Eat like a low-budget king in the gourmet capital of South East Asia
Two types of people
There are two types of people in this world: those who see street food as a one way ticket to toilet town, and those – let’s say, more adventurous souls – who see it as the guiding principle of their entire travel experience. Indeed, there are even those who would go so far as to choose a destination based not upon the beauty of the beaches or what there is to see and do, but on the novelty of what they can put in their mouths when they get there.
That Vietnamese street food is among the best in the world is no secret. The country seems to offer an endless array of dishes that are at once familiar yet somehow strangely unique. The baguette, the spring roll, the rice noodle, they can all be found elsewhere in the world, but in Vietnam, the familiar is never quite as you’ve experienced it before. Whether it’s the gossamer thinness of the rice-paper or the freshness of the herbs, street food in Vietnam is like no other.
Though I’ve only listed ten, there are many more dishes, snacks and combinations of ingredients that could be added here and still leave us unfulfilled. Any list of must-try Vietnamese street food is likely to be different from another given the variety of temptations on offer. The list is not meant as definitive. It is simply a record of the best of what I managed to wolf down while I had the chance.
1. Pho – Rice Noodle Soup
Perhaps the quintessential Vietnamese street food dish, pho is said to have originated in Hanoi in the early 20th century as a response to the needs of local vendors to please both the original Vietnamese taste for noodles and the colonial French penchant for eating beef. It has since spread throughout Vietnam and become one the country’s best known dishes.
Essentially rice noodles served in a light broth, pho is generally served with chicken (pho ga) or beef (pho bo), but it is the diner-added extras that really make pho special. With your basic bowl of noodle soup in front of you, you will be presented with a basket of herbs, usually fresh mint, basil and assorted other greens, together with beansprouts and chopped limes to sprinkle and squeeze on top. These can then be added as required to your bowl of pho to make the whole thing a subtle but divine concoction of flavours and textures that you’ll be sitting down to enjoy whenever hunger hits.
2. Bahn Mi – Vietnamese Baguette
Imagine a baguette grilled to perfect crispiness and an inside so fluffy you’ll think you’re eating clouds. Slice it open, spread some mayonnaise-kind-of-thing and some strange pâté-like substance inside. Add your choice of pork, chicken or sausage and sprinkle some grated carrot, cucumber, some onion and maybe some peppers for crunch. Then finish off with some fresh local herbs and a few drops of chili sauce on top.
It’s a French-Vietnamese hybrid of an invention, a product of Vietnam’s convoluted colonial past. Available in almost any combination of fillings and toppings, and best at breakfast when the bread is most fresh, it is quick, simple, and most importantly, delicious.
3. Xoi – Vietnamese Sticky Rice
Worried you might not have the opportunity to eat for the next fourteen hours and need to fill up fast? Then get yourself some xoi. Not noodles, but just as popular as pho, this sticky rice dish is one of the most widely eaten street foods in the whole of Vietnam. Though usually eaten at breakfast for its cheap and filling goodness, xoi can be found at mobile vendors and open-front stalls alike throughout the day and night.
Xoi comes in both sweet and savoury versions with, like most Vietnamese street foods, an almost infinite degree of variations. Whether with mung beans or black beans, peanuts, chicken or pork, whether with red bean or with coconut all mixed in, xoi is not an accompaniment to something more substantial, xoi is the dish. If you are in Saigon, take a walk around Ben Thanh market any time after dark, and you will see the carts of steaming, multi-coloured xoi on sale waiting to give your blood sugar levels a magnitude 9 spike. It’s a Vietnamese street food classic. Don’t leave without trying.
4. Banh Xeo – Stuffed Pancakes
Essentially a savory egg crepe made with rice flour, water, banh xeo are another of those Vietnamese inventions that are so perfect in their simplicity you wonder how it could possibly be so delicious: heat the batter until set but still yellow; stuff with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, some mint and fresh basil; fold and serve warm with a light sauce to dip. Simple but miraculous.
Like much of the best Vietnamese street food, though the style and method of banh xeo may vary, the essential elements that make the classic remain the same. Whether you’re enjoying the spongy northern pancakes or the thinner southern type, whether served folded or open-faced, cut into slices or wrapped in lettuce leaves, if you’re eating bahn xeo, for those precious three minutes, you’d want to be nowhere else but Vietnam.
5. Nem Ran/Cha Gio – Fried Spring Rolls
Known in the north as ‘nem ran’ and as ‘cha gio’ in the south, these deep fried treats are either a crispy gift from heaven or an artery-clogging temptation too far. Translated roughly as “minced pork roll”, the meat is first wrapped in a sheet of moist rice paper with mushrooms, chopped or grated carrots and assorted greens, before being deep fried until golden brown.
