"I think Vietnamese food is crap,” proclaimed a fellow journalist in a recent conversation.
At first I was shocked — after all, Vietnam prides itself on its food and the variety and taste of the cuisine is certainly one of the country’s attractions. As I enquired more, he began to explain.
“I used to go to the same place, every day, to eat their banh mi,” he said. “Then one day I ate it and got sick, horribly sick. I’ve never been back.”
The issue, it seems was not the taste. He enjoyed his banh mi and at the time of our conversation he had moved onto a pho joint where he was then eating every day. The issue was food hygiene.
While food preparation here is improving, Vietnamese eateries, streetfood joints and restaurants remain notorious for not following basic health and safety laws to safeguard food hygiene and sanitation.
Yet it’s not just preparation that’s the concern, it’s what’s actually in the food.
In a recent set of articles, Dr Jonathan Halevy, a pediatrician at the Family Medical Practice, warned about growing arsenic levels in Vietnam’s rice supply, while tests our own publication conducted in early 2016 suggested growing levels of arsenic in the Hanoi water supply. Locally there is an issue with the levels of fertiliser and pesticides entering the food chain; no-one knows how much of it contains substances that have been banned. The easy response is to say that all the contaminated food comes from China, yet Vietnam is also a culprit.
Articles in the local press have been quick to pick up on these problems. One incident occurred in 2013 when the Center for Study and Consultation on Consumerism (CESCON) discovered that of 30 samples of noodles tested — pho, bun, banh canh, banh hoi, banh cuon and banh uot — 80 percent of them contained tinopal, a cancer-causing chemical that has been banned by the Ministry of Health.
More recently, 34 Japanese high school students returning to Japan from Vietnam were hospitalised after experiencing vomiting and diarrhoea on the flight back, while a 2016 article on Vietnam.Net delved into the growing sophistication of the country’s food processing facilities who are “using banned chemicals and substances of new kinds” to reduce costs and increase profit.
The Singapore Factor
Our neighbour to the south loves to tell the world they are the food capital of Southeast Asia. And while for me the streetfood in Thailand and Malaysia beats Singaporean offerings hands down, when it comes to cleanliness, Singapore is on another level.
The reason is an enforcement system run by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which requires all food handlers to be registered. This, as explained on the NEA website (nea.gov.sg) is “important as Singapore has a reputation as a food paradise — from local hawker fare to international haute cuisine, there is no shortage of options to satisfy anyone’s taste buds.”
Overseen by a food hygiene officer (FHO), standards of hygiene and sanitation are enforced and licensees of food establishments are required to regulate food hygiene on their premises. This results in a grading and a demerit system. If a licensee accumulates 12 demerit points or more within 12 months, their license will either be suspended or revoked.
While efforts are made locally to ensure that food processing factories and farmers follow the law, it’s a constant battle. It comes as no surprise then that eatery owners and restaurateurs who care for the quality of their food and their customers take as much care over their sourcing as they do over the cuisine itself.
However, what definitely needs work is hygiene and sanitation. As it stands, anyone can get away with setting up a food stall and making something to sell — in a way, it’s one of the beauties of this country. But unless there is NEA-style enforcement of hygiene and sanitation, Vietnamese cuisine will continue to struggle with reputation. For, no matter how good or bad the food tastes, if eating locally is going to make you sick, then not only is it dangerous, but the cuisine will never get the recognition it deserves.