Can you tell us about some of the street food in Vietnam?
The street food in Vietnam is everyday life for Vietnamese. Super quick, full of flavor, fun- and you can treat all your friends with a handful of loose change. There are three main sessions for grub (breakfast, lunch and dinner) along with roaming snacks available at all hours. This means you may very well see three completely different foods at the same street corner over the course of an average day.
The Vietnamese keep it rather light for breakfast, which ends around 9am. Can’t be late for work, so many times they’ll pack it in a Styrofoam box to go and eat at the office. How about some sticky rice with fried shallots and sweet, dried sausage (Xôi) or a plate of freshly steamed rice rolls stuffed with wood ear mushroom and ground pork (bánh cuốn).
Lunch almost always involves rice, and you can find yourself a steaming plate almost anywhere around noonish. Most shop owners set up right in front of their house or any place on the pavement with free space. Peer through the class encasement and take your pick from choices like pork-stuffed tofu in a scallion tomato sauce, deep-fried whole fish with lemongrass, simmered chicken thighs in a caramel ginger sauce, pork-belly and duck eggs stewed in coconut juice, sweet and sour squid and cucumber stir-fry….the choices are sometimes endless, but always scrumptious.
In the evenings it might be rice as well at home or out for some snails and shells if the occasion calls for it. Little shops set up all over with bowls full of fresh blood cockles, scallops, snails, crab legs, razor clams and so on. Pick your shells and have them go to town for you. Prime choices include crab legs stir-fried with tamarind garlic sauce (càng cua rang me) or scallops grilled in their shell with crumbled peanuts and scallions (sò điệp nướng mỡ hành). Engage in merrymaking while resting your butt in a baby-sized plastic chair right on the concrete. Wash the meal down with an iced- Sài Gòn beer while eyeballing the endless flow of confusion headed every which way. Pirated Korean DVDs zoom by on the back of the vender’s bicycle. A 12 year old boy performs a fire breathing show across the street. Beads of sweat drip from your forehead down your check. It’s 9 p.m. but it’s 86 degree? Breathe in, breathe out. Relax. This is Việt Nam.
What are some of your favorite food items in Vietnam?
Hến Xào (Hến Trộn) is a dish of stir-fried baby mussels with lemongrass and shallots. I also adore Mì Quảng. It’s a dish from central Việt Nam that combines thick rice noodles, shrimp, pork and peanuts. Crumble in some toasted sesame rice crackers along with fresh basil and shredded banana flower. Another favorite is cơm sườn; a marinated, thinly sliced pork chop served over steamed rice. You can smell it grilling over hardwood from down the block. It’s topped off with a spoonful of pork fat doused scallions. To me that’s pretty much heaven on a plastic plate.
What are some of the more extreme foods there?
Depending on where you go, different regions will eat different animals. Dog, cat, porcupine, mouse, horse. Nothing’s off limits, it seems. In the countryside last month I met a man who told me about óc khỉ. Take a live monkey, chop it’s head off and spoon the fresh brains right on out. Don’t think I’ll be sampling anytime soon, but it happens. Animal cruelty? What’s that? I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
What are they drinking there, and what is the drinking scene?
Coffee is an integral part of the Vietnamese drinking and social scene. Many Vietnamese (who can afford it) like to start their day with a strong cup of coffee. Usually black for the men and mixed with condensed milk for the women (black is usually too bitter for the gentle and graceful Vietnamese ladies). Tea is also widely consumed throughout Vietnam, although even more prevalent (and bitter) in the north where it’s drunk as a digestive after meals.
Smoothies are also available, although the south has more variety of fruits thanks to the Mekong delta. Vietnamese smoothies are made with fruit, sugar, ice and condensed milk and might be tad cloying for westerners.
Other popular drinks to cool off:
Rau Má: Blended pennywort with a spoon of sugar to cut the bitterness. Very refreshing. ~3.000 VND
Trái Dừa: (Coconuts): Crack open a fresh one for a super nutritious thirst quencher. Available year-round in the central and south regions. ~8.000 VND
Nước Sâm: Sweet, iced ginseng drink ~3.000 VND
As far as alcohol is concerned, any night is a night for tossing back a few. Iced beers and rice whisky can pretty much sum up the local drinking scene. Usually alcoholic consumption takes place at casual restaurants called ‘quán ăn’ or ‘quán nhậu’, as drinking without at least something to nibble on- such grilled chicken feet or goat curry- is uncommon. Inside the cheesy ‘dance’ clubs they’ll even serve you up a plate of fresh fruit to chase that whiskey on the rocks. Women rarely booze excessively (drunk in public is frowned upon for the ladies- this isn’t spring break in Australia), but might tag along with the boyfriend and have a beer for fun, then switch to coca-cola. Prices are super-low if you wanna drink at one of these casual restaurants, about 60 cents for a beer and as little as 2-3 dollars for a small plate of nibbles. If you make it inside some of the local clubs, then you’ll be paying comparatively ridiculous prices for Johnny Walker bottle service. Vietnamese style clubs are less about meeting people than they are for showing off what you already have, and in my opinion are pretty lame. Still, it’s an emerging scene for the young and loaded- especially in Ho Chi Minh where club owners pay off police in order to keep their doors open past last call.
What else can you tell us about the food and drink, and Vietnam and the people that live there in general?
In Việt Nam, I’d just advise foreigners who are coming to visit and hungry to just go for it. Don’t worry about getting sick. Be logical in your choices of course, but don’t be too timid. You’re more likely to get sick in a restaurant. Việt Nam lives and breaths on the street. Don’t miss out.
Locals are super curious when it comes to foreigners, especially outside of tourist areas. Don’t be surprised if someone you just met starts to rub your arm hair to see if it’s real, or grabs your phone to read your text messages, or takes a peek in your wallet as you pay for your meal or asks you to marry their niece and take her back to America. Privacy is meant to be shared in Vietnam! Just go with the flow and shoot them a smile- works every time.
If you really want to explore, a motorbike is the most economical and most exciting (read: dangerous) way to go. You’ll have the freedom of seeing whatever you please, following your nose to the best street grub and simply cruising for fun as most young Vietnamese enjoy doing each and every night. Motorbike experience in other parts of Asia can’t really prepare you for Vietnam (especially the Streets of Hồ Chí Minh or Hà Nội) but if you feel up to the challenge, give it a shot! Tip: When a taxi’s headed for you, get the hell out of the way!