I’m sitting in a tiny plastic chair on the side of the street, accompanied with a big bowl of noodles swimming in some slow cooked flavor-packed broth, topped with grilled meat and fresh herbs…for a whopping $1. I’m probably sharing a table with a Vietnamese couple next to me while motorbikes zip down leafy alleys, the street food lady whips together bowls of deliciousness in milliseconds, bright lights come from every direction and the sound of karaoke streams over from the bar next door. YES. This, my friends, is why I came to Vietnam. Want in on the action? Here are some very essential “must-knows” before you jump into the vibrant Vietnamese street food scene. Chopsticks ready?
1. Eat at the right hours.
First thing’s first. When to eat. Many of the best street food spots are only open during prime eating hours: 7 – 8 am for breakfast, 11:30 – 1 for lunch and 5 – 6:30 for dinner (yea, these guys are early risers. Eek. Talk about culture shock after living in Spain!) Many of the street food stands are “pop ups”, and will close shop and roll away once their hour is finished. But don’t panic… If these hours aren’t convenient for you, you’ll still be able to find plenty of places to eat! You just won’t be eating with the locals – when the food is the freshest and the best street food stands are open for business.
2. Find the place with the tiniest plastic chair possible. Then, (try) and sit on it.
I hope you don’t mind eating your bowl of noodles with a side of knees! Yes, the struggle is real and it’s something I might never understand. Why must you have such tiny, doll-sized chairs? Idk. Whatever the answer is, it’s part of the street food charm, and it’s not true street food unless you’re essentially doing the “Asian squat” as you eat! (For a pro example of the Asian squat see the adorable smiling woman above). Have bad knees? BYOC (bring your own chair).
3. Don’t try and order. Just sit.
Most street food spots specialize in one thing. Why is that great for us? We don’t have to blankly stare at a menu, close our eyes, point and hope we didn’t just order duck fetus. (Yes that is a thing here). Just look around at what everyone else is eating, decide if you want in, sit, and before you can try and pronounce what you’re about to eat, your heaping bowl of deliciousness will have arrived! Now, it gets more complicated when places have two or three things to choose from, or if you have to choose the meat that you want in your dish. If that’s the case, look around you and point to the person whose eating the dish you want!
4. Eat with chopsticks in your right hand and a spoon in your left hand…at the same time.
I promise it’s not neuroscience. However, it’s pretty damn close… Use the chopstick to twirl up the noodles, and the spoon to scoop up the broth. Then, ever-so-artfully, place the noodles on the spoon with the broth, and voila! A perfect bite of noodly-soupy-meaty goodness.
5. Always add chili, fish sauce, bean sprouts and herbs.
At any given street food table, you’ll have your array of different signature sauces, from fish sauce and soy sauce, to chili jam and pickled vegetables. Then, they’ll place some fresh herbs and sprouts on your table. Don’t be shy. Throw all that good stuff on there! It’s a create-your-own-euphoric-flavor fiesta.
6. Drink it with “tra”.
Don’t bother ordering water, and save the beer for later. Do it like the locals do it and drink tra, or green tea. Completely safe to drink as the water has been boiled, every street food spot will offer tra for free! Find a pitcher on your table, or grab a cup and take some from the cooler.
7. Never, ever pay more than $3 per person.
True street food in Vietnam should cost you no more than $2 (45 VND), depending where you are in the country and what you’re eating. High quality street food here in Da Nang will set you back a tremendous $.60 – $1.50 (15 VND – 30 VND), but if you’re in the bigger cities like HCMC you might have to break the bank and pay up to $3 (60 VND). I pinky promise, that price isn’t too good to be true.
8. And always, always follow the crowd.
I can’t emphasize this one enough! I have been in Vietnam for 3 months now, I have eaten countless delicious meals and haven’t gotten sick from street food once (knock on wood!!!). The golden rule is NEVER, EVER, eat at a place that is not bustling with people. Follow the crowd! If it’s packed with locals, it tells you three extremely important things: 1) The food is getting moved out quickly, which means it’s fresh 2) It’s got a clean reputation among locals and 3) It’s damn good.
So, who’s ready to hit the streets with their chopsticks? Have you ever tried street food in Vietnam? What was your foodventure like?!