Few things are more closely tied to the identity of the food in Saigon. Visitors and locals alike love visiting different stands around the city to try out authentic Vietnamese delicacies. Common ones include phở, gỏi cuốn, bún bò, bún thịt nướng, bánh xèo… the list goes on. There are so many types of street food in Saigon, in fact, that some of them fly under the radar despite being delicious.
So that everyone can enjoy the best of Saigon’s street food scene, we have listed below 10 street food which, although delicious, are not nearly as common as some others. In this list, we have tried to stay away from the foods most expats will already be familiar with. At the same time, we aim for dishes that are not rare to see being sold at the side of the road.
Bánh đúc (Vietnamese bánh (cake) )
Originally a street food from the Central Highlands region of Vietnam, bánh đúc has become more popular (although not popular enough, as many who have tried it will agree) in Saigon during the past few years. If you have ever tried bánh bèo, a considerably more common street eat, then you’ll be familiar with the eggy, gooey texture of the cakes that make up much of Vietnamese comfort food. The Western food type it is probably most comparable to is pot pie. Bánh đúc has that same texture, but it is a whole bowl of the stuff. Mixed into the gooey cake is whole quail egg, dried onion, and several green vegetables. The whole thing is generally topped with fresh chili, and the result is pure, indulgent, stomach-warming street food perfection.
Bún Gạo (Stir-fried noodles)
This is a dish that many foreigners, even those that know the Vietnamese language, may not be aware of, because of the generic name. “Bún gạo” basically just translates to “rice noodles,” which does not convey what the dish actually is. In reality, it is a hearty helping of stir fried angel-hair rice noodles with vegetables, a light sauce, and a meat you’ll get to choose from when you order. It’s an excellent dish that is a favorite among foreigners because it appeals to a Western palate.
Trái Cây Dằm (Fruit salad)
As those who have spent any significant amount of time in Vietnam will tell you, the country’s fruit is simply on another level than fruit grown elsewhere. The unadulterated sweet and tangy flavor of assorted fresh Vietnamese fruits in trái cây dằm is a wonderfully refreshing treat, whether it is early in the morning or after dinner. Add some yogurt (sữa chua) to turn this snack into more of a meal.
Phở Chua (Sour mixed noodles)
Phở chua (which translates to “sour pho”) is almost nothing like the phở dish that has become emblematic of Vietnamese cuisine. It has the same type of noodles, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The noodles are mixed with vegetables, stringy meats, and crunchy bits of fried onion. The ingredients are doused in a sour sauce composed of chilis, tamarind, and several other ingredients that vary based on the street food stand. The sauce serves as a coating for the other ingredients, not as a broth like in traditional phở.
Bún Mắm (Fermented fish stew)
This is one for the adventurous, as many expats and tourists have found out. It’s understandable why it’s not for everyone, as the broth has an extremely strong flavor with notes of fermented fish, salt, and other spices. For those who do like the combination, though, this dish is incredible.
The thick noodles, fried pork, eggplant, squid, shrimp, and sausage-stuffed chili piled into the broth make bún mắm an extremely hardy dish. It is certainly worth trying at least once to see if you like it.
Bò Lá Lốt (Wrapped beef)
Bò lá lốt consists of mixed beef sausages wrapped in fried fragrant leaves that are reminiscent of grape leaves. The wraps are meant to be paired with fresh vegetables or rice paper and then dipped in seasoned fish sauce. The dish is spicy, flavorful, and filling.
Kem Xôi (Ice cream with sticky rice)
Many people from outside of Vietnam have tried the delicious mango, sticky rice, and coconut milk dessert that is often served at Thai restaurants. They come to Vietnam and wonder if they can get something similar here — I have heard this request many times from tourists. Good news: they can!
“Kem xôi” translates to “ice cream with sticky rice.” The ice cream is often coconut flavored, although it sometimes comes in vanilla too. Fresh fruit is served alongside the ice cream and sticky rice much of the time, and the result is a creamy yet delightfully fresh sugar fix.
Gỏi Gà (Chicken salad)
Freshly grown Vietnamese vegetables are extraordinary; crunchy and bursting with flavor resulting from the country’s fertile soil. Bring that together with free range chicken and you have a healthy meal worthy of writing home about.
This meal is also a nice break from all of the heavy meats, piles of white rice, and steaming bowls of broth with noodles that pervade Vietnamese street food cuisine. Gỏi gà is a splendid summer day food, and you’ll feel good about your healthy diet after downing a plate of it.
Bánh Khọt (Coconut shrimp cakes)
These small round cakes are a southern Vietnamese specialty. The batter for the cakes is made of coconut milk and rice flour, and it is generally topped with spring onions and a freshly cooked shrimp.
Before ordering, take a peek behind the counter to make sure the place is making the cakes the right way. There are lots of places that make bánh khọt using a mix rather than freshly-prepared batter and are also omitting the freshly cooked shrimp, which is obviously nowhere near as tasty.
Sữa Bắp (Corn milk)
This is a little bit of a cheat since it is not a food. But sữa bắp is very common in Saigon, and it’s really delicious. Some might think that the combination of corn and milk would be strange, but they go together surprisingly well. There are no artificial flavorings here, either — in almost all cases, the juice from actual kernels of corn has been extracted and mixed with cow’s milk.
Next time you see sữa bắp or one of the another delicious street food for sale by the side of the road in Saigon, at least give it a try – you might even come back for more!
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