Vietnam is a food lover’s playground. A country so into its cuisine that before it chased off all its occupational and colonial invaders; it stole their best recipes and a fair few cooking techniques. All this designer grub then got pulled apart and painstakingly ‘paired’ with fresh, locally available ingredients over the generations by Vietnamese street food fusionistas. With an ever-increasing trend towards culinary adventures, street food tours and cooking classes countrywide; there has never been a better time to familiarise yourself with the Vietnamese squat and head kerb-side.
Negotiating the cultural maze of these vendors solo in my first few months in Vietnam; let’s just say I got rather over familiar with the Vietnamese squat. That old chestnut “busy is best” can lead you down an uncomfortable path of bowls that brimeth with the kind of offal that takes real guts to tackle. For the culinarily curious, the easiest way to discover Vietnam’s choicest fare is to go guided. To discover Hanoi’s Northern soul try Ha Noi Street Food Tours who are not shy of sharing the city’s secret ‘hot pots’ with a good measure of history, humour and vendor interaction. For a bit of nocturnal back alley adventure in Saigon, you can eat (and drink) street on an After Dark Vespa tour – following in the tread marks of the Ho Chi Minh City cool set.
Should you need a little tastebud tantalising to make the seating downsize to a footstool on the boulevard – these are my top five recommendations for a conical hat interlude at one of the many street kitchens around.
1. Bun Cha on the banks of the West Lake Hanoi. Every afternoon the bun cha ladies smoke up their barbeques and slowly grill deliciously fragrant pork patties, whilst crisping up pork belly to a melt-in-the-mouth status, before serving with a side of bun noodles and crispy greens. Sold?
2. Bahn Mi, – Phuong Bahn MI, Hoi An. This little shapeshifter of a market stall was sky rocketed to fame by Anthony Bourdain and frequented by many a celebrity chef ever since, serves up the mother of all bahn mi’s. Crispy, light rice flour baguettes overflow with a charcuterie of pork (slow cooked, five spice, pâté, cured..), bundles of fresh herbs, a spicy chilli jam and a big fat fried egg. And all for the princely price tag of 65p. Chin dribblers dress accordingly. Central market, Hoi An.
3. Grilled clams – Central Coastal beach streets. Having searched the country for better, I’ve not yet found a match for Ngoc Mai’s clam royale; fresh juicy clams marinated with a drizzle of chicken stock, soy, chilli and chives, smashed open and slowly barbequed over smoky coals. Ngoc Mai, Ha My Beach, Central Vietnam.
4. Bun Bo – Countrywide. Pho might be the national dish, but this bowl of lemongrass infused beef stock, slim round noodles, herbs and thinly carved beef gives more reward for the chop stick shenanigans involved from bowl to mouth. Originating from Vietnam’s Imperial capital – Hue; it’s the best place to try Bun Bo, where you’ll find many a regal, plastic stool’d squat spot within the old citadel walls.
5. Bia Hoi – Hanoi. 12p for a glass of this draft beer? It would be rude not to!
Words and images by Caroline Mills
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