Vietnam is a country characterized by its food – the freshness of the ingredients, the complexity of the flavors, and often the strangeness of whatever it is you’re about to consume.
One of our favorite things to do in Saigon is head to Vinh Khanh (Vĩnh Khánh) street in District 4 for a rowdy night of Ăn Ốc which literally translates to “eat snails”. This popular Vietnamese night out consists of sitting on tiny, wobbly plastic chairs around a low-slung metal table, and gorging yourself on snails, oysters, clams, and pretty much anything else that lives and crawls along the ocean floor.
A restaurant that serves up all of this crustacean goodness is a Quán Ốc or “snail eatery”. One of the biggest challenges of eating at a Quán Ốc is that there is very rarely an English menu and you’re unlikely to find an English-speaking server. Staring at rows of plastic tubs full of snails and mollusks can be overwhelming for even the most adventurous eater.
After fumbling our way through several nights of ăn ốc in Saigon, we felt we had finally amassed enough snail-slurping knowledge to write this guide for anyone that wants to have one of the best dining experiences in Vietnam!
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How to Order and Eat Snails in Vietnam
Getting the Server’s Attention
Eating at a snail restaurant is typically a rather chaotic event. Tables are squeezed together to maximize capacity and everyone is drinking heavily and talking loudly. The servers scurry about, taking orders and delivering food.
If you’re planning on politely waiting to be approached, you may find yourself leaving a few hours later still hungry and thirsty.
In Vietnam, the best way to get the waiter’s attention is to call out “Ơi” (pronounced “oy!”). You can make this a bit more specific by proceeding with the word “Em”, “Chi” or “Anh”. Em refers to anyone younger than you so if the server appears to be younger, holler “Em Ơi” in their general direction. If the server is an older woman, use the phrase “Chị Ơi” (Chị means “older sister”). And if the server is an older man, use “Anh Ơi” (Anh means “older brother”).
- Younger Boy or Girl – “Em Ơi”
- Older Woman – “Chị Ơi”
- Older Man – “Anh Ơi“
How to Order Snails, Shellfish, and Seafood in Vietnam
Most snail eateries have extremely long, seemingly complex menus that can be rather intimidating. If you’re lucky, there may be a few blurry photos on your menu, but most tourists just rely on the tried and true technique of pointing to the next table over and miming “we’ll have what they’re having.”
We wholeheartedly embrace this ordering style, but after a couple of nights on Vinh Khanh street, we decided it was time to learn to order for ourselves.
Luckily, it turns out that the menu at a quán ốc actually follows a simple structure that is easy to get the hang of, if you’re willing to learn a little bit of Vietnamese. Almost everything you can order at a quán ốc comes downto three questions:
- What do you want to eat? Snails, Clams, Oysters, Octopus, etc.
- How do you want it prepared? Stir-fried, Steamed, or Grilled
- What seasoning or sauce do you want? Butter, Chili, Garlic, Tamarind, etc.
So your order might go something like this “Hard clams, steamed with lemongrass” which translates to “Nghêu Hấp Sả”.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? So let’s get started!
1. What do You Want to Eat?
Ốc – Snails
Any quán ốc worth their salt will have a wide variety of snails available. So this is usually the largest section on the menu and probably listed first. Here are a few snail varieties you’ll likely see available:
- Ốc Mõ – Common Periwinkle or Winkle snails
- Ốc Len – Mud Creeper Snails. Typically served in a coconut curry dish called Ốc Len Xào Dừa.
- Ốc Giác – Melo melo or Indian volute. These are large snails with a light brown shell.
- Ốc Hương – Babylonia Snails. These are large snails with beautiful white and brown spotted shells. They are very popular stir-fried with chili, oil, and garlic (Ốc Hương Xào Sa Tế).
Note: This list is roughly in order from smallest to the largest snail.
Sò – Clams
This is the next largest section of the menu with many different clams and scallops available.
