Street Food Vietnam: The Richness of Regional Cuisine

Street food for Vietnam is a defining aspect of its cuisine. Each Vietnamese street food dish usually includes basic macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber. In addition, while they use a mix of flavors, a certain characteristic — be it savory or sweet — tends to stand out.

For first-time visitors, it may come as a surprise that Vietnamese food differs widely by geographical region. In addition, many dishes have their names derived from places of origin, including overseas.

Street Food Culture in Vietnam

Hanoi Street Train
Hanoi Street Train
[ by David Emrich from Unsplash ]

The street food culture in Vietnam, for the most part, revolves around sitting together outside eating and drinking. Foods migrate with people who then adapt them to local tastes and preferences.

Besides a profusion of quick finger foods, another yummy aspect to street food in Vietnam are the ‘wrap-and-dip’ dishes. They create a lively and engaging atmosphere with people chatting and hands moving around and rolling.

Some of the tastiest food you can find across Vietnam will be at family shops and street vendors without proper name signs. If you’re worried about hygiene, it’s best to have a local guide show you places with good long-term reputations.

Street Food Tips for Your Visit to Vietnam

Friendly street vendor
A friendly street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City
[ by Rona Lao from Unsplash ]

1. Street food sellers usually don’t have prices displayed although that is changing. If there’s no price, you should ask first because outsiders can get ripped off. Even still, because you can’t basically haggle over the price, it’s best to first go with a guide or someone who knows the area.

2. A local guide or specialty food tour also can take you to try the more “exotic” street food dishes.

3. It always helps to get to know some basic Vietnamese food words. Not only is it useful for understanding the dish, it can help you strike a friendship with the locals.

4. Besides sticky rice and sweet soup, street food in Vietnam is unlikely to be vegan. Even if something doesn’t have meat, shops may still use lard (pork fat) to cook. So if you’re uncertain, just ask, especially about the oil they use.

Common Street Food Dishes Across Vietnam

Foodie Venture: The Best Thing to Do in Ho Chi Minh
Typical banh mi and sticky rice vendor
[ by Van Thanh from Unsplash ]

Vietnamese sticky rice (xôi) and banh mi (bánh mì) can easily be combined with anything, so they are staples in the street food parade. In addition to these two, many Vietnamese street food dishes are common breakfast items, especially the hot noodle dishes.

Pho (phở) and bun bo Hue (bún bò Huế) are two popular but very different kinds of beef noodle soup. Also, each region has their own way of making them. Che (chè) is a general name for sweet soup desserts with endless variations across Vietnam.

Vietnamese cuisine also has heaps of breads, cakes, and pastries with the common prefix ‘bánh’. From the common to the exotic, you can try snails and balut (duck embryos) — which go exceedingly well with beer. If there is beer, there’s likely to be grilled and fried skewers on that table.

In the mountainous areas like Sapa and the up-and-coming Ha Giang, street food is where local markets gather. Here, meat is roasted whole over a charcoal fire, then cut up and served together with rice wine.

Besides sticky rice, local vegetables are also used in rice porridge congee. Lean meat like buffalo can be dry-cured to save for everyday meals.

Ho Chi Minh City Street Food, Southern Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is a melting pot of all things Vietnam, especially mouth-watering food. Nonetheless, a lot of its street food originates from neighboring cities and areas in Southern Vietnam. However, the overall taste of the dishes is more balanced and tends to be not as sweet as the originals.

Check out our article on “Saigon Food” to know the streets with the best food.

Banh Trang Nuong, Banh Trang Tron, and Banh Trang Cuon

Banh Trang Nuong, Banh Trang Tron and Banh Trang Cuon
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Rice paper (bánh tráng) is a very common food item in Vietnam. Its snack variations, including banh trang tron (bánh tráng trộn) or rice paper salad and the rolled version banh trang cuon (bánh tráng cuốn), mostly come from the South.

