This is Part 1 of a 5-part series on eating our way through Vietnam. We spent three weeks in Vietnam, starting with Hanoi in the north, making our way down over 1,000 miles to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
Before we visited Vietnam our knowledge of Vietnamese food was limited to phở, bánh mì and nem (spring rolls). Meghan’s lexicon expanded to include chả cá Lã Vọng and bánh xèo, by way of Bricolage in Brooklyn. Our minds were about to be blown by the diversity of food we would see and, of course, eat.
Neither of us knew what to expect, except for a vague idea that the food is probably going to be good, concluded from our deep love for phở and conjured-up images of streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Roughly, the food regions in Vietnam may be divided into northern, central and southern, owing, in some part, to each region’s unique geography. The north, as in Hanoi (Hà Nội), tends to have four distinct seasons (except it’s not as cold as here in New York). Hoi An (Hội An) in the center tends to be warmer. Dalat (Đà Lạt) in the south-central highlands is the land of Eternal Spring. Ho Chi Minh City (or, often referred to using its older name, Saigon, which we will use interchangeably) has tropical climate.
Vietnamese food has a unique identity, but it draws on influences from the Chinese in the north and from the Khmer people by way of modern-day Cambodia to the west. Colonial French influences brought foods like bánh mì (literally, bread, in Vietnamese), pâté, ốc (snails) and coffee, all of which metamorphosed into uniquely Vietnamese dishes that have remained mainstays.
Vietnamese cuisine is known for its balance of taste senses: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy. Foods tend to include rice in various forms: bánh canh (thick tapioca and rice-based noodles), bún (thin rice vermicelli noodles), cơm (rice), cơm tấm (literally, “broken rice”), bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls), bánh tráng (dried rice paper, often used in rolls); broths that are often part of noodle dishes: phở (beef bones based broth redolent with star anise and cinnamon), bún riêu (a tomato and crab- or fermented-shrimp based soup), bún bò Huế (beef-based broth from the region of Huế that stands out for its use of lemongrass); fresh herbs: giấp cá (fish mint, which gives a tangy, bold note), kinh giới (Vietnamese Balm, which gives a lemon verbena-like note), rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), tía tô (red perilla), thì là (dill, used mostly in the north) and húng quế (Thai basil); and various condiments: one of them, fish sauce, or nước mắm, is the equivalent of ketchup here — it’s on every table.
Street food in Vietnam is abundant, various, authentic, delicious, fresh and cheap, which are few of the reasons we rarely ate in an actual restaurant.
How to spot good food in Vietnam
We are not fans of ranked lists, especially in a country like Vietnam, where every town and city seems to be a big open kitchen. We want to talk about the food we experienced, and often will talk about the places we ate them at — if we talk about a specific place to eat, it is meant to be a testimony to the positive experience we had but not an exclusive endorsement to the exclusion of the thousands of food vendors we haven’t seen or been to.
Here are some ways we ate our way:
- Alleys, that’s where the food is. This worked really well for us. Walking down a street, poke into the alleys to see what’s cooking.
- Plastic stools and people: for reasons unbeknownst to us, almost all street food vendors have kindergarten plastic stools to sit on. If you spot a bunch of adults hunched over food, knees too close to elbows, it’s probably a good sign.
- Most vendors (and even restaurants) in Vietnam specialize in only one or two items; prefer these. The exception to this might be lunchtime cơm bình dân (or, “commoner’s lunch”), which is rice served with a smorgasbord of sides.
- While not a problem in the bigger cities like Hanoi and Saigon, we didn’t like it if vendors called out to us as we walked by.
- If you use TripAdvisor for food ideas, you’re looking at an echo chamber that pretty much excludes the treasure trove of street foods. If you need online guidance and are feeling adventurous, use the the more local Foody.vn, or look for personal blogs.
- Sometimes when we couldn’t decide, we’d just look for a lady with a peaceful demeanor. (Pretty much every food vendor is a woman; if you spot a male vendor, please patronize him.)
- Eat on the streets! Did we already say that? There were a couple of times we went into restaurants and walked out, because it just didn’t feel right. The other couple times we ate at restaurants it felt odd sitting on real chairs. Most of the street food is often more delicious and authentic than what you will find in a restaurant.
When to eat
It might sound strange to have to talk about hours, but you’ll be happy to find out sooner. From our experience, people in Vietnam eat early. If you wait until 9am for breakfast, you risk finding empty pots and pans; 7:30am is probably prime time. 12:30pm, more or less, is peak lunch-time. Peak dinner-time is around 7pm. The only exception to these hours is if you’re in Saigon, where if you really want, you will likely be able to find any food you want at any hour. Even phở.
Let’s be clear: hygiene is a concern, except we didn’t concern ourselves with it all that much, and here’s why:
- One tip we learned from some college students, while eating in Dalat — after over half-way through our trip, I should add — was to clean our spoons and chopsticks with some lime, or at least a dry napkin rubdown. There are almost always wedges of lime on every table.
- A vendor that has good turnover of customers means the food is fresher.
- Almost all food is cooked — think steaming broths and grilled meats — minimizing the risk of germs. All vendors, even with suspect hygiene standards, rinse their herbs. While still raw, I have to think the nutrients in the herbs help counter some of the germs you may be ingesting.
- In general, food tends to be market fresh.
A note on costs
Costs of foods are rarely displayed. If you’re an outsider, it shouldn’t surprise you if you are paying more than what your Vietnamese neighbor is for the exact same bowl of phở. There’s no good way to figure out the “correct” cost, but it’s helpful to use a few Vietnamese words — xin chào (hello), hai phở (two bowls of phở), cảm ơn (thank you) — so you feel a tiny bit local. It’s also helpful to know a ballpark of how much things cost:
- The local currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND). At the time of writing this 1 USD is approximately 22,400 VND (Vietnamese Dong)
- A bowl of phở: 25,000 VND - 35,000 VND
- Fresh bia (beer) at a bia hơi (specific to Hanoi): 5,000 VND - 9,000 VND
- Can of Bia Saigon/Hanoi/Larue: 10,000 - 12,000 VND
- Bottled water: 5,000 VND for 0.5L or 10,000 VND for 1L in a store
- Cà phê đen nóng (hot black coffee): 8,000 VND - 10,000 VND. Iced drinks (đá instead of nóng) normally cost a little more.
- Fresh coconut water: 12,000 VND - 20,000 VND
- The prices in Saigon tended to be slightly more than elsewhere