Remember when eating “street food” was considered daring? Back when food trucks didn’t pepper every travel marketing press release? In Vietnam, this is all just business as usual. Yes, there are many fine restaurants here too, and fancy rooftop bars overlooking rapidly modernizing skylines of Saigon or Hanoi or Danang, but the best food here – period – is still found on tiny plastic chairs on sidewalks from make-shift stands that mysteriously appear and disappear at various time of day.
☝️ If our epic street food night out video with a local friend and visitors from New York hasn’t convinced you to try Vietnam street food yet, here’s are even more reasons.
1 – It’s super fresh.
When you get a grilled pork banh mi sandwich or a bowl of bun rieu cua (a thin vermicelli noodle served with crab broth and tomato) for under a dollar, you won’t notice a refrigerator in sight. That’s because all the (many) ingredients are bought fresh and prepared daily. Scared of tummy upsets on the road? Street food is almost guaranteed freshness. Go to any vendor that seems busy. There’s good reason.
2 – It supports Local small business.
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.
5 – It feels good.
Vietnamese food follows a tradition of mixing “hot” and “cold” foods to create a “yin/yang” effect. If you’re stomach is hurting, a local might wonder if you’re eating too much pork (a “cold” food, along with most greens and melons) without balancing it with some mango or garlic (“hot” foods, as is beef). This is why you get such playful mixes of sweet and sour, etc, with Vietnamese food.
A fun one is mi quang in Danang, a half-soup, half-salad with fresh slices of pork, a dizzying number of ingredients (peanuts, lettuce, turmeric, garlic) and a crunchy rice cracker placed on top.
Simply put, Vietnamese food is consciously made to make you feel good. No matter how good it feels to eat, can the same really be said for the aftermath of a platter of syrup-covered pancakes and bacon, or a couple chili-dogs?
My recent Lonely Planet article on Danang tells where to find the freshest, tastiest bowl of local mi quang noodles.