Vietnamese street food is modernising with western tourists using YouTube and local blogs to find the best dishes, but 78% of vendors still work illegally.
On weekdays, the Trâng family starts thinking about lunch at 6am.
More specifically, that’s when they begin preparing gà chiên muôi ot or “fried chicken salt chili,” the popular dish that serves as the cornerstone of the lucrative lunch service they’ve been operating in the 3rd district of Ho Chi Minh City for three decades.
The family prepares more than 15 distinct dishes daily (plus rice, water-spinach soup, and iced green tea) out of the stall-sized kitchen in their modest three-room apartment. At about 11 am, they lower the goods to the ground floor using a makeshift pulley system, walk less than 100 metres around the corner, and set up shop on a shaded patch of sidewalk next to an electrical transformer. Over the next two hours, a throng of roughly 150 diners – from office workers in suits to motorbike taxi drivers in flip flops – come for lunch, paying 30,000 VND ($1.40) per plate.
In spite of this legal ambiguity, Vietnamese street food has not just become part of the cultural fabric of Vietnam, but also a cuisine that’s imitated, fetishised, and replicated in cities all over the western world. In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a cottage tourism industry around helping westerners find the best street food as well as YouTube videos and English language blogs providing directions to popular but hard-to-find vendors.
However, amidst Ho Chi Minh City’s increasing luxury stores and air-conditioned shopping malls, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this celebrated and ad-hoc industry is one born squarely out of a lack of economic opportunity and a dearth of jobs in the formal sector.
“After Doi Moi, rural Vietnamese suddenly needed cash because formerly subsidised state policies like education and healthcare were abandoned, so they couldn’t live off their farms anymore,” Barthelmes said. “Simultaneously, movement and residency were much less restricted, so all of a sudden the government couldn’t control the rural-urban migration that usually happens when an economy is liberalised.”