During his first month living in Vietnam Hasham Wali ate phở every day. Due to his tight work schedule as an English teacher he had to have a quick lunch and dinner, so phở, one of the most famous Vietnamese street foods and available everywhere, fit the bill. Later, as soon as he had more time to discover other dishes, like many other expats he became a fan of a lot of Vietnamese street food.
According to the latest study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 2.5 billion people eat street food every day. Vietnamese street food has been named on many best food lists in the media and the country is one of the world’s Top 10 destinations for street food, according to travel bible Lonely Planet.
Hundreds of dishes are available on footpaths around Vietnam, which as Hasham said is completely different from the West. There, when your stomach rumbles, you need to find a restaurant or fast food eatery and it can take time. ‘In Vietnam, food is everywhere,’ he said. And after finding or stumbling upon somewhere to eat in the West you have no idea about whether it serves good food until you’ve eaten already. And it’s generally not a cheap experience either. ‘Most of the street food here is good,’ he said. ‘You can see it on display and watch how it’s made, which you can’t do in a restaurant. And if it’s not so good you can try something else for $1 or $2.’
This makes it easy for foreigners to discover food in Vietnam but hard to choose a favourite. Hasham became a noodle lover because of the wide choice, such as phở, bún riêu (crab soup with noodles), bún cá (noodles with fish and soup), and miến trộn (vermicelli mixed with meat, vegetables and sauce). He’s also a big fan of chân gà nướng (grilled chicken feet), which is unusual for a foreigner. If it tastes good then it’s good, according to Hasham.
Meanwhile, Thibaut Perret-Zulian, a French chef at Cousins, a French restaurant in Hanoi, is a loyal customer of a small shop in Doc Tam Da selling bánh bao (Dim Sum) and bánh mỳ pate (bread with pate) for breakfast, phở xào (fried noodles) or cơm bình dân (small, cheap eateries serving different dishes) for a take-away lunch and dinner, and sữa chua chanh tươi (yoghurt with lemon) for dessert. Vegans like Timea Wright, an English tutor from Hungary, can enjoy phở without meat, cơm rang (fried rice) and bánh xèo chay (a pan-fried rice cake mixed with vegetables without the usual shrimp or meat).
Though good food is everywhere for most expats it’s all about finding the best. Hasham always asks his local friends for tips and also checks out online reviews. ‘You don’t need to speak Vietnamese to search for the best places,’ he said. ‘Apps like Foody and Let Eat Go are free and easy to use.’
One tip that seems to work well is to choose a place that is busy. If it has a lot of customers then it must be better than others and also safe, according to Thibaut, as the turnover of food would be quick and eating old food less likely.
They agree that unclean food can be found in every country, but especially those where controls are lax. There’s no great fear in Vietnam, though, as Vietnamese people have recently been fighting against and boycotting eateries with a bad reputation via social networks. But it can happen, just the same. ‘Luckily I seem to have a strong stomach as I’ve never been sick in the few years I’ve lived here,’ said Hasham.
Back home these expats would usually cook for themselves as dining out can be costly. In Vietnam, though, they go out more to eat, thanks to the convenient, cheap and delicious food all around them. Many still cook, however, and share how to select the best ingredients.
Different from the West, supermarkets in Vietnam are usually only visited to buy special ingredients for Western food that can’t be found somewhere else. As a keen home chef, Hasham can still prepare Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Mexican or French food here though sometimes he can’t find certain ingredients, except for Japanese.
Supermarkets have only been found in Vietnam for several years. Local markets are still popular and convenient and also preferred by expats. Timea said most things in supermarkets are imported and fresher and cheaper food is found in local markets. She can also practice her Vietnamese with the vendors. Similar to shopping in her home town, she also uses tips her mother passed on when buying at the market. ‘My mum told me never to judge a book by its cover,’ she said. ‘Something may look perfect but have a problem. A good looking vegetable, for example, may contain a lot of pesticides.’
Trying to figure out the origin of the food is also recommended. As a chef, Thibaut knows where food comes from and how it is grown or raised. Hasham said its best to become a loyal customer at shops where you’ve had a good experience, as they’ll serve you the best and not overcharge you.
In Vietnam or any Asian country, they say, street food is part of the culture and something you simply must try. ‘Don’t hesitate to eat anywhere, because if you always go by Western standards you will miss so much,’ Thibaut said. ‘Vietnam’s 90 million people eat street food so it must be good.’