If you are heading to Vietnam, chances are you’ve already heard of the bustling street food scene in the country. The country’s sidewalks are dotted with thousands of eateries and food carts that, if huddled together, would make for a gigantic open-air restaurant with a masterful reputation for seducing your tastebuds. While you may feel intimidated by the language barrier and the lack of a proper menu, pulling up a tiny plastic chair to join in on the frenetic ambiance of Vietnamese street food can be a particularly rewarding experience.
Not only are Vietnamese food stalls worthy choices to sample authentic Vietnamese fare perfected over generations of culinary expertise, but they also boast of serving fresh and healthy meal options – a combination absent in most ‘fast food’ circles. Except for occasional fried treats, the Vietnamese healthy ‘fast food’ options are full of fresh meat and herbs, bought at the local market and combine delicate flavors to serve up delightful classic recipes and their modish variants.
Whether you are straddling the border between Phu Nhuan and Binh Thanh at Vạn Kiếp Street or revisiting the favorite site of the notorious Vietnamese gangster Năm Cam at Vĩnh Khánh, there are a number of street delicacies that you should NOT miss out on.
While most may argue that Phở bò or beef noodles remain the no.1 Vietnamese street food, there is reason to believe that the nominal of Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam is no longer the undisputed ‘king’ of street food. While the dish (in its northern and southern styles) remains popular among locals and tourists alike, Cơm tấm (or broken rice), cơm tấm bì or broken rice with pork skin, chả trứng or egg cake alongside xôi (sticky rice) and xôi bắp (corn sticky rice) are equally worthy filling meal options. It is important to note that the popularity of these evergreen dishes inspires innovative competition among chefs to produce the most arresting and delicious dishes.
While there are several variants of beef noodles available on every sidewalk, cơm tấm has seen a deviation from the traditional to include more modern elements and produce a fusion dish. Xôi bắp’s northern version remains tastier than the southern style and is available in salty and sweet versions. The most popular northern sweet xôi bắp includes softly cooked corn mixed with sticky rice, topped with tasty fried shallots green mung bean and sugar while the salty variant includes a sticky rice with Chinese sausage, green onion stirred with oil and dried shrimp flavored with soy sauce.
The Saigon baguette is a popular sandwich option with several varieties of fillings inside a warm loaf of crunchy bread. From đồ chua (sour toppings) made from pickled shreds of carrot and white radish to a varied assortment of veggies like carrots, coriander, cucumber, green onion, tomatoes and chili to pork, ham, and pâté gan (liver paste), the Saigon baguette remains a favorite quick bite option.
Rice noodles (bún) also undergoes a variety of preparations- some of which include bún chả giò (rice noodles with deep fried spring rolls), bún thịt nướng (rice noodles with grilled pork) and bún riêu (rice noodles with sour crab soup). Roll cakes or bánh cuốn are a healthy snack available in a northern style filled with pork meat (bánh cuốn nhân thịt) and a southern style called bánh ướt (a wet variant). These roll cakes are prepared from steamed rice served with sweet, spicy fish sauce, ham and blanched bean sprouts, herbs. The gỏi cuốn or spring roll is another healthy snacking option made from rice noodles, veggies, cooked prawn and pork meat. The dip is a sweet soy sauce mixed with chopped and roasted peanuts.
Among some special street delicacies are bánh tráng nướng or Vietnamese style pizza made of crunchy rice paper base topped with skillfully spread egg, mayonnaise and chili sauce with a choice of toppings that include (but are not limited to) dry beef or chicken, shrimp powder, cream cheese, chili powder and spring onion, gỏi khô bò- a tasty salad (yes, they exist) made of julienned papaya, marinated bovine lungs, tamarind fish sauce and cinnamon scented leaves and nem chua rán or fried sour roll, a Hanoi-an specialty of deep-fried flour-coated shredded pork skins containing chopped pork fillings, served with chili sauce, herbs and veggies.
For those with a sweet tooth, the Vietnamese street food scene has plenty of offerings, but nothing beats the rich creamy texture of a fruit ice cream. It contains two rich scoops of ice cream mixed with an assortment of fruit (papaya/ watermelon/ jackfruit/ avocado), and a pudding topped sweetened coconut milk and crushed peanut.
The Vietnamese street food scene typifies the ‘bang for your buck’ adage- so you know that your scrumptious snacks are a good way of spending (and really saving) your precious wads – so there is no real reason to resist the temptation!