If you’ve known me for very long, you know that I love to eat… really there is no better place to enjoy food than while traveling. I’m not talking about trying out new restaurants in a new city, searching out your favorite kinds of food, like sushi, eggs benedict, burritos, or juicy bacon cheeseburgers. I’m talking about weird, sometimes scary-looking food… the kind of meals devoured by locals.
In Vietnam, locals throughout the country eat their meals on the street, but for Americans the entire street food experience is really quite intimidating; there is no menu, you don’t speak the language, you have no idea what you’re ordering, and there is often raw meat sitting in the open air. Yikes… we’re used to a back room restaurant kitchen and vacuum-sealed meat from an air-conditioned grocery store. Dissimilarly, Vietnamese want to see the food that will be served to them as a way to check that it’s not spoiled before it’s cooked and look the chef in the eye. Hasn’t the chef’s table become the place to sit at most trendy restaurants these days… so maybe this shouldn’t faze us?
We set out to explore Saigon through food, but it turned into our key to unlocking the treasures of Vietnam. Street food is about so much more than a quick, cheap bite. Our initially clumsy meals bridged the cultural gap, as old women pointed to the bowl of spiciest chili, shaking no to ensure we didn’t burn our faces off, or smiled acknowledgment as we gestured for a second serving of their unbelievably delicious labor of love. Strange and complicated tastes turned into new and potent cravings that still linger. We already miss noodle bowls for breakfast, piles of fresh herbs with every meal, and the tiny tables crowded with families and two foreigners.
For those of you at home, please sit back and eat vicariously through this post. For anyone looking for some delicious food in Vietnam… read on and mark these on your must-eat map!
Bun cha Ha Noi was our first meal in Vietnam, discovered in The Legal Nomads’ nearly life-altering post about Saigon street food. We chose this first restaurant based solely on its proximity to our rented apartment. Who knew it would turn into one of our favorite dishes? Normally eaten for breakfast, we sat down to our first street food experience for dinner. Pointing and holding up two fingers in gesture of quantity, the waiter brought us our first beer over ice and a mish mash of delectably seasoned pork paddies, pork belly, crisp slices of root vegetables in garlicy sweet broth nuac mam, fresh herbs, and a side of bun noodles. Still new to chopstocks, fumbling with the slippery bun noodles and without a clue as to the right way to eat our meal, we devoured everything put in front of us.
Since our first encounter, we’ve polished off many a bun cha, and unsurprisingly, our favorite spots are in the city from which it was created, Ha Noi. We also now prefer it for breakfast, as the thin and smoky slices of pork belly are reminiscent of bacon and the heaping basket of green herbs like basil, mint and perilla keep my desire for fresh veggies at bay. The slices of green papaya, carrots, and hot chilies add a crunchy texture, and the generous serving of scissor-cut bun chunks stick with you until early afternoon. Enjoy with crispy springrolls (nem) for a little extra treat.
Quan Anh Hong | 34A Mac Dinh Chi, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City | Closes at 8PM
At the southwest entrance to the Long Bien train station (ga Long Bien), you’ll find a small counter adjacent to the road that crosses under the rail line and the alley leading to the station. Sit yourself down at the small counter for the best bun cha Ha Noi 30,000 dong can buy you. Go for breakfast.
Old Quarter | Intersection of Bat Su and Hang Bo, Hoan Kiem, Ha Noi | you can’t miss the heaping piles of grilled meat and adorable plastic plates stacked with clipped bun.
These satisfying little rolls have become our go-to for dinner. Steamed rice flour crepes are filled with woodear mushrooms and ground pork or chicken (our favorite). They seem simple to make, but surely contain a secret ingredient that cannot be found back home. Made fresh to order and topped with crispy fried shallots, they’re cut into bite-sized morsels for easy dipping into a light fish sauce. Like most Vietnamese street food, they’re accompanied by a heaping basket of fresh herbs. Add a leaf or two to each bite and as many fresh hot chilies as your taste buds can handle. One order is good for a light lunch, but I always want a second plate at dinner. If you’re really hungry, order fried bean cakes or the salty sliced pork loaf, reminiscent of the pork roll enjoyed by all New Jersey natives.
We first discovered this dish in Saigon, but prefer the way it’s prepared in Hanoi. Enjoyed in either city, you will not be disappointed!
Nuances: In Saigon, the dish is served as larger dumplings with steamed bean sprouts and a light, sweet fish sauce. Originally a northern dish, they omit the sprouts and double the crisp shallot topping, serving with warm nuac mam, a more subtle and salty broth.
Where to eat:
Banh Cuon Tay Ho | 127 Dinh Tien Hoang, Quan 1, Ho Chi Minh City
72 Hang Bo, Hoa Kiem, Hanoi
I was first intrigued with banh xeo from an article about an American chef’s quest to cook this elusive rice flower pancake. The story made it sound terribly difficult to perfect. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that we would be making it in our Vietnamese cooking class. I like to cook, but am no master chef. Banh Xeo (pronounced seo, like sizzle says our instructor) is a less like a pancake, and more like a slightly crispy tortilla. Similar to a quesadilla, the pancake is filled with sautéed pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts and cut into wedges. Similarities stop here as we wrap each wedge between fresh mustard leaves and herbs, dipping every bite into a tangy sauce. This dish is substantial in size and gratifying to consume. Like most of my favorite meals, bahn xeo is a “process” to eat, meaning each bite has to be created as you eat it: cut pancake, lay on fresh herbs, wrap inside mustard leaf, dip in sauce, repeat!
