days. One described it as much about image as anything else, as younger generations don’t like the association with ‘lower-class people’

Whether this is true, or merely about changing dietary preferences, is certainly something to chew over during your meal. It will never be fine dining, but that is never the intention, and the food in general is delicious. The appeal of a place set up for an easy dining experience is perfectly suited to a foreign community, with the chance to take a look at Vietnam through the eyes of local people an added treat. For a slice of everyday Vietnamese society, with the rice to go with it, I recommend a visit to a cơm bình dân. 

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