The Vietnamese fashion designer is looking at me skeptically. His friends are absorbed in the plate of dried squid on the table between us. But this forty-something balding man with his nicely-tailored shirt and black slacks is shocked when I gesture that they can finish the dish of pale pink strips. The man has also had four or five Sài Gòn Special beers in the last hour. (I promise I only bought him one of those. Or two.)
He’s leaning back away from me slightly, his fingers laced around one knee, and I’m worried he’s going to fall off of his tiny blue plastic stool.
Most of the stools that cover the sidewalks of Vietnam are about a foot tall. I’m 6’2” and I’ve never felt so conscious of the size my knees. Hundreds of the little seats line the street, nearly all of them a specific shade of blue or red. On the busiest streets, the stools are movable islands above the gradually deepening layer of plastic cups, skewers, bones, napkins, baguette ends, and evidence of beautiful street food gluttony.
The smaller the stools, the smaller the bill, and the smaller the space between each patron and their neighbor.
When I sat down, my close neighbors were three Vietnamese men: the drunken fashion designer, a guy in a dirty, white, ribbed tank top, and our translator, a third friend who lives in Dusseldorf now and has one of the thickest, oddest accents I’ve encountered – wide, bowing German vowels spiked with the tonal tendencies of Vietnamese.
We’re seated out in front of one of numerous drinking and eating holes on the street, the pool of stools belonging to each one blending with the next. My neighbors have ordered us squid, roasted chili peanuts, and snails. Five feet away, a table is tackling a large hot pot over an open flame with a platter of thin-cut meats and vegetables. It’s an admirable challenge, but hot pot seems like a risky choice for my Bia Sài Gòn-addled friend. On Vietnam’s tiny stools, you’re always closer to your food.
I grew up eating Vietnamese street food, though I didn’t call it that at the time. I claim this solely as a basis for appreciation, not expertise or ownership. During high school, bánh mì sandwiches from Seattle’s Saigon Deli on Jackson Street were the best lunch that $2.50 could buy. My friends and I wondered at the jelly dessert labeled “Ingredients: Panda,” having understandably never heard of pandan at that point. I later started taking a couple bánh mì to go whenever I was leaving town or heading to the airport. Sriracha, a mess of Vietnamese pickles and cilantro at 35,000 feet.
Street food includes almost everything in Vietnam, since most eating happens on the sidewalk, one foot above the ground. One block will have stalls serving classic noodle soups of phở bò and bún cha with baskets of fresh herbs to mix in, crispy bánh xèo “pancakes,” nem rán fried spring rolls, and hột vịt lộn – duck embryo, if you’re into it.
A person can feel like they’re constantly eating while in Vietnam, always grabbing for a stubby plastic stool. Even during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year festival, when all of Hanoi shuts down for a week, a few street food vendors still staked out their stalls and tried to scrape a little income out of the holiday. Oddly, ninety percent of the stalls I saw open during Tet in Hanoi were selling bun rieu spicy-sour noodle soup. None of the Vietnamese folks I asked understood this either.
There’s a lot to Vietnamese street food of course, so we’ve organized things a bit:
Phở – Noodle Soup
The vat of soup has been throwing out subtly aromatic steam since before dawn. The cook flicks chopsticks between the fingers of one hand, a strainer on a long metal stick in the other, dousing rice noodles into the vat, dumping them into a bowl, and pouring broth over the top. The force of the phở is all in the preparation, a practiced balance of onions, cuts of meat, fish sauce, ginger, garlic, cloves, anise, salt, and sugar in some combination.
Phở (“fuh”) is the best-known of Vietnam’s many noodles soups. It’s thin, flat rice noodles and usually chicken (phở gà) or beef (phở bò), but it’s phở broth that gives the soup its muscle. The broth’s ingredients vary, but the flavor is also built over hours of simmering – one vendor on Thuốc Bắc street in Hanoi’s old quarter said he keeps his broth cooking for ten hours.
Northern-style phở, called phở bắc, is made with a simpler-tasting broth, more green onions, and the beef usually looks to be minced or on-the-bone. Hanoians have told me that phở in their city should be eaten with fewer herbs, but I’ve happily enjoyed a pile of herbs for garnish at most Hanoi phở spots I’ve eaten. Southern-style phở, called phở Nam, is a little sweeter and darker and served with hoisin sauce. Vegetarian phở does exist, mostly in “chay” restaurants – chay is Vietnamese for vegetarian or vegan.
Quick Note – How to Travel in Vietnam as a Vegetarian or Vegan
I’ve been mostly vegetarian for 13 or so years but I’ll eat most things once, especially when duty or courtesy calls, or if I’m in a small village and someone just killed a pig. Chay food in Vietnam can be great, bland, or have just a one-note flavor. Just type chay into google maps and you’ll find plenty to eat in Vietnamese cities. I even found this one in Điện Biên Phủ after getting off an epic bus adventure over the mountains from Laos. If you can give yourself a pass on meat broths and fish sauce, most stalls will have a way to just leave out the pieces of meat, fish or egg.
