Wow, it’s been quite a while since I posted about my street food adventures, huh? Let’s rectify that!

In between/during my Autustreet food vietnammn posts, I got to visit my homes in North America, and I really appreciated for the first time what kind of environments I was bouncing between. The rapid changes threw their differences into sharp relief. It highlighted the good in each and reminded me that even the negatives sometimes serve a purpose.

One thing that really made me blink, however, was Chicago’s lack of street-level activity. I’d never really noticed it before, but the streets are pretty dead here in America. Relatively speaking, of course. Now, I’m not generally a guy for crowds, but I really enjoy the vital atmosphere typical of virtually any Vietnamese street, and there’s a LOT to be said for convenience, price, and quality.

Ok. True story: the weeks I was in the midwest were unseasonably cold (and then unseasonably warm… thanks Denver!) and Chicago’s true character is naturally more visible in the warmer months of April-September, so there’s that. Even then, however, Chicago doesn’t have much of a street food scene to speak of.

To me, this has some clear benefits and losses.

Some benefits to no street food:

  1. Streets are more easily policed and cleaned.
  2. Food you do buy has typically passed stringent city food inspections for safety/grossness.
  3. Cafes and restaurants are easier to find (read: not mobile or dependent on time of day)
  4. Cooking for yourself becomes cheaper and more convenient because eating out costs an arm and a leg these days. (12 dollars for breakfast, Chicago?!! What am I, a millionaire??)
However, a couple drawbacks I can think of to no street food culture:
  1. You lose out on natural neighborhood interaction and relationship building (and you don’t even have to know the language!)
  2. Less convenient access to cheap, healthy food
  3. Choice is constrained to establishments that have more money (for location, permits, franchising, marketing, etc), generally speaking
  4. Much of the food available for cheap/fast (fast food) is less healthy, and more artificial. Not all of it, but much of it.
In some ways, street level business has been democratized here in Vietnam’s largest city. Anyone can become a small business owner for a relatively small investment. A cafe or restaurant (defined here as places where you can purchase drinks/food which has been freshly prepared by a person other than yourself) can spring to life from the back of a single bicycle or motorbike, ready to serve a dozen at a time. This extends to jobs like masseur, CD salesman, and lottery ticket vendors, too, which require even less upfront investment and zero food preparation skill.
No property taxes, little in the way of expensive equipment (although it can get big ‘n specialized) – Vietnamese cuisine has evolved from ancient times to be fairly portable. In some extreme examples, it’s literally built to travel, wrapped in banana leaf and able to be carried in tropical heat for days at a time without spoiling.

It also often consists of a few simple ingredients where technique and tradition can make for a mind-bogglingly diverse array of dishes of wildly varying qualities. And if you (or your mom) has a recipe for Chinese bread that has the neighborhood banging down the front gate, why shouldn’t you make a couple bucks off it? Who knows where it can go? It could become a revenue stream for the family. If you work it right, it could become a MAJOR revenue stream.

I should add that there are food safety police that are actively checking stalls for violations, and when they make a crackdown it’s big news. Vietnamese don’t want mice carcasses flavoring their soup anymore than you do (this happened last year)! Vietnamese are (rightfully) extremely proud of their culinary traditions, and the general attitude is that, as tourism in Vietnam booms, the world is curious and watching closer than ever.

Overall, Vietnamese street food culture is ready for its closeup, Mr. De Mille.

Observations of Vietnamese culture aside, here are some street foods that I was definitely not able to find on the frigid streets of Chicago!

Bap Xao (Fried Corn)
street food vietnam
Average Cost: $0.50 USD
Mandatoryness Level: If you’re hungry for corn, it’s awesome
Best Attributes:

-Sweet corn, ground dried shrimp, green onions and more are flash fried in a wok on the street. I personally LOVE this dish, but not everyone loves it (I guess?). More for me!

