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From the south’s frenetic Ho Chi Minh City to the urban maze of Hanoi in the north, the streets of Vietnam are paved with snacks. Ordered from vendors across Vietnam, this street food odyssey reveals the breadth of the country’s culinary ingenuity.
1. Bún rieu
Vietnam’s most famous dish is probably pho, but that is merely a drop in the country’s noodle-soup ocean. For a bowl crammed with colours look out for bún rieu. Bún means noodles, while rieu refers to a crab-based broth blended with tomatoes. The noodles are always fine and round. This particular bowl is made room for chewy chunks of pork, deep-fried tofu cakes, a spoon of chilli paste and slices of pickled garlic.
2. Banh cang gio heo
Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown area is a winding jungle of traffic and trade, but dishes like banh cang gio heo make it worth tackling. The sweet, pig-trotter soup swims with tofu pillows, fat udon noodles and blood curd – just add a splash of fish sauce and lime.
3. Banh trang nuong
Demonstrating the myriad of culinary ideas that have been applied to the humble rice grain, banh trang nuong is the result of grilling rice paper, creating something akin to an incredibly crisp pancake. A convenient snack for a street market stroll, expect to find a fried filling of spring onions, minced pork, dried shrimps and shallots, liberally squirted with sweet soy sauce and sriracha.
4. Bánh can
Miniature pancakes each encasing a soft-boiled quail’s egg means delectable mouthfuls of crispiness layered with silky yolk. Bánh can are usually served with strips of pickled carrots and turnips, while these are sitting in a puddle of the country’s omnipresent dipping sauce of choice, nuoc cham. A watery combination of fish sauce marinated in lime, sugar, garlic and chilli, nuoc cham is the grease to Vietnam’s street-food engine.
5. Bánh cam thit heo
The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is intractable: the moped torrent weaves around pedestrians and often floods onto pavements, but it never, ever stops. In this city of perpetual movement, a roadside bánh cam thit heo is a good spectator snack. These pork and quail’s-egg dumplings are deep fried, sprinkled with sesame and mainly found in Ho Chi Minh City.
6. Sweet bánh dau phung
Sweet bánh dau phung are popular with the kids who flit around the technicolour street markets of Hội An. Imagine a pillow made of batter, filled with a moist mixture of shredded coconut, sugar and crunchy crushed peanuts.
7. Banh khot
You may have clocked that the Vietnamese are big fans of miniature food. Little pancakes, known as banh khot, are crowned with daubs of coconut cream and pork mince, and eaten wrapped in rice paper and green leaves. Ask for plenty of nuoc cham for dipping. While the aforementioned quails’-egg-stuffed banh are specific to central Vietnam, banh khot is more typical in the southern Mekong region.
8. Trung vit lon
Not for the faint-hearted, trung vit lon is a steamed duck egg containing a semi-formed foetus. You can order them across Vietnam, sold from trays attached to bicycles or mopeds. Adventurous eaters will find trung vit lon in other parts of Southeast Asia too – the Vietnamese prefer to serve theirs with mint leaves, salt, pepper and lime.
9. Banh vac
Pretty and poetic, these tapioca dumplings are called banh vac (white rose.) You’ll find a chunk of steamed pork inside and they’re typically served with nuoc cham and the crunch of dried shallot: softness, succulence and crunch in one bite. A signature of the central Hue region, you might find yourself perched near the banks of the Perfume River (Song Huong) with some banh vac and a cold beer, watching the city’s worker bees wind down for the evening.
10. Cao lau
Another Hue speciality is cao lau, a curious but winning combination of prawn crackers, soft-boiled quail eggs and a tangle of yellow and white rice noodles. This texture bundle is drizzled with sweet soy sauce, but the kicker is a small proportion of soup at the bottom of the bowl – just enough to pull all the elements together.
11. Hao nuong
A city of gleaming beach resorts and hotels, Da Nang’s coastline is sprinkled with no-frills, open-air restaurants with a mere strip of sand between the sea and your plate. These grilled oysters (hao nuong) are topped with spring onions and ground peanuts, lending the oysters uncommon texture and smoke.
12. Banh beo
Called banh beo, these canapé-style morsels are particularly popular in central and southern Vietnam. Blobs of steamed tapioca are topped with pork crackling, mung beans and shredded crab meat. Take a spoon, pour a dash of nuoc cham onto the miniature dish, then swallow in one. Ba Hanh restaurant in Hue spins out these brilliant examples.
13. Mi quang
A signature of the Quang Ninh region east of Hanoi, you’re most likely to find this dish in central or northern Vietnam. Called mi quang, the bowl is half-filled with a relatively sweet broth, then topped with roast pork, squares of pork crackling, bean sprouts and herbs.
14. Nem chua
Vietnam’s street food errs on the side of comfort, but for a flash of sourness seek out the country’s cured sour pork, called nem chua. In Hanoi, you’ll find vendors and hatches dedicated to grilled nem chua – Au Trieu road and its alleys are a good place to start – but this dish, called banh loc nem chua, uses it fresh and served with shrimp-stuffed steamed tapioca parcels, nuoc cham and a blob or two of chilli jam.
15. Goi ga la bap chuoi
The Vietnamese know how to make a mighty salad that actually satiates hunger – goi ga la bap chuoi is a great example. The main elements here are banana blossoms and chicken, tossed with peanuts, mint and dried shallots, ringed with prawn crackers: crunchy, moist, fresh and full of bite.
16. Mien loung
A Hanoi speciality, mien loung is a glass-noodle soup combining bean sprouts, a very light broth and fried eels. Light, chewy and simply flavoured, this will appeal if you’re suffering from chilli overload. For a more delicate preparation of eel, pull up a stool and order marinated strips in a salad or stir-fry instead.
17. Nem lui
Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas: these grilled pork skewers have been cooked around sticks of lemon grass, rather than wood, imbuing the flesh with a layer of complimentary tang. Called nem lui, it’s served DIY-style with mint and green salad, rice paper for wrapping a mild dipping sauce of preserved fish and beans.
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