A local’s guide to street food in Vietnam

7th June 2018 | by Guest author

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Vietnam is renowned for its love of food and adventurous attitude to eating, and street food is where the country’s carousel of flavours and ingredients is at its most vibrant. Take your lead from the locals and sniff out the very best street food from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City...

From North to South...

As you travel through Vietnam, you'll find that the flavours, texture, ingredients - even the cultural values inherent within the cooking - vary greatly between north and south. And that's before you even mention the infinite regional and individual twists on common dishes! There can be a fair bit of rivalry as to which region does it ‘properly’.

Dishes from south Vietnam are often crisply fried with sweet, spicy sauces and flavoured with coconut, garlic and fresh herbs. Food further north is based around simpler, subtler flavours where the central ingredients are the focus. Black pepper brings mild heat, and many dishes are steamed.

Noodle bowls are on offer everywhere in Vietnam, as soup, in sauce and dry fried, with the bestl-known being the northern Vietnamese dish of pho (pronounced ‘fuh’). These steaming bowls of fresh broth, rice noodles, thinly-sliced vegetables and shredded chicken or beef are served 24 hours a day. It’s no surprise that ‘pho’ also means ‘street’ in Vietnamese as it is, perhaps, the ultimate Vietnamese street food.

But how do those who live in Vietnam find the best street food amongst so many options?

Top tips from those in the know...

  • Start at a market. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by choice, make your way to the fresh produce section of a local market, such as Dong Ba in Hue or Hanoi’s Dong Xuan. Market vendors, especially early in the morning, aren’t vying for the tourist trade, but rather aiming to keep the daily shoppers from getting ‘hangry’. They specialise in quick, cheap but high quality snacks that incorporate the market’s key ingredients, so it’s a good opportunity to eat what the locals eat.
  • Timing is everything. Vietnam eats early, and the earliest birds catch the best pho. Have breakfast with the locals between 7-8, head for lunch from 11:30-1, and grab an early dinner between 5-6:30. Food is, of course, available pretty much 24/7 in Vietnam’s major cities, but during the times above the choice will be widest, the food freshest, and you’ll be tasting dishes designed for the local working population rather than the tourist market.
  • Look for fresh and well-stored. Depending on the dish, the components are often on display waiting to be cooked to order at a moment’s notice. Look for freshness in the raw ingredients, as well as general cleanliness at the stall, and the quality of the finished dish will be high. If you’re not happy, be confident moving on – you won’t have far to go before you have another chance to eat!
  • Copy the locals. Order something several other diners are enjoying and you’re usually onto a winner. Vietnam is a country of adventurous eaters, so you may end up trying something out of your usual comfort zone, such as quail balut (semi-developed quails eggs). Fermented shrimp paste is a popular side in some places, but its intense flavour isn’t for the faint hearted!
  • Go off the beaten track. Away from the markets’ main drag, down smaller side streets, you can often find local workers grabbing lunch where the streets are quieter and there’s less traffic. These hidden corners with a local focus give you a chance to chat with the vendors too, and enjoy a slightly more leisurely pace (though the food itself will still be served up ultra-quick).
  • Join a queue. Oddly British, but queues for street food in Vietnam (as across the globe) indicate that what’s being served is likely to be both tasty and safe to eat - double bonus. Though it’s tempting to head for a stall where you can get served immediately, if there are a few locals waiting, or already eating, then the food being created is probably a cut above the rest. If the customers include elderly residents or kids, then food hygiene is probably top notch too.
  • Look out for regional specialities. Vendors from surrounding villages often bring unusual regional specialities to the big cities to make their stall stand out from the crowd. Find your favourite variation of Mì Quảng turmeric noodles in central Vietnam, or Ca Kho To caramelised catfish in the south. Try something different and, if your guide is on hand to translate, chat with the vendor about the dish’s origins.
  • Choose taste over aesthetics. Instagram-pretty food can be as tasty as it looks, but sometimes the best dishes are the least photogenic. Stalls where the focus is all about the flavours and less about the presentation is where you’ll find the genuine local foodies savouring hearty, home-style Vietnamese cuisine. There’s always a place for a picture perfect shrimp fritter, but a less visually startling bowl of noodles can hold a more captivating world of taste.
  • Get your fingers dirty! Don’t be shy when it comes to chowing down on street food snacks as many require serious hands-on eating. Bahn Mi buns must be held together, shellfish prised open, snails plucked from their spirally beds and bones gnawed. Get right in there if you need to, and work for the reward of better flavours.
  • Chopsticks in dominant hand, spoon in other. When utensils are called for, especially with the vast array of noodle soups on offer, use the local method for getting the noodle and broth combo right: chopsticks in dominant hand, spoon in the other, then twist the noodles into the bowl of the spoon and eat them together with a hearty mouthful of broth.
  • It’s all about the extras. Street food in Vietnam often comes with a variety of extra components, including mounds of fresh herbs, dry mixes of chilli and garlic, crispy fried spring onions and, most crucially, the vendor’s signature blend of nuoc cham, or other dipping sauce. These shouldn’t be viewed as optional extras but as integral to the overall taste, and should always be fully included as they’ll give the dish its zing.
  • Wash it down with a cold beer or a cup of green tea. With a comforting familiarity for many visitors, the national drinks available across Vietnam are beer, coffee and tea. Vietnamese coffee is strong and sweet, ideal after a meal, and Vietnamese green tea, or tra, is delicate and often flavoured with flowers including chrysanthemum, jasmine and (on special occasions) lotus.

Don’t miss...

The lunchtime buzz along Ngo Trang Tien in Hanoi as small plastic chairs and tables are hurredly laid out in the narrow street ready for the midday rush. Wander down this tiny alley breathing in the tempting smell of the many dishes, choose a few to try and take a low pew to enjoy lunch among the students and local workers. Some of our must-try dishes here include bun cha barbecued pork noodles, bun oc snail noodle soup, and a sweet starch and coconut soup known in its many varieties as chè...

The best original pho you’ll ever taste in Hanoi’s Old Quarter around Pho Hang Bo and Pho Hang Can…

A fragrant, clattering heap of escargot-style snails in lemongrass in Dalat. This cultural fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine brings out the best of both...

Whizzing through the late night traffic of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) on a Vespa street food tour to find edible delights a little further off the beaten track. Tell your guide what you’re in the mood to try, or let them lead the way. Be sure to include a portion of delicate, translucent goi cuon fresh spring rolls packed with herbs and prawns...

A write-home-about classic bahn mi stuffed baguette from Banh Mi Hong Hoa on Nguyễn Văn Tráng or Bahn Mi 37 on Nguyen Trai in HCMC…

Comforting bowlfuls of creamy banh tam bi - thick noodles smothered in a creamy coconut sauce topped with pork and chilli - in rural towns along the Mekong Delta…

Bun thit nuong grilled pork noodle salad; a traditional street food that has been a Hue favourite for many decades...

If you're interested in exploring Vietnam's street food but would like a local to show you the ropes, ask your Destination Specialist about our Go Local experiences.