Vietnam has well over 100 street food dishes, most of them dreamt up locally, with a smattering coming from overseas. But which of these dishes are quintessentially Vietnamese? And which dishes are the true originals?
To try and get at what we believe is the core of Vietnamese street food, we have put together a selection of dishes found in this country. There are variations of course — both on a dish itself and on the way it is served up in different regions — and then of course, there is pho, which in terms of style and taste has developed into a beast all of its own. That a restaurant chain in the UK even had the gall to try and trademark the name of Vietnam’s best known dish, says much for how Vietnam’s street food is being received around the globe. It’s popular.
These steamed rice flour crepes, which take barely a minute to cook, may look easy to make. But mastering the delicate texture is one of the hardest tasks in Vietnamese cuisine. Hanoi vendors wrap them around a filling of minced pork and woodear mushrooms, serving the bite-sized morsels with warm nuoc mam, crunchy fried shallots and fresh herbs. Around the northern region, many areas boast unique variations that in recent years have made their way to the capital. Look out for banh cuon Thanh Tri, a meatless version accompanied by cha lua, or banh cuon Phu Ly, served with barbecued pork. The south also has its variation, the rice flour crepes served up with a sweet fish sauce mix and bean sprouts.
- 72 Hang Bo, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- 66 To Hien Thanh, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi (banh cuon Thanh Tri)
In the entry of an old house, the family restaurant at 72 Hang Bo has sold banh cuon with a flavourful pork and mushroom filling for more than 25 years. Plump and glossy, the rice crepes consistently win raves from locals, who swear they’re the best in Hanoi. The chef-owner also makes banh cuon with chicken filling instead of pork; if you ask, she might even crack an egg onto the steamer surface. The chipped wooden furniture and faded walls indicate that the place hasn’t been renovated for decades, although the odd cockroach adds to the old-school ambience.
By 8am, it’s near-impossible to find a seat at 66 To Hien Thanh, which specialises in banh cuon Thanh Tri. Delicate ribbons of steamed rice dough come with a rich, flavorful nuoc mam bearing thick slices of cha lua and crispy fried shallots. The shop also sells steamed rice flour pastries like banh duc, banh gio and banh xoai — although xoai means mango, don’t expect fruit inside this Hanoian specialty. Instead, it’s a mango-shaped pastry filled with a sticky-sweet mixture of sesame and coconut.
Garlic-laced nuoc mam, rice vermicelli, fresh herbs and pork grilled over hot coals: it’s easy to see why Hanoians went crazy for bun cha when mobile hawkers introduced it in the early 20th century. The first restaurant opened on Gia Ngu Street in the 1950s. While it’s no longer in business, a few vendors still grill pork the old-fashioned way.
- Ngo Dong Xuan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- 23 Nguyen Bieu, Ba Dinh, Hanoi
Squeeze in between unsmiling locals in Ngo Dong Xuan, the crowded alley adjacent to Dong Xuan Market, to taste pork grilled with a method that hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Clamped between bamboo skewers and grilled in la lot leaves, strips of fatty pork have a remarkable tenderness. We’d hesitate to call anything the absolute best, but this bowl comes pretty close.
Part of the bun cha magic is pork that’s charred on the outside yet juicy within. (Vendor secret: marinating the meat in burnt caramel water). If this sounds too carcinogenic for you, visit 23 Nguyen Bieu, where a layer of banana leaves prevents the meat from coming in contact with the coals. The result is an aromatic bite, served with warm nuoc mam and a hefty pile of noodles.
Bun Dau Mam tom
Without mam tom, a fermented shrimp sauce from the north-central province of Thanh Hoa, this workaday lunch of tofu and rice vermicelli doesn’t have much to recommend it. Don’t let the pungent smell — or surprised looks from vendors — steer you away. Mam tom has an addictive Roquefort-like tang that makes nuoc mam look bland in comparison.
- 29 Nam Ngu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- 27 Tran Xuan Soan, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi
These places fry the tofu to order, ensuring it stays crispy. They also provide well-balanced mam tom.
Tucked away on the narrow lane behind Quan An Ngon, the makeshift eatery at 29 Nam Ngu is easy to miss: a group of office workers on lunch break had no idea the restaurant existed, even though they worked on the next block. Still, locals in the know crowd the small eatery for fried tofu served seconds out of the wok and a perfectly balanced mam tom. Ask for cha com, thinly sliced pork sausage with a slight sweetness from glutinous rice, on the side.
Some of the crispiest tofu in the capital can be found in the unpaved alley at 27 Tran Xuan Soan, accompanied by a mam tom that you mix yourself. Shrimp paste comes layered with sugar, salt and a morsel of fat; you add lime through a sieve to taste, along with the usual birds’ eye chilli and fresh herbs, and stir with a chopstick. For a little something extra, go for gio tai, pork and mushroom sausage with a crunch from bits of pig ear.
Like many Northern bun soups — bun rieu, bun bung, bun thang — this one seems to have come about by tossing rice vermicelli into a pot of stock along with whatever ingredients were on hand. Rumour has it that the dish was created in Moc Village, now part of Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District. A bowl always contains the eponymous moc, meatballs made from pork and minced woodear and shiitake mushrooms; other add-ins vary from pig trotter to pickled bamboo shoots.
- 57 Hang Luoc, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- 10 Bao Khanh, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
The morning crowds outside 57 Hang Luoc indicate that something good is simmering at this communally owned eatery. Bowls of clear broth hold airy meatballs and bite-size pieces of gio. If you dig the flavor of pickled bamboo shoots, you’ll love the generous garnish.