Banh Xeo 46A Dinh Cong Trang, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City | on the ‘Bourdain trail’ and the place where bahn xeo was invented 70 years ago, still run by the same family, three generations later.
Banh Khot Co Ba Vung Tau | 102 Cao Thang, Q3 | http://www.cobavungtau.com | where my favorite Saigon food blogger recommends… bonus “it’s got a filtered water system for the fresh herbs and vegetables so those with extremely delicate stomachs need not fear”
*In truth, we enjoyed our own creations more than 46A’s, proudly mastering a difficult dish :)
Banh Tam Bi
Second in our street food adventures, this dish is far different from the other noodle bowls we’ve enjoyed since. tam means silkworm, which aptly describes the dish’s round and thick tapioca flour noodles. Coated with a thickened coconut sauce and then topped with a pork meatball, sausage, and crispy, thinly-sliced pork skins, it creates a fabulous combo of textures. Despite the sausage fest, this meal is actually quite light in flavor, accompanied by the requisite fresh herbs and pickled vegies.
Quan Sadec (photo above) | 154 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City | http://www.sadecquan.com
Banh Tam Bi To Chau, 271 Nguyen Trai, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City
Banh Tam Dong Thap, 352 Nguyen Trai, Q5, Ho Chi Minh City
Most people have probably heard of banh mi. Paul was drooling at the idea of it the moment we arrived in Vietnam. Little did I know “it” was a sandwich… A Vietnamese sandwich? So the French left behind more than just their architecture and rail system, they left behind a culture of deliciously fresh baguettes, smeared with pate, cold cuts, grilled pork patties, spicy mayonnaise, pickled veggies, drooling… seriously, I now understand the power of a good banh mi. We tried two different types during our week in Saigon, and they’re as similar as a club sandwich is to a Reuben. Both spots came recommended across the interwebs, so I’ll just copy and paste both addresses here and add to the number of times they come up in google searches. All joking aside, though, we were not disappointed. Locals buy by the bag-full… anywhere from five to fifteen at a time. Excellent to-go food. We brought them on the train for a truly satisfying dinner. We devoured these so quickly, we forgot to take photos. It’s a sandwich, I bet you can imagine :)
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa | 26 Le Thi Rieng, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City | This is a huge sandwich, stuffed with a plethora of coldcuts, pate, spicy mayo, and fresh vegies. I couldn’t finish one on my own, but Paul was in sandwich heaven. (Known as “lesbian banh mi” online, easier to remember than the restaurant’s name for my English ears, but I’m not sure why and did not ask).
Stall at 37 Nguyen Trai, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City | She parks right under the number 37 at the alley HEM 39 Nguyen Trai, just west of the roundabout. We showed up promptly at 5:00PM, as we read that she sells out early. Her banh mi is the smaller variety, about 9” long, but loaded with grilled pork patties and flavorful spicy pickled vegies.
Banh Mi Phuong | on the Bordain Trail | Hoi An (see picture)
Bun Bo Hue
As much as Paul enjoys banh mi, bun bo hue was probably my favorite dish in Vietnam. Unfortunately it is uncommon outside its namesake city, Hue, but I enjoyed it in Saigon. Another recommendation from my favorite blog, we visit a bustling indoor/outdoor restaurant with a gigantic industrial kitchen. Immediately upon entering the brightly lit space, you smell the soup’s complex mix of ingredients. Again, we are the only foreigners, and go ahead and order with typical pointing and hand gestures. Thankfully there’s only one thing on the menu. After cooling off with a bia over ice, we’re brought this delicious looking bowl. Large slices of lean meat float in a pungent broth of citrus and spices. Legal Nomads tells me that the broth is made with lemongrass, chili, paprika, anotto oil, and the secret ingredient… fermented shrimp paste. At first taste, I’m in heaven. The soup sounds overpowering, but is instead intensely satiating. Sprinkling on julienned banana blossoms, I feel like I’m indulging in a rich meal instead of the $1.50 we’ll spend apiece. This may be my one and only encounter with the dish, but I’ll keep my eyes open for it when I come home.
Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba | 110A Nguyen Du, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City | +84 (8) 3912 5742
A few other eats worth mentioning:
Cao Lau | Thanh | 26 Thai Phien, Hoi An | excellent cao lau, but erratic opening hours.
Che | try this sweet dessert at least once. A Vietnamese spin on ice cream, shredded ice is combined with bananas, cassava, taro, and sweet potato stewed in sweet coconut milk and then sprinkled with lychee syrup and slivered almonds.
Banh Tom | these savory shrimp doughnuts share a cart with deep fried crab, still in their shell, and more traditional sugar coated doughnuts. Try them all for a happy hour treat.
Chili Sauces |
Tuong ot chai can be likend to sweet and spicy ketchup. The fluorescent red appears hot, but it is actually quite mild and glutinously sweet. In a squeeze bottle on most street food tables (a long with fresh limes, fish sauce, and napkins if you’re lucky).
Do not mistake the deep oily red Ot xao sa te Sai Gon for its milder counterpart. This sauce is indeed satan in a jar. Initially oily and mild, the flavor builds to an intense and lasting heat. I can’t get enough of this stuff, but am related to my sister who eats habaneros.
Ot xao sa te Hoi An is similar to it’s southern cousin above. More salty, with dried ground chilies and lemongrass, this is another scorching favorite of mine.
* Please note that I use Saigon when speaking about the delightful southern metropolis and Ho Chi Minh City when I reference address, as this is the easiest way to look them up using Google. You will find that southerners still call their city Saigon, where the rest of the country calls the city by its much admired namesake.