A bánh mì for VND12,000 (US$0.53)? A coffee for VND8,000 (US$0.35)? If you’re on a budget, look no further than Vietnam! Prices for food and drinks, as well as the general cost of living, are so unbeatably cheap that Vietnam was recently named the world’s most affordable country for foreigners. And the best part is: you’ll eat well!
Accommodation, transport, sightseeing, food and drinks… budget tourism site Price of Travel has recently estimated a backpacker’s daily expenses in Hanoi at US$18.19. That’s less than the entrance fee to visit the Tower of London—in pounds!
Online institution Numbeo estimates that the cost of living in Vietnam is 45.71 percent lower than in the US.
Food makes up a good part of this. The usual Saigonese office lunch, for instance, offers a range of local specialities from cơm tấm to hủ tiếu at VND35,000 (US$1.54), often including a soup as a starter and a small dessert. While portions are not US-sized, this three-course meal does fill you up; and it is delicious!
If you think these bargains are limited to street food, think again. Even more sophisticated eateries up to Vietnam’s dining temples are highly affordable compared to international prices. For local fare, you’ll rarely pay more than VND250,000 (US$11) per dish.
One simple question arises:
Why Is Vietnamese Food So Cheap?
Vietnamese Food Is Inexpensive by Nature
Vietnamese cuisine is fresh and light in character. Following a deeply rooted food philosophy that aims at harmonising yin and yang through nutrition, nearly all Vietnamese dishes perfectly balance out greens and vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates. Portions are not humongous like in other parts of the world, but stomach-filling.
The recipes, on the other hand, have often been passed down from previous generations who lived a simple life, relying heavily on locally sourced ingredients you’ll find on pretty much any street market at prices that truly amaze.
A 10-pack of eggs merely puts you back a dollar. You could easily buy a whole bagful of vegetables like carrots or local greens, or fruits like bananas or passion fruits and not spend more than US$2.50. And a country with a coastline of 3,440 kilometres is never short of the freshest and cheapest seafood.
Nature is so kind to abundantly provide Vietnamese gastronomy with everything it needs. A trip to the Mekong Delta is enough to understand just how rich and fertile the Vietnamese soil is. This country is quite simply a food paradise on earth!
Cheap Work = Cheap Food
Another reason for the cheap food prices is the same as for the affordability of life in Vietnam in general: wages are rising, but still low on an international scale. Consequently, the labour cost that goes into your lunch is considerably lower than in other countries, which beats down the prices and also creates a demand for reasonably priced food. If you earn US$150 per month, you won’t spend more than a dollar or two on your daily eating. So there are also vendors who cater to that demand.
A Lack of Food Safety?
Lastly, there’s also a downside to the spectacular prices: food safety is not Vietnam’s strong suit. Paying less attention to hygiene ultimately means a lower cost. The main problems are the use of pesticides, lack of refrigeration and insufficient storage systems, as well as hygiene violations during food processing and cooking.
While any consumer in Vietnam should keep this in mind, it would be wrong to distrust the whole industry—and even more wrong to refrain from indulging in all the goodness offered on the street side! Just use your common sense. If a place looks dirty or obviously lacks proper hygiene standards, don’t go. Well-frequented street vendors and restaurants are usually safe.
The good news is: Vietnam—and especially its urban centres Hanoi and Saigon—gives you all the options. If you want to have lunch for VND15,000 (US$0.66), you’ll find that. If you’re willing to pay top prices for top-quality international fare, you’ll also find that, cheaper than in many other countries. However, the best choice is, as so often, the happy medium.
Vietnam has plenty of mid-range street restaurants that are fixed in a house or on a street corner. Prices hover around VND30,000-70,000 (US$1.32-3.08) per dish, food quality is good and the taste is to drop to your knees for. And after all, three dollars for a full-blown, savoury meal is not too bad, is it?
So do look out for those charming little bún chả or cơm tấm, cao lầu or bún bò Huế, mì quảng or bánh xèo places that get crowded at lunch- and dinnertime. This is where you’ll truly experience the culinary genius of Vietnam’s multifaceted, healthy and flavour-bursting cuisine.