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Unusual street food tips for Vietnam

Published April 13th, 2016

Former political journo Barbara Adam chucked in her job, threw her heart in the air, and ran to catch it in Vietnam. Along the way she found love, laughter and a new vocation – motorbike street food tours in Ho Chi Minh City.

Between running the tours with her Vietnamese husband, writing her own Vietnam guide book and blogging for The Dropout Diaries, Barb has learned everything there is to know about how to dine like a local. Here are some of her weird, wonderful, and good-to-know tips on eating in Vietnam.

Avoid tourist traps

Vietnam is an amazing country, and it can be a very affordable destination for students. There are many budget places to stay, and the street food (and the beer) is very affordable. However, you do need to take care when it comes to street food, especially in the backpacker areas.

A street vendor in Hoi An Quang Nam Province. Picture: Getty Images

Most street food vendors in Vietnam operate on very, very small profit margins. They can't afford to make people sick. If word gets around that someone ate something dodgy at Food Stall X, then people are going to stay away and within a week or so that place will go out of business.

However, in backpacker areas, the vendors don't have to worry about repeat business because all their customers are just passing through. So it's best to get out of the tourist areas to eat street food.

Navigating the menu

Some street food places have a menu, some don't. Usually the menu-less ones are one or two-dish places, so all you need to do is point at someone else's bowl and you'll get what they're eating.

If you're presented with a menu, it might have some very funny English translations, or it may have no English. If there's no English, you just need to know a few key food words, such as:
• bò or thịt bò – beef
• heo or thịt heo – pork
• gà – chicken
• tôm – prawns
• hải sản – seafood
• cơm – rice
• chay – vegetarian

Know the words Banh mi and you'll never go hungry. Picture: Getty Images

You also need to know the names of some basic street food dishes, including:
• hủ tiếu – pork and prawn noodle soup
• bánh mì – baguettes
• bánh xèo – a stuffed pancake or crepe named for the sizzling sound made when it cooks (xèo).
• bún bò Huế – beef noodle soup from the imperial capital Hue.
• bún thịt nướng – a noodle salad containing fresh bún rice-flour noodles with barbecued pork, pickles and shredded herbs, doused with nước chấm.
• Mì Quảng – a pork and prawn noodle dish that's part soup, part salad.
• Phở – Vietnam's unofficial national dish, a fragrant noodle soup, usually with beef, but chicken and vegetarian options can also be found.


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Sidewalk etiquette

When you're sitting at a sidewalk street food place, it's perfectly acceptable to buy food from the wandering vendors, just as long as the place you're sitting at doesn't serve that particular item. (That would be rude.)

A wandering street vendor. Picture: Saigon Street Eats

So if a guy wheels a cart full of corn and embryo eggs past and you're in the mood for corn or an embryo egg, just do a quick check of what's on display at the place you're sitting at. If there's no corn or embryo eggs, call the wandering vendor over and order from them.

Napkins aren’t free

One more thing to remember when it comes to street food is that iced tea is often free but the wet napkins are not. There is usually a small charge, of between VND2,000 (12 cents) and VND4,000 (24 cents) for each napkin. It's not a tourist rip-off. Everyone pays for napkins.

Weird and wonderful eats

I'm actually not a big fan of weird food, but I will give most things a go. I must admit I've never tried embryo eggs (the embryo is cooked inside the shell) because I think it's just plain mean. (Did I mention I'm squeamish?)

The dreaded embryo egg. Picture: Getty Images

So many people have told me it tastes like egg, so I just eat eggs ... normal unfertilised eggs. Duck, quail and chicken eggs are common Vietnam and I've tried them all. They all taste like ... eggs.

I've tried fried crickets (not bad at all), barbecued scorpion (incredibly gross), snake (tastes like chicken) and pigeon (like very gamey chicken). I've also eaten a lot of sea snails, something I'd never really thought about eating before I came to Vietnam.

Crickets are more common in the north of Vietnam, especially in the harsh mountainous regions where farming is difficult. Scorpion is available at in Ho Chi Minh City at a few ‘drinking restaurants’. If you really want to try scorpion, and I don't recommend it at all, just ask around. Someone will know where to get it.

Snakes on a plate. Picture: Getty Images

There are a couple of snake restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, quite a few in the Mekong Delta and near Hanoi there's a ‘snake village’ that's popular with tourists. Pigeon (chim bồ câu) is actually quite common in Ho Chi Minh City. I usually see it in the hotpot section of menus.

Sea snails are a Ho Chi Minh City specialty. There are many different kinds of snails, and the word snail (ốc) usually refers to any kind of crustacean, including mussels, clams and even prawns. Snails really are so good that we base one of our street food tours around eating them.


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Renae Spinks

Travel for me is about conversations and connections. There’s nothing like setting foot in a new land and meeting people a world apart. From talking to North Sea fishermen in Norway’s Lofoten Islands to breakfast chat at a B&B in my own back yard, there’s always a story to share and a tale to tell.