American novelist James Michener once said:
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
For many of us, experiencing exotic foods is one of the best parts of travel: tasting fruits and vegetables previously unknown to us, inhaling the aromas of street food as you walk past, pulling up a chair at a communal table and sharing a meal with whoever happens to be there…
As the fourth largest city in Vietnam, Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, is an excellent place to experience the food of the region. For sure, larger metropolises also have their allure. Hanoi, with its cramped Old Quarter, has an amazing street food culture where everything spills out onto the sidewalks and groups of strangers huddle over steaming bowls of pho on a chilly day. Saigon is the undisputed Queen of Vietnam’s street food, as similar to New York City, it’s a melting pot of cuisines, where people from all over the country come searching for opportunity, bringing their favorite dishes with them.
Can Tho, though, is slightly different. Nicknamed “the Western capital” of Vietnam, it’s the largest city in the Mekong Delta (with a little over 1 million inhabitants) but still has a small town feel. For those living in neighboring (mainly agricultural) provinces, it has the draw of a big city without having to brave the mean streets of Saigon with its more than 8 million inhabitants. The region’s best (and sometimes only) universities, hospitals and job opportunities are centered in Can Tho, making it a wonderful base for experiencing the food of Vietnam’s deep south, including many local specialties that would be hard to find even in Saigon.
Add to that, the Mekong Delta, the “Rice Basket of Vietnam”, produces some unique ingredients thanks to its fertile soil (think rice paddies and fruit orchards) and its vast network of rivers, canals and ponds, home to floating fish farms, floating markets and even chocolate!
While Can Tho funnily doesn’t really have any one dish considered its own, it’s co-opted some of the most iconic dishes of the region, and luckily, there’s one street, De Tham, known locally as “food street”, where you can sample some of the best foods of South Vietnam all in one place!
We start off with Bun nuoc leo Soc Trang, a noodle dish with Khmer origins most known for in Soc Trang, 60 km southeast of Can Tho. The soup base is made from slow boiling fish stock and was originally flavored using Khmer prohok, a pungent fermented fish paste, but the Vietnamese version uses pickled river fish instead, often seen piled high in local markets.
Bun Nuoc Leo Soc Trang Phi Long (12 De Tham) has been selling their version of the dish since 2001. On any given day, you’ll find owner Long along with his daughter Loan ladling out the rich broth made using a few different types of pickled fish along with fresh fish – skin, bones and all.
It’s then served with noodles, whole shrimp, roasted pork, pork crackling, fish balls and a heap of fresh herbs, chives, crunchy soy beans and shredded banana blossom.
For the adventurous, order one of the fish heads to be dipped in a tangy-sweet fish sauce that uses kumquats instead of limes, or ask for the stomach of the fish, the chewiest, most expensive part!
For something a little more tame, try the banh cong, a take on fried dough made from mung beans, taro and rice flour, popular in Can Tho and Soc Trang. The batter is poured into muffin tin-like ladle, topped with a whole shrimp, and deep-fried for a melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
More of a snack, banh cong is often eaten in the afternoons and can be wrapped in a lettuce leaf with some fresh herbs before dipping into fish sauce. Try 3-4 along with some fresh vermicelli noodles to make it into a meal!
Another delicious snack is banh xeo, often called “sizzling pancake” for the sound (xeo) it makes as the rice flour batter hits a searing hot wok.
While you can find a variation of the dish all around Vietnam (including Central Vietnam’s lighter colored and palm-sized ones), the Mekong Delta version is huge and filled with pork and shrimp. Banh xeo truly is a dish that tantalizes all five senses. In addition to the sizzling sound it makes, there’s the rich yellow hue that comes from turmeric along with the bright green from the accompanying fresh lettuce leaves and herbs. The dish is also tactile in that it’s meant to be eaten with the hands, with a portion of the pancake wrapped in a lettuce leaf and fresh herbs before being dipped in a fish sauce-based nuoc cham.
While at Banh Xeo Hue Vien (34 De Tham), don’t forget to pick up some of everyone’s favorite, ch? giò, or deep-friend spring rolls. Here, instead of the regular smooth rice paper wrapper, thin bean thread vermicelli is used to wrap the pork and tree ear mushroom filling, adding some extra crunch! Wrap them up in lettuce leaves or order them with a side of rice noodles for a filling meal.
Our last stop for the day is Nem Nuong Thanh Van, just kitty corner from De Tham Street at 17 Dai Lo Hoa Binh. While these pork skewers can be found all over Vietnam, this restaurant is a Can Tho mainstay. It’s not technically street food as there are actual tables and chairs inside, but the smell as the pork is grilled over charcoal wafts out onto the sidewalk, daring any passersby to keep walking.
The skewers are made with minced pork that’s kneaded until chewy, then a proprietary seasoning mix is added and the skewers are char-grilled.
Assembled a little bit like a burrito, take a piece of rice paper. There’ll be a bowl of water on the table to moisten the rice paper to make it pliable. Instead of dipping the whole rice paper into the water (which turns it soggy too quickly), take a lettuce leaf and use it as a paint brush to apply a bit of water to the rice paper so it doesn’t crack as you roll it. Add some fresh herbs and a layer of bean thread vermicelli to make a base. Then put on a piece or two of pork and then add the condiments (pickles, cucumbers, etc.) and wrap it up firmly.
Clockwise from top left: Rice paper, lettuce, chives, herbs, cucumbers, starfruit (a tangy citrus fruit), dipping sauce, bean thread vermicelli, grilled pork, shredded lemongrass, julienne baby corn, pickled onions, carrots and daikon.
Then dip it into the sauce. The Mekong Delta version of the thick and gritty dipping sauce is soy bean-based with seasonings like sugar, flour, crushed peanuts, chili and garlic. Further up the coast (around Nha Trang), you’ll find an orange dipping sauce instead, using shrimp paste and pineapple.
Sampling Vietnam’s street food can be a soul-satisfying experience. As with any developing country, being aware of a few things will ensure a safer experience:
- Look for stalls that are busy. High turnover of food ensures that it’s fresh.
- Eat when the locals eat. There’s usually a lull from 2-4pm when the food might have been sitting out for awhile. Best to eat during the meal rush times!
- Spot check for hygiene. Most food vendors use disposable gloves when handling food so as not to contaminate when they handle money. Also check whether the stall has access to running water. No access means that dishes and utensils may be washed in the same bucket of water. Same goes for washing herbs and raw vegetables.
- There’s usually always slices of lime on the table. After you’re done squeezing some into your food, take the leftover lime and rub it over your utensils before using them. Wipe off with a tissue, or better yet, bring your own wet tissues (available everywhere).
Barbara Adam, Saigon-based street food guide and author of Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working There, offers these additional tips:
- Many street food places have “napkins” on the table, alongside condiments such as fish sauce, chili sauce and a little saucer of freshly-cut chilies. Sometimes these napkins take the form of a roll of toilet paper inside a plastic dispenser. Don’t worry – any toilet paper that appears on a table has never been inside of a bathroom. Just pull out a length of “napkin” and rip it off and use it as you would a regular napkin.
- MSG can be difficult to avoid, especially when eating street food.
- Vietnam is heaven for Celiacs and those on a gluten-free diet. Most of the noodle dishes use rice noodles, and there’s no wheat flour in Vietnamese soy sauce.
For more blog posts on Can Tho, click here.