Pick your roadside venue. Open-fronted eateries line the streets of any Vietnamese town, with their glass cabinets and rickety tables and red plastic buckets containing sea creatures you never knew existed. Woks sizzle and conversations bubble. The owner's kids might be doing their homework in a corner. Sit on a diminutive plastic chair, hunkered with your knees around your ears. Swelter under the wet embrace of the humidity and the passing cough of a thousand motor scooters.
These aren't elegant establishments but never mind, because Vietnamese street food is surely the world's best. It pops with the fresh flavour of herbs, the kick of chilli, bursts of lime and the distinctive aroma of fish sauce. It plays with textures, and balances warming and cooling ingredients. It's an unassuming, no-frills cuisine that's nearly always delightful, and always best kept simple.
Street eateries and mobile carts live on their reputation, so choose a busy one and you'll seldom go wrong. The best display their ingredients for all to see, making it easy to check for freshness. Dishes should be cooked on the spot in front of you by a wrinkled lady in a straw hat or an oil-splattered fellow in a white singlet. Beware the chef who disappears into a kitchen out back.
Most street stalls conjure up just one dish, which they've honed to perfection over years, sometimes over generations. That makes ordering easy. If you see a dish you think looks good, plonk yourself down. Try sticky rice with pork and preserved eggs, or translucent spring rolls packed with mint and basil, or seasoned beef with peanut sauce wrapped in leaves.
Crunch into banh mi, or fresh baguette cut open with scissors and stuffed with Vietnamese sausage, salted pork and pickled vegetables. The sandwich filling gets more elaborate the further south you go, and might also include fried eggs, salad and cold cuts.
It's all fresh and all good, but nothing beats the Vietnamese obsession with what amounts to its national dish, pho, mostly enjoyed for breakfast but found at any time of the day or night. The soup contains rice noodles in beef stock flavoured with ginger, cinnamon and star anise, and is garnished to taste with meat, fresh chilli and herbs. In southern Vietnam, it tends to be sweeter and not as spicy. At just a few dollars a bowl, this is surely the world's best stomach filler.