On my last trip to Vietnam, I reluctantly found myself at a ritzy hotel rooftop bar. I can’t comment on the city views or the food as I was in a state of shock having paid the equivalent of A$7 for lemonade. Given that the can was the cheapest thing on the menu, a meal was entirely out of the question.
That wasn’t the experience I was looking for. I wanted to keep my feet firmly on the ground, darting between overloaded stalls in overwhelming marketplaces and busy streets on the hunt for cheap street fare. That’s where Vietnam’s heart and soul is.
Raw and authentic, it’s these streetside eateries that are a true reflection of Vietnamese culture – and the families who run these tiny stores tell just as much of a story about the country as its ancient ruins and relics.
Temple fatigue gets many of us, but few ever tire of local food. It’s the yin and the yang; the sweet and the salty; the fresh and the fermented. Vietnamese food is inherently woven into the country’s fabric, best enjoyed hunched over a tiny table while sitting on a kid-sized plastic chair mere metres away from the never-ending flow of traffic.
The best restaurants are the ones hidden in plain sight, serving from ramshackle shops, hole-in-the-wall haunts and unassuming carts on the street, not on rooftops or behind glamorous glass doors. Sure, it can take an adventurous palate to look beyond the grimy shop fronts, but the reward is authentic, delicious and fresh food at outstanding value.
Boisterous, frenetic and chaotic, Vietnam’s streets are a veritable assault on the senses, as well as a round-trip route to flavour town.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Hoi An is a rare jewel in Vietnam’s crown. Mustard yellow facades and bougainvillea-lined boulevards peppered with temples and merchant homes are only part of the legacy that remains from its trading past. The spice and silk routes between Vietnam and China, Japan and France have also had a great influence on Hoi An’s culinary canon.
Along with variations of classic dishes, gourmands flock here for the ‘golden triangle’ of street specialities – white rose, translucent pork and prawn dumplings that resemble a rose; cao lau, five-spice pork and local greens served with thick, chewy noodles made from water sourced from a special well; and com ga, turmeric-based chicken rice. Hoi An is also a popular place for keen cooks to learn the art of Vietnamese cooking.
The food here draws on the fragrant trademarks of Vietnamese cuisine, but with its own distinct heritage and flair. There are temptations to be found at every turn, from wandering the heaving Central Market and its technicolour produce, to soaking up the serenity at the Tra Que Vegetable Village, an organic herb garden which supplies many of the restaurants in town.
Hoi An’s location on the banks of the Thu Bon River serve as the final flourish to a street food sojourn. As the sun sets, there’s really no better place to be than crouching on a stool by the riverbank with a cold beer in hand as the lanterns begin to flicker.
Don’t miss these street food specialities:
- Bale Well, a hidden haunt in the backstreets (45-51 Tran Cao Van) specialises in do-it-yourself rice paper rolls, complete with grilled meat, rice paper and crispy banh xeo. If you’re lucky, the enthusiastic owner will show you how it’s done.
- Bypass the slick cooking schools for a hands-on class at open-air Hi Restaurant on 1 Nguyen Phu Chu Street. The laidback lesson, run by a husband and wife team, is a great alternative to a classroom scenario. Plus, they’ll make you feel like part of the family.
- Banh mi thit is everywhere, but Madame Khanh’s is one of the best. Away from the tourist haunt at 115 Tran Cao Van, this tiny shop does a roaring trade in baguettes filled with paté, char siu pork, fried egg, homemade pickles, veggies and a secret sauce. You will be back for seconds.
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Hanoi is leafy boulevards, serene lakes and an Old Quarter swelling with scooters and basket-laden hawkers. The street food scene in the Old Quarter is wild and wonderful, with something to satisfy even the most apprehensive street eater.
No other dish represents Hanoi like pho, whose origins date back to the 1900s when, rumour has it, French colonialists brought their appetite for steak, and resourceful locals used the scraps to create the soup base.