Also, there is almost a mythology to phở, though I say this at the risk of exoticising its culture. if you’re looking for a good read on your trip to Vietnam, pick up The Beauty of Humanity Movement. The novel centers around old man Hung, a phở seller in Hanoi who lives and works through the American War. I can’t eat phở anymore without thinking about this character. However, the author isn’t Vietnamese, so it also runs the risk of reducing the Vietnamese experience to a bowl of phở, without actually understanding what the food really means in the way that a local can. It’s a danger all of us run, as foreigners writing about food that isn’t ours. Get a book or two by a Vietnamese author while you’re at it – Da Ngan’s Insignificant Family, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, or Dương Thu Hương’s Paradise of the Blind.
Bún Chả – Obama’s Favorite Rice Noodles
If you’re going to eat one street food in Vietnam, it should probably be bún chả. This isn’t because bún chả is that uniquely amazing; its flavors are common throughout Vietnamese cuisine. But bún chả has become a tribute to one of the greatest writers and adventurers ever to visit Vietnam, and also to a President of the United States who reminds us in the US that we won’t always feel like our country’s soul is being dragged through the gutter.
Bún chả is the antidote to small-mindedness, and it’s what the late Anthony Bourdain decided Barack Obama should eat when he came to Hanoi and the two ate at Bún chả Hương Liên, south of Hoan Kiem Lake (video – do your best not to cry).
Most common in Hanoi, bún chả is a spread rather than a single dish: thin rice noodles (bún – pronounced “boon”), pork, a salty-sweet dipping sauce with a little garlic and chili, and fresh herbs – basil, cilantro, green onions, with lettuce. Bún chả is eaten by combining the ingredients in a small bowl, with each person eating multiple bowls.
Here’s a video of Bourdain counseling Obama on how it’s done. If the one-time “leader of the free world” can slurp his noodles, so can you. Note: Obama also ate the chilis. “We’re gonna do what’s appropriate,” said the former President.
The restaurant where Obama and Bourdain ate has built a display case around the table where the two sat, apparently at the suggestion of their customers. The restaurant has also received offers to buy the table, which the owner has so far declined.
Banh Xeo – Crispy Yellow Pancakes
Bánh xèo (“bahn say-oh”) are crispy, thin yellow pancakes made with rice flour and a little turmeric and fried up in a skillet. They’re usually filled with some combination of bean sprouts, shrimp, pork, and green onions. But the best part of eating at a bánh xèo stall is the full spread that comes along with them. There’s the plate of fresh herbs, the dipping sauces, the optional plates of tater tot-style fried potatoes or lemongrass pork skewers (nem lụi), and the best of all – spring roll wraps. Vietnamese folks use either dried or fresh noodle-like rice papers to roll up the bánh xèo with the herbs, chilis and whatever else is on the table (I believe the nem lụi pork is fare game for wrapping, but the tater tots are traditionally not). Finger food you get to play with? Tater tots, sometimes made from sweet potatoes? DIY fresh spring rolls? These stalls are a thing of beauty.
The other toppings for bánh xèo vary, but include everything from minced pork with peanuts and chili to green bananas and star fruits. For vegetarians and vegans, some stalls will have tofu but your best option will again be chay restaurants. In the north of Vietnam, bánh xèo are smaller and the cooks at most stalls expect you to order more than one. In the south, they’re bigger and even more unwieldy. The dish is also common in Cambodia, where it’s called “banh chao.”
Gỏi Cuốn or Nem Cuốn – Fresh Spring Rolls
Often called salad rolls or spring/summer rolls, gỏi cuốn (“goy coo-uhn”) are rice paper wraps around some mix of fresh vegetables, bún noodles, pork, shrimp, and tofu, served fresh. These are best if you can get them served with hoisin or peanut sauce (sometimes it’s just fish sauce or sweet chili). They’re also called nem cuốn (“nehm coo-uhn” in the north).
Chả Giò or Nem Rán – Fried Spring Rolls
Chả giò (“chah zahw”), or nem rán in the north (“nehm rehn”), are the fried iteration of spring rolls. They’re usually ground meat and minced vegetables, rolled in rice paper and fried until crispy. You’ll see pyramids of them in markets in Vietnam, premade and ready to take away. They’re also served cut up with bún chả (see below) as a dish called bún chả giò, and they’ll show up as an appetizer everywhere – drinking stalls, bus stations, or the freezer at VinMart.
Bánh Mì Sandwiches
Foodie restaurants from Seattle to Budapest are using bánh mì as an excuse to serve some great Southeast Asian-inspired creations between pieces of bread. These sandwiches are taking over the world for good reason. Vietnam’s national sandwich is a white baguette stuffed with pâté, egg, sausage, or pork belly on a bed of cilantro, peppers (jalapeños or others), cucumber, chili sauce, mayonnaise, and pickled daikon radish and carrots. Ideally, the bread is toasted and there are some added toppings you can throw on there – sauteed onions, tofu, etc. They cost anywhere from 12,000 to 50,000 dong and I end many days in Vietnam thinking I should be eating more bánh mì.