Banh trang nuong (bánh tráng nướng), or the debatable Vietnamese pizza, was first made popular in Dalat. Due to the city’s chilly weather, hot charcoal grilled food and the likes are always a favorite. The rice paper is spread with quail eggs and margarine, topped with minced pork, dried shrimp, and spring onion.

Banh Xeo and Banh Khot

Banh Xeo and Banh Khot
[ by Quán Ăn Ngon from Facebook ]

Banh xeo (bánh xèo) or Vietnamese savory rice flour pancakes in Saigon is closest to the Mekong Delta variation. The thin, crispy banh xeo fit a large plate and are eaten with a sweet and sour fish sauce mix. Central Vietnamese like to make their banh xeo about half as big so you don’t have to fold them together.

Each Vietnamese region has its own banh xeo variation with different complementary fresh greens and dipping sauce recipes. The bite-size version banh khot (bánh khọt) is the most popular in Vung Tau beach city near Saigon.

Com Tam

Com Tam in Saigon
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

Com tam (cơm tấm) or Vietnamese broken rice has always been an everyday food for the working class in Southern Vietnam. Nowadays, it’s a staple across the country and an essential characteristic of Saigon food culture. Toppings include charcoal-grilled pork, chicken, omelets, and there are vegan substitutes as well.

Bot Chien

Bot Chien
[ by Mito Luu from Facebook ]

Bot chien (bột chiên) or fried rice flour cake is one of the signature street foods of and from Saigon. The bite-size pieces are fried, glued together by eggs, and topped with spring onions. Similar to many other dishes, bot chien is attributed to Vietnamese of Chinese descent.

Bo La Lot and Bo Nuong Mo Chai

Bo La Lot and Bo Nuong Mo Chai
[ by Street Food Adventure – Tours that bring Vietnam local experience from Facebook ]

Bo la lot (bò lá lốt) is one of the favorite ‘wrap-and-dip’ dishes of people in Ho Chi Minh City. While Southern Vietnamese grill these beef fingers wrapped in betel leaves over a charcoal fire, Northerners fry them in oil.

Hoi An Street Food, Central Vietnam

Even though Hoi An can’t represent all the street food of Central Vietnam, it’s got a mix of everything. Despite being an old city, Hoi An doesn’t focus as much on plate presentation as does the royal cuisine of Hue. It does, however, lack the best seafood from seaside cities like Danang and the lesser-known Phan Thiet.

Check out our curated map for the must-try street food in Hoi An.

Cao Lau Noodles

Try Some Cao Lau Noodles
[ by Quán Cao lầu Bá Lễ from FaceBook ]

Cao Lau noodles (mì Cao Lầu) is considered the signature dish of Hoi An that any visitor should try. The noodles are a bit thinner than Japanese udon but it also requires a lot of effort to make.

Before being ground into flour, the rice is soaked in wood ash water from the Cham Islands. The wood ash water acts as an alkaline solution to make the dough chewier with a slight yellow color.

In a bowl of Cao Lau noodles, at the bottom, are blanched bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Then come the noodles topped with pork which is fried and afterward stewed in a special sauce (xá xíu). For some crispiness, thin slices of deep-fried lard (pork fat) are added.

Banh Dap

Banh Dap
[ by Vietravel Miền Trung from Facebook ]

Banh dap (bánh đập) or smashed rice paper is an interesting street food dish popular in Central Vietnam. The base is one sheet of steamed rice paper sandwiched by two charcoal-grilled sheets, producing a nice mix of texture.

The protein of choice can either be slices of boiled pork or freshwater clams (hến) stir-fried with herbs. The dish is then eaten with fresh greens and dipped in a fermented anchovy sauce (mắm nêm).

Black Sesame Sweet Soup

Black Sesame Sweet Soup
[ by Địa điểm ăn uống from Facebook ]

Xi ma phu (xí mà phủ) or black sesame sweet soup is another specialty adored by generations of Hoi An people. The core ingredient will always be black sesame seeds cooked to a perfect sweet soup consistency. Each seller, however, has their own recipe like adding sweet potato flour or some medicinal herbs and roots.

