When we think of street food in America, the first things that comes to mind are foods like tacos or bagels- something portable, that you can eat with your hands. However, in Vietnam, street food has a more literal meaning. Anyone who can make a good soup can open up a stall on the street corner and sell it to anyone passing by.  

The first time I walked through the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the capital of the country, I was wide-eyed and excited. The streets were packed with motorbikes and bicycles, swarming around pedestrians like a school of fish. Along the streets are glorious buildings designed with French Colonial architecture. Entering the heart of the city, you must navigate through "maze-like" alleys crammed with vendors selling street food in makeshift storefronts and stalls.

Elizabeth Pham

The rich street food culture of Hanoi amazed me. There was something about risking my life scurrying through an intersection jam-packed with motorbikes just to order food from a vendor, grab a seat on a plastic stool, and spoon down a hot bowl of pho. Every street corner and alleyway had mouthwatering street food stands, each serving a variety of dishes from grilled meats to rice cakes, and even snails. Everything was cooked on the spot and served fast, fresh, and hot.

I was surprised to see that soup, especially pho, was a common street food. Industrial-sized pots of broth would simmer over a low heat source outside on the streets. Typically, people stopped for soup many times throughout the day, including on their way to work, as a break in the late afternoon, or as a late-night snack.

I tried it all when it came to Vietnamese street food- from spring rolls to pork blood soup (yes, pork blood), but my favorite dish had to be bun cha which is a dish that contain vermicelli rice noodles and grilled pork that is drowned in fish sauce.

Elizabeth Pham

As appalling as it sounds, fish sauce, or nuoc mam, is a renowned and beloved dipping sauce by the Vietnamese people. Consisting of a mixture of anchovies, sugar, vinegar, chili, and salt, this concoction produces the right balance of saltiness, sweetness, acidity, and spiciness. With any dish you order, a worker will always bring a tray full of herbs and pickled vegetables, and a bowl of fish sauce for the table.

Convenient and inexpensive, eating Vietnamese street food is a common habit for many Vietnamese people. However, it also plays an important role in the social life of urban Vietnamese citizens.

From as early as 8 AM until past midnight, the streets are constantly flooded with customers, grabbing snacks from vendors as they hustle-and-bustle throughout their day. In the morning, you see schoolchildren lined up all together with their fellow classmates grabbing grilled meat skewers to eat on their way to school, while the elders are sitting outside enjoying a strong cup of café sua da. By 8 PM, everyone is outside squatting on toy-sized plastic stools, eating and drinking with their friends and family.

The nightlife of Hanoi is an intensely entertaining experience. Your senses are immediately flooded by a mix of sights, sounds, and smells. Behind all the constant honking and whizzing from the motorbikes, you can hear the music from live street performers, shouts of vendors calling for the attention of customers, and the laughter and banter of the Vietnamese people. The steam and aroma from what it seems like hundreds of cooking pots, mixes with the scent of cigarettes from the older Vietnamese men squatting on the curbs sharing beers after work. For hours, everyone stays in the city to enjoy its performances, shops, and most importantly- the food.

At the end of my trip, it really opened my eyes about the multiple aspects food can have. Street food in Vietnam is not just a meal for sustenance, but a sharing experience in Vietnam- all the portions are shareable amongst every member of the family, drawing crowds together to enjoy everyone’s company.