From fresh summer rolls to a hearty bowl of phở, in Vietnam the best food is often being served on the sidewalk.
You could say Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is one giant open-air restaurant.
Wander through any neighbourhood or along most alleyways, amid the bleeping horns and the heady smell of charcoal, and you’ll find the locals hunched elbow-to-elbow on wobbly plastic stools slurping hot broth in the middle of the street.
It’s impossible to walk more than a block in Vietnam’s most-populous city without spying a rickety street cart serving up some sort of street food, from crispy pancakes or rice paper rolls, to noodles or phở (pronounced “fuh”).
And the most in-your-face of all is the famous “Saigon sandwich” known as bánh mi. At every turn you’ll find a cart with eager vendors stuffing warm and crusty baguettes with a variety of luncheon meats and fresh herbs.
Simple and uncomplicated, street food is part of the cultural fabric in Vietnam with pungent flavours and fragrant aromas permeating every district and neighbourhood along much of the 3,000 km coastline.
The food is actually quite distinct in each region, from the classic bánh mi and bun cha in the capital Hanoi; bánh beo or water fern cakes in central Vietnam; pork cao lau (noodles) and com ga (chicken rice) in Hoi An; and bánh khot mini pancakes at Vung Tau.
Give me a tiny plastic stool next to a smoky sidewalk grill any day.
Of course, Vietnamese street food is modernising at a rapid clip, with western tourists using Instagram, YouTube and local blogs to sample and showcase the best dishes.
That’s given rise to commercial street food hubs like Ben Thanh Street Food Market, created specifically for the tourist trade.
While there’s no doubt demand for these clean and modern eateries among hygiene-conscious travellers, I can’t help feeling it misses the point of what street food is all about.
Give me a tiny plastic stool next to a smoky sidewalk grill any day.
Here are 10 street food favourites (that you could easily make at home).
Bánh mi (Vietnamese sandwich)
A product of Vietnam’s French colonial past, the beloved bánh mi has an almost cult-following from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north. Done right, the perfect bánh mi starts with a baguette with a perfect, crispy outer crust. It’s then stuffed with pork cold cuts, chicken, pate spread, coriander (cilantro), carrot, chilli sauce and mayo. The stuffed baguette is often warmed over coals before it’s bagged. A popular on-the-go breakfast is bánh mi op la: a toasted baguette filled with a fried egg, cucumber, a sprinkle of pepper and a slug of soy sauce. A great bánh mi from a street cart – like this one on a street corner outside Ben Thanh Street Food Market – will set you back just 15,000 Vietnamese Dong (one Australian dollar). Expect to pay twice that inside the market.
Bánh xeo (savoury crepe)
These crispy turmeric pancakes called bánh xeo are named for the sizzling sound the crepe batter makes when it hits the hot pan: “xeo”. Bánh means cake, so the literal translation of this dish is “sizzling cake”. A good bánh xeo is a crispy crepe made of rice flour, turmeric and coconut cream that’s bulging with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. It’s then garnished with fresh herbs like mint or coriander (cilantro). Try cutting it into slices and rolling each morsel in rice paper or a lettuce leaf dunked in sweet sauce. I’ve made this at home, but it was never this good. There’s also a sweet variety of bánh xeo, made with banana.
Chao Tom (sugar cane prawns)
If you’re a fan of Vietnamese food you’ll probably have tried chao tom: a lightly-seasoned mix of prawn, pork, egg white, carrot and onion wrapped around a sugarcane stick. When grilled, the sweetness of the sugarcane melts into the prawn mixture. For a mouth-watering sensation, be sure to dunk the prawn skewer in some nuoc cham dipping sauce before eating.
Goi cuon (fresh spring rolls)
Goi cuon, widely known as summer rolls in Vietnam, are translucent rice paper rolls packed with prawns or chicken, coriander, mint, lettuce, carrot, and fine vermicelli rice noodles. They are best served fresh so be sure they’re made in front of you otherwise they’ll dry out and be a little chewy. It’s a mistake I made a couple of times on a recent visit. Summer rolls are best eaten dunked in a satay style peanut sauce or sweet dipping sauce. There are also fried spring rolls known as nem ran in Hanoi or cha gio in Ho Chi Minh City.
Bánh Cuon Nhan Thit
(steamed rice rolls with minced pork)
Typically eaten for breakfast, these silky rice paper pillows are stuffed with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms and topped with dried shallot and coriander. The perfect accompaniment is a sweet nuoc cham dipping sauce, or try a drizzle of soy. Bánh cuon (which means rolled cakes) originated in the north, but is so popular that every region in Vietnam has its own version. Just make sure your bánh cuon is made to order because there’s nothing worse than dry rice flour.
Bánh Khot (mini shrimp pancake)
I discovered these crispy mini-pancakes, known as bánh khot, when I visited the beachside town of Vung Tau in March. They’re a popular street food snack found in the country’s south, and are made of rice flour batter and coconut milk, coloured with turmeric and crowned with prawn or squid and spring onions. These crispy morsels are perfect as they are, but are best devoured wrapped in rice paper and lettuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham.
Bo la lot
(minced beef wrapped in wild betel leaf)
Bo la lot is one of the healthiest Vietnamese street food snacks you’ll find, and your nose will lead you to them. Tender and fragrant minced beef with garlic and shallots is wrapped like a cigar in betel leaves (also known as piper lolot leaves) and then grilled over hot coals. Once cooked, they are sprinkled with peanuts and served with a spicy dipping sauce. This is another street food sensation that goes to another level when wrapped in a lettuce leaf or moist rice paper.
Phở (beef noodle soup)
Phở must surely be Vietnam’s de facto national dish, and Hanoi lays claim to its origin. This memorable taste sensation consists of a rich, fragrant broth that’s made by simmering beef or chicken bones flavoured with star anise, cinnamon bark and char-roasted onions and ginger. In Hanoi, there are two main phở variants: phở bo (beef noodles) and phở ga (chicken noodles). Cheap and tasty and found absolutely everywhere, it is served with fresh rice noodles and a sprinkling of herbs. Phở (pronounced “fuh”) is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner and is must-try for any first-time visitor to Vietnam.
Bún Chả (noodle broth with pork)
It might rank second to phở in the popularity stakes, but bún chả is still one of Hanoi’s famous dishes – just ask former US president Barack Obama. A top choice for lunchtime feasting, bún chả consists of succulent grilled pork patties (chả) in a bowl of sweet, clear broth, with rice noodles, leafy greens and fresh herbs like Thai basil, mint, coriander and banana flower. Many restaurants – like Bún Chả Dac Kim in Hanoi’s Old Quarter where I ate in 2018 – also offer a side of crispy crab spring rolls known as nem cua be.
This is a staple you can see by the roadside across Vietnam, but they’re especially popular in the lantern town of Hoi An. I’ve seen a few different ways of making these tasty morsels. The batter is generally made of rice, sweet potato and banana that is cooked on a stove top like roti. Then it is filled with fresh banana, folded and flash fried like a donut. Just make sure they cook them fresh while you wait.
Street Food Tips
> Look for street food vendors where the locals eat. It’s a sure sign they are doing something right.
> If you can’t see the ingredients, think twice about eating there. Most street vendors in Vietnam cook out in the open and will have their ingredients on full display.
> Look around the area where a vendor cooks. If it’s dirty or unappealing, go elsewhere.
> When it comes to many snacks made of rice paper – like summer rolls or bánh cuon – try to have them made to order while you wait. Nothing’s as disappointing as dry rice paper.
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