- Nghêu – Hard clams (sometimes also known as quahogs or round clams). These clams, commonly eaten in the USA, are steamed with lemongrass and chili (Nghêu Hấp Sả) in Vietnam.
- Sò Huyết – Blood cockles. These are called “blood cockles” due to the red liquid you’ll find when cracking them open. They are difficult to open, but if you’re up for the challenge, try them with chili, oil, and garlic (Sò Huyết Xào Sa Tế)
- Sò Lông – Anadara Subcrenata. These are medium-size clams.
- Sò Dương – Larger, fist-size clams.
- Sò Điệp – Scallops. One of the best things you can get at a Quan Oc is stir-fried scallops with peanuts and green onions (Sò Điệp Nướng Mỡ Hành). Yum!
Note: This list is roughly in order from smallest to largest.
Everything Else: Oysters, Octopus, Squid, Shrimp, etc.
From here, the menu gets significantly easier as the rest of the shellfish and seafood are not usually dissected into such specific categories:
- Hàu – Oysters
- Chem Chép – Mussels
- Tôm – Shrimp
- Mực – Squid
- Bạch Tuộc – Octopus
- Càng Ghẹ – Crab. Try it with salt and chili (Càng Ghẹ Rang Muối).
2. How do You Want it Cooked?
This part of ordering is the easiest. There are really just 3 choices:
- Xào – Stir-Fried
- Nướng – Grilled
- Hấp – Steamed
3. What Seasoning or Sauce do You Want?
Now comes the fun part! Choosing the flavor of how you want your seafood:
- Sả – Lemongrass. Typically an option for steamed dishes, such as hard clams steamed with lemongrass (Nghêu Hấp Sả).
- Gừng – Ginger. Another option for steamed dishes.
- Bơ – Butter. Often paired with garlic (Bơ Tỏi) or tamarind (Bơ Me).
- Tỏi – Garlic. Try oysters stir-fried with butter and garlic (Hàu Xào Bơ Tỏi).
- Me – Tamarind.
- Sa Tế – Chili, oil, and garlic. Good on pretty much everything stir-fried and a popular preparation option for blood cockles (Sò Huyết Xào Sa Tế)
- Mỡ Hành – Green Onions and Peanuts. Pairs perfectly with scallops (Sò Điệp Nướng Mỡ Hành).
Whew! So now you have figured out what you want to eat! What? Still not sure? Don’t worry because have put together a beginner’s ăn ốc menu at the end of this article.
Where are the Napkins?
Now that you have placed your order, all the tools you’ll need to enjoy your meal will be delivered to your table. This includes a small bowl for your food, a pair of chopsticks, and a small spoon or fork (or both) for coaxing the tiny bits of meat out of your snails and clams.
One thing you’ll quickly realize is missing are the napkins. Most of the restaurants on Vinh Khanh Street operate on a BYON policy (bring your own napkins).
But don’t worry, during your meal you’ll most likely be approached by various street vendors selling napkins, gum, and other miscellaneous snacks and toys. You can buy a pack of tissues for just 5,000 VND (about $0.25).
You can also ask your waiter for a wet napkin that comes sealed in a plastic wrapper. The cost is minimal, usually around 2,000 – 4,000 VND (~$0.10-0.20), and they are great for cleaning your hands before you begin eating and at the end of your meal.
More Accoutrements for Your Snails and Seafood
Alongside your food, you’ll also be served a plate full of green leaves, a bowl of salt, pepper, and chili with a whole lime, and a bowl of fish sauce.
The pile of leaves on your plate is Vietnamese coriander (Rau Răm). It is often eaten with snails to balance the flavor or as a palate cleanser.
The bowl of salt, pepper, chili, and lime is referred to as Muối Tiêu Chanh. This is just the name of the three primary ingredients – salt (muối), pepper (tiêu), and lime (chanh). Simply squeeze the lime into the bowl and then mix it all up into a paste. This delicious condiment is perfect for dipping your seafood – we particularly love it on a grilled octopus.
