As I was starting to write a new post about street food, I came across this piece that I wrote quite a while ago but never published. Alas, a place to publish! Stay tuned for a more international collection of my street food favorites in next week’s post.
Spooning the eastern coast of Indochina, Vietnam’s sprawling territory has so much more to offer a curious palate than the iconic, steaming bowl of pho (which of course should not be missed in its own right). Each region has distinct flavors defining its culinary culture, so you should take the time to taste and explore. Here are six highlights for a well-rounded food experience as you work your way down the country:
1. BBQ in Sapa. If you’re looking for a way to recover from an afternoon of haggling with the crafty hilltribe women in Vietnam’s gateway mountain town, the alley behind Sapa’s main church houses a row of tarp-covered BBQ stalls. Tended to by women fanning small grills, you can point out your choice of skewer and take a seat at a communal table as your meat is grilled to order. Everything is served with a dipping bowl of tangy barbeque sauce, made even zestier by a miniature lime squeezed in tableside. Whether you opt for the skewered zucchini, buns, pork-wrapped wild mushrooms, or rotisseried duck, this is a great way to fill up before the long sleeper train journey back to Hanoi.
2. Cha ca in Hanoi. In a city with streets that each conveniently specialize in one item–shoe street, mannequin street, sewing machine street–it is no surprise that Hanoi has a cha ca street nestled in its Old Quarter chock-full of eateries dedicated to this local dish. Served DIY-style, a sizzling pan of tumeric-coated fish chunks is delivered to your table over a charcoal stove. The chef’s cap is then passed onto you as you dive into bowls of fresh spring onions, dill, peanuts, and vermicelli noodles to create your perfectly-flavored meal.
3. Betel nuts in Hue. OK, so they aren’t exactly a meal, but they are an oral experience worth trying if you really want to pick up on a local habit. Trau, which is really an areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf, is often used as an icebreaker, such as say, bumming a cigarette. Besides staining your lips and mouth blood red, the mouth-drying, peppery-tasting combination is a mild stimulant that is believed to give a sense of euphoria. You should be able to find some at a local market, but why not hit up a mellow vampire-mouthed local for a try instead?
4. Cao lau in Hoi An. There is no dish more regional to this central Vietnamese town, and it’s on most every restaurant or market stall menu. Thick, chewy rice noodles and bean sprouts are topped with tender pork slices, fried dough croutons, fresh herbs and a rich broth to create the texture and flavor explosion that is cao lau. But the crucial ingredient, and reason why it can only truly be made here, is water from an ancient well in town. For a city whose residents are accustomed to rowing their way through a rainy season flood, the locals have mastered the culinary art of belly warming with this dish.
5. Seafood in Mui Ne. Pay-by-weight eateries set up in the evenings along the main stretch of road overlooking the ocean in this resort town. The day’s menu swims in tubs or chills over ice as a server masterfully takes orders from the sea of people crowded around. After making your selection between giant prawns, squid, fish or any combination of the above, it is weighed and tossed on a grill with your choice of marinade. The food may take a while, but cheap beer or fresh fruit shakes spiked with the bottle of even cheaper rum help the time fly. Beware if you order shark, as it will be knocked out before your eyes with one hard slam against the ground. An impromptu snake show may also ensue, in which a snake is sliced, gutted, twirled, and drained (in no particular order) as you eat. Theatrics aside, the stellar seafood is the bottom line.
6. Street food in Ho Chi Minh City. It would be unfair to choose just one dish in such a culinary hot spot as Ho Chi Minh City. It’s impossible to walk down a sidewalk or alley in this bustling metropolis without running into a cart stacked with banh bao (steamed dumplings) or a plastic table packed with diners squatting over a bowl of pho. So if you make it to Saigon, as it is still interchangeably called, you should leave some room in your stomach and be quick on your feet, as you never know what delights await you just under that lid, whether it’s sitting curbside, zooming by on a bicycle, or masterfully teetering on the shoulder of a woman crossing the street.