Eat them at Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi (they’ll add avocados and other great foodie shit), here in Ho Chi Minh, Vegan Banh Mi or Lovegan if you need vegetarian or vegan food in Hanoi, and at Bánh mì Huỳnh Hoa in Ho Chi Minh City.
Bánh Bao – Steam Buns
Like many people, I’ve been a bun and dumpling addict for years. Bánh bao are your classic steam buns and they’ve become a bit of a comfort food. They’re made with savory fillings – pork, salted quail egg with pork, barbecued pork, mixed veggies, or mysterious but great vegan things – and with sweet fillings: taro, custard, pandan, and the list goes on.
Look for big silver steamers in front of any shop, even the corner store that sells nothing but cigarettes and Red Bull. They’re also kept in hot-holding cabinets with metal shelves. VinMart sells them, if there’s no other option.
Bánh Cuốn – Ultra-Thin Steamed Rice Pancakes
They’re not crepes and they’re not rice paper rolls. Bánh cuốn are impressive to watch being made – the cook spoons ultra-light fermented rice batter across a cloth, pulled tight over a pot of boiling hot water. The batter settles and steams, thickening slightly and forming a light, soft base. The cook cracks an egg on top or spoons a line of minced pork and dark brown “wood ear” mushrooms down the middle, lets the filling cook, and then uses a wooden stick to fold the fragile bánh cuốn over itself and lift it off the cooking cloth. The bánh cuốn is served cut in pieces and topped with deep fried shallots. Eat it with chopsticks and dip each piece into the mildly sweet sauce – think of a less fine-tasting Japanese mirin. Sometimes bánh cuốn shops serve a bit of pork pâté on the side.
Chè – This Dessert is the Next Bubble Tea
Chè seems to be an all-encompassing term for Vietnamese desserts involving jellies, diced fruit, tapioca, beans, syrups, coconut, taro, and plenty of things I can’t identify. It’s a relative of cendol, and served both hot and cold. Most chè shops are set up buffet or fast casual style: the pieces are all laid out in bowls, just point to what you want, tell them if you want some ice in there to make it cold, and they’ll tell you how much it costs at the end. It won’t be more than 40,000 dong (<$2).
Just like with big bubble tea shops, the options are endless. Fruits usually include lychee, jackfruit, longan, or mango, while jellies include black grass jellies and palm seeds. Always add coconut cream and ice, if you’re into those, but the best topping I had was some sort of clear gelatinous thing from a pot. Maybe read this guide to chè before you go. Sometimes there’s glutinous black rice and yogurt or ice cream to be had too.
The Issue of Hột Vịt Lộn… (Fetal Duck Egg)
I was coming back late from a pilgrimage to the best bánh mì in Ho Chi Minh City so I could probably claim I just wasn’t hungry, but I’m okay owning up to it: when the young woman running the guest house offered, I had – and still have – no desire to eat hột vịt lộn, or fetal duck egg.
Hột vịt lộn are fertilized eggs that have been allowed to develop for a couple weeks. They’re hard boiled and then cracked open and eaten with fresh herbs, salt, lime, pepper, and chili. The woman at the guesthouse had mixed the condiments and spices in a little bowl and was cracking the shells, dipping the egg in, and popping them down the hatch whole. They’re a common snack in Vietnamese cuisine but not everyone here eats them. The woman admitted she bought them in part to get a rise out of guests.
I’ll admit that it’s mostly the idea of eating these that I can’t get past. I do bugs. I do chopped raw water buffalo salad (laap kwai dip, ลาบควายดิบ, in Thailand – eat it here or here). But the next day when I asked a Vietnamese friend in Saigon about hột vịt lộn, they warned me that if you buy them raw to cook at home, sometimes you’ll get an egg that’s a little too far along and is close to hatching.
The author behind the encyclopedic Vietnam travel site The Vietnam Coracle however, cuts the bullshit and tells people to just get over it and eat it. I leave it up to you. If it just sounds too big to swallow quickly in case things are going poorly, Vietnamese (and Filipinos) also eat fetal quail eggs – much smaller.
Note: They’re also called trứng vịt lộn.
Where are the pickles?!?
Many people, myself included who’ve eaten Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam point to pickled vegetables as a key part of banh mi, but they don’t always make it into the sandwich here. If you’re craving salty and a little stinky, ask for dưa muối (that’s “zeu-uh moy-ee”), especially common at drinking spots.
This is different from chanh muối, or pickled limes. They’re used for pickled limeade (with a lot of sugar), a common drink that’s worth trying if you see it on a menu (chanh muối).