Pronounced ‘fuh’, not ‘foe’, you’ll find humble bowls of this herb-scented broth, silken rice noodles and slices of rare beef (at its simplest) on almost every corner. It can be hard to stray from the comforting nature of this daily staple, but too much of a great thing means you’ll miss out on the rest.
Throw away the guidebook and let your nose and curiosity lead the way. Thit nuong (marinated grilled pork) is a common, mouth-watering aroma that wafts down bustling streets, as is the sweet bouquet of Vietnamese coffee. Ca phe sua da is the most popular variation, loved for its icy concoction of condensed milk and strong blend, while egg coffee awards curious gourmands with a sweet, tiramisu-like treat.
As for another kind of liquid libation, late-night fun comes in the form of a no-frills streetside drinking session. People from all walks of life gather on ‘Beer Corner’, the confluence of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien streets, to throw down 5,000 dong ($A0.30) glasses of draft beer. The atmosphere is electric as the sidewalk-skimming stools gradually swell onto the streets, only to be hastily tidied up when word gets out that the police patrol is on its way.
Don’t miss these street food specialities:
- Nothing beats banh cuon for breakfast. At Banh Cuon Gia Tuyen at 14 Pho Hang Ga, a woman dutifully ladles scoops of rice flour batter onto a steamer to create a crepe-like noodle, which she then rolls with ground pork and diced mushrooms and sprinkles with coriander, fried onion and nuoc mam cham (fish sauce).
- Bun Cha Dac Kim at 1 Hang Manh in the Old Quarter is a streetside institution renowned for its sole dish, bun cha. Think charred pork floating in a warm nuoc mam-based soup best devoured with a mound of spongy vermicelli noodles, a big handful of herbs and a hearty side of nem cua (crispy crab spring rolls).
- Stained black poussins stuffed into Coke cans with medicinal herbs doesn’t sound – nor look – appealing, but you’ll be promptly won over by the tender, flavour-laden meat and accompanying kumquat juice and salt dip. Try ga tan at any vender along Cam Chi alley at the end of Hang Bong Street.
Ho Chi Minh City is like one big open-air marketplace. Street food in this dizzying sprawl of a city permeates through every district and down every nondescript laneway. Finding a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it local food haunt is like striking gold, which only adds to the allure of this energetic destination.
Given its reputation as a mega Asia city, street food in Ho Chi Minh City represents every enclave and region of the curvaceous country. Its flavours collide in an explosion of flavour, much like the chaotic nature of the metropolis. Northern Vietnamese food may let the ingredients shine, but here, it’s all about the extra spices and accoutrements.
It’s the tangy tomatoes and pineapple chunks swimming in tamarind-based canh chua soup, the chewy discs of banh beo topped with shrimp powder and of course, fragrant bowls of pho spiked with rock sugar and herbs.
“It’s bland otherwise,” says my Vietnamese mother as she dumps a hefty handful of bean sprouts and torn coriander into her bowl when pressed about her pho allegiance. Her southern bias aside, it’s hard to find a bad pho – or meal – anywhere in Vietnam.
Don’t miss these street food specialities:
- Banh xeo, a crispy fried pancake made from a coconut milk and turmeric batter and crammed full of pork, prawn, bean sprouts and mung beans, wrapped in lettuce and dunked in nuoc mam cham is a beloved southern staple. Try it at Banh Xeo 46A (46 Dinh Cong Trang).
- Bot chien is a greasy late-night favourite of rice cakes fried on a cast iron hot plate and served with scrambled eggs, spring onion, papaya salad and a sweet vinegar and soy sauce. Most vendors set up their stations in the evening all around the city.
- Che dau hu, a cup of warm or cold tofu, may not sound like the most pleasant way to end a meal, but it hits the sweet spot. Vendors can be hard to find, but keep your eyes peeled for groups of hip young things and families gathered on street corners at night.