I’ve traveled a lot. And when I travel I eat a lot. Just kidding, I always eat a lot. I love food. It is my belief, no, it is just a truth that Vietnam has the best food in the world. O.K. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’m pretty confident about this one. And one of the greatest things about it is that the best Vietnamese street food can be had for just a few dollars. But, it can, I’ll admit, be a little daunting to understand what’s what as well as how, and where to order it. Don’t worry, that’s why you’ve got me.
I spent more than a year living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) so I know the food there well. Dishes do vary as you go up and down the country and there are dishes that may be popular in the north which you won’t find on this list, but these days, more and more, you can find all dishes across the country.
Bún bò Huế
- marinated and boiled beef
- pigs knuckle
- chicken broth
- medium to thick rice noodles
- shrimp paste
Eat this dish in Huế and it will simply be called bún bò. However, these days you can find it throughout most of the country as bún bò Huế. A delicious noodle soup which hasn’t caught on caught like pho has, this is a quiet superstar which deserves a bit more of the main stage. When served your bowl of noodles you’ll also be served an array of greenery, probably in a plastic container, it will contain things like mint, basil, and bean sprouts, fill your bowl up with all of it. It’s shared amongst the table but don’t be afraid to take as much as you want, there’s usually a massive bag full of this stuff somewhere in the restaurant. You’ll also get a small personal dish with a lime wedge and some chili. Squeeze the lime wedge over your bowl and add chili as suits your taste.
Bún bò Huế can be found all over the city in small road side stands and open restaurants. Just keep an eye out for the words plastered on a sign and grab a plastic stool.
- beef or chicken
- beef broth
- rice noodles
Phở may be the only Vietnamese dish you’re familiar with before setting foot in the country. It has become quite popular across the world and with good reason. While, looking at the ingredients, you may think this looks an awful lot like the above mentioned bún bò Huế but I can promise you they are worlds apart. I honestly don’t know what it is because I’ve never cooked either, but I’ve eaten both countless times and I’m telling you, they’re not the same. Though you do have to go through the same process of adding the greens to both.
Personally, I much prefer chicken to beef phở but that’s just a personal preference and I will have beef if that’s all that’s on offer. Again, phở stalls are all over the city, general rule of thumb is the same as any dining venue anywhere, more patrons, better food.
Hot tip: Phở is a stupidly good hangover cure. It’s salty, it’s got meat, and of course the broth is hydrating. I swear by it (when in Vietnam).
Bún thịt nướng chả giò
- vermicelli noodles
- shredded carrots
- spring rolls
- grilled beef
- chopped lettuce
- bean sporuts
- chopped cucumber
Hungry Huy (a great resource for Vietnamese dish recipes) describes bún thịt nướng as “love in a bowl.” Can I get an amen? This dish is divine. You can see in the picture above how it’s served. On the side is fish sauce, which I encourage you to start slowly with to get a feel of how much you like to add (there was an unfortunate incident once with a restaurant proprietor who smiled and added a large, LARGE spoonful of fish sauce to my friends bún thịt nướng rendering it, very sadly inedible) Underneath the noodles are all the veggies mentioned in the ingredients list, mix it all up. Get ready to want seconds. Every day.
Us foreigners colloquially always call this dish Bún thịt nướng but technically that variation does not include spring rolls. You can order either, but why on earth would you go skipping the spring rolls?
- pork belly
- bean sprouts
- coconut cream
Let me start by saying that Bánh xèo is very much not one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. But, thanks to the man up there on the right it has become one of the most popular ones. Bánh xèo is often called a Vietnamese pancake, sometimes a crepe, it’s a bit more omelette like in texture and color, but doesn’t actually have any eggs in it. It’s o.k. and it’s a great dish to share. But I would recommend making others a priority.
Note: When Obama and Bourdain hung out they did NOT eat bánh xèo (rather famously they ate $6 noodles), Bourdain made bánh xèo famous under different circumstances.
- vermicelli noodles
- rice paper
Summer rolls or Gỏi cuốn are another heavenly little dish. These are a great snack or light lunch. they usually come with either a peanut or spicy chili oil sauce, either are great. While they almost always have prawns in them, and are delicious like that, it is possible to get them with only meat, or entirely vegetarian. These are a dish commonly served from little carts in alleyways and I have had many a good gỏi cuốn from all over the city.
- fried egg
- grilled pork
- shredded carrot
- chili oil
I’ve saved the very best Vietnamese street food for last. Broken rice. Oh, cơm tấm you beautiful, beautiful creation. How is something so damn simple, so damn tasty? I don’t know. I have no idea. But it is. Cơm tấm translates literally to broken rice so technically this dish has a much longer name explaining everything in it, but cơm tấm will do just fine. Generally, in Saigon at least, this is how it comes, grilled pork is common place, a fried egg is extra. This whole dish usually costs $1.00-$1.50 and can be found all over the streets being served from open shop fronts and small street carts.
If you get it to go, you’ll get two little plastic bags on the side, (watch the ladies rubber band them – it’s really mesmerizing and mind boggling) one is the chili oil and you should definitely pour that all over the top. The second I’ve never quite clarified what it is, but I think it’s a side soup, I don’t usually bother with it. Back in the first house I lived in in the city I had my cơm tấm lady. She smiled at me a lot and I pointed at the food I wanted and smiled back. This is a photo of her cơm tấm, I have still yet to have one as good. I don’t know if she is still serving. I went to find her this year and she wasn’t there but it was close to Tet, so it’s possible she was still off on holiday. I hope she’s still serving. Next time I’m back I’ll go on another quest to find her and I’ll let you know. In the mean time, I don’t have a specific spot to recommend, except to say that they’re all delicious and you could go on a Ho Chi Minh street food tour of just cơm tấm.
Just walk up, point and smile, you’ll be transported to another worldly place not many know rice can take you to.
Not totally confident to do it on your own? Or just want someone to wheel you around from place to place as you stuff you face full of all this insanely good food? Luckily, there are loads of Saigon food tours which will show you all the best Vietnamese street food like the ones listed here.
Here are some ideas:
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