Eat like a low-budget king in the gourmet capital of South East Asia
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 (the pho) 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
Ready for a carb overload? 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, the sticky rice dish known as xoi 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 seen served from 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.
The sweet versions of xoi are easy to spot. If you are in Saigon in particular, just 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.
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. Instead, 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 probably receive the answer “pho”. But despite the deserved popularity of this Vietnamese street food classic, pho is far from the only noodle in town.
Indeed, another thinner noodle – a rice vermicelli going by the name of “bun” – has proven equally capable of luring the growling stomachs of street eaters everywhere towards its tasty charms. Walk down any street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter between the lunchtime hours of around 11:00 and 1:00 and the smoky charcoal smell of grilling pork will likely draw you irresistibly closer to sample what you’re missing.
Essentially, bun cha is grilled pork rissoles or 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 and a couple of pieces of fried spring roll if you’re lucky, before chopsticks at the ready, you’re ready to enjoy.
There are dozens of bun dishes to be sampled the length of Vietnam, from bun bo (beef) to bun ca (fish) and bun dau (tofu), with each one usually varying again depending on the region and style of the dish in question. Of the various bun bo dishes, for example, there is bun bo Hue from Central Vietnam, bun bo nam bo served without the usual broth and bun bo xao a kind of beef noodle salad. But in the North at least, and in Hanoi in particular, bun cha is king.
8. Che – Vietnamese Sweet Dessert
It’s strange, it’s gooey, and after a day on the savoury, it’s exactly what you’ll need to satisfy your sugar lust.
Rather than the thing in itself, however, che should be seen more as a prefix positing a whole range of deliciousness that may or may not exist at the particular time and street corner you arrive at in your Vietnam odyssey. There is, for example, 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 constitute desert are slopped together at your selection into a glass, complete with the gloopy sweetness that they live in, eaten with a spoon and, believe it or not, most of the time enjoyed.
Che, and the endless variations thereon, are a colourful and mysterious lucky dip into the curious world of Vietnamese desert. Waiting in pots or tubs behind glass screens waiting to be ladled, they present a challenge of attempted identification and boldness, the courage of your conviction that “this sweetcorn, mango, mung bean, rice and sweet dumpling gloop, this half-food half-drink abomination of a desert, will, if I can just find the nerve to go through with it, reward me with deliciousness.” Boldness is brilliance. Bon chance!
9. Kem – Ice Cream
Vietnam certainly wouldn’t be top of any list of destinations for ice cream pilgrimage, 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 cafes and vendors selling ice cream that you would be hard pushed to beat.
Ho Chi Minh City, for example, has a host of street-side cafes that are ideal for sampling some of the finest naturally made ice cream in all of Asia. From the excellently named Fanny, which boasts flavours as exotic as cinnamon, passion fruit and even lotus flower on the menu, to Kem Bach Dang, one of the oldest and most popular ice-cream cafes in Saigon, you needn’t walk far before finding somewhere to sit and get your fix of brain freeze.
Hanoi too has its share of venues. There is another branch of Fanny in the Old Quarter at the south-west corner of Hoam Kiem Lake and, if drive-in ice cream is what you’ve been missing all your life, there’s always Kem Trang Tien to try.
Hard to miss thanks to the ice cream-munching crowds and their scooters outside, Kem Trang Tien is more like a garage than an ice cream shop. There are no tables and no chairs. Locals simply ride up to the entrance and either park their motorbikes outside on the pavement, or wheel them inside to use as makeshift seating.
The place is a Hanoi institution, with a history dating back to the pre-war days and, despite the proliferation of fancy, air-conditioned cafes and their fashionable flavours, it still has a local fanbase ever-loyal to the simplicity, sociability and potential danger of carbon monoxide poisoning that ice-creaming at Kem Trang Tien brings.
10. Bia Hoi – Fresh Beer
Okay, so our final entry in this top Vietnamese street food rundown is not exactly food, but it is most definitely “street”.
Another legacy of the French soujourn, bia hoi was introduced to Vietnam in the late 19th century and has been a street-side favourite ever since. Traditionally centred around Hanoi and still very much a northern thing, this “fresh beer”, as it is usually translated, is exactly that. Brewed to be enjoyed as fresh as possible, bia hoi arrives from the breweries early each morning and is generally 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 found anywhere in the world and the ideal way to escape the pace when stranded in the thick of the city.
As Hanoi is the recognised centre of the bia hoi universe, there are countless places where you can enjoy some suds in and around the capital. There is even the famous Bia Hoi Corner at the crossroads of Pho Ta Hien and Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen in the city’s Old Quarter for a spot of scooter-watching refreshment. So before you leave unslaked, ditch your schedule, grab yourself a plastic stool and sit down and get quenched.