Once confined to the realm of no-frills Chinatown establishments, Vietnamese food in the West has gotten a serious upmarket makeover, where the old-school budget spots are complemented by upmarket restaurants riffing on street classics—think excellent beef pho with a bone-in short rib or a breakfast banh mi sandwich served on a fancy sesame bagel roll. And while a handful of Vietnamese restaurants back home are also jazzing things up, most of the best dining in Vietnam is still done on the streets.
Street dishes vary somewhat across Vietnam's regions and cities—the north, home of Vietnam's cultural capital Hanoi, birthed some of the country's most iconic foods; the central region prides itself on the spicy royal fare once served in the imperial city of Hue; and the laid-back south plays up its cosmopolitan nature with French techniques and international influences. But there are many shared foods that have become national treasures, capable of bringing even the most hardened northerners and southerners to the same table. Throughout Vietnam, you'll find locals and foreigners of all walks of life—even President Obama—sitting at dingy or open-air sidewalk establishments on low plastic stools, enjoying dishes that often cost less than one US dollar.
That's just how it is in Vietnam, where dining is communal, hands-on, and can take place over a couple hours with cold beers in hand (these meals are known as nhậu). There are several prevailing ingredients and practices in Vietnamese street dining. For one, we love using our hands and dipping things in sauces, namely nước chấm (which translates literally to "dipping liquid"). This sauce is made from nước mắm (or fish sauce) that has been diluted with any combination of water, vinegar, sugar, lime juice and chile peppers. We also love topping our meals with fresh herbs—usually some assortment of cilantro, scallions, mint, Thai basil, sawtooth herb, and banana blossom—and building every meal to our own individual tastes.
Ready to start? From steamy Vietnamese noodle soups to sugarcane juice, and maybe a few bizarre items (even for locals) thrown into the mix, here are the essential Vietnamese street foods to know for your next trip to Vietnam.
This northern Vietnamese specialty starts with big, flattened sheets of fermented rice flour that is made by pouring batter over a heated surface. Typically eaten for breakfast, it comes filled with ground pork, wood-ear mushroom, and is often topped with chả lụa, or sliced pork sausage, as well as lettuce and cucumbers.
Vietnam’s take on the Chinese zongzi, these little banana-leaf–wrapped dumplings resemble sticky Asian tamales in many ways. They’re filled with pork, wood-ear mushrooms, and rice flour, and they can be found on many street corners in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
These rectangular noodles are made from super-thin vermicelli, pressed together to form sheets. Typically topped with scallion or chive sautéed in oil, they’re also often accompanied by grilled meats. Pictured here is bánh hỏi thịt nướng chả giò, or bánh hỏi with grilled pork and chopped egg roll.
Bánh Tráng Trộn
You know that clear rice paper used to wrap spring or summer rolls? For this popular Saigonese street dish, vendors chop the stuff up into “noodles,” then stir-fry them with beef jerky, quail eggs, fried shallots, and Thai chilis. Top it off with some fish sauce, fresh herbs, and lime juice for a perfect midday snack of savory junk food.
Yes, it’s just sautéed corn. What I like to call the “Vietnamese elote,” this humble dish tosses corn in a skillet with chiles, scallion, and some butter or margarine. The secret ingredient is the umami blast of dried shrimp and fish sauce. Make your own using this recipe from Vietnamese culinary queen Andrea Nguyen.
Bún Bò Huế
Central Vietnam’s noodle soup, found in the former imperial city of Hue, is a bold, spicy dish made with beef broth, lemongrass, and shrimp paste, giving it a dark reddish hue. The noodles, rounder and thicker than those used for pho, are combined with marinated beef shank, oxtails, pig’s knuckles and congealed pigs blood. Toppings range from lime wedges and scallions to banana blossom, Vietnamese coriander, and sawtooth herb.
Bún Bò Nam Bộ
The origins of this beef-and-noodle dish are southern, but there’s an entire Hanoi restaurant dedicated to it. While it’s not technically “street” food, bún bò nam bộ has all the makings of a street classic: bún rice noodles, marinated beef, pickled and fresh veggies, and a fish sauce-based seasoning.
This noodle dish, a Hanoian specialty that President Obama shared with Anthony Bourdain, tops round rice noodles with grilled pork patties (chả), pork belly, fresh herbs, and a sour-sweet fish-sauce broth.
Beloved in the north and south alike, this bright-red vermicelli noodle soup features a distinctive tomato broth, shrimp and crab paste, tamarind, and eggs. The protein in the dish comes in the form of freshwater crab, ground pork, and fried tofu. Variations include bún riêu tôm thịt, which comes with shrimp and beef, and bún riêu ốc, which comes with snail. A similar crab-based dish, canh bún, is much lighter and comes with a vegetable called morning glory (rau muống).
Vietnamese Coffee Maker
Famed in the central port city of Hoi An, this noodle soup consists of noodles, pork, and herbs such as basil and mint. Its distinguishing factor is the water used in its pork broth, which is tapped from an ancient well, as well as the noodles, which resemble Japanese soba and are unlike the round rice noodles or flat pho noodles used in other dishes.
Filled with ground pork, mushroom, and bean thread noodles, Vietnam’s egg rolls typically differ from their Chinese counterparts in that they employ a rice paper wrap rather than a wheat flour wrap. They’re also served with lettuce leaves for wrapping and nước chấm for dipping.
Chuối Bọc Nếp Nướng
This street dessert wraps grilled banana in sticky rice and banana leaves for a golden-crusted dessert with a soft banana-y center.
Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang
This Cambodian specialty (Nam Vang is the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh) offers wider noodles with pork (ground pork, pork liver and pork loin), and shrimp. The broth, made from pork bone, is made fragrant with the addition of Chinese chive, Chinese celery, basil, fried garlic, and shallots.
Lưỡi Vịt Sapo
Duck tongue! Popular in Saigon, this common man’s delicacy is served tender, delicious, and cooked in an array of spices and herbs including cinnamon, anise, cardamom, and fish sauce. Beware of the tiny bones.
Favored in the north—in Hanoi and as a speciality in the province of Nghe An—this dish comes with vermicelli noodles, deep-fried eel, and mushrooms with the usual toppings of bean sprouts and scallions as well as rau ram (laksa leaves). Depending on your mood, it can come as either a soup or stir-fry.
Besides coffee, the most easily-found beverage in Vietnam is sugarcane juice, which is prepared by rolling sticks of sugarcane through a rolling press. It’s the essential drink to cool down in the sweltering tropical heat.