Oftentimes in Vietnam, the lines were blurred on what was a meal and what was a snack. Fully 90% of my meals took place planted on an ankle-high stool in a street somewhere, cost less than $2, and took only a few minutes out of my day while I slurped up the fist-size chunk of noodles or wrapped odds and ends in lettuce, basil, and mint leaves. Were these meals or snacks? Sometimes I ate five of them a day, but was that because of their diminutive size or my Vietnamese food gluttony?
Another peculiarity of Vietnam was that its best snacks were often technically drinks. On every heat-drenched corner was a maze of stands selling rau má (pennywort juice), nước mía (sugarcane juice), nước ép (fruit juice) and sinh tố (fruit shakes). The sinh tố was where things could get wild, making use of fruits as diverse as durian and jackfruit, mango, tomato, pineapple, squash, kumquat, soursop, avocado and sapodilla (a fruit I knew only as the Vietnamese 'sapoche' until this very second, when I looked up the English translation).
Keeping this in mind,
1. Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam: Sinh tố
Making sinh tố is far from an exact science, and the proportions vary slightly by stand, but the recipe for a Vietnamese smoothie is, roughly, as follows:
Grab can of condensed milk; glop a ton of it into the blender on top of the fruit
Grab sugar jug and make it snow on top of the fruit and milk
Even though I watched this process at least 50 times over my four weeks in Vietnam, and fully expected every time that my smoothie should taste like sugar and milk, it magically never did. It always tasted like someone liquefied and concentrated my favorite fruit and put it directly on my tongue. Durian shakes were appropriately stinky and retained a nice bit of custardy texture, while the jackfruit versions thankfully cut out their hint of slime. Avocado shakes made my American palate forget that avocados were meant for guacamole and savory dishes, not sweet ones (I told a smoothie-hawker once that Americans ate avocado only with salty things and she laughed so hard she knocked over a whole pineapple she was about to slice). I don't like sapodilla much, so it was entirely appropriate for me to think that the shake version tasted like rotten avocados.
Bánh mì (sandwich) shops are almost as omnipresent as sinh tố stands, but I was surprised to see them pop up from time to time in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian version, name unknown (as Khmer script is all loops to me) was half the size, coated with fiery red sauce and a heavy, pudding-like paté that tasted almost fermented, and had crunchy pork skins scattered across the top instead of head cheese.
This five-cent snack came from a griddle full of its twins run by an old lady sitting across from the Chinese Embassy. Unadulterated, nothing but a grill-blackened pad of rice surrounding a lava-hot, sticky flow of ripe banana. I'm surprised the rest of the tropics haven't caught on!
4. Everywhere: Quail eggs
They come hardboiled; they come as balut. They come wrapped up pretty in little quail-egg-sized bags, tied with a ribbon. A ribbon! Inside the ten-egg packet is an even smaller packet of chili-spiced salt that is stapled closed. Their vendors cycle through the street and wend their way between tables at seafood, barbecue, and hotpot restaurants. I'd stop them on the sidewalk on my way home, hand them the equivalent of 25 cents, and go home with a bag of eggs to painstakingly peel and eat sprawled out on my hotel bed.
5. Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam: Bánh chuối
Down the street from our last hotel was a tiny grocery which we never entered. We never entered it because its bakery was outside, and it had perfect round spheres of blackened banana pastry all ready for us to order from the sidewalk. The proprietor would slice a big fat triangle of jiggling cake-pudding hybrid into a plastic bag at night, and it would warm to breakfast temperature in the hot room by morning.