Vietnamese cuisine is world-famous, but few visitors to the Southeast Asian country think about what they'll be sipping on the streets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. That's a mistake: the country's drinks are as delicious and diverse as its cuisine.
Vietnamese people don't usually drink while they dine, perhaps because most meals are either soup-based or include soup at the end, to fill up any "last holes." Enjoying a drink is a separate event, whether it's meeting friends for a coffee or stopping at a streetside stand for a refreshing juice. The exception, of course, is a boozy drinking session, where the focus is on the alcohol and the food is considered an accompaniment.
With each drink you try in Vietnam, you experience the influence of one hundred years of French and a thousand years of Chinese rule—the Chinese contributed the concept of food and drink as medicine, and the French introduced coffee in the 1800s. You'll also be privy to Vietnamese ingenuity and the country's incredible bounty: drinks here make the most of ripe tropical fruit, fresh herbs, and rice.
Headed to Vietnam? Here are nine drinks you should seek out during your visit.
A Note for Travelers
Most drinks in Vietnam, including beer, are usually served over ice. In the past, refrigeration wasn't common, so drinks were room temperature until poured over ice, and in the always hot-and-steamy south of Vietnam, a warm beer or soft drink doesn't really hit the spot.
While most guidebooks will tell you to always avoid ice when you travel in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam the ice tends to be safe. Large-scale ice production is one of legacies of French rule, and there are many sanitary ice factories throughout the country that use filtered water and package ice untouched by human hands. As a general rule, if the ice you're being served has a hole in it, it's been made by a machine and is likely to be safe.
If you are drinking (or eating) something with crushed ice, be a bit more careful, because ice is usually delivered in large blocks and crushed by hand (and it's the hands you have to worry about). If you have a sensitive system or are new to international travel, I would advise avoiding crushed ice.
Dừa Tươi (Fresh Coconut)
Coconut water may have just shown up on your grocery store shelves a few years ago, but it's been a popular drink in Vietnam for centuries. You won't see the packaged stuff, though: here, it's drunk straight out of the coconut—and this coconut water is grassier, sweeter, and more full-flavored than anything you'll find in a package—trying it is like drinking raw milk for the first time. Generally, the smaller coconuts are sweeter than the larger ones.
Whole coconuts are unwieldy to store, so vendors will chop off the outer green husk and keep the small white inner shell, cut into a shape that won't fall over when put on a flat surface. These white globes are usually kept on ice until you order one, then a giant machete is used to chop a hole in the top.
Coconuts are usually harvested when they're about seven weeks old—any earlier and the juice is gassy, any later and it tastes too salty. To judge the readiness of a coconut, the harvester will chop one open to inspect the flesh, which should be jelly-ish but not completely translucent. Hard white coconut flesh is a sign that the fruit is too old for drinking.
Locals will advise you not to drink coconut water after 5 p.m. if you want to sleep well, because they believe it has diuretic properties if you drink too much of it; before 5 p.m., however, it's the go-to drink for rehydrating.
Sinh Tố (Fruit Smoothie)
Smoothies are everywhere in Vietnam, and we're not just talking strawberry-banana. You'll find smoothies with fresh dragonfruit, custard apple, and jackfruit, along with ice and condensed milk or yogurt. My husband always orders a sinh tố bơ (avocado smoothie). My favorite is the sinh tố mãng cầu (soursop smoothie), a refreshing sweet-and-tart treat made from a fruit that's native to South and Central America and popular in Southeast Asia for a creamy flavor reminiscent of both strawberries and pineapples.
Nước Sâm (Herbal Tea)
This sweet and nutty Vietnamese herbal tea is usually served over ice, making it perfect to sip in the chaos and noise of a Vietnamese wet market on a steamy day. Believed to have "cooling" properties according to Chinese medicine, the most basic nước sâm recipe contains sugar cane, nettle leaves, grass roots and corn silk—an illustration of the Vietnamese aversion to wasting anything. Variations of this drink can also include dried longan, the flower of the sawtooth herb (also known as spiky coriander/cilantro), and roasted water chestnuts.