Finally, you have your bowl of fish sauce (Nước Mắm). If you have been in Vietnam for a while, you’ve probably realized that almost every dish in the country comes with a side of fish sauce. As a dipping sauce for snails, you may find that sugar and lime juice (and maybe chili and garlic) were added to the fish sauce for extra flavor.
Drinking Culture at Snail Eateries
Eating snails is almost always associated with drinking beer. Kind of like peanuts, snail provides the perfect salty, spicy snack in-between sips of ice-cold beer.
Snail restaurants are generally lively social places. There is a high likelihood that your presence will cause some curiosity and lots of friendly smiles from the locals. Especially if you are eating some of the more adventurous items on the menu.
Be prepared to raise a toast with your neighbors as the night wears on and everyone’s level of intoxication increases. A traditional Vietnamese cheer is “Một, Hai, Ba, Vô!“. The pronunciation is “moat, hi, bah, yo!” and it translates to “one, two, three, cheers”!
Be careful when joining in on this type of cheer as it typically indicates that everyone is going to finish whatever amount of beer is still in their glass. And chugging beer after beer after beer can lead to an extremely fun night of Ăn Ốc.
Also, you can expect for the “Yo!” part of the cheers to get longer and louder as the night wears on.
What Should you do With the Shells?
Easy! Just throw them on the ground. Don’t worry, everyone else is doing it too. And while you’re at it, throw everything you’ve finished on the floor – dirty napkins, empty plates, and beer bottles. The tables are tiny and you’ll quickly run out of space if you don’t embrace the culture of disposing of all your trash under the table.
A Beginner’s Ăn Ốc Tasting Menu
If after reading all of that you’re just as confused as before, here is our recommended menu for your first An Ốc dining experience. It’s a good mix of food that you’ll be comfortable eating, with a little bit of adventure thrown in. Plus, these are some of the most popular dishes, and for good reason, they’re delicious!
- Nghêu Hấp Sả – Clams are steamed in lemongrass and chili. This is an easy dish to get into as it’s quite similar to the way clams are frequently served in the United States and Europe. The lemongrass and chili are the perfect flavor combination to complement the clams.
- Bạch Tuộc Nướng – Grilled Octopus. Another crowd-pleaser is grilled octopus tastes like extra thick and flavorful calamari. We love dipping it in our Muối Tiêu Chanh – the salt, pepper, and lime paste we mentioned earlier.
- Ốc Len Xào Dừa – Mud Crawler Snails in Coconut Curry. This is the most adventurous thing we’re recommending that you eat. When your bowl of brown shells floating in a thick yellow sauce shows up, you’ll probably immediately question your decision. Grab one of the snails with your chopsticks (or fingers) and pop it in your mouth to suck off the sauce – delicious, right? Now comes the fun part. You get to suck the snail out of its shell!
- Sò Điệp Nướng Mỡ Hành – Scallops Stir-Fried with Green Onions and Peanuts. As we mentioned before, this is one of our favorite dishes at a Quán Ốc. The delicious flavor of the green onions combines with the crunchiness of the peanuts for a really tasty treat.
- Càng Ghẹ Rang Muối – Grilled Crab with Salt & Chili. Grab some crab crackers and get to work – this is going to get messy! The salt and chili balance the slightly sweet crab meat for an out-of-this-world flavor. Make sure to pair it with a cold beer!
Where to Eat Snails in Saigon
When it comes to dining on snails and shellfish in Saigon, our favorite place is Vinh Khanh Street in District 4. There you’ll find two blocks lined on both sides with curbside seafood restaurants. Every night the street comes alive with delicious smells, rowdy conversation, and cheerful locals.
The most popular restaurant on the street is Ốc Oanh (address: 534 Vĩnh Khánh). We always head there because the snails are fresher, the flavors are better, and the beer is colder. Plus, it’s a favorite with the locals!
Hope you found this guide to eating snails helpful. If you wind up visiting a snail eatery in Vietnam, drop us a note and let us know how it goes!
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