Strewn with plump shiitakes, the deep amber broth at 10 Bao Khanh has a more mushroom-heavy presence than the one on Hang Luoc. It’s also more substantial, packing shredded chicken, squares of cha lua and sliced pig trotter.
This creamy rice porridge — essentially congee — wears its Chinese origins on its sleeve. Eaten with crisp snippets of banh quay, it makes for a light breakfast or a comforting late-night snack. From a quick scan of vendors’ offerings, it’s clear you can put almost anything into chao, from chicken (chao ga) and pork (chao suon) to tripe (chao long) and heart (chao tim).
- Corner of Ly Quoc Su and Ngo Huyen, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- So 9 Ngo 105 Bach Mai, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi
Nothing improves a chilly day like a warm bowl of chao. From lunchtime to late afternoon, the chao suon vendors on the corner of Ly Quoc Su and Ngo Huyen ladle out steaming rice porridge flecked with pork. (They also sell chao trai). The bowls are small, but they pack a surprising amount of cut-up banh quay.
If you’d rather chao down on something more unusual, head to So 9 Ngo 105 Bach Mai, where the creamy porridge gets a sprinkling of the roasted peanuts and spiced dried beef that typically top green papaya salad. It’s a tasty lesson in how street food is constantly evolving: all over the city, vendors are experimenting with new toppings. At 139 Pho Hue, chao comes topped with shredded crab leg; at 76 Lo Duc, mushrooms give the porridge a hearty flavour boost.
This savoury pudding made from congealed duck blood isn’t for the faint of heart. To produce the traditional North Vietnamese speciality, freshly drawn blood is mixed with fish sauce and poured over cooked duck innards, then sprinkled with peanuts and herbs. Today, many Vietnamese don’t eat tiet canh, but those who do rave about the rich flavour.
Adress: 77 Hai Ba Trung, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Garnished with chilli, lime, herbs and a liberal dosage of peanuts, the tiet canh served all day at 77 Hai Ba Trung wins such good reviews from local blood pudding aficionados we didn’t dare to include a lesser street stall. Made from quality duck blood, rather than sketchier pig’s blood, it’s probably the most hygienic version of the dish you’ll see in Hanoi. Side dishes include crispy fried duck gizzards and throat.
One of the most colorful dishes in Northern Vietnam, this soup derives its vibrant colour from tomato and a thick paste made from mashed field crab. Heaps of fresh herbs add a touch of green. If you’re tired of bun, look for places that make the same soup with banh da, flat green tea noodles from the port city of Hai Phong that are the closest thing Vietnam has to fettucine.
- 25A Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- 11 Dong Xuan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
The bun rieu cua shop at 25A Bat Dan might win the prize for most miniscule restaurant on this list, not counting mobile vendors. Sit (or, depending on the length of your legs, squat) on the toddler-sized stools and watch as bowls of light, clear broth flecked with crab meat (cua) emerge from the narrow alcove of an alley, barely one person wide. Add beef, fried tofu, thick pieces of gio and, if you’re extra peckish, banh quay.
For bun oc, in which the tomato-crab broth is topped with snails rather than crab meat, make your way along Dong Xuan Alley to 11 Dong Xuan, where a family living room doubles as a restaurant. An enormous pot of broth simmers at the entrance, laden with plump tomatoes. Snails might not be your protein of choice, but they have a hearty chew that pairs well with the dark, earthy broth. Add fiery homemade chilli paste, tamarind liquid and fresh herbs, and you’ll feel the soup come alive with flavour.
Hanoi vendors serve sticky rice with a wide variety of toppings — peanuts, chicken, Chinese sausage — but xoi xeo is one of the most traditional. The yellow colour of the glutinous rice comes from turmeric; the golden topping is made from mung beans, which sounds so healthy it totally makes up for the fried shallots and liquid fat on top.
- 37 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- 42A Ly Thuong Kiet, Hanoi
Co Tuyen has been selling xoi outside 37 Bat Dan for 34 years. The dish is always prepared the same way, but small variations like how long the rice is steamed and the quality of the grains make a huge difference in the final result. Tuyen uses aromatic nep hoa vang rice to make her xoi, which comes served on a banana leaf and topped with a thick layer of creamy mung beans, fried shallots and a drizzle of liquid fat.
Next to a bright orange pho restaurant at 42A Ly Thuong Kiet, Chi Nga sells warm xoi with an unexpected bonus: ruoc, salty pork skin with a floss-like texture that’s usually eaten with other kinds of xoi. It’s reassuringly homestyle: when the mung beans don’t turn out smooth enough for the topping, she mixes them with the rice instead. Nga took over the stall 13 years ago from her mother, and it seems that she’s inherited her knack for the trade.
Pho bo became popular in northern Vietnam in the early 20th century, with some sources linking it to Nam Dinh Province southeast of Hanoi. What began as a street food dish sold on carrying poles (ganh pho) quickly moved into stationary eateries, with owners creating their own twists on the soup. Hanoi and Saigon offer different types of pho, with Hanoians looking down their noses at southern offerings.
- Pho Gia Truyen, 49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
- Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi
The guidebooks get it right with Pho Gia Truyen. They’ve been in the pho business for three generations and their broth is so well-salted and their beef so tender that you may find yourself asking for more. One bite of the al dente noodles and you’ll see why lines regularly stretch out the door.
Pho Thin on Lo Duc is a variation on the traditional pho bo, where small pieces of beef are stir-fried with spring onions, garlic and spices. The broth is thicker and richer and the “no frills, just damn good food” atmosphere attracts a constant stream of patrons.
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