Vietnamese Street Food: Far Beyond Title
By Minh Nhat and staff writers
Hanoi and HCMC, Vietnam’s two biggest metropolises, have just been cited among the world’s best street food destinations by Food & Wine magazine and the travel page CNNGo, respectively
The general secretary of Vietnam’s culinary association, Vu The Long, says that street food is extraordinary because diners can eat it in an open space and enjoy it in a casual manner. “Therefore, if foreign tourists want to explore Vietnamese food and enjoy local buffets in an enormous space, they’d better experience street food in a truly local setting.”
What they’d say
In a recent story, Food & Wine reported, “Saigon’s street foods range from the savory soup known as ph and the French colonial–influenced bánh mì (pâté sandwiches on French bread) to regional southern specialties like bánh xèo (stuffed pancakes) and canh chua (sour fish soup). A trip to the megasize Ben Thanh Market could yield spring rolls, spices and a knockoff handbag.”
According to the U.S. monthly culinary magazine, street food has played an important role in the gastronomy of the world. The magazine depicted Ben Thanh Market in HCMC where food-lovers are free to lavish their time over Vietnamese cuisine and enjoy delicious dishes. In this regard, Saigon is totally on the same footing as other destinations like Bangkok (Thailand), Penang (Malaysia), Berlin (Germany), and Austin (Texas, the U.S.).
While CNNGo describes Hanoi and its environs are the birthplace of many quintessential Vietnamese dishes, such as ph and bún ch, and the city is often named as one of the world’s great food capitals. It is also a street-eater’s paradise, with a plethora of options for those who want to eat like a local. In fact, the best food in Hanoi is easily found on the sidewalk, with dishes that often feature fish sauce, lemongrass, chilies, and cilantro and other fresh herbs.
“The city, which celebrated its 1,000th birthday in 2010, has put those centuries to good use perfecting its curbside nibbles. Although vendors often cook in small shop fronts, they serve their wares on the sidewalk, on small plastic tables and chairs that can seem woefully inadequate for overgrown foreigners,” CNNGo cited.
In addition to ph and bún ch, CNNGo also listed more eight signature dishes that much appeal to tourists, including bún riêu cua, nem cua b, bánh cun, and mc nng.
Although a number of international visitors may consider Vietnamese street food as a risk, during trans-Vietnam trips, many others still “hunt” for local specialties in each region they visit. Though different languages make hardly pronounce the accurate names of foods, they are willing to try street food.
Cm tm (Vietnamese broken rice) has been recommended as an attractive street food by CNN. The dish was formerly for the poor because it was from cheap broken rice grains. With a humble start, broken rice now becomes widely popular in Vietnam, though. The news site also unveils some popular dishes in Vietnam favored by foreign travelers such as bún bò Hu, ting Vit and ting Vit. Last year, CNN also picked the world’s 50 most delicious foods. In this list, ph and gi cun (summer roll) were ranked 28th and 30th respectively.
According to CNN, Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t win any points for complexity. Many of the most popular dishes can be made just as well on the side of the road as in a top-end restaurant. But it’s precisely this simplicity, the subtle variations by region and the fresh ingredients that keep tourists pulling up a plastic stool for more.
In this extract from the “Lonely Planet’s The World’s Best Street Food,” author Richard Johnson chose bánh mì to boast to his readers, “A little-known secret is that the world’s best sandwich isn’t found in Rome, Copenhagen or even New York City, but on the streets of Vietnam. It begins with a light baguette grilled over coals. Bánh mì is the epitome of street food: the sandwiches are sold almost exclusively from stalls and vendors.”
Jessica Gelt wrote an article for Los Angeles Times after she made a journey through Hanoi and enjoyed food there. “In Hanoi, soup is a way of life — the connective tissue of Vietnamese culture. With noodles, herbs and sinew, it strings together twisting streets and varied lifestyles. Here the bones, crumpled napkins and squeezed limes that litter the ground beneath tiny plastic tables are symbols of a good meal and a life well lived… The abundance of options makes looking for the perfect bowl of noodles in Hanoi a tricky one. It’s a quest that will lead you through the city’s back alleys, grand French-influenced boulevards and tucked-away neighborhoods. In searching for sustenance, you’ll find religion, history, art and the theater of everyday life as it plays out on the scooter-packed streets.”
Beyond the titles
The articles in the world’s best culinary press are advantages for HCMC and Hanoi to promote their potentials in attracting more domestic and foreign arrivals.
Since 2002, HCMC authorities have allowed Ben Thanh Market to open until at night with souvenir shops and food stalls besides the various food choices in the daylight that serve guests. In some tours designed for foreign travelers, HCMC-based travel agencies take guests to visit and go shopping at the market. Doan Thi Thanh Tra, marketing manager of Saigontourist, says that to give guests information about local markets and food in Saigon when they pay a trip to HCMC, the leading tour operator lets tourists spend free time to enjoy shopping and eating out at Ben Thanh Market.
However, food hygiene remains a worry many local travel firms have pondered on. They have warned guests about street food despite its deliciousness. Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai, Fiditour’s director of PR and communications department, says, “To make local food really attractive to foreign tourists, the authorities should inspect strictly food hygiene and safety, and street stalls must meet standards for food security.”
However, the Vietnam Government is attempting to clear the sidewalks of vendors in a move to modernize the city and appeal to tourists.
Professor Annette M. Kim from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning under Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a research on the sidewalk life of HCMC. In spite of the fact that street vendors provide 30% of the city’s food and account for 30% of its employment. Local residents consider street food a long-standing part of their culture with its cheap prices and convenience. The research also shows that the lively sidewalk life of HCMC is a vital part of the city’s appeal and represents an amenity many westerners strive to create at home.
“Local authorities are worried about security, food safety, and beauty of the city, so they want to clear street food. If hawker stalls are put in the right place, they become a particular specialty of Vietnam’s tourism industry,” Nguyen Van My, director of Lua Viet Tours Co., says. In his opinion, local authorities should be responsible for taking severe measures to restrict hawkers from being threatened or harassed. In the meanwhile, hawkers need to be provided knowledge of food hygiene and safety, and polite sales methods.
Associate professor Nguyen Minh Hoa, dean of Urban Studies Department of HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, reckons that Vietnam should maximize the good points of street food and minimize its bad ones. “The city’s government should arrange appropriate places for hawkers to introduce their products to guests,” he says.