May 18 2012
Back when I used to live in the Western world I grew used to the fact that if I visited a restaurant I would be able to get a free glass of water with my meal. In fact, I grew so accustomed to it that you could probably say I took it for granted. But if you sit down at a restaurant in Saigon and ask for water nine times out of ten they’re going to give you a 10,000–30,000 VND bottle instead of a free glass. At first it may not seem like much but after a couple of days drink prices can add up when you’re on a tight budget. Luckily, this isn’t because there aren’t cheap drinks in Saigon restaurants; it’s because people here drink something different. If you want to eat out on a tight budget drink what the locals drink: tra (pronounced cha).
Tra is Vietnamese tea and it can be served two ways: tra da, or iced tea, and tra nam, hot tea. While in the north and central areas on the country you may be more likely to get served hot tea, in Saigon you will predominantly see iced tea brought to your table. Typically the tea is a green tea made with a mixture of jasmine leaves. Occasionally you might find a fancier tea made from lotus or artichoke but these are more of a specialty item and will carry a higher cost. Usually, the tea will come to your table in a glass but sometimes you’ll get a pot of hot tea along with an order of coffee, which you use to fill the empty coffee glass after you’ve finished, kind of like a coffee chaser.
You can find tra da almost anywhere that food is sold in the city, from the street cart to the finest restaurant. The price for tra da can vary greatly. For example, many cafes and restaurants throughout the city will give you a neverending glass for free, just for sitting down. Other restaurants, like Barbecue Garden, will charge a nominal fee of around 3,000-5,000 VND for each glass you drink. Then there are other restaurants, usually the more expensive places in town, that will charge a grievous amount compared to the rest. Usually this more expensive tra da will be a stronger brew in a bigger glass but sometimes it is basically the same thing that you’d get for free from a place like Bobby Brewers.
Although the wide variance in price can be frustrating, tra is something that you may come to enjoy and expect if you visit any café or restaurant in the city. The next time you sit down at a Saigon restaurant, drink what the locals drink by ordering a glass of tra!
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