It’s a very hot day in Vietnam. An old-fashioned fan circulates tepid air at an excruciatingly slow pace, as if to match the droning of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. Around us children and adults lay comatose on threadbare cots while an old lady juices dozens of stems of fresh sugarcane. She takes her time arranging a tray with glasses full of ice, methodically pouring freshly-squeezed juice in them.
After a tiring morning at the white sand dunes of Mui Ne, I’ve been observing all this listlessly. But my face lights up as she serves the first glass to me (the guest!). Soon enough, I realise I’m not the only one – I can almost see everyone’s weariness dissipate into thin air as they begin to sip on the sugar cane juice. I don’t know if it was the sugar or the unmistakable freshness of the juice, but to all of us in that moment, that drink was ambrosial.
Such is the spell that the street food (and well, drink!) of Vietnam casts over visitors 🙂
But that’s not all. The street food of Vietnam has so much to offer. It seduces with sheer variety, textures, and colours. Of course it helps that most of it is mind-numbingly scrumptious 🙂 Notes of galangal, basil, and lemongrass dilly dally with bejewelled vegetables in rich broths, plates full of fresh herbs – holy basil, coriander, culantro – accompany each meal, fresh smoothies are available at every street corner, and most of this costs less than $2. No wonder we gained weight when we spent a month in Vietnam.
We tried dozens of soups, noodle-based dishes, broths, desserts, and drinks – all in the name of research of course 😉 We even took an amazing street food tour with Tiger Tours, which offered the perfect introduction to the culinary landscape of Vietnam. Here are our 10 favourite eats from Vietnam – don’t miss them for the world if you’re ever in Vietnam. Make sure you check out the cheeky 11th item on the menu and tell us what you think of the entire debate there – we’re curious to hear what you think
1) Bo La Lot
Tender minced beef is wrapped in betel leaves and BBQ’d over charcoal. Once thoroughly cooked, it is sprinkled with peanuts and served with a spicy dipping sauce. The result? A fragrant Vietnamese snack that is notoriously hard to resist
2) Bánh Bao (Steamed Buns)
Steamed buns that ensconce a variety of savoury fillings – pork, sausages, beef, even boiled eggs. The outer layer is made from flour, milk, and sugar. Its slight sweetness perfectly compliments the savouriness of the fillings. Bánh Bao can be found at every street corner in Vietnam and is the perfect snack for people on the go. Make sure you opt for one right out of the steamer – they taste amazing!
No post on the street food of Vietnam would be complete without a mention of the legendary broth that is Pho (pronounced Fuh). Flavourful rice noodles are topped with meat and beef broth and this bowl of goodness is garnished with coriander, Asian chillies, and spring onions.
Pho is humble food. It is said to have originated in the early twentieth century in North Vietnam. Millions of Northerners fled to the South after the partition of Vietnam in 1954. These refugees popularised Pho in Southern Vietnam. Today it is the most popular dish in Ho Chi Minh City. Dozens of people can be seen wolfing down this steaming hot noodle soup at street-side stalls and restaurants for 7000 – 40000 VND ($ 0.5-2).
There are a number of famous Pho shops in every city in Vietnam, but we loved Pho served at anonymous stalls in little alleys. Most Pho stalls have just 2 things on the menu – Pho Bo (Beef Pho) and Pho Ga (Chicken Pho). If you have a sensitive tummy, try Pho at Pho 24, a chain of Pho restaurants in Saigon. It’s definitely not the tastiest Pho we had, but it’s hygienic and most waiters understand English, so they are happy to help out.
4) Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Vietnamese people LOVE their coffee. The drink is a big deal in this country. Typical Vietnamese coffee uses Robusta beans instead of Arabica beans. Vietnamese coffee is really strong but it is often served with ice and a generous helping of condensed milk. The resultant Vietnamese Iced Coffee might not be the healthiest beverage, but it is definitely the yummiest. Seriously, who can say no to condensed milk? Not us! *slurp*
5) Gôi Cuôn (Rice Paper Spring Rolls)
Rice paper spring rolls or salad rolls are very popular in Vietnam. They are served with a variety of meats and seafood (we’re partial to prawns and fried fish), fresh herbs, light vermicelli noodles, cucumber, and thin sheets of rice paper. Wet the rice paper in the accompanying bowl of water, wrap it around the meats, noodles, and vegetables, and viola spring rolls 🙂
The featherlight rice paper and fragrant herbs ensure a light and crunchy snack that is truly refreshing. The best part is, you can customise them to your liking. Best enjoyed on a rickety li’l chair by the side of a busy food stall in Vietnam
6) Banh Mi (Vietnamese Baguette)
This is a legacy left behind by French colonizers. Baguettes are extremely common in Vietnam and are served with a variety of fillings – grilled pork, cold cuts, scrambled egg, minced beef, curried chicken – the options are endless. The Vietnamese version is lighter than a typical French baguette, but equally satisfying.
