Vietnam street food culture is special. Whereas the dining scene in some quickly developing countries has given way to indoor restaurants, the street food scene in Vietnam’s big cities is as vibrant and alive as ever. Why is this? What makes Vietnam different? We’ve tried to address this question below.
Until very recently, Vietnam was always an impoverished country. Even back in the days when the Chinese occupied Vietnam, the vast majority of locals hardly had enough to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. Some industrious Vietnamese wanted to start businesses, but since they were so poor they had to do something that would require next to no overhead cost. They settled on street food, which became an almost instant hit with Chinese soldiers and Vietnamese who did have the money to buy food outside occasionally.
There are several facets of Vietnamese culture that have allowed street food to persevere so well in Vietnam.
Firstly, Vietnamese people tend to conserve their cultural traditions. Vietnam’s street food culture began hundreds of years ago, when locals began to carry buckets of food balanced on wooden yokes slung over their shoulder. They would sell their homemade foods to anyone willing to pay. Over the years, the mobile food vendors settled down in their own spots, and the Vietnamese street food stall as we know it today was born.
Up until about 30 years ago, the country was still so poor that street food stands were pretty much the only business cheap enough for most to start. The country has largely emerged from its economic troubles more recently, but at this point, street food is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is not going anywhere. It’s part of the fabric of Vietnam’s urban landscape, and it’s close to the hearts of almost everyone who grew up here.
Another typical Vietnamese trait is the desire to celebrate together, but also feel at one with the community. The best way to do just that is to go out with a group of friends or loved ones and have a good time in the middle of the city. Street food stands cater perfectly to that desire, and they have become just as popular with large groups as with people rushing to get a quick bite to eat on the cheap.
Thirdly, the easy access to fresh ingredients that most Vietnamese shop-owners are afforded is perfect for street food. Street food vendors can go to the market every morning and get their ingredients fresh. They do not need to refrigerate them or freeze them. They simply take them to a street food stand, cook them up, and serve them. It’s delicious and nutritious in comparison to the preserved counterparts you would find in most countries.
The fourth reason Vietnam is such a perfect place for street food culture is because of the high population density in the cities. People in Vietnam tend to stick together in small areas, which means that street food vendors have ample amounts of customers. In a more spread-out country, an eatery needs to be able to incorporate their business and advertise their services in order to attract customers. In Vietnam, word of mouth suffices because everybody lives close together.
A slightly less fortunate reason that street food has managed to stay so popular in Vietnam is because of the high levels of corruption. Most people don’t realize that street food is technically illegal. Just as in most countries, it is actually against the law to have an unincorporated business that operates on the sidewalk. It is basically an unwritten rule, however, that Vietnamese authorities will look the other way when it comes to street food vendors, as long as the pay is right.
Regardless of what the reasons for the popularity of street food in Vietnam may be, it is undeniable that it has become an integral part of the urban culture. People now cannot live without it, even if there are more established options out there that they can afford. At this point, street food culture is Vietnamese culture and vice versa.
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