When I landed in Vietnam for the first time, I was lucky. I had been around Vietnamese people awhile and been exposed to Vietnamese cuisine - and not just phở. But I was still a little nervous about the food situation while there. It wasn't the water or the health standards (What health standards?) or even the food being cooked on the street - it was the quality that concerned me.
I am a picky eater. I know I am, but my pickiness is usually contained in certain categories of food. I don't like seafood, I don't like spicy foods, and I'm not a huge fan of vegetables left to their own flavors. All issues I was concerned with when going to Asia.
I started slow, because the difference of quality will be noticed by the stomach. My stomach felt a bit queasy for a week or so, but after that I could eat anything. And staying with the locals made it easy game for me to start with the street vendors.
In Vietnam, unlike most Asian countries, there is a real large amount of food vendors selling on the street. It seems they eat out a lot more than most countries in the area. There are plenty in all the countries in S.E.. Asia, but Vietnam has the most, and, it turns out, the least expensive.
My first stop was Vũng Tàu where I received a sampling of the plethora of soups and rice dishes (nearly all of the cuisine). As you ride your motobike down the street you see many signs that read Cơm Phở. These are two of the most common dishes in Vietnam.
Cơm - (pronounced like 'gum') means rice. These places have an assortment of rice dishes to choose from. They usually have a display in the front with all the food that you can choose from. Keep in mind that is the food you will be eating. They just make huge batches of rice (depending on size of place) and then a few things to top it. All of which taste better than they look. My favorite is the pork or beef with egg cooked in fish sauce (I know what I said, but this is good!). It is called Thịt kho (pronounced 'tit kaw').
Phở - (pronounced 'fuh' and said like a question) is a soup dish with noodles and certain seasonings (which I couldn't get out of the people making it) and has been all the rage back home. It comes with meat (unless you want it to be vegetarian) like beef, pork, tripe, chicken, meatballs etc... (depends on where you go). It is usually garnished with bean sprouts and you can add fish sauce and hot sauce (recommended). I usually get chicken - phở gà (pronounced 'fuh ga') or rare beef - phở bò tái (pronounced 'fuh baw tie').
But wait - there's more!
The land of a thousand soups has many other broth taste sensations to choose from. As you walk by the stands you can try them all and see which is your favorite. The difference between them all is usually seasoning and noodle type.
Mi - (pronounced 'me') is a soup, much like phở, that comes with beef or chicken, but it has a different noodle that has to be tossed in the air when being made. It is fun to watch being made by the professionals at the front of the shop. This soup has a cleaner, less seasoned, flavor. I found the best bowl of mi in Đà Nẵng in the central part of the country.
There are plenty more to choose from, but just give them a try. One thing that I long for when I am there is the only breakfast (in the mind of westerners) they offer in Vietnamese cuisine, and a survivor of the French occupation - Bánh mì ốpla (pronounced 'ban me op la') which is a baguette and over-easy or fried eggs. The other option for breakfast is a porridge like that in China called cháo (pronounced like it reads with your voice going up) that can come with meat or seafood on it. The porridge is served, much like most dishes in Vietnam, a la carte and you add to it with other dishes or sauces.
My personal favorite was vú dê (pronounced, in the South, you yay), or goat breast. I traveled to Bà Rịa with the family I was with to try it and I was hesitant. I had never eaten goat and wasn't sure I would like it. It was cut into bite-sized pieces, marinated in a special sauce, then thrown on a hot plate over a fire. The plate spit hot grease at you, but it wasn't too bad. It's all part of the experience. You take a piece off the plate and dip it into another special sauce and there you have it. It turned out to be my favorite thing in Vietnam. I also had an interesting shot of alcohol, fermented in goat balls. That wasn't as good, but every time I was back in town I would beg and plead, "can we go to Bà Rịa?"
Besides trying some good food from the culture you are exploring, why would you eat locally? You will save enormous amounts of money and help the poorer people in the country. A lot of people own their own shops or stands and live above them or down the street. That is their life. So by eating off the street (not literally) you are helping those that are struggling the most selling food.
You also get quite the deal, even for westerner prices. They will probably charge you three times what the locals pay, but if you pay attention to the prices on the menus in the restaurants, you will notice you are still paying half, or less, of what they are charging. If you are not, then you are being overcharged too much on the street. I payed about 10,000 to 15,000 dong (Vietnamese currency) per bowl of phở. That equates to about 65 - 90 cents USD (Our exchange at the time was 16,000 dong to 1 US dollar). In the restaurants we usually paid 20,000 + dong per bowl. Still pretty cheap, but here's the kicker, it is always better outside. Every good Vietnamese dish we ate was better from the street vendors than in any restaurant. The only reason to eat in the restaurants is for western food, or something that isn't served on the street that looks appealing.
So don't be afraid to try it. My advice is to start slow, trying certain things that look good and seeing how you feel after. Once you see that you aren't dying, get going. I ate local food all over South East Asia and my favorite (and the cheapest) was in Vietnam. When you get back and pay 5 bucks for some burger that has been sitting under the warming lamp for three hours, you will enjoy those Vietnamese dishes even more, trust me.