The People’s Food: Local Rice Eateries

Last updated Aug 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


Common Rice Eateries & Why I Love them:

It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s at least one quán cơm bình dân (common rice eatery) on every urban street in Vietnam. Even in the smallest hamlets, in the farthest flung corners of the country, they’ll be a sign saying ‘Quán Cơm Bình Dân’. The majority of these eateries are small, family-run operations, offering a wide range of home-cooked dishes at reasonable prices. Especially busy at lunchtimes, quán cơm bình dân serve customers from all walks of life: from suited bankers to overalled labourers; from uniformed students to oil-stained mechanics. They are simple, informal places with plastic stools and tables on the sidewalk. The food is displayed in trays behind a glass screen, and ordering is a matter of either shouting or pointing at what you want. Whether you’re a citizen or a traveller, common rice eateries are a great source of typical, local Vietnamese fare at budget prices. For me, eating at quán cơm bình dân is a daily pleasure and one of my favourite things about living in Vietnam.

Images of Common Rice Eateries:  


The Food, not the Décor:

Aesthetically, most common rice eateries are unappealing, to say the least: corrugated iron roofs, bare brick walls, peeling plaster, tissues on the floor in puddles of spilt sauce, flies buzzing from plate to plate, dogs sniffing under tables for discarded food, chipped crockery and misshapen cutlery. But, if this puts you off, you’re missing the point. These places are all about the food, not the decor. Customers arrive, eat, drink, and leave in the space of a few minutes. This is not a restaurant; not a place to linger and chat over a meal and a glass of wine. Quán cơm bình dân are all about filling your stomach with good, wholesome, hearty food in the precious little time you have before going back to work.

Common rice eatery, quán cơm bình dân, Vietnam

Informal: it’s all about the food, not the décor, at Vietnam’s common rice eateries, which feed the nation


Feeding the Nation:

These rice eateries are effectively feeding the nation, and, to do this, the food has to be good, but, more importantly, the operation must be smooth and perfectly choreographed. Take a seat at midday – the peak of the lunchtime rush – and you’ll see how efficiently-run they are. Orders fly-in from everywhere – shouted from seats, barked from the sidewalk, called-in over the phone – yet nothing is written down. During the busiest times, the turnover of diners is incredible: a popular rice eatery can serve several hundred customers in just one hour. The atmosphere is electric: chaotic, yes, but also controlled; you rarely get the impression that staff are flustered or that anything goes wrong. Amazingly, when it comes to paying the bill, the proprietor – who is almost always a woman – simply asks the customer, “Ăn gì?” which means ‘What did you have to eat?’ It’s extraordinary to see this level of trust and honesty, even in the middle of big cities, like Saigon – could you imagine that happening in a sandwich bar in central London or New York?

Lunchtime rush at a common rice eatery, Vietnam

Feeding time: common rice eateries are smooth operations; serving hundreds of diners within an hour


Hearty & Home-Cooked:

As for the food, well, just look at the images in this post and tell me they don’t make you hungry. These are classic, standard, earthy Vietnamese dishes that you would find on the table in any Vietnamese home. There are regional differences – some of them quite subtle – between what’s available at, for example, a common rice eatery in Saigon and one in Hanoi. But, wherever you are in Vietnam, pork and fish will always be well-represented. For me, as a foreigner, there’s a particular thrill about enjoying these homely dishes in the rustic setting of a common rice eatery. For most Vietnamese people, the food and environment is, as the name suggests, ‘common’, normal, ordinary, but for me, the experience is exotic, exciting, and fascinating. Even though common rice eateries are now a part of my own daily life – and have been for years – the novelty of quán cơm bình dân has yet to wear off, and I hope it never will. The presence and availability of good food at cheap prices in an informal environment is simply wonderful, and something that I never experienced in my home country, the U.K.

Food at a common rice eatery, Vietnam

Home-cooked food available to everyone: a classic spread of meat & vegetables at a common rice eatery


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Great Food at Budget Prices:

Common rice eateries are easy to find – just look for signs saying ‘Cơm Bình Dân’, which you’ll see all over the country. Quality varies from place to place, but, in general, if you find one with a big crowd outside, it’s safe to assume you’re in for a good feed. Most rice eateries will offer at least a dozen dishes, displayed in metal trays on a ‘hot trolley’. Meat, fish, tofu, vegetables, soups are all available. Ordering is simple: just point at what you want. Every meal is served with a plate of steamed rice, a side of green vegetables, a small soup, and a glass of iced tea. Prices are around 15-40,000vnd ($1-$2) per meal. Unfortunately, because there aren’t any printed menus in common rice eateries, overcharging of foreign customers is not unusual. This can be very frustrating, but try to keep some perspective: even if you’re charged double, the cost will still be minimal.

