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Vietnamese food: Taking it to the street

by Larissa on March 19, 2012

From Hoi An, Vietnam ~ One of the reasons to travel the world is to taste the wide varieties of food out there. Vietnamese food is one of my favorites and the best examples are often sold by street vendors.

However, before leaving on our journey we met with our family doctor, who also specializes in travel medicine.  She pumped us full of vaccines (who knew they still had yellow fever?) and loaded us up with prescriptions to combat potential bugs.  Her last words of advice as she handed us a scrip for Cipro were “do NOT eat street food.”

Vietnamese street food

This lady is known as the “Queen of Banh Mi,” it’s a sort of Vietnamese hoagie.

But when you go to Vietnam, what’s a food lover to do?  Street food is as much a part of the Vietnamese culture as Ho Chi Minh.  In the cities, where living space is tight, locals eat their meals out on the sidewalk in front of their home.  Throughout the day little stands pop up out of nowhere and suddenly there are clusters of people perched on tiny stools slurping pho or munching banh mi.

Hoi An Vietnamese food tofu custard lady

The tofu custard lady is a regular stop on the market circuit.

Despite the fantastic aromas and gorgeous displays of ingredients, my doctor’s warning kept echoing in my head.  Should I miss out on this vital part of Vietnamese life, or forge ahead and risk earning a first-class ticket on the Immodium Express?

I finally found a solution when we got to the town of Hoi An,the culinary capital of central Vietnam.  I signed up for “A Taste of Hoi An,” a combination food-tasting and walking tour around the town.  It’s run by a displaced Aussie and self-proclaimed foodie named Neville Dean.  A few years ago he found himself in a similar situation and set out to do something about it.

Hoi An vietnam food

Neville, the Aussie Dean of Vietnamese street food.

Neville’s solution is to take up to six guests for a stroll through the back streets of Hoi An. Working with a nutritionist he has personally inspected all stops to ensure they use sanitary cooking practices and fresh ingredients.  For about four hours (or more if he gets really chatty) Neville will guide, educate, and share anecdotes about Vietnamese food, street food in particular.

Through the course of the morning we stopped at local fresh markets, small “one dish” restaurants, and many of those street stalls that are so intimidating to a newcomer.  We sipped fresh fruit shakes, nibbled smoked sausages with local chili sauce and slurped the ubiquitous pho bo just like the locals.

Vietnamese food

These vendors specialize in varieties of bean sprouts.

We also learned how to pick out the good markets and street stalls.  Markets with no smell (and no flies) have fresh food.  The vendors bring fresh foods daily and close when they sell out.

For street stalls, ironically, the key is to find a place with lots of trash around it.  The Vietnamese keep their streets scrupulously clean, sweeping in front of their shops and stalls constantly.  Diners drop their order chits on the ground, where the stall owner will sweep them up at the end of the day.  A good stall is one where there are many chits on the ground—a sign that it is has constant traffic—and therefore good food.

Hoi An vietnamese food
All those pieces of paper on the ground are receipts from prior customers. If a stand has many that means the food is good.

In total we sampled almost 40 (yes 40!) different items The key here is sampled, so we always had room for just a little more.

By the way, the food must be healthy. The woman selling ginger in the picture at the top of this post is ninety-six years old.

For more information:  www.tasteofhoian.com

What street foods have you tried?

Deb Wright March 20, 2012 at 5:24 am

sounds like money well spent for the tour Larissa….it would have been a dilemma for me also, I love tasting different types of food. I can also understand Michaels search for the bread in each country…love my bread 😉

Cheers
Deb Wright
Dubbo/Narromine NSW Australia

Us March 20, 2012 at 5:27 am

Based on you having a breadmaker that runs 24/7 we know how you love your bread.

MissElaineous March 20, 2012 at 7:45 am

Of all things, I can’t get over how the 90 year old woman is sitting. Sheesh!!! Not sure I can do that for any length of time at 29!

Us March 20, 2012 at 1:01 pm

96!

Frank Herzog March 20, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Maybe the part of your adventure that I envy most!

Us March 20, 2012 at 1:05 pm

You mean it’s not getting to travel with Michael and listening to him 24/7?

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