The Restaurant Experience in South East Asia

Most of our posts are based on our daily activities – where we go, what we saw, etc.  But we have been working on some other post ideas a little out of the norm, to give you a glimpse of our life on the road.  As a warning, these posts might be more text-based, rather than picture based.  So let’s begin with the most basic of things – food, or more specifically, what its like to eat in a restaurant in South East Asia.

We end up having to eat out all the time, since guesthouses in South East Asia don’t typically have kitchens.  We assume this is because the street food is cheap, and low-cost restaurants are abundant.  So after 109 days on the road, we have seen our share of restaurants.  And its been our experience that no matter the country, or even the class of restaurant, there are some uniquely East East Asian restaurant quirks that stand out from our typical North American restaurant experience.

How do you pick where to eat? Its typical here for restaurants to have menus outside, at a podium or on a table. So you walk up to the restaurant, flip through the menu to see the food options and prices, and only once you’ve decided the price and selection are ok do you decide to sit down.

Typical restaurant in Don Khone, Laos. Notice the menu podium among the white chairs?
Most restaurants in Laos are all identified with these square yellow signs, sponsored by Beer Lao.  It gives all the restaurants a uniform look, making it hard to differentiate.
If Matt and Carina move to Laos, they’ll have to find a new restaurant name.

The menu podium is a great set up for the diner, because you avoid the awkward problem of sitting down, seeing the menu, and realizing its not what you want.  This may sound like an obvious thing, but remember that almost all restaurants here are just local places with signs in another language.  You have no idea what the restaurant is about, or even what price range it is in.  And there are probably many restaurants in a row, that all look the same at first glance.  Often the names are even the same, and they all will say “Vietnamese & Western” or “Cambodian & Western”, etc.  It can be pretty hard to differentiate.  Its not like going to Swiss Chalet where you know whats on the menu and probably what you’re going to order before you even sit down.  And to top things off, there is usually a staff member trying, with varying degrees of aggression (or assertiveness?) to usher you into a seat.  If you hold out long enough they may even offer something for free.  Tonight we got free rice and a small desert.

When you finally decide to sit down, things get a little weird.  More often than not, the waiter comes over to you immediately and just stands there, waiting for your order.  Your butt hasn’t even had time to warm the seat and they think you’re ready to order.  But they aren’t pushy about it, they just stand there waiting.  We haven’t quite figured out if they think we have decided just from looking at the menu outside, or they just think we can read a menu inhumanly fast.  Its pretty weird, and I don’t think we have gotten used to it.  We do usually try to say “can you give us a minute?” or something like that, but due to the language barrier it probably works only half the time.  So the waiter just stands there while you flip through the menu.

This restaurant has a flow chart to help understand their menu!
Its nice when the signage gives some idea of the menu.
Pork burger for desert?  We often find the same items listed in multiple places, and at different prices.  
Throughout South East Asia we have noticed that France fried potatoes are much more popular than french friend potatoes.
This is a pretty typical menu.  The food descriptions are pretty vague, so you never really know what your meal will look like.  What is exotic chicken? We have a running game where we decide who “won” meals – that is, whose meal turned out to be the best thing to order.  Its completely random, because the same dishes can taste totally different in each restaurant. Also what is “paper and garlic pork”?  Translation error or local delicacy?
Today’s special sounds great!

On a site note, this “helicopter” sales tactic is also used in pretty much any retail store here.  As soon as you walk into a retail store or grocery store the clerk is immediately 2 inches from your side, staring unblinkingly. They don’t ask you if you need help, they often just hover and stare.  Its awkward and they are often in the way.  When we say we came in for soap, and you keep physically blocking the way to the soap aisle, what is this accomplishing? Not sure if they think they are helping with this, or maybe they get robbed all the time so they’re big into theft protection.  Either way, its a little strange and definitely amusing.

Back to the meals.  So you’ve ordered your fried noodle with chicken (its on every single menu in South East Asia), and you’re waiting for it to arrive.  The next unusual thing with restaurants here is that dishes do not arrive at the table together, or even in any order that makes sense.  For example, say we order spring rolls (from the appetizer menu), Emily orders fried rice chicken, and Doug orders pho.  Though this is a hypothetical scenario, its a guarantee that the mains will not come to the table together, or even remotely at the same time.  And the appetizer may be first, may come somewhere in among the mains, or may come last. There is very little rhyme or reason, and we have adopted a policy of “if your food arrives, go ahead and eat it”. There is no point waiting for everyone’s dish before starting.  Eat it while its hot.

At long last, a pepper grinder!  This is one of the only times we have found an actual pepper grinder.  Most of the time the tables have a container of powdered black pepper.  Lately, in Vietnam, its not even in a container.  It comes from the kitchen in a bowl.  You’ll also notice this meal was a break from Asian food. Spaghetti and caesar salad!  Spaghetti is on pretty much every menu here, but caesar salad is much more rare (and risky – it can be bad).

Settling up the bill can also be a challenge. The majority of restaurants seem happy to let you sit forever, even though you’re not ordering anything more.  And of course once your food comes to the table, you never see the waiter again.  So its necessary to get the waiter’s attention, sometimes by waving, which should be rude but isn’t in this part of the world.  This is a tough one to learn for polite Canadians.  Sometimes the staff are in the back playing on their phones, so you need to get up and hunt someone down.

So every restaurant experience is a new adventure.  Its always a surprise – both the food, and the service.  Really though, we do miss cooking.  We are really looking forward to hostels/guesthouses that have kitchen facilities. Hopefully kitchens are more abundant once we leave Asia.

  • Doug and Emily / April 23, 2017 / Hoi An, Vietnam @ B’Lan Homestay at 12:21 am



2 thoughts on “The Restaurant Experience in South East Asia

  1. I experienced the vague menu descriptions in Korea. Worse yet, the local dealer I had lunch with didn’t describe things well either. He didn’t seem to understand why I wanted to know the difference between “grilled chicken with rice” and “grilled chicken with rice”


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