Our eyes darted left to right, trying the best we could to find even the tiniest gap in the traffic so that we could cross Mậu Thân and make our way towards the riverside centre of town. Hundreds of scooters buzzed past in both directions, weaving past each other. Vinh, our tour guide for a night of sampling Can Tho’s culinary delights, motioned for us to follow him as he took a bold leap forward and walked out in to the mass of mopeds. With seemingly no regard for his own safety he kept walking, our small group following in disbelief, as the traffic missed him, weaved around him and let him continue his suicidal walk across the road. I quickly learnt that if you want to cross the street in Vietnam it is best to ignore the traffic and just walk – There is no point waiting for a lull will never come.
We had met Vinh and our group of gastronomical explorers outside Hotel Xaoi on the edge of town. Vinh is in his early 20’s, tall and slender, and an English student at Can Tho University. He hosts these tours part time as a way to practise his (already perfect) language skills and meet people from all over the world. He seems passionate about the city and its food and explains that the most important reason for him guiding these tours is to introduce tourists to both Vietnamese and Mekong cuisine.
There were around 10 of us in total, all hoping to see what was so special about the food culture in the Mekong Delta. Anyone that has spent even a short amount of time in Vietnam will tell you that the cuisine is one of the highlights of their visit, if not the highlight. In every town or city, the streets are lined with tiny, child sized tables and chairs where you can perch yourself and be served one of the most delicious meals you will ever eat for less than the cost of a Gregg’s sausage roll. Each region of Vietnam has its own speciality dishes and the Mekong Delta was no exception, in fact it is known or having some rather off-beat meal options; snails, frogs, crocodile and even snake. Vinh explains that it is the Mekong region’s hot and humid climate means that a greater variety of fruit and vegetables are available here than in other parts of Vietnam. As well as this, the area has a diverse population of Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese settlers who all bring their own flavours to the table making Can Tho’s dishes a sensational fusion of all these regional tastes.
Stop 1: Restaurant Nem Nuong Anh
We wandered down Nguyen Viet Hong, a shopping street filled with quirky clothes shops, bars, and cool coffee spots and were ushered us in to a rather nondescript looking restaurant by Vihn, Its tiled walls and metal tables gave it the impression of any old high street takeaway. I looked incredulously at the menu – Every dish was listed in Vietnamese and I didn’t understand a word. It didn’t matter, we were here for one dish and one dish only; Nem Nuong.
The naming convention for street food eateries in Vietnam is pretty simple; take the name of your signature dish and… well, that’s it. You just take the name of the signature dish. Occasionally the owner will add their name to the end, maybe a flourish such as a number or the word ‘cafe’ but that is about as complicated as it gets.
There is one problem with this simple method naming though; copyright laws in SE Asia are pretty lax. As soon as a dish becomes popular, copycats will pop up all around town, each of them claiming to serve the best of that particular cuisine. This makes a tour and the knowledge of a local guide invaluable. Why go for the impostors when you can have the original and best.
We huddled around the clinical looking tables as platters were gradually brought to us. Rice paper, pineapple, small bundles of noodles, banana and finally the pièce de résistance; a plate of delicious looking barbecue pork sliced in to bite-size chunks, its caramelised skin glistening under a scattering of crushed peanuts.
Following Vinh’s lead, we diligently piled all the ingredients into the rice paper and rolled them in to tight tubes before dipping them into the little ceramic sauce bowl and trying to stuff them into our mouths without dripping the delicious liquid down our shirts. Although I had sampled spring rolls in both Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc, they hadn’t contained noodles and fruit like these. The mix of sweet pineapple and savoury fish sauce was incredible. If this was just the start, I couldn’t wait to see what the rest of the tour had in store for us.
Stop 2: Restaurant Bánh Cong Cô Út
Bánh Cong is a savoury muffin made from made from a mixture of green beans, little shrimp and minced pork, which is steamed and then deep fried in a flour dough to give a crispy pie texture. At the entrance to the restaurant two women stood over smoking woks of hot oil and let us watch as they set about making their signature dish. One by one they would fill a ladle with meat, fry it, and then cover the cooked filling with batter. Two shrimps would be pressed into the top and the whole thing would be fried again to make a little parcel of joy. Somehow the proprietors had managed to keep the recipe secret meaning that Restaurant Bánh Cong Cô Út was the only place you could sample this unique dish.
We broke the pies up with our chopsticks and set about loading the insides into a spread wasabi leaf with some mint and a sprinkling of pickled vegetables. On its own the wasabi has a bitter taste that I despise but surprisingly the mixture of the mint, pie and sauce masked the pungent flavour and merged together to form a subtle taste that I could fully get behind.
Stop 3: Bia Lanh 74
A short walk from the Bánh Cong is Bia Lanh 74, essentially just a set of plastic tables and chairs scattered on the pavement. It is known for serving that staple of South East Asian cuisine, the hot pot. As we crouched on our haunches around the tiny table as small gas burners and metal pots were placed in the centre. Inside was a steaming, bubbling mix of aubergine, minced pork, oyster sauce, spring onion and ginger. We sat chatting, quenching our thirst with an ice cold Larue while we waited for the dish to heat up – It was worth the wait.
The aubergine practically melted in my mouth and the oyster sauce gave it an incredible umami flavour. Alongside this the waiter brought out another pot, the filling almost identical except that the aubergine was replaced with tofu. I normally find tofu bland but this was infused with ginger and was so delicate that it almost dissolved on my tongue as soon as I put it in my mouth.
Up until this point the strangest thing I had ever eaten was Cuy, the Peruvian dish of guinea pig, roasted and placed on your plate whole. I can’t say that I enjoyed it – the taste was reminiscent of fish and pork mixed together, there was barely any meat on it’s tiny body and it’s hard to enjoy eating something that you would happily keep as a pet. Like I say, that was up until now.
Vinh placed a plate down on the table, crisp pieces of meat sat atop a salad looking like tiny barbecue ribs. It was field mouse. This use to be a fairly common dish for farmers on the delta until the wide use of pesticides made them scarce. It is now a local delicacy and doesn’t come cheap (by street food standards) but I am always up for an eating challenge and there’s no better way to experience the local culture than devouring it.
I picked the tiny portion up with my chopsticks and set about nibbling the thin layer of meat off the bone. It was surprisingly delicious, tasting almost exactly like the pork ribs you get at Chinese restaurants.
By this point we were all suitably full. I could barely eat one more bite but we had one final stop to make; desert.
Stop 4: Xoi ngot – Street Food Vendor
We made our way down towards the riverside to find what was apparently the best sticky rice place in town. The owner was sat on the roadside by a huge metal, spooning white and brown rice into a sweet wafer, topping it with coconut and sugar, before wrapping the whole thing in rice paper. She has been serving this dish in the same spot for 20 years and is so popular that there was a constant stream of mopeds pulling over to sample her sweet creations. We had to keep stepping out of the way as mopeds queued up, usually with a small child perched precariously on the front.
It was a strange mix of savoury and sweet, the sugar counteracting the blandness of the rice. It was good but by this point I had eaten so much that I couldn’t bring myself to stuff anymore food in to my mouth. We left with swollen bellies and fatigue from digesting all the incredible food. It was time head back to the hotel and sleep it all off.
I would highly recommend taking a tour for anyone that wants to sample street food but is overwhelmed by the amount of options. Vinh was friendly, knowledgeable and delight to spend time with. He showed us the best of what the city had to offer and without his guidance, I wouldn’t have known where to start.
What we ate
Nem nuong – Pork BBQ rolled up in rice paper with rice noodles, lettuce, thin banana slices, Asian basil, mint, pineapple, coriander, fresh herbs and leaves. With a side of dipping sauce: 18,000 VND
Banh cong– a traditional Can Tho pie cake made from a mixture of green beans, little shrimp and minced pork, which is steamed and then deep fried in a flour dough: 10,000 VND
Ca tho – Eggplant with minced pork in a claypot
Tau hu tho– Tofu with minced pork in a claypot
Chuot chien – Fried mouse
Xoi ngot – Waffles with Sticky Rice
The tour is free and takes place at 6.30pm each night. It runs on a pay what you like basis where you only pay for what you eat and then tip your guide at the end (I recommend $5-10). The tours do fill up so it is highly recommended that you book online if you don’t want to miss out.
Hotel Xoai, 93 Mau Than Street, Can Tho
+84 907 85 29 27
What is your favourite or even strangest thing you have eaten abroad? Have you been to Vietnam and tried the street food? Let me know in the comments below!
Like it? Pin it!