Food at a common rice eatery, Vietnam

Excellent food at budget prices: a meal like this should only set you back a couple of dollars

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9 Responses to The People’s Food: Local Rice Eateries

  1. Roberto says:

    Can you believe that in all the way from Sapa to ha giang I couldn’t find one single ‘Cơm Bình Dân? Only bun pho.

    • Hi Roberto,

      Yes, that is strange. But I think you’re right that in the north, especially the more remote rural northern mountainous regions, cơm bình dân eateries are likely just referred to as quán cơm-phở instead. There are plenty in Ha Giang city, though 🙂

      Tom

  2. […] After the delicious feasts on offer at the homestays in Mai Châu, really good food on the rest of the Limestone Loop is more difficult to find. Just as with accommodation, it helps to write down and remember a couple of Vietnamese words: ‘Quán Cơm’ and ‘Phở’ – these words roughly translate as ‘Rice Eatery’ and ‘Noodle Soup Kitchen’. Learn them and you’ll find some great meals in places you’d never expect. There are signs saying Quán Cơm and Phở all over Vietnam. You’ll hardly find any English menus outside of Mai Châu, so be willing to try whatever’s on offer and come with an adventurous palate. In general, meals at Quán Cơm are cheap, hearty and big. Reckon on 30-60,000VNĐ ($1.50-$3) for a big bowl of steamed rice, a meat dish (usually pork), a green vegetable dish and a soup made from whatever ingredients are in season. For more on Quán Cơm read THIS. […]

  3. […] love eating at cơm bình dân – cheap, local rice eateries. In the south, these places usually offer at least a dozen different dishes from which to choose. […]

  4. […] look out for signs saying Quán Cơm which means local rice eatery – more about them HERE. At certain times of day, particularly in Phan Rí Cửa, these little places are abuzz with street […]

  5. […] My room in Cao Bang is comfortable and clean but there are no windows. As it happens this suits me fine as I want to spend the day writing my guide to the Extreme North Motorbike Loop, which I’ve been holding in my mind for the last couple days while dealing with my ‘passport problems’. I lace the day with writing and exercise, stopping at mealtimes to wander Cao Bang’s streets for food. It’s a pleasantly warm day. While Cao Bang is busy in the morning and evening it’s a ghost town in the middle of the day. For breakfast I have the usual bánh cuốn, the quality of which is much better than on previous days. At lunch I struggle to find anything to eat. However, I make up for this disappointment with a giant feast at the kind of unassuming, simple local place I love and have missed these last two weeks. I took a picture but it doesn’t do it justice. Instead I’ll list the dishes: pumpkin stew with coriander, grilled aubergine with garlic, pork belly stewed with large olives(!), tofu in tomato sauce, sautéed mustard leaf with ginger, sour bamboo soup with dill and coriander, and heaps of steamed rice with soy sauce and salty fish sauce. I eat early and I’m the only customer. The food is served by two lovely young women who, I like to think, can tell how much I enjoy this feast. In fact, I know they can tell I’m enjoying it because I’m panting and nodding my head with each mouthful. A deeply satisfying way to end the end. My writing finished (only the photos left, so another day or so before it’s published) I’m getting an early night. Find out more about the kind of typical rice eateries I love in this article. […]

  6. […] each one with typically idiosyncratic architectural flourishes – line the narrow streets; local rice eateries and soup houses dot the sidewalks; and alley life – the quintessential Saigon experience – goes […]

  7. Cela says:

    Any favourite com binh dan places in HCM? 🙂

    • Hi Cela,
      I have lots of favourites, but I don’t have the exact addresses with me as they are all over the city. One place that’s centrally located is Quán 17, which is at 17 Mac Dinh Chi, District 1. I used to go there a lot when I lived around the corner. Go on a weekday around 11-12noon when it’s nice and busy and there’s lots of food 🙂

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