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In Vietnam, Street Food Moves From Sidewalk to Storefront
In Vietnam, Street Food Moves From Sidewalk to Storefront
Date: 09/12/2015 - 1687 Views
In Vietnam, Street Food Moves From Sidewalk to Storefront

On my first trip to Southeast Asia almost 30 years ago, I fell in love with street food. I was a student on a budget, staying in an area in Bangkok still famous for backpacker hotels.
Along the streets and alleyways, stalls were mixing up complicated soups, grilling skewers, wrapping pancakes and selling the best noodles I had ever eaten.

The only thing to do was count out the equivalent of 50 cents or a dollar, sit down on a plastic stool at a table covered with oilcloth and start eating.

Back in those pre-Internet days, street food was something you explored for yourself. The intrepid foodie was rewarded with unexpected treats that were cheaper, more authentic and tastier than anything that might be served in a grown-up restaurant.

Bangkok is not the only Southeast Asian city renowned for street cuisine. These days, you can find Top 10 lists and apps directing you to stalls and markets from Singapore and Taipei to Penang and Manila.

Nor are frugal travelers the only visitors drawn to street food. When I checked into the Essence Hotel in Hanoi with my husband last summer (“an unrivaled luxury boutique hotel chain experience in the heart of Hanoi”), a sign at the desk advertised street food tours.


And indeed, delicious packets of sticky rice, fried spring rolls and skewers of grilled chicken are prepared by vendors on crowded streets in the Old Quarter and in farther-flung neighborhoods.

I found myself buying sidewalk "banh mi" — Vietnamese sandwiches of grilled meat or cold cuts, herbs and vegetables stuffed into small, perfectly crusty baguettes, inevitably produced from a large straw basket by a vendor on a busy corner.

The dishes are so delicious, and so clearly carry local flavors, that the culinary genre has made a leap into upscale restaurants where menus feature “street food snacks” or “famous street noodles.”

It seems that lowly street food is now, paradoxically, a higher-end tourist business. I decided to check out a few restaurants, both expensive and humble, in Hanoi and around the historic town of Hoi An.

But before I get started on what I found, it is helpful to note that restaurants and street stalls in Vietnam reflect more than culinary traditions.

In “Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam,” Robert Templer talks about how pho stalls in Hanoi were shut down in the ’50s, under Communism, generating a culture of “speakeasy soup joints.” When the economy was liberalized in the late 1980s, street stalls were among the first small businesses to return.

In 1990, when a law was passed encouraging private enterprise, restaurants and even restaurant empires began to grow out of some of the most successful streetside soup pots and other cherished recipes.

One of the first meals we had was lunch at Quan An Ngon, a restaurant that is celebrated for serving street food from all over Vietnam. The huge courtyard was lined with stalls, each contributing to an encyclopedic menu that included noodle soups, spring and summer rolls, grilled fishballs, salads and more.

We tried banh cuon, rice flour pancakes stuffed with pork and mushrooms; the grilled pork dish bun cha; and banh xeo, a crepe with a distinctive rice flour texture.

It was a pleasant meal, but this upscale emporium couldn’t touch what was delivered at far less expensive joints, many of them transitional spots that are essentially overgrown street stalls. While taking over slightly more permanent real estate, moving from sidewalk to storefront, the informality and limited menu of the street vendor are preserved. The more we sought out these specialized places, the better we ate.

Take bun cha, a classic Hanoi meal of charcoal-grilled pork slices and pork patties, served over thin noodles. We had pleasant restaurant versions, but they paled next to the bun cha served at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, a one-dish joint in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, where phenomenally flavorful grilled meat arrived hot and juicy, and the dipping options included a mountain of pepper-spiked garlic, along with fish-sauce-based condiments.

The little two-story storefront, which opens onto the street where some of the grilling takes place, is furnished with those same oilcloth-covered tables and plastic stools that seem to define street food everywhere. A dedicated staff produces that one spectacular recipe (well, actually two recipes, since the bun cha comes with excellent crab spring rolls).

A similar setup exists at Bun Thang Ba Duc on Cau Go Street, also in the Old Quarter. Bun thang is one of the great noodle soups of Vietnam, but less well known than pho — the anise-scented beef noodle soup that has been franchised all over the world.




This is another one-dish place, and once again, much of the cooking (and eating) is on the sidewalk, although there has been expansion into a modest two-story restaurant. When we were there, the spaghetti-like noodles, bathed in a rich chicken broth, came with an array of toppings — egg, chicken, onions, herbs, dried shrimps, fried shallots, pickled vegetables — arranged in a gorgeous mosaic atop the white noodles.

And then there are the essential flavorings: shrimp paste, and what Mr. Templer describes as “the tiniest drop of musk produced by a male belostomatid insect, a large and rather fearsome beetle.”

Our plan was to complement our culinary itinerary with visits to cultural sites. And so, our stomachs full from our Bun Thang Ba Duc meal, we headed for the magnificent Hanoi Museum of Vietnamese History, which houses Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian art and artifacts. It is the perfect place to learn about the complexity of the cultural influences that shaped the country.

Among those influences was the ancient Hindu Cham kingdom, which dominated central Vietnam from the seventh century, and was powerful enough to rival and assault the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in the 12th century. The Cham still constitute a linguistic minority group in Vietnam. Cham Hindu sculptures — beautifully carved images of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma — are showcased in the Hanoi exhibits.

The museum building itself — the former French École Française d’Extreme Orient, built by the French colonial architect Ernest Hebrard in the 1930s in the “pagoda” style — reflects the complexity of cultural influences in Vietnam.

It is only one example of French colonial architecture in Hanoi; others include the cathedral and the opera house. And the colonial Hotel Metropole is now fully restored in all its luxury — complete with an exhibit on the celebrities who stayed there before, during and after the war years (including Charlie Chaplin, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and John McCain). At the Metropole, lobster thermidor is on the menu, and guests are advised to dress appropriately for dinner. But we had other meals to pursue.

One of those meals was xoi, made with sticky rice with mung beans and onions, among other toppings. We found the dish at Xoi Yen, another couple of steps up the ladder from street stall to restaurant. We ordered xoi with chicken, which was delicious, but also saw bowls going by topped with fried eggs, pork, vegetables and other combinations.

Xoi Yen feels more like a real restaurant, with a corps of busy waiters, and a balcony crowded with families and sociable groups, all eating xoi. Again, much of the cooking is at a counter right out on the street.

Near the end of our stay in Hanoi, we sought out Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that, like the Metropole, has hosted celebrities and inspired famous chefs around the world (although a New York Times article did call it a “dive” a few years back).

Unlike the Metropole, it is a one-dish place with food that you might easily find on the street; a single preparation of freshwater fish prepared in a pan. At the restaurant, the fish is grilled on an electric skillet at your table, flavored with turmeric, herbs, green onions and shrimp paste. Once again, the dish was better than any version we ate at restaurants with tablecloths and more extensive menus.


Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Hanoi. Average cost of a meal: About 150,000 to 200,000 Vietnamese dong, or $7.10 to $9.50 at 21,000 dong to the dollar.

Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. About 100,000 Vietnamese dong.

Bun Thang Ba Duc, 48 Cau Go, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. About 50,000 Vietnamese dong.

Xoi Yen, 35B Nguyen Huu Huan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. About 50,000 Vietnamese dong.

Cha Ca La Vong, 14 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. About 170,000 Vietnamese dong.

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