I survived most of my trip through Bangkok, Laos and Vietnam on street food, and although many other travellers – as well as friends back home – told me how “brave” they thought I was, I had no problems. Eating alone in restaurants always feels a bit strange to me, but there is no such stigma with regard to street food, so there’s a kind of social comfort factor. The street is also the place where you can fill your stomach for less than a dollar.
When I happened to look at the menus of Thai or Vietnamese restaurants, the selections did not seem all that different from their San Francisco counterparts. It was on the street where I felt like I could find something really new and different.
I also really liked how out-in-the-open these places were. On the streets of Hanoi, people cooked outside, ate outside, washed up outside – familes and vendors alike, on the busy sidewalks.
Even in my Hanoi hotel, when I ordered the traditional Vietnamese breakfast of pho bo (beef noodle soup) or chao ca (fish porridge) each morning, someone from the staff would carry an empty tray out the front door of the hotel and return a few minutes later with my food. Everything else on the menu came from their own kitchen, but for Vietnamese food, they knew they couldn’t beat what I could get on the street.
From spring rolls to sticky rice, it’s a street food paradise!
On my first day in Laos, beside the Mekong, I had an unbelievable papaya salad. There was a whole strip of vendors along the river, and I hardly ate anywhere else the whole time I was in Vientiane. I had fresh orange-pineapple juice, salt-encrusted grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass, rice noodles with sausage, peanuts, tomatoes and herbs.
Laos and Vietnam were both French colonies, and although that legacy is not without its bitterness, one thing the French left behind is the art of baking. French bread from a burlap sack on a Hanoi sidewalk – still warm in the early morning – easily rivaled what I’ve had in France, and the tarts and cakes from a small patisserie in Hoi An were as beautiful as they were delicious.
In frigid Sapa, my breakfast each morning was a fist-sized ball of steaming sweet sticky rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. I’d wash it down with a cup of Vietnamese coffee – strong and sweetened with condensed milk – and each time I’d swear to myself I’d never have coffee any other way for the rest of my life.
I also had the most unbelievably fresh fruits from beginning to end, including some I’d never heard of before. My favourite discovery was a Vietnamese fruit that’s called chiku in Singapore. I can’t remember the Vietnamese name for it, but the taste lies somewhere between a mango and a pear, laced with a very slight touch of cinnamon.
Hoi An is where I ended my street food spree. I ate my dinners in restaurants there, and I made a habit of buying chiku during my days and asking my waiter or waitress to please slice it for my dessert.
They happily complied with my unusual request, and more often than not, they sat down to share it with me.