First-time visitors to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are sometimes surprised by the explosion of small businesses. They are everywhere. And they have been for years. One of the best ways to travel is to mind your dollar – spread it out, make sure it doesn’t all congeal in one big fat pocket.
Going to a fancy restaurant opened by expats or local big-whigs can be fun. (And do go. Many are excellent; the tiny Italian-run pizzeria in Thao Dien has very very good pizza we get once a week or so.) But it’s another case to support a middle-aged couple who work seven days a week for dishes that cost under $1.25. Support them.
3 – Street food offers Vietnam’s best views.
Nothing is more fascinating than looking at Vietnam go. Sitting on the sidewalk – in a fishing village on the Mekong, a remote beach town backed by mountains, a crammed Saigon street, a back Hanoi alley in the birthplace of pho – puts you a foot from a mesmerizing dervish of motorbikes, pushcart vendors, cars and passerby. No amount of time satiates the curiosity of watching Vietnam in action. And street food gives you front row seats for as long as you want them.
To get a sense, watch our Saigon street food tour of Binh Thanh District’s Van Kiep Street. (See the video at the top of this post.)
4 – The people running the stand really know their recipe.
Ask almost any vendor, and you’ll find their specialty – spiced broth of bun bo Hue noodles, porked-filled banh bao cakes etc – has been passed down from parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. They know what they’re doing.
The food may be cheap, but it’s incredibly complex to make. I regularly stop for goi cuon spring rolls down the street from our home, to watch the ritual of creating a noodle-filled shrimp and pork rice roll, and a customized take-away sauce featuring no less than a half-dozen ingredients mixed together fresh for every order. The woman – wearing a conical non la hat, a mask for pollution and long sleeves for the sun – does this every day.
I wrote about Saigon’s oldest banh mi, operated since 1958 with a granddaughter now cutting the fresh bread every morning, for USA Today recently.