Nước Mía (Sugar Cane Juice)
Not as sickly sweet as you'd expect, sugar cane juice is another drink that's considered "cooling". It's usually sold by street vendors, who use electric squashing machines, not unlike an old-fashioned wringer, to squeeze the juice from stalks of sugar cane. It's usually then mixed with juice from the calamansi, a tiny sour citrus fruit that smells like a mandarin. The finished product has a crisp grassy flavor that's very refreshing on a sweltering hot day. Sugar cane vendors advertise their wares openly, with a bucket of sugar cane stalks in front of their stall. They can also be identified by what looks like a ship's wheel on the side of the stall, part of the electric wringer mechanism that juices the cane before your eyes
Trà Atisô (Artichoke Tea)
The go-to drink for hungover Vietnamese men, trà atisô is believed to have liver-cleansing and detoxifying properties. There are two versions of the tea, which is usually served with ice—the sweetened yellowish version made from the artichoke flower and the intensely bitter black version made from the artichoke stems. My advice is to avoid the black tea and go for the sweetened version, which has a delicate nutty flavor. Artichokes are grown in Dalat in Vietnam's cool Central Highlands but packets of artichoke tea are available in supermarkets throughout the country.
Soda Chanh (Lime Soda)
Soda chanh hits the spot on a steamy day: essentially, it's a fizzy homemade limeade that's usually served partially prepared. You're served a glass full of ice with sugar and sometimes lime juice in the bottom, with the can of club soda on the side. Sometimes you're given a glass of ice and sugar and a little dish of lime wedges so you can squeeze your own juice into the glass. I order soda chanh "không đường" (no sugar) or "ít đường" (a little sugar) because the standard serve has a lot of sugar—so much that it can block the straw if you don't mix the drink before taking a sip.
Beer is one of the exceptions to the rule that drinks aren't served with food in Vietnam. In Vietnamese, the phrase "di nhau" means "to go drinking." But the term refers to much more than just the drinks; there's a whole range of tapas-style dishes that accompany a Vietnamese drinking session, such as prawns barbecued with chili and salt, clams steamed with lemongrass, green mango with a prawn-chili-salt dip, or coconut snails sauteed with butter and fish sauce.
Many Vietnamese beers are only available in their home region, so your options will vary depending where you travel. In the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, the local beers are Saigon Red, Saigon Special and 333, all lightly hopped and slightly sweeter than beers from other parts of the country. In the central region of Vietnam, the local beers are Huda (the name combines the words Hue, Vietnam's former Imperial capital, and Denmark), and Bia La Rue, a slightly more bitter beer believed to have originated from a French recipe. A visit to Hanoi is not considered complete without a pilgrimage to Bia Hoi Corner (at the junction of Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ta Hien and Dinh Liet) to try bia hơi (fresh beer), a low-alcohol draft beer with a clean, crisp taste.
Of course, the locals don't always choose the local brew. Holland's Heineken, Singapore's Tiger Beer, and Japan's Sapporo are also popular, and there's an increasing number of microbreweries producing a range of craft beers. Brewpubs in Vietnam usually serve Eastern European fare, such as sausages and sauerkraut, which is eaten local-style: with chopsticks.
Rượu Nếp Cẩm (Sticky Rice Wine)
Drinking the hard stuff in Vietnam is for the most part considered a man's domain. Rice wine, which clocks in at around 29.5% alcohol, is the traditional masculine tipple and drinking it is a social activity (a very social activity). Groups of friends will gather to drink rice wine out of a communal shot glass or two.
A range of wonderful snacks such as spicy squid jerky and barbecued meat or seafood usually accompanies this type of drinking session. Sticky rice wine (rượu nếp cẩm) is smoother and sweeter than the regular rice wine, which can be quite fiery. Neither should be confused with rượu thuốc, "medicine wine," which is rice wine bottled with medicinal items which run the gamut from whole cobras, cuckoos, and seahorses to vegetarian options containing only herbs.
Cà Phê (Coffee)
Vietnam is the world's biggest producer of Robusta coffee, a variety of bean that most coffee experts consider inferior to the Arabica type, thanks to its bitter and acrid tendencies. But the Vietnamese people know how to make the most of what they have. Local coffee beans are roasted with butter and fish sauce to bring out chocolate notes in the final brew. Vietnamese coffee is prepared using a small metal drip filter, and is most commonly served over ice. You can't walk a block of any street in the country and not see someone enjoying a coffee in one form or another.
The two most popular ways to drink local coffee are cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) or cà phê đá (iced black coffee). Note that unless you specifically request "không đường" (no sugar) or "ít đường" (a little sugar), the black version will come with four or five teaspoons.
You can also get your caffeine fix with a yogurt coffee or the Hanoian specialty, egg coffee, made with whipped egg yolk. These caffeinated wonders are so delicious it's easy to suck them down in three quick slurps. Yet the locals will spend an hour or more enjoying a coffee and the free iced tea that's often served alongside it. Having a coffee is an excuse to sit and watch the world go by, either from a small chair at a streetside stall or from the window of a blessedly air-conditioned cafe.