Usually served with the orange dipping sauce nuoc cham, nem ran can be eaten as a snack on its own or, more often than not, wrapped in lettuce leaves with some rice vermicelli and selected chopped herbs added in. We were lucky enough to sample nem ran in all its tasty glory in Ninh Binh, this time, with the added delight of a banh xeo-style egg pancake chopped up and folded into the mix to make what was undoubtedly our most satisfying meal in Vietnam.
6. Nem Cuon/Goi Cuon – Fresh Spring Roll
Also known as a summer roll, a Vietnamese salad roll or a fresh roll, and again referred to differently in the north and south of Vietnam, this fresh spring roll is probably seen more often as a starter or a light restaurant dish rather than street food. It almost seems too delicate and perfect a thing to be found handed from a mobile vendor and done away with in two bites whilst waiting for your change.
The best way to enjoy Vietnamese spring rolls is to head to your nearest market, find yourself a stall and a stool, and watch in drooling anticipation as these wonders of taste and design are made from scratch in front of you. Sliced shrimp, minced pork, mint leaves, vermicelli noodles, cucumber, chopped lettuce and chives are all rolled up in almost transparent rice paper, served cold and dipped in nuoc cham to complete this juicy miracle.
7. Bun Cha – Rice Vermicelli with Grilled Pork
If you ask someone to name a Vietnamese noodle dish, nine times out of ten you would receive the answer “pho”. But despite the deserved popularity of this street food classic, pho is far from the only noodle in town. Indeed, another thinner noodle going by the name of “bun”, has proven equally capable of luring the growling stomachs of street eaters everywhere towards its tasty charms.
Bun cha is essentially grilled pork patties served with rice vermicelli and the usual pile of fresh green herbs on the side. The pork comes in a light broth into which the noodles and herbs are mixed, a squirt of lime juice added, together with a couple of pieces of fried spring roll if you’re lucky. There are dozens of bun dishes to be sampled throughout Vietnam, from bun bo (beef) to bun ca (fish) and bun dau (tofu), with each one usually varying depending on the region and the style of the dish in question. But in the North at least, and in Hanoi in particular, bun cha is king.
8. Che – Vietnamese Sweet Dessert
Coming in all kinds of flavours and using all kinds of ingredients, che is a colourful and mysterious lucky dip into the curious world of Vietnamese dessert. There is ‘che dau den’ made from black beans, and ‘che dau huyet’ made from red beans. There is che made from fruit and che from rice; che made with sweet potato and che made with taro. Ingredients that ordinarily you would think couldn’t possibly belong in a desert, are slopped together into a glass, before being eaten with a spoon and, believe it or not, enjoyed.
Sitting in pots and tubs behind glass screens waiting to be ladled, they present a challenge of attempted identification and boldness, testing your faith that the sweetcorn, mango, mung bean, rice and sweet dumpling gloop you are about to eat will, if you can just summon the courage, reward you with deliciousness. Be bold and be rewarded.
9. Kem – Ice Cream
Vietnam certainly wouldn’t be top of most people’s list of ice cream loving countries, but perhaps again because of its diverse past, the country’s street culture has lent itself to a healthy (or maybe not so healthy) tradition of ice cream expertise that you would be hard pushed to beat. In Ho Chi Minh City there are a host of street-side cafes ideal for sampling some of the finest naturally made ice cream in all of Asia, meaning you needn’t walk far before finding somewhere to sit and get your fix of brain freeze.
Hanoi too has its share of venues, with local institution Kem Trang Tien being amongst the most popular. Hard to miss thanks to the ice cream-munching crowds arriving on their scooters, Kem Trang Tien is more like a garage than a cafe. With a history dating back to the pre-war days, despite the proliferation of fancy, air-conditioned cafes and their fashionable flavours, Kem Trang Tien still has a fanbase ever-loyal to the simplicity and sociability that its unique ice-creaming brings.
10. Bia Hoi – Fresh Beer
Not exactly food; but most definitely “street”. Bia hoi was introduced to the country in the late 19th century and has been a street-side favourite ever since. Traditionally centred around Hanoi, this “fresh beer”, arrives from the breweries early each morning to be served to the frazzled and thirsty alike throughout the day of delivery. Made with no additives or preservatives and with an alcohol content varying, they say, between 3 and 4%, the production of bia hoi is not an exact science, but for only a few thousand Vietnamese Dong it is one of the cheapest beers anywhere in the world.
As Hanoi is the recognised centre of the bia hoi universe, there are countless places you can enjoy some suds in and around the capital. The most well-known place is the famous Bia Hoi Corner at the crossroads of Pho Ta Hien and Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen in the city’s Old Quarter. So before you leave unslaked, ditch your schedule, grab yourself a plastic stool, and sit down and get quenched.