I fell prey again to TripAdvisor. My first full day in Saigon*, and I was sitting in the number #1 rated restaurant, on TripAdvisor**, a place called Cyclo Resto. As I picked through an uninspired and terrible meal of deep-fried prawn, and greasy string beans, I decided that sniffing the lead of TripAdvisor algorithms was not going to be enough. It was time to get a guide to what local Saigonese were eating, and avail myself of the local expertise.
* (Actually, I was supposed to go on a Street Food tour on my first day, but suddenly Saigon fell under one of those sudden, intense showers, and the night’s tour was cancelled due to safety issues)
** (My friend who once worked at TripAdvisor, on the food rating algorithm: “I wouldn’t trust it.”)
The quest for eating well for me is like an inner fire in my belly. It is tied to the very furnace of my being. After a good meal, the fires are temporarily quenched, and gradually builds up again with the passing days and weeks. But one sure way to kindle to fire to a roaring blaze is to eat a terrible meal. A terrible meal is depressing. It suppresses the morale, it harms the digestion, it disappoints. The oldest maxim in the world is that we have a finite amount of meals in our belly. A bad meal is a meal sadly wasted.
The epicure’s fire is not exactly the appetite. The appetite comes and goes a few times a day. We’ve regimented it into 3 meals. The Romans had one large midday meal, lunch. The epicure’s fire waxes and wanes over many meals, days, weeks, months, years. It is as stimulated by the aesthetics of plating, the taste memories of childhood, and the conviviality of good conversation. My own epicure’s fire is satisfied with imaginative, modernist food. I’m a sucker for new flavours, I’m a sucker for new platings. I’m still a new-born babe in encountering modernist foods, grasping tentatively with nubbly fingers my dehydrated beet candy studded with pop rocks.
Time was ticking, and I only had one more full-day in Saigon left. It was time to get some serious help. TripAdvisor would do something useful that trip. I looked in the activities section, and came across a few food tours. One of them particularly intrigued me. It was run by a husband-and-wife duo, the husband of which had worked at Alinea. The “Back of the Bike” tour sounded quite interesting.
One thing I’ve learnt about trying street food: Get a guide. Always. It can be your food-loving friend, or it can be paid, but there is absolutely no way one is going to get lucky multiple times without some local knowledge. Food blogs (but of course, not yours truly) are a Babel of tastes, not all of them discerning.
Saigon is a city of motorcycles. When traffics lights flash green, about a hundred motorcycles will cross your way. If jaywalking in Saigon, remember that you should just keep looking straight ahead and not hesitate. The name of the game is predictability, you want the riders to extrapolate where you will be going and avoid you. Don’t look at the riders. In my first day, I had walked the length of the old city, and avoiding the motored terrors by following this golden rule. Now, in my second day, I was going to join their ranks. Whee!
On my way back from the War Remnants Museum (a museum of American atrocities during the Vietnam War), I come across the colourful central market. I have pictures from the museum but they don’t belong on a food blog post, to understate.
All is well 20 minutes before the storm
The tropical calm before the storm.
Given shelter by a kind woman at the Cafe Zeus, I corroborate further praise of Cyclo Resto. I end up disappointed.
On my way to Cyclo Resto for dinner, I see a narrow alley where people are eating. What are they eating? Why is it so crowded? I had to take a picture, the set-up reminded me of the traboules in Lyon.
Kenneth Tiong presents: Saigon Street Food, as seen from a Bike.
#1 Le Van Tam Park
Address: Võ Thị Sáu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Saigon was fresh from a second storm. We made our way to Le Van Tam Park, where I promptly had the best papaya salad I think I’ve ever had.
Spicy Papaya Salad “Gỏi Đu Đủ Bo” (5/5)
“Julienned Green Papaya, Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts, Prawn Crackers. Sauce: Chili Sauce and Light Fish Sauce”
What I remember about this dish was that the beef was a tender beef jerky, not unlike a less greasy bak kwa (Chinese beef jerky). Also of note, were the prawn crackers, which were denser than the ones I find in Singapore. Apparently, it is because the seller uses rice flour instead of tapioca flour. What I especially liked about it was the contrast between several different textures, well-elaborated below.
The sellers are three women at the park entrance. In the words of a local:
Actually, this is probably my #1 recommendation for a Saigon snack-eating experience. First, the Gỏi Đu Đủ (green papaya salad) created by the three woman at the entrance to Le Van Tam Park is superb. It’s a masterpiece of textures! The shredded papaya is fresh, cool and crunchy. The dried beef is chewy, yet tender (yes, that’s possible) – and so richly flavored. The rice crackers sitting on top of the salad are light and crisp. And the peanuts are firm and plentiful. The crowning accent to the salad is the special home-made dressing. Sweet, sour, spicy, yummy, and sweet again. Perhaps improperly, I even subteley slurp down any dressing still in my bowl at the end of the salad! – Eating Saigon
Here is an attempt to replicate the dish in the US.
Photo of sellers – taken by Eating Saigon
#2: Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa
Address: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
A very busy banh mi shop
Banh Mi Thit (5/5)
“Baguette, Sliced Pork Sausage, Sliced Pate, Pork Floss, Pickled Carrot and Cucumber”
A very fresh sandwich, and the best banh mi I’ve had. This softer pastes of pate and sausage contrasted with the airy crunch of warm baguette, along with pickled vegetables. Another food with complex texture contrasts.