Banh Mi sandwiches are laden with pickles, crunchy salad, meat, and herbs – the perfect carb fix!!
7) BBQs baby
Vietnamese people take their BBQs very seriously. Come evening, dozens of pop-up restaurants sprout outside busy market places in large cities. In smaller villages and towns, there are entire stretches dedicated to BBQ restaurants. Everything from lobsters and red snappers to king prawns and scallops are on the menu. All you need to do is choose a dish and order, which in itself can be a gargantuan task when there are so many delicacies on offer) 🙂
8) Bánh Tráng Me
Banh Trang Me – crunchy rice crackers with sesame seeds – are the perfect snack between meals. They’re usually served with a spicy paste or crunchy salad. Machine-made Banh Trang Me can be found everywhere in Vietnam but man-made crackers still reign supreme in the countryside. Is it just us or do the jagged edges make it that little bit tastier 🙂
9) Bun Xao and Pho Xao
We need to thank our friend Jodi, who lives in Saigon, for introducing us to the wonder that is Bun Xao and the miracle that is Pho Xao. Why the hyperbole? Well, here’s the thing. Broths are all well and good and we do love ourselves a good bowl of Pho or Bun Bo Hue (noodle soup) but after a couple of weeks of broths for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, things are bound to get repetitive. We found ourselves craving some good ol’ stir-fried noodles and even tried ordering some. More often than not, it would get lost in translation and we would end up with yet another noodle soup 🙁
Enter Jodi. She introduced us to the magic word Xao aka stir-fried. Pho Xao consists of wok-fried flat noodles topped with stir-fried greens and chicken/beef/prawns/ tofu. Bun Xao translates to stir-fried vermicelli noodles – that’s all it takes to make us happy 🙂
10) Che (The Desserts) *sigh*
We tried dozens of Vietnamese desserts but here are some of our favourites :-
- Che Chuoi Chug – A sweet soup made by boiling a mixture of bananas, tapioca pearls, coconut cream, and peanuts. This rich and creamy pudding is the perfect end to a thoroughly Vietnamese meal
- Rau Câu Trai Dùa – This simple jelly made from fresh coconut juice and agar agar. It’s probably the most refreshing dessert you’ll ever have. Definitely our favourite!!
- Sua Chua – Traditional Vietnamese yogurt, usually made with some sugar or condensed milk in addition to milk. The resultant Sua Chua is delicate and scrumptious – the tartness of traditional yogurt is balanced by the sweetness of condensed milk/sugar. Its light texture is perfect for Vietnam’s hot weather. Vietnamese people love having Sua Chua throughout the day – who are we to say no? 🙂
- Sùong Sào – One of the most popular drinks in Vietnam, Sùong Sào aka Grass Jelly, is usually served with a generous helping of coconut milk or sweet soup. The wobbly jelly is made from a herb belonging to the mint family, which is supposed to have medicinal properties. We were told that grass jelly can cure fatigue within minutes – hmmm!
11) SNAKES AND CROCODILES??!!
We couldn’t end this article without talking about an issue that’s been disturbing us. In parts of Vietnam, snakes and crocodiles are an intrinsic, albeit unusual, part of the street food culture.
Now when it comes to food, Vid and I love trying out local delicacies and don’t shy away from sampling wonderful and weird things while travelling. From finger-licking street food in Mauritius to pig’s intestines in France, we’ve had it all.
But I will admit I was really disturbed when I saw a snake being brought to a customer’s table, killed in front of said customer, and its beating heart swallowed by the waiter as a proof of machismo. What’s more, the snake’s blood was then drunk to loud cheering (It is said to enhance virility!). I actually recorded the whole thing on video, but it’s too disturbing to upload it here.
The trouble is I can’t explain why it was revolting. Is it just because it’s out of the ordinary? Is it any different from a pig’s snout on sale in Spain or goat’s head in Morocco? Isn’t travel all about respecting (and accepting) local customs? After much thinking I still don’t know which side of the debate I’m on?
We would love to know what you think – When it comes to street food, how far is too far??
Going to Vietnam? Stuck on where to go, where to stay, or what to pack? Check out all our recommendations here 🙂
Don’t forget to read Jodi’s detailed article on Saigon’s Street Food which includes details about specific stalls and restaurants that serve the best food in Saigon.