November 3, 2011

The joys of Vietnamese street eats

Here comes the end of our time in Vietnam... Tomorrow morning, Tom and I will be on the plane, heading to the romantic city of Luang Prabang. I surely look forward to discovering the charms of Laos and its cuisine - which I don't recall ever sampling. But before that, let me tell you a bit about what aspect of Vietnamese food has fascinated me the most along our circuit through the country: street food...

Although too short as always, these two weeks through bustling Saigon, chilled Mui Ne, quaint Haiphong, magical Halong Bay, and surprisingly charming Hanoi, allowed us to sample a good number of the nation's specialties, from both food stalls right on the pavement and more conventional restaurants. Well, it clearly turns out that street eats provided us with the best flavours and the most memorable experiences...

Cute and tidy food stall outside our guesthouse in Saigon
Best ever Bún (cold rice vermicelli with grilled meat), Saigon
Reasons for which you would pick one place or another can be multiple. Obviously, the food and the stall itself may look appealing or not: the freshness of the produce, the presentation of the dishes, the tidiness of the display are all elements which entice you to sit down or keep moving. Then, if like me you're eager to try out new stuff, the simple novelty can suffice to tease your curiosity and make you order the yet unknown. Sometimes also, it is an irresistible smell pervading your nostrils which actually makes you look for its source - when around, coconut sticky rice acts as a magnet for me... At last and quite amusingly, we happened to choose some particular street eateries purely because of the look and attitude of the person manning the stove - our pick for today's lunch was definitely influenced by a charming old lady who looked like she had been preparing the same noodle soup her entire life..

Today lunch in Hanoi, seduced by this old lady's charm...

Succulent Bún riêu cua (tomato and crab noodle soup), Hanoi
With this in mind, I would say that street food leaves little room for bad surprises. When the dishes look and smell nice, and the setting is appealing, disappointment is rare upon tasting. As opposed to what is commonly believed, street eats might be the safe option in the end!

Another great thing about street food is that you get to find out what locals eat, at what time of the day, and how they eat it - with noticeable variations from one region to another. The most obvious example here in Vietnam is certainly the ever present rice noodle soup, especially at breakfast. Street eateries move at cities' rythm, with busy hours and quiet ones, at which people will then rather gather for a refreshing glass of Cà Phê Sữa Dá (Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk), another national favorite.

All in all, observing people handling food and interacting with each other around food while wandering around streets and small alleys, is probably one of the best ways to learn about the Vietnamese lifestyle - and for sure one of the most exciting activities for me when visiting the country!

Colourful coconut sticky rice stall, Saigon
Coffee filtering over condensed milk for Cà Phê Sữa Dá

Rice doughnut man, Saigon

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