Mi Quang

Mi Quang in Saigon
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Mi Quang (mì Quảng) or Quang noodles soup in Hoi An is as authentic as it can be. That’s because the word Quang stands for Quảng Nam Province in which Hoi An city is located. For comparison, the Nha Trang variation has thinner noodles and toppings include the city’s famed fried fish cakes (chả cá).

Banh Beo

Banh Beo
[ by Nguyễn Thanh Tuấn from Facebook ]

Banh beo (bánh bèo) are steamed bite-sized rice flour cakes with different variations throughout Vietnam. In Hue and Hoi An, they’re topped with stir-fried ground pork, dried shrimp powder, spring onions, and crispy pork rinds. It’s typically steamed in a small dish so you can just pour the sweet and sour fish sauce on.

Hanoi Street Food, Northern Vietnam

Being a capital city with a rich cultural heritage, Hanoi street food has something for each of the four seasons. Some of the best dishes are hot sweet and savory food for the colder fall and winter days.

Check out our curated map for the must-try street food in Hanoi.

Deep-Fried Nem Chua

Deep-Fried Nem Chua
[ image from Facebook ]

Nem chua is what North Vietnamese call a type of Vietnamese cured pork. Central and South Vietnamese call it nem —  not to be mistaken with nem for fried spring rolls.

Nem chua consists of ground pork rump, julienned pig skin, toasted rice flour (thính), garlic, and seasonings. The mix is then fermented by being wrapped in banana leaves. Nem chua can be charcoal-grilled or simply eaten as it is.

In addition, deep-fried nem chua is a very popular Hanoi street food dish. The nem chua used, however, is not fermented. Fermented nem chua will pop and splash oil everywhere when fried.

Fried Ragworm Cakes

Fried Ragworm Cakes
[ by Dũng Nguyễn from Facebook ]

Fried ragworm cakes (chả rươi) may scare first-time visitors of Vietnam, but they’re actually a common dish for Hanoi people. The main ingredient is rươi, a type of sea worm that goes by the scientific name Tylorrhynchus heterochaetus. Ragworms are considered a seasonal delicacy only harvested from the end of Fall to the beginning of Winter.

Other important ingredients for ragworm cakes include ground pork, whole eggs, tangerine peels, and herbs and seasonings to taste. Ragworms on their own are already rich in protein so the cakes are balanced by being eaten with fresh greens.

Bun dau mam tom

Bun Dau Mam Tom
[ by Mai Tiến Đạt from Tripadago ]

Bun dau mam tom (bún đậu mắm tôm) is a signature dish originating from Northern Vietnam. The name refers to the thin rice noodles (bún), fried tofu (dậu hũ), and the pungent shrimp paste (mắm tôm).

Fried Shrimp Cakes

Fried Shrimp Cakes
[ image from Facebook ]

Fried shrimp cakes (bánh tôm hồ Tây) is another go-to street food for Hanoi’s locals, especially around the West Lake. The freshwater shrimp is coated in a wheat batter, some places add julienned sweet potatoes, and fried to golden. They’re eaten with fresh lettuce and dipped in a sweet and sour fish sauce.

Hot and Cold Tofu Pudding

Tofu Pudding
[ by Vietnamesisches Restaurant Anjoy from Facebook ]

Tofu Pudding (tào phớ, tàu hũ), hot and cold, is a common dessert all across Asia. Adapted to modern food trends, tofu pudding can now have all kinds of toppings like boba, jelly, flan, and many more.

In Hanoi, you’ll often come across tofu pudding sold by street vendors with carrying poles. The tofu pudding is in a large pot, ladled into a bowl, and dressed with a thin caramel ginger syrup. In Southern Vietnam, sellers can also add coconut milk for extra creaminess and sweetness.

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