Vietnam is known for its food, and as with many geographically vast places, dishes vary widely between regions. I’ve based myself in Saigon for the most part, taking advantage of the warmer Southern climate, the proximity to the Mekong and the great food. While Hanoi in the North has some wonderful dishes of its own, I wanted to highlight the snacks I’ve tried in the South, from seafood to fertilized duck eggs to sweet and spicy papaya salad. Some derive from elsewhere in the country, but all are enjoyed on the streets here.
A popular nighttime street snack for families and couples and friends, snail (oc) restaurants refer not just to snails, but to a whole panoply of other seafood served family style, shared between the table and often with beer. From grilled scallops with peanuts and green onions, to clams in lemongrass and chili broth, to succulent mud snails in a thick coconut sauce, the long menu is worth trying, dish by dish. Snail meals are not just a food outing, but a full evening of talking, snacking and drinking beer. It’s a wonderful part of the culture here, and each time I go I find something new I’ve yet to sample.
I never liked snails growing up, as I found the butter and garlic sauces we often use quite heavy and not very delicious. To my surprise, then, I’ve become a snail aficionado here in Saigon, encouraging friends to try them with me.
Fresh Spring Rolls (Goi cuon)
Goi cuon are usually referred to as “summer rolls” in North America, but here they are literally translated as “salad roll”, even though they are customarily stuffed with more than just lettuce leaves. With mint, shrimp, pork slices and vermicelli noodles, they are dipped into a satay sauce with peanuts that can be as fiery as your chili tolerance will allow.
While we tend to eat goi cuon as an appetizer at home, here they are a side dish or general accompaniment to the meal. Dishes don’t arrive in a set order as you’re eating on the street, so you just enjoy the small table piled high with plates and take a bite of everything in the order you choose.
We think of yogurt – and very trendy Greek yogurt – as a snack, and in frozen form as dessert. Vietnamese yogurt (called sua chua, sour milk, or da ua – in Saigon, yaort usually works too) takes those treats to another level, a tangy and sweet and sour combination of tastes that derives from it being made from sweetened condensed milk.
In lieu of trying to find fresh milk, which spoils more quickly, enterprising Vietnamese use the condensed milk mixed with water and some yogurt. The tangy taste is extremely satisfying and, when almost frozen, a perfect antidote to a sweltering Saigon day. At smoothie joints, ordering yaourt da will give you one of these sweet-sour yogurts on ice, though it’s best to inquire about the yogurt in order to make sure it’s not in its pre-packaged form. In its most delicious version, a small glass container with plastic lid is the real stuff, served in public parks and at tiny stands that line the roads. For a make-at-home recipe without requiring a yogurt maker, see Viet World Kitchen here.
Unripened papaya salad with beef jerky (Goi Du Du Bo Kho)
Papaya salad is often associated with Thailand and its Isaan dish som tam, but it has a Vietnamese cousin, one that is sweeter and less fiery, full of beef jerky and topped with peanuts and a toasted rice cracker. As with many dishes in Vietnam, the recipes change based on the province, but my preferred goi du du comes from the streets of Saigon. The papaya soaks up a soy and vinegar dressing and some spicy chili sauce is added to counteract the sourness of the vinegar. The beef jerky is not what we are used to in North America either; it’s tender and chewy and not at all dry.
Together, with dressing and peanuts and meaty components, the salad’s flavours are overwhelming at first but as you slowly make your way through the plate, they blend together beautifully. I’ve seen many Vietnamese restaurants in Montreal or Toronto or New York make goi du du as well, so if you haven’t tried it prior, opt for something new at your next Vietnamese dinner.
Rice Porridge with Offal (Chao Long)
My friends mostly refuse to eat with me when I go for chao long, since it’s full of offal. But offal is delicious (“offal is not awful!” I say in protest to them). This delightful rice porridge is savoury, cooked in a rich broth with blood cubes bobbing in the cauldron. It’s served with slices of liver, chunks of innards, intestines, and more. It’s complimented by lots of ginger and green onions, black pepper grounds and – for those who are not celiac like me – chopped up pieces of fried dough. With table condiments like steamed bean sprouts, lime, and chili, it’s really a perfect filling meal. It usually costs about a dollar on the street, too.
While most people are averse to trying it, the porridge is actually more delicate that you would expect. Provided you’re comfortable with offal – and you can of course refuse the blood cubes – it’s a snack not to be missed.
Fertilized Duck Embryo (Hot Vit Long)
Duck embryo is also served elsewhere in Southeast Asia, most famously in the Philippines where it is known as balut. In Saigon, it is found at scores of twilight soup stalls or spring roll stations, served with rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), salt and pepper, and occasionally peanuts. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a protein packed snack. Plus, you will get some appreciative looks for eating what most foreigners avoid.
To eat them, pretend they are a soft-boiled egg, tapping the side of the shell with a spoon and peeling part of it away. Dig into the membrane under the shell then tip the egg toward your mouth to drink any liquid, then eat the rest (the solids) with your spoon.
Vietnamese Sandwich (Banh Mi)
Everyone’s on-the-go favourite, banh mi comes from a light and airy roll, an import that stayed once the French colonial period was over in Vietnam. It’s not your usual buttery French loaf, but a lighter and less dense version. I can’t eat banh mi due to having celiac disease but most of my friends grab one for snacks, for breakfast or for a late night treat.
Made with a variety of insides – pork medallions, paté, eggs, sliced pork, or other meat – usually topped with cilantro, onions, pickled thinly sliced carrots and chili peppers, it is satisfying and reasonably priced. I only wish I could eat one!
Rice Paper Roll (Banh Trang Cuon)
Banh tranh cuon consists of rice paper sheets that have been dyed orange with annatto oil and sliced into half moons. Inside each sheet, a roll with all of these colourful ingredients you see on this tray, from dried tamarind to small dried shrimp, to pickled unripe mango and more. It’s then wrapped and then cut into pieces, placed into a clear sandwich bag, and topped with chili oil and a little bit of beef gravy.
This snack is not as popular as some of the others – I have only seen a few places in Saigon that sell it, and none up north in Hanoi per my friends there. But it’s a wonderful punch of many different tastes that mix together seamlessly, and at under a dollar for 3 rolls, it’s well worth a try.
Crab and Tomato Rice Noodle Soup (Bun Rieu Cua)
A northern soup, bun rieu has made its way south like many other dishes from other provinces in Vietnam, and is found on the streets of Saigon at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The soup is served at restaurants as well, but is best savoured from a lady with a pole and a cauldron of soup, the fixings (tofu, blood cubes, tomatoes) on the other end, balancing out the way she carries the soup around town.
This is a typical lunch scene right in the heart of the center of Saigon, with many office workers taking their lunch break on the street. At one of the busier corners, this bun rieu lady makes brisk business, spooning rich crab and tomato broth into bowls for a good part of the day.
These are a few of the dishes I have been enjoying during my time here, and many were dishes I had never heard of prior to visiting Vietnam. I’m leaving here later this month but will no doubt be dreaming of these snacks for months to come.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Vietnam encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you Vietnam as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips here.