Com binh dan roughly translates as commoner’s rice and is a popular cheap belly-filler in Vietnam. Com binh dan joints are buffet-like affairs, and are usually identified by a glass case showcasing the day’s selection — as well as the large signs.
In Hanoi, the food selection varies from place to place, from day to day and from hour to hour, but common dishes include tofu in tomato sauce, pork belly or some other form of pork dish, fried fish, chicken of some description, green vegetables and fried eggs — either fried in a frying pan or boiled and then deep fried.
To order, walk up to the counter and indicate how many portions you want, and the server will dish up the appropriate number of plates of rice. You then simply point at what you want and they pile it on the plate — they tend to give you small amounts of each but you can ask for more of a particular dish if you like. Select as little or as much as you want and you will be charged accordingly (pay when you leave). You’ll pay more for meat and things like a fried egg or a spring roll, so the cheapest option is to stick with tofu and vegetables. The plate comes with a side bowl of watery soup, which can vary in taste and quality.
If you want to take away, indicate with you hands or say, “Mang ve“. You’ll get your lunch or dinner in a Styrofoam container, along with disposable chopsticks and, if you’re lucky, a plastic spoon — always useful for scraping up the last scraps. The soup is usually omitted though.
As the glass case isn’t heated or fully covered — sometimes it’s omitted altogether — com binh dan might not suit the fussiest eaters, or those concerned about food safety, but I’ve never had stomach problems from it — well, none that I can connect directly. Just follow the usual rules about selecting somewhere with a high turnover of customers, as the food’s more likely to be fresh.
A few com binh dan places are located in Old Quarter — try Dinh Liet Street — but really, wherever you are you’re unlikely to be too far from one. You should be able to get a good fill for 25,000-35,000 VND and up. Com binh dan is most popular at lunchtime, as in the evening people eat at home, but some places are open later.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 28th January, 2015.