-Because it’s corn, there’s not a lot here in the way of nutrition, but it’s sweet, plump, and tasty. The MSG probably doesn’t hurt, either.
Fried Soft Shell Crab
street food vietnam

Average Cost: $0.50 USD
Mandatoryness Level: DO IT.
Best Attributes:
-It’s a CRAB. A WHOLE CRAB. Shell and all!
-It is FRIED. It is good. Life is good.
-Yeah, that’s okra on the side – a vegetable I’ve gained a whole new understanding of, and appreciation for, here in Vietnam. And, of course (of course?), fried hard-boiled quail eggs.
Banh Xeo
street food vietnam

Average Cost: $1.50-2 USD
Mandatoryness Level: The perfect food for between bars
Best Attributes:
-Did you know you can get banh xeo on the streets? I DID NOT – UNTIL NOW.
-Smaller and thicker than their big-pan cousins, these pancakes make for a great stop between drinks, or a filling dinner in their own right.
Corn on the Cob
street food vietnam

Average Cost: $0.25 USD
Mandatoryness Level: Nope. None.
Best Attributes:

-You know what? I was expecting this to be good. Like, really, really good. Was it?

-No. It was not.

-Chewy, tasteless, and no nutrition to boot, this is just something to get if you’re looking to check a box on your street food list (…like me). Midwestern American corn is about 1000x better… GMOs be damned. Give me sweet, juicy kernels that explode in my mouth, and a butter and salt marinade to make it go down easier, and I’m much happier with my corn choices.

Mango Cakes
street food vietnam
Average Cost: $0.50 USD each
Mandatoryness Level: YEAAAAHHHHH
Best Attributes:

-This is a difficult one because, for one, it’s (as far as I can tell) not actually filled with mango?

-Instead, the soft and chewy rice flour bun (mochi-like), dusted with powdered sugar, holds a delicious peanut-y center. If there was a mango component, and my sister and I could not detect one, it’s subtle and the best parts come from the sweetness inherent in the peanut and the… stuff… that holds it together.

-If you couldn’t tell, I’m not an expert. But do, if you can find this, get it.

-TO BE FAIR: I’ve only seen these in Hoi An, Vietnam. It could be that it’s a central VN specialty. I’m not sure. If I see them in Saigon I’ll update.

Doughnut with Black Bean Paste
street food vietnamAverage Cost: $0.50 USD each
Mandatoryness Level: You like fried sweet stuff, don’t you
Best Attributes:

-It’s a donut. ’nuff said.

-Encrusted with sesame seeds, glazed with egg white, and stuffed with sweet, sweet black bean paste, this little beauty is only one of many kinds of donuts you can find on the streets of Vietnam.

-Some donuts are more equal than others. This is one of the delicious ones. Don’t be put off by beans as a sweet component! Traditional VN desserts are much less sweet than items introduced after the Great Refined Sugar Explosion (~1980’s), and often feature a variety of naturally sweet bananas, jellies, and beans to satisfy the sugar craving. Be daring!

Hanoi Doughnuts, 4 Kinds
street food vietnam
Average Cost: $0.10 USD each
Mandatoryness Level: Get a bagful!
Best Attributes:

-These beautiful little doughnut holes were discovered on the crowded streets of the Old Quarter, in beautiful Hanoi.

-The small round ones were filled with sweet mung bean paste and sesame seeds, and glazed – we never figured out what the orange ones were, but they were faintly savory, so I’m going with… chili sauce? Sure, sugary chili sauce glaze, why not. (I’m making myself drool now.)

-The puffy one on a stick was almost more amazing! No filling, but a light, sugary snack that I could have eaten much more of than I did.

-Doughnuts. Proof that the Vietnamese love you and want you to be happy.

These are my most recent street food discoveries. With each successive post I discover more than I even realized was available. It seems that there’s some new variation on a theme no matter where I look… if I just look hard enough, and have the balls to walk up to people and order something.Stay tuned for my next compendium of Things to Eats on Streets, featuring a bevy of FRIED! Fry everything. New motto.Got a suggestion for some street foods I absolutely, positively must eat? Please leave it in the comments!