Intermezzo through the streets
#3: Bún bò huế Chú Há
Address: 160 Võ Văn Tần, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Bun Bo Hue (3.5/5)
“Spicy Hue style pork and beef soup, with Lemongrass and Mắm Tôm. Served with Sliced Beef, Pork Sausage and Shaved Vegetables.”
This was predominantly a beef noodle soup. It was quite a balanced, if oily dish. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
Bún bò Huế or bun bo is a popular Vietnamese soup containing rice vermicelli (bún) and beef (bò). Huế is a city in central Vietnam associated with the cooking style of the former royal court. The dish is greatly admired for its balance of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavors and the predominant flavor is that of lemon grass. Compared to phở or bún riêu, the noodles are thicker and more cylindrical.
I guess the question is: does this constitute Vietnamese haute cuisine? Haute cuisine usually arises out of the old imperial courts, the three great (long) monarchic traditions that gave us rich fine dining traditions being the French, Chinese, and Japanese. Of note also would be the Turkish Ottoman feasts. A monarchic, or generally feudal, tradition seems to be a necessary but not sufficient factor. Britain, for instance, does not seem to have historically developed a fine food culture. A couple of reasons I’ve thought plausible for this would be: [A] availability of good produce (and thus weather; genetic bequests, etc.), [B] developed transmission and communication methods between cooks (whether through mobility of labour, printing presses, etc.)
Vietnamese noodles are usually accompanied by a basketful of herbs, and other sauces
Shredded banana blossoms (yellow)
Shredded morning glory (green)
Fish sauce “Nước chấm“
Here’s a passage that’s made sense to me on Vietnamese food:
If you don’t use sauces, sides, and condiments, as they were intended, your Vietnamese meal is almost certainly going to be far worse than it otherwise would be. The food will be either too dry or discordant. – Tyler Cowen, An Economist Gets Lunch
Saigon at nightfall: a city of neon lights
High speed, blurry photography
Address: Lo 004 Chung cu Ngo Gia Tu (Ngo Gia Tu Local Apartment) – Su Van Hanh street District 10
A street stall, making banh xeo
Bánh xèo [ɓǎɲ sɛ̂w], literally “sizzling cake”, named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet (Khmer: បាញ់ឆែវ: Khmer pronunciation: [baɲ cʰaeʋ]) are Vietnamese savoury fried pancakes made of rice flour, water, turmeric powder, stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts. Southern-style bánh xèo contains coconut milk and certain Central regions skip the turmeric powder altogether. They are served wrapped in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or banh trang wrappers, and stuffed with mint leaves, basil, fish leaf and/or other herbs, and dipped in a sweet and sour diluted fish sauce. In the Central region, the pancake is also dipped in a special sauce which consists of fermented soy bean and sticky rice sauce, ground pork liver, ground and toasted peanut and seasonings. – Wikipedia
Some comments on Vietnamese herbs:
The Fish Mint or (Diếp Cá) is an extraordinary leaf. It tastes every bit as fishy as a real fish. It has a muddy, fishy smell, similar to catfish. It is very assertive, and often used for medicinal purposes. I chewed it on its own, and while I found the fish taste very strong, there was a savory aftertaste.
Shiso leaf, part of the mint family
Wasabi leaf/Mustard leaf
“tastes exactly like what it sounds”
Sliced, raw, sap-py young starfruit.
Vietnamese hot mint
Nuoc Rau Ma (4/5)
Pennywort Juice. Here’s a recipe.
Bo La Lot (4.25/5)
“Minced Beef grilled in Aromatic Leaves; Green Banana, Starfruit, Lettuce for wrapping. Served with anchovy and pineapple sauce”
Fish sauce (Nuoc cham?)
Banh Xeo (4.5/5)
Crispy, hot, fresh from the griddle. Perfect street food.
At this point a challenge was issued.
“Would you like to try balut?”
Balut, as you might find in an Internet compendium of bizarre foods, is a duck embryo that has developed partially. In the Philippines, the balut has developed for 21 days, and is much more developed than the Vietnamese version, which has only developed for 15 days.
In the Philippines, balut eaters prefer salt and/or a chili, garlic and vinegar (white or coconut sap) mixture to season their eggs. The eggs are savored for their balance of textures and flavors; the broth surrounding the embryo is sipped from the egg before the shell is peeled, and the yolk and young chick inside can be eaten. All of the contents of the egg may be consumed, although the white may remain uneaten; depending on the age of the fertilized egg, the white may have an unappetizing cartilaginous toughness. In the Philippines, balut have recently entered haute cuisine by being served as appetizers in restaurants, cooked adobo style, fried in omelettesor even used as filling in baked pastries. In Vietnam, balut are eaten with a pinch of salt, lemon juice, plus ground pepper and Vietnamese mint leaves (southern Vietnamese style). In Cambodia, balut are eaten while still warm in the shell and are served with nothing more than a little garnish, which is usually a mixture of lime juice and ground pepper. – Wikipedia
I was game.
Balut is served.
Finished balut (2/5)
I didn’t really enjoy my maiden balut. The bones of the embryo were still undeveloped, and where bones should have been there was a soft bone crunch, like those Taiwanese whole fried chickens that have been soaked in a strong base to tenderise the meat. The entire egg was a not-extremely-pleasant mix of the meatiness of breast