In Vietnamese cuisine, papaya is more than just a fruit. Unripened green papaya is treated as a vegetable, and used in various ways: picked, added to soup, or shredded and featured in salads. Nom du du, or “green papaya salad” is a favorite among Vietnamese locals who love to eat it either at the beginning or the end of a big meal, as it is thought to aid with digestion. This makes sense, as papaya extract pills are often taken as a remedy for digestive problems.
Nom du du can be made with shredded green papaya, and other leafy green herbs, mixed in a sauce made of honey, rice vinegar, and fish sauce, and sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts on top. The authentic nom du du is made using fish sauce as an ingredient; however, the salad is just as tasty without it. There are also meaty versions of this salad such as nom du du tom thit (with “prawns and pork”) or nom du du bo kho (“beef”).
Banh cuon are kind of like crepes; their translation means “steamed rice rolls.” Rice flour batter is spread out into a thin sheet, steamed, stuffed, and then rolled up. Sometimes, an egg can be cracked into the sheet as it is being steamed. Fillings normally include pork and wood ear mushrooms; however, the plain version is also extremely popular.
Banh cuon is served with a layer of crispy fried shallots and onions sprinkled on top, with a small bowl of fish sauce for dipping. A serving is often less than a dollar and you can find it almost anywhere. Look out for it, especially during breakfast time.
Xoi is a Chinese-influenced dish and is essentially “sticky rice” in all different colors, topped with various herbs and meats. Vendors can be found serving this in just about every alleyway. You can choose your toppings by pointing through their glass box displays, so you can also opt for an all vegetarian take on xoi. Toppings you can choose include chickpeas, sugar, roasted peanuts, and shredded coconut, and some vendors even have their own secret sauce.
Xoi is a popular breakfast snack, so vendors seem to pack up by 9:00 a.m. Make sure to head out before this if you want to be a part of this sticky rice affair.
The baguette was initially introduced by the French, but the Vietnamese have made it their own by adding whatever they could think of into it: meats, pickled veggies, herbs, pate, mayonnaise, eggs, cheese, sausages—you name it. While in the south, banh mis are often quite stuffed; in the north, the sandwich is more of a modest snack instead of a meal with just a few ingredients. If you want an “egg banh mi,” all you have to do is look for a banh mi trung sign, or just say this to the vendor, and they will understand that you are not looking for meat.
Banh mis are also extremely cheap, and you can have a fully stuffed sandwich for about a dollar. Locals usually enjoy a quick banh mi and “ca phe sua da” (Vietnamese iced coffee) before work.
Banh tam bi is a dish that is relatively unheard of, with origins from the Mekong Delta. It is made of thick tapioca noodles, similar to the size of Japanese Udon noodles, tossed with herbs and pork and then drenched over with thick coconut cream, making it a rather sweet affair.
When ordering, you can tell the vendor to make it without meat—just say “khong thit.” When eating, make sure you mix everything together well, so you get that sweet taste of coconut cream with every bite.
Bot chien is a popular street food with Chinese origins. Cubes of rice cake are fried until golden, then a whisked egg is added, along with onions, shallots, and some soy sauce. Next, everything is tossed together and mixed in a giant pan.
It is also served with fish sauce, since you can’t seem to get away from this additional condiment, but you can just choose to forgo adding it to your dish. It won’t take away from the flavor.