Vietnamese Street Food: from Pho to Bun Cha
By Martha Hales
Mention Vietnam and most travellers will instantly think of food. Some cities can feel like a huge, sprawling outdoor restaurant with the clatter of pans, enticing aromas and a background hum of chatter. Street food is a way of life here, with many street kitchens and hawkers selling just one speciality which has been honed to perfection over the years.
Street food neighbourhoods are certainly an assault on the senses as people yell out their orders through the smoke-filled air. Almost every urban street corner hosts a couple of food carts and it's a common sight to see mopeds and pushbikes slowing down to pick up a portion before speeding off without even dismounting. So before you face the bewildering choice on offer throughout Vietnam, take a look at our guide to some of the unmissable dishes. The principles of Vietnamese cooking are all about balance: sweet and salty with hot and sour. Despite the overwhelmingly delicious flavours, somehow the cuisine of this serpentine country manages to be indulgent and healthy all at once. All the more reason to pull up a tiny plastic stool and tuck in!
There are myriad variations of this Vietnamese classic: spring rolls. Usually they involve crunchy greens, aromatic herbs and vermicelli noodles wrapped up with prawn, crab or pork in whisper-thin translucent rice paper. Sometimes served without cooking (nem cuon) or fried (nem ran) they are universally moreish. Dip into lightly spiced peanut sauce and devour.
A Hanoi speciality, these little pork-meat patties are grilled over hot coals and served with rice or noodles for a filling and delicious lunch. Usually all the components of the dish will be served separately - the little ‘burgers’ in a bowl with broth, ready to add the rice or noodles, chopped fresh herbs and a squeeze of lime.
This savoury pancake is an excellent invention; portable and easy to munch on the go. First the egg batter is spread on the hot griddle or pan. Before it has cooked, prawns and pork are added along with beansprouts, onion and freshly chopped herbs. The pancake is usually folded and dipped with lettuce into a light sauce. Just one is never enough…
Probably Vietnam’s most famous culinary export, pho (say ‘fur’) is a masterclass of simplicity and balanced nutrition. Essentially just a light broth with noodles and meat, usually beef, this is a classic breakfast dish in Vietnam. That's not to say it can’t be eaten at other times, as you will see cart after cart offering this omnipresent snack! Because of its simplicity, the key ingredient is the broth. The best examples have a light, gingery freshness coupled with a deep and satisfying meaty bass note. The perfect comfort food!
A legacy of the French occupation, the banh mi is essentially a baguette sandwich stuffed full of your choice of pate, cheese, meat, carrots, radishes, cucumber, pickles, herbs and chilli. The bread is very much in the French tradition with a good crust and a fluffy interior. The best banh mi stalls will be popular enough that the bread will be replenished throughout the day so you will always get a fresh sandwich.
Known as ‘broken rice,’ and native to Ho Chi Minh City, this is a dish which is cooked using cracked grains of rice. The various elements of the dish are usually served together on the plate, but not mixed. Therefore you can expect a neat pile of ‘broken’ rice alongside your barbecue pork, fried egg and salad. The dish is accompanied by traditional garnishes such as freshly chopped herbs, spring onions and a dipping sauce based on nuoc cham, a fermented fish sauce.
If you’re really hungry, this hits the mark. Sticky rice is filling and warming and can keep you going for hours. It's deservedly popular as a cheap, filling breakfast on the go, served up in sweet and savoury versions from street kitchens up and down the land.
All of these treats cost next to nothing, so go for it... Chuc Ngon Mieng!