Lunch in the market: 10 traditional Vietnamese dishes for under US$1
The spectrum of Vietnamese dishes is surprisingly refined and diverse for such a small country. Each city -- even each village -- may have its own list of unique local specialties. Even common national dishes vary dramatically in the way that each community prepares and serves them. The cheapest and one of the most delicious places to encounter authentic Vietnamese cuisine is in a traditional open-air market. Here single-dish food stalls, run mostly by women, offer finely crafted delights passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Ignoring stereotypical dishes like pho bo (rice noodles with beef soup), banh mi (baguettes with vegetables and meat), and cha gio (spring rolls), here are 10 favorite dishes, each priced at less than one US dollar.
Banh canhBest in Phan Thiet
In Vietnamese, “banh” means cake and “canh” means soup. Banh includes everything starchy, from biscuits and birthday cakes to baguettes and noodles. Banh canh’s thick udon-like noodles are made from rice and tapioca flour, and then drowned in a savory fish broth. Slices of fried fish cakes and boiled quail eggs complete the presentation.
Banh hoiBest in Qui Nhon
Banh hoi is made with tiny loops of delicate rice noodles, matted into clumps. Garnished with chives and fried pork skin, banh hoi is served with heo quay (roasted pork) or pork sausages, intestines, liver and other internal organs, which are then dunked in nuoc cham (sweet lemon fish sauce with chili).
Bot chienBest in Saigon
A favorite after-school snack, bot chien are cubes of tapioca flour, fried with eggs and garnished with pickled carrots and green mango (Vietnamese kim chi), then dipped in nuoc cham.
Bo khoBest in Dalat
Bo Kho (one of my favorites), is a sweet and savory caramelized beef stew with whole carrots and potatoes. It’s one of the few dishes that remain fairly consistent throughout the country, but I find it’s most enjoyable in the context of the cool and damp Central Highlands.
Bun thit nuongBest in Hue and Danang
Bun is a popular rice noodle served in soups or eaten cold. Thit nuong are grilled meats (usually pork). The two are combined and garnished with fresh herbs and chili sate. Depending on the locality, the added fish sauce is varied with crushed peanuts, tomatoes, or lemon and chili.
Banh truong mucBest in Phan Thiet
Xoi vit and com gaBest in Phan Rang and Quang Ngai
Whole boiled or roasted chicken (ga) and duck (vit) are very popular in Vietnam. Chicken is usually paired with com (rice) cooked in a chicken broth, while duck is usually served with sticky rice (xoi) and a sweet ginger fish sauce.
CheBest in Hue and Hanoi
A sweet dessert rather than a main course, there are so many varieties of che that sampling even a few will leave no room for dinner. The consistency ranges from soup to pudding and may be hot or cold. Common ingredients include beans, lentils, fruit, tapioca pearls, fungus, agar and lotus roots.
Banh xeoBest in Saigon and Phan Thiet
Banh xeo (“xeo” means sizzle) are rice-flour crepes (other starches may also be added) filled with pork, shrimp or squid. In Saigon, giant banh xeo are broken in pieces and rolled in lettuce leaves. In Dalat, smaller crepes are rolled in rice paper with herbs. In Phan Thiet banh xeo is drowned in nuoc cham with mint leaves.
Banh canBest in Nha Trang and Phan Rang
Banh can are small bite-sized rice pancakes (“can” means bite), which, like banh xeo, are cooked over portable clay ovens. The pancakes are served with grilled meatballs, pork skin curls, chives and mint leaves, and then bathed in a sweet fish sauce broth.
- Go early for a better food selection. Rural markets open at the break of dawn, but night markets are not common.
- Bring small change. Most market food stall can’t break more than a VND100,000 (US$5.30) note.
- Eating raw produce (often cautioned against by travel medicine) is unavoidable in Vietnamese cuisine. Do avoid tea in food stalls though -- glasses aren’t usually washed between customers.