Last month took me to Cambodia and this month, I’ve made my way to Vietnam, where the sidewalks are crammed with both locals and travelers eating street food on miniature stools and tables. It’s the same country that Anthony Bourdain said changed his life. My culinary journey began in the southernmost metropolis, Ho Chi Minh (though many still call it Saigon), which has a reputation for having the best street food in Vietnam sold from pushcarts, stalls and bicycles. Given the availability and diversity of street food here, it seems silly to ever dine in a restaurant. For less than a couple of dollars, you can grub on the world’s best Vietnamese staples: pho and banh mi.
On the Road to Pho
I roamed the streets of Ho Chi Minh where I had my pick of thousands of stalls selling pho, Vietnamese meat and noodle soup. I ordered beef pho from a smiling woman wearing a conical hat, and took a seat at the stand’s dining room set. Street food is a way of life in Vietnam and provides an incredible social community. In fact, patrons will lounge where vendors are selling food for hours, because these stalls bare more similarities to restaurants than the food trucks in America do. In the U.S., most chefs stay inside their carts. In Vietnam, they not only serve you, but they also offer local assistance to dorky tourists like myself.
During my first pho street food experience, I stuck my chopsticks into the broth upside down and everyone saw and made fun of me. After a major demonstration on using chopsticks and readjusting my approach, the friendly locals suggested we add chili, lime, basil, soy sauce and green onions to our soup. Unaware of what I was getting myself into, I overestimated my spice tolerance and was left looking like a sweaty tomato with blistered lips and teary eyes. A word to the wise: adding more than three slices of dried chili pepper will set your mouth on fire. Nevertheless, the pain was worth it though for this amazing soup.
In Vietnam, Banh Mi is King
Banh Mi is the reigning sandwich in Vietnam. Its flavors draw influence from France (baguettes, pate and mayonnaise) and Vietnam (cucumber, chili, cilantro and pickled carrots). Two fresh baguette loaves surround thick slabs of meat, pickled carrots, cucumbers, onions, cilantro and chili to create a very addicting sandwich and thankfully they’re available on every corner! I tried my first banh mi in Mui Ne, a small resort town in Southeast Vietnam, which is ironically known for its sand dunes rather than its culinary scene. In the midst of several Russian restaurants in the town, I spotted a lone food cart seeking shade beneath a palm tree. Not was this my first banh mi experience, but it was my favorite and only 15,000 Dong (67 cents)! The meat had been simmering on the cart’s grill all day, and the owner toasted the baguette buns when we arrived.
I watched the entire process, and the chef constantly asked how I’d like my banh mi prepared. From my amazing Mui Ne banh mi, I learned two important criteria for how to find the best banh mi: evaluate the type of meat (hot, simmering meat trumps deli cold-cuts) and type of bread (it should be toasted, fresh and a baguette). And, of course, bonus points for extra toppings.
Beyond the Famed Food Staples
Popular dishes like pho and banh mi can be found in every town, but the rest differ dramatically from city-to-city. Southernmost Saigon had fried squid skewers and seafood porridge. Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, had chicken and rice; donuts; and freeze-dried ice cream. In Northernmost Hanoi, I tried the most bizarre street food–
and Xoi Bap. I didn’t seek them out, but rather they came to me on bicycles, calling my name. She was so excited about getting me to try the liquid inside the metal cauldron attached to her bicycle wheel that I thought the drink might be for free (it wasn’t). She sloshed some opaque, cream-colored, thick gelatin into a cup, poured some warm water in, and then plopped in several gelatin coffee-flavored cubes. I was skeptical, but I loved the drink, as its texture reminded me of boba tea.
Xoi Bap is fried sweet corn, a specialty of Northern Vietnam. It drew my attention instantly, since it was displayed under lights on the back on bicycles meandering through Hanoi. I’d been dying to try it, and flagged down a peddling vendor one evening. The man heated up corn on a skillet, added copious amounts of butter, sugar, corn syrup and oil. I couldn’t wait to dig in! At first it was strange to eat incredibly sweet corn instead of salty corn, but my taste buds quickly adjusted. Xoi Bap was amazing, so I inhaled every last kernel.
My journey and street food adventure continues on and where my next stop takes me, nobody knows! Until next time…
Annie Edwards, SE Asia Contributor
You can check out Annie’s blog at okayfinetravel.com and follow she and her friends on Instagram at okayfine___ (three underscores).