Street food is big in Vietnam. By street food, I mean food that’s consumed in the street and also prepared in the street.
People will often transport their restaurants on their mopeds, carrying their kitchen, tables and chairs. Usually, you just sit near the moped-kitchen and tuck in:
Street food is a way of life and cultural norm – playing the role of both the local cafe (vendors are often in the same place at the same time every day) and the passing burger van, or just a canteen for workers:
I was able to sample a pretty wide selection of street food in Vietnam, and here are some of my favourites:
Bahn Mi is a Vietnamese term for bread. Baguettes were first introduced to Vietnam by the French, and Bahn Mi refers now to the sandwiches made with this bread. Typically, it’s a grilled meat and salad sandwich with coriander, chilli and a delicious herbed and spiced sauce. The meat can be pork, chicken, beef or sometimes pate. Cheese is often used, usually a soft processed spreading cheese.
Having Bahn Mi was my first go at street food. Up until this point, I was nervous of getting sick from bacteria I wasn’t acclimatised to because our tour was not staying for very long in one place. I knew that I had a few days in Hoi An, so I figured that if I got sick, I wouldn’t have to be sick in a bus. One of our group had seen a documentary about Vietnamese street food and recognised one particular kiosk as being particularly good, so we turned up and ordered. I decided to be conservative and avoid the pate and also green leaf salad, but go for grilled chicken. We took our places on little plastic seats and ordered some beer (no silly licensing laws here!). Within a few minutes, here’s what arrived:
The sandwich was delicious and quite well spiced. The bread was fresh and warm, the grilled meat was fabulous. It also had a fair bit of chilli, which made things interesting (too interesting for one of our group!). In fact, by the time I’d finished mine, my inner food monster was out of his cage and demanding more – I very nearly had seconds. In summary, probably one of the nicest chicken salad sandwiches I’ve eaten:
Pho is pronounced like Feu – the French word for “fire”, although I don’t think this is the origin of the word. Pho is a broth with rice noodles and meat, served with a separate plate of chillies Mint leaves, lime, beansprouts and Asian Basil. Asian Basil has a very different taste to the basil more commonly used in Western cooking: it tastes more like aniseed to me than basil.
In any case, the idea is to mix the greens in with the broth and noisily slurp the noodles up, trapping as much of the soup as possible. I’d enjoyed a lot of Pho in Vietnam, and in Saigon, we visited a Pho cart that also had a restaurant space. So, we sat at a table in a building and gave our orders to a waiter who went outside to a cart to bring in our Pho. Street food moved indoors.
Spring Rolls of the style we’re more familiar with in the West seem to be served up a lot for breakfast – meat, prawns and vegetables wrapped in rice pancake and fried. Also available are fresh spring rolls, which are either assembled for you or part of a fun process of DIY spring roll making.
The place where we had these was more of a street cafe than a proper peripatetic street vendor, but I wanted to share this experience. Here, you pick your grilled meat (pork or chicken – allegedly), add kimchi (pickled veg), salad leaves and a spring roll. Wrap them in a rice pancake and dip in a satay sauce before sloppily jamming the lot into your mouth. Lovely!
And as a digestif, how about some Snake Wine?
Yes – Snake Wine is made by pickling venomous snakes in rice wine (the alcohol deactivates the venom). It is said to improve health male potency, although I can’t think that anyone would want to kiss you if they knew that your mouth had touched pickled snake and scorpion.