Vietnamese Food On The Cheap — A Photo Essay

It’s the age old question that man has been asking since the dawn of time: What is the meaning of life? Where can I find a great meal for under a buck?

While I’ve been fortunate enough to have eaten by my way through over 60 countries, traveling mostly on a teacher’s salary has meant going shabby chic. This typically has equated to ‘shabby’ for the food and ‘chic’ for the accommodations. Trying to harmonize the dichotomy of being a foodie at heart while eating on a shoestring budget means I have tried some of the best and worst street food around. Happily, I have landed in Vietnam, which has some of the best street food around (yes, even better than Thailand!)

Vietnam is comprised of three distinct regions, each with their totally unique cuisine. So in a big city like Ho Chi Minh, the commercial capital of Vietnam and therefore a melting pot of all the regions, this basically triples your choices for a great meal out. So without further ado, here are some photos of some of my favorite meals which can be cobbled together for a daily food budget of under USD 5 a day.

Vietnamese food - Sweet and sour soup

Canh Chua

Literally, “sour soup”, canh chua is an awesome concoction of flavors and textures. The tanginess comes from the tamarind fruit, tomatoes as well as chunks of pineapple. The crunchiness comes from okra, the spongy stalks of the (clunkily named) giant upright elephant ear plant and bean sprouts.

Vietnamese food - Fresh shrimp rolls

Goi cuon

One of my favorite snacks of all time. Boiled pork and shrimp wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, herbs, chives, cucumber and vermicelli, all dipped in a black bean and peanut sauce. So time consuming to make at home and requiring at least a dozen ingredients, it’s hard not to just go out and pick up 5 for a dollar.

Vietnamese food - Purple Potato Soup

Purple Potato Soup

I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t think this color existed in nature, either. But it does, in the form of a purple yam that the Vietnamese make into a soup. Lighter than a Western potato soup, the Vietnamese version is simply flavored with ground pork and various herbs. A great starter to any meal.

Vietnamese Food - Stuffed Baguette

Banh mi

A legacy from colonial French rule, the baguette is now firmly entrenched into the Vietnamese culinary landscape. You’ll find glass booths on almost every street in Vietnam hawking a version of this East Meets West sandwich. Filled with Western ingredients like pate and butter but with an Asian twist consisting of ground pork ham, pickled vegetables and chili peppers, “bánh mì thịt” (literally, “bread and meat”) is an awesome anytime snack for about USD 0.50. Look for variations such as crispy-skin roasted pork, sardines, meatballs or shredded chicken.

Vietnamese food - French pastries

Have your cake…

Another legacy of the French are the wonderful pastries available in the many bakeries scattered around town. Because Vietnamese typically don’t have quite a sweet tooth as do Westerners, their take on baked desserts tend to be lighter and less sweet. So go ahead and indulge, especially since you’ll find delectable cakes at a fraction of what you’d pay at home.

Vietnamese Food - Lunch Set Menus

The three sweetest words…

The three sweetest words in the Vietnamese language may very well be “com văn phòng” (literally, “office lunch”). Ritzy cafes and trendy coffee shops create the most amazing set lunch menus usually comprised of a soup, a main and a vegetable side for about USD 1.50 to lure office workers into what would otherwise be an empty space during the lunch hour. The mains get changed daily. In the menu shot above, the mains are: caramelized pork belly, sauteed pork ribs, lemongrass chicken, tuna in a tomato sauce and fish in a claypot. Not bad choices for a meal that’ll cost you six quarters. When I’m out and about during the lunch hour, I never fail to take advantage of these awesome lunchtime deals.

Vietnamese food - Restaurant menus

Who is Tammy? And why does she need to be worshipped?

Of course, eating in an actual restaurant (eek!) instead of huddled over a plastic table on a way-too-short stool means you’ll be dealing with menus. Someone has been using Google Translate. Otherwise, how could pork and shrimp spring rolls become “Not To Be Galantine is Arrest and Slaughtered”?

And who the heck is Tammy? And why does she need to be worshiped? Inquiring minds want to know!

Yummm. Catacombs Pig Stomach Chafingdish Is Expended.

But braving the menus and laughing hysterically while the waiter stares at you uncomprehendingly is just part of the experience.

Vietnamese food - Beef stew

Bo kho

Another one of my favorites is “bò kho”, literally “beef stew”. A simple combination of beef, five spices, lemongrass, carrots, white radish, shallots and onions, stewed for hours and then served over noodles or with a baguette, bò kho always hits the spot.

For more on satisfying your inner foodie for less than USD 5 a day, check out my article in the July issue of Vietnam PathFinder.

This post is part of a blog carnival featuring some of the best foods on the planet. Warning: Do not read this on an empty stomach!

Did I miss something? What’s your favorite street food?

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20 thoughts on “Vietnamese Food On The Cheap — A Photo Essay

  1. Ryan maull

    Oh my!! Word!!….I ignored the warning and i did eat lunch yet while seeing these pic lol!!…i cant say yet i had any street food yet but a a fellow foodie i luv Vietnamese soups!!……

    1. James Post author

      It’s funny how every other blog is turning out to be about food. I really didn’t intend for it to be like that! Congrats on the engagement! How exciting! I’ll throw an idea out for your honeymoon location: I just got back from the most amazingly secluded and very swank An Lam Villas in Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach resort. A bit on the pricey side but a magical place for a honeymoon. I’ll have a post up soon about this amazing property…
      James recently posted..Photo of the Week — Good Things Come in Small (Banana Leaf) PackagesMy Profile

  2. Helen

    I read this blog after a substantial continental breakfast and I’m drooling all over my keyboard! STOPPP!

    1. James Post author

      LOL. I know how you feel. Some days I’ll do my part to cut down on expenses by having a bacon and egg breakfast at home. But after being out and about for an hour or two, I can’t help myself from stopping for a bowl of something or other!
      James recently posted..Pho — It’s What’s For DinnerMy Profile

  3. Fay G

    These photos.. ‘heaven in my mouth’…. Wanna sample all them.. How can that be done???? Hey, cant get to VN….. but still want…..

    1. James Post author

      Hmmmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose you’ll just have to settle for overpriced, not-as-good Vietnamese restaurants, I suppose. (sad face) Or you can just keep reading my blog and I’ll do my best to bring these dishes to you. Too bad there’s no scratch-and-sniff internet… yet!
      James recently posted..Photo of the Week — Repurposed ArtMy Profile

      1. Fay G

        You sure know how to make me smile and being MAD at you….
        Looking forward to the next blog of reading and viewing pics…… About time we see a full length pic of you ….. 🙂

  4. Daniel McBane

    I don’t know why I’m always reading food related articles. I just end up hungry and wishing I could eat whatever it was I just read about. I don’t know how you manage to write posts like this without expanding to the size of a sumo wrestler. I told myself I will only ever write about the strange foods, not the delicious ones.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Y shits? Why not?My Profile

    1. James Post author

      I hear you, Daniel! This post was actually a spin off of an article I wrote for a travel magazine so it had to be semi-serious / helpful. I don’t know why I keep writing about food, though. I never set out to… For a more facetious take on one of the foods I’ve encountered here, check out the post below. As always, drink a big glass of water before reading!
      James recently posted..Photo of the Week — Good Things Come in Small (Banana Leaf) PackagesMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      Yeah, it totally doesn’t look natural, huh? The potato is quite starchy / fatty and it feels more substantial than a Western potato soup. It’s pretty great!


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