Food in Vietnam is always fresh. Each morning local markets are crowded with people buying their fresh meat, fish and vegetables, to take home and cook their morning meal, repeating the process again before lunch and dinner. If they are not at home, locals will happily eat someone else’s home cooked food at one of thousands of street food stalls, found on every corner and every street of Vietnam.
Much like the pace of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, where I spent three months, turnover at these stalls is quick and fast, meaning street food dishes are just as fresh, and always perfectly balanced with the vibrant flavours of Vietnamese cuisine.
Street food stalls are often free-standing, mobile carts that can pack up at night and set up first thing in the morning, shaded from the blaring sun by only a thick tangle of telephone wires overhead. Acting almost as drive-thrus, locals zip up on their motorbikes, and, without even dismounting, take their food to go, hanging in a plastic bag from the bike handles.
You might just as well find stalls located under an awning in a street market, or as an extension of a tiny storefront. In whatever form you will usually see men, women and children crowded around food stalls for a quick bite during the day, or sharing meals crouched on colourful plastic stools around a tiny dining table. Eating together is a way of life in Vietnam, be it at home or on the street.
Street food in Vietnam is far from just a delicious source substance, but a window into Vietnamese culture, and a source of endless wonder. This guide only captures a cross-section of delicious, cheap and authentic foods from street vendors and market stalls available in Vietnam, where there are countless of other regional dishes, obscure ingredients and tantalising flavours to discover. Follow your ears, eyes and nose, pull up a plastic chair, grab a pair of chopsticks, and dig in.
Even if you think you know nothing about Vietnamese cuisine, you might be familiar with Phở. A typical breakfast food in Vietnam, this famous noodle soup, pronounced ‘fuh’, is made with a slow-brewed beef broth, or sometimes chicken, served with flat rice noodles and bean sprouts. Although Phở is the Vietnamese National dish it is actually a relatively recent invention, having originated in the 20th century in the Northern capital Hanoi, where it is made with a medley of cinnamon, star anise, and roasted ginger. In Saigon, in the South, it is generally sweeter and less spicy. Like so many Vietnamese dishes, Phở is always served with a side plate of fresh herbs and array of table condiments that add another flavour dimension. For freshness add mint, coriander and Thai Basil, chilli paste for heat, fish sauce for extra saltiness, and garlic vinegar for sourness. Don’t hold back.
After Phở, easily the next most recognisable Vietnamese speciality is Bánh Mi. These sandwiches take influence from Vietnam’s French colonial past but are full of Vietnamese flavour. Perfectly crusty, warm, baguettes are sliced in half, often with a scissors, and stuffed with your choice of grilled meats, cold cuts, pâté, mayonnaise, fried eggs, sliced cucumber, coriander and pickled shreds of carrot and white radish for sourness. Finished off with a scoop of fresh pounded chilies, and wrapped in a newspaper, this culinary love child of Viet and French cuisines is available for as little as 8,000 Vietnamese Dong – about 32 cent!
Like Bánh Mi, Bánh Xeo are a French-Vietnamese hybrid. Resembling a French crepe, this Vietnamese savory fried pancake is made of rice flour, water, turmeric powder, and stuffed with slivers of pork, or shrimp, diced spring onion, and bean sprouts. Literally meaning “sizzling cake”, due to the sound the thin layer of rice batter is poured onto the hot pan, the crispy edged pancake is filled, and then folded over. After that you can dress, garnish and eat as you please, with the usual bounty of herbs and spices at your disposal. The common method is to take a leaf lettuce or spicy mustard leaf, load it with a piece of crispy crepe, stuff with herbs, top with chili, roll it up like a green spring roll, and then dip into the sweet Vietnamese fish sauce dressing.
Goi Cuon, or rice paper rolls, are another much exported Vietnamese speciality. You know the drill, rice paper (bánh tráng) is stuffed with basically as many fillings as possible; vermicelli noodles, pork meat or prawns, veggies, and herbs, then dipped in sweet soy sauce mixed with chopped roasted peanut, and often chilies – there are always chilies. Another variety of rice paper roll that can be found is filled with quail eggs, herbs and crispy onion, and is served cut into pieces in a plastic cup for takeaway.
A Saigon street food snack favourite is Bánh Tráng Trộn. Meaning ‘rice paper mix’, a plastic bag pre-filled with shredded rice paper, is seasoned with a chilli sauce, topped with herbs, beef jerky, dried squid or shrimp, quail eggs, shredded green papaya, roast peanuts and about ten other toppings, and then shaken vigorously – all for between 30-60 cent. A relatively recent Vietnamese creation, this spicy, tangy, and quite salty, flavour explosion in a bag, is hugely popular with younger Vietnamese people.
The shredded papaya used in Bánh Tráng Trộn is star ingredient of a fresh, tangy and crunchy salad, Goi Du Du. Slivers of young papaya are soaked in a sweet-sour fish sauce and lime dressing, and can be served with either beef jerky with slivers of smoked liver, shrimp, or pork, but is always topped with roasted peanuts, Thai basil, and a prawn cracker.
A trip North to Hanoi introduces you to another layer of Vietnamese flavours. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a labyrinth of alleys, often dark and covered, waiting to be discovered.
Venture into this maze and you will find street food stalls, and makeshift store fronts; take a wrong turn and suddenly a dark alley opens up into vast covered market, piled high with fresh ingredients, and dried herbs, mushrooms, fish and noodles.
In the cooler climate of Hanoi, one dish that I kept going back for was Bun Than; a fragrant, sour, crab noodle soup only available in Hanoi. Vermicelli noodles, and water spinach are steeped in a crab based broth, and then topped with a variety of proteins. You can taste crab, beef, tofu, and snail, fished from the city centre’s West Lake, all in one bowl.
When it comes to desserts, Chuối Nếp Nướng is a speciality in Saigon. Banana is wrapped in sticky rice, grilled and liberally drizzling of tapioca pearl coconut sauce, and then topped with roasted peanuts. Sweet or savoury, in Vietnam there is barely a dish that can’t be improved with a sprinkling of peanuts.
Somewhat similar in appearance to bubble tea, Vietnamese Chè, is a sweet dessert soup made with a variety of colourful beans and jelly, covered with slightly sweetened coconut milk. Kidney beans, mung bean paste and green jelly are all commonly used to create the colourful layers of this snack.
The Vietnamese tend to not drink with their meals, instead they enjoy drinks as separate event. All around the city you will see friends meeting for Cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) and Trà đá (iced tea), or drinking coconut water straight from the source!
Another popular cooling beverage is Nước Mía, sugar cane juice. This frothy bright yellow drink is served by street food vendors, with stalls equipped with machines that squeeze every last drop out of the long stalks of sugar cane. Mixed with juice from the calamansi, a tiny sour citrus fruit, and loaded up with ice, it’s not as sickly sweet as you would expect, and has a crisp grassy flavor that’s very refreshing on a sweltering hot day.
Smoothies, Sinh Tố, are everywhere in Vietnam, and I’m not talking a blend of kale and spirulina. A go-to afternoon snack, Vietnamese smoothies are a creamy, cooling blend of ice, condensed milk or yoghurt, and your choice of tropical fruit. Choose from the likes of fresh dragonfruit, custard apple, jackfruit, mango, or my personal favourite young coconut flesh. Be wary if the customer before you ordered a sinh tố sầu riêng, a durian smoothie, and the same blender is used. This ‘king of fruit’ is divisive in nature. Durian lovers enthuse about its mild sweet, almondy flavour. Everybody else, and most Westerners, are repulsed by its potent smell, likened to rotten onions.
There is an exception to the no food with drink rule; in the evening, when you sit down in bar, or most often outside the bar on another tiny plastic chair, with a cold beer, you will always be approached by street peddlers selling bags of tiny, speckled hard boiled quail eggs. Sold with a strip of folded newspaper filled with salt and pepper, these are the perfect salty, cheap bar snack. Though, in Vietnam beer is so cheap, it’s often said that beer is the cheap snack to go with quail eggs, rather than the other way around.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.