HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Joys of Street Food

Street food is an integral part of Asian culture, and the cities of Vietnam serve as a prime example of the popularity of street food. Street food allows people to eat quickly and very cheaply, something that is important in this hard-working and still comparatively poor part of the world. Saigon is littered with food carts and stalls of all shapes and sizes; offering a bewildering array of food choices from pho and other noodle soups to spring rolls, sandwiches (or banh mi), rice dishes, desserts, fresh fruit, and more. The best times to see carts in full operation are breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as workers and students pour into the streets to scarf down their favorite dish. Sometimes these carts will have small plastic chairs spread around them, but often the only choice is to either eat your food on foot or bring it home. Some vendors have turned their operation into a more permanent institution by using a bare-bones room for seating, while the food cart and its owner sit in the front, showing off the choices to passersby. I've done a bit of exploring into the street food scene, and here are some of my favorites thus far.
The women at the above cart make one of the best breakfast sandwiches I've ever had: fried eggs in a crunchy baguette stuffed with pate, vegetables, and some delectable sauces. The price is right too: about 50 cents. I discovered this place back when I was training at LanguageCorps, and I had a sandwich yesterday for the first time in a while. It's so addicting I've nicknamed the woman who usually works there "Crack Sandwich Lady."
Possession of this may be illegal in some countries.
Another dangerously addicting stop is Banana Lady, nestled in a tin shack on a corner near our house. All day long she grills bananas in some kind of dough, wrapped in a banana leaf, on an open charcoal flame. You can get this delightful treat with a bag of coconut milk for dipping for 8000 dong - less than 50 cents. This place is a real find, especially since it's open from early morning to around 10pm. She is very friendly as well - yesterday she said I was "beautiful," which is probably the first time I've ever been called that.
Come to me, sweet deliciousness
It looks simple, but god is it good.
The gooey inside and some camera trickery.
Thanks to the French rule here during the colonial era, aspects of French culture have percolated through Vietnamese culture. One benefit of this is the desserts here. Baked goods are simply fantastic, and also come in a wide array. Usually I'm not even exactly sure what I'm eating when I buy something from a bakery, but everything has been amazing so far. Thank you, France.
These were all delicious.
In case you're just in the mood for some fresh fruit, have no fear: fruit is easier to find here than a sweaty Westerner. From carts and stores to guys on a bike simply riding around with a bunch of bananas, fresh fruit is rarely more than a few yards from where you're standing, and it's almost always absurdly fresh. American grocery stores, you can't hold a candle to this stuff.
Finally, we come to a place that I love. Nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall with some stainless steel tables and plastic chairs, this food cart "restaurant" serves up a huge plate of rice with, well, whatever you want. The numerous fresh options are arrayed on the shelves of the cart, and you simply point to what you would like on top of your rice. The choices include amazing grilled pork, prawns, cuttlefish, eggs, beef, fish, vegetables, chicken, ribs, and all kinds of other things I can't quite identify. The most I've ever spent here was a little under $3. The food is fresh and tastes as good as almost any meal you can get at a full-service restaurant.
Sooo much good stuff.
Today I went with pork with a fried egg on top and a side of fish. Adding a fried egg to anything is a recipe for success.

A pretty basic operation that can give most restaurents a serious run for their money.
So, these are some examples of the street food available here. To give an idea of the density of food carts, these are all within a 3-block radius of my house, and I pass many more to get to them. Many cities in the West are largely bereft of street food, so people often associate this style of cuisine with unhygenic practices. There certainly can be unsafe street food, but the fact is that these carts provide some of the freshest food around. The lack of refrigeration isn't a problem because everything was purchased that day, and the turnover is usually high so things don't sit out for long. I've had more digestive problems with meals from certain restaurants than any of the street food I've eaten. If you visit Vietnam, or Asia in general, make a point to live like the locals and sample some street food. You won't regret it. Now that I've made you all hungry...sorry.


  1. If you need some extra money, open up a lucky dog stand. I bet you'll make millions franchising in a new country.

  2. good article.
    did make my stomach rumble though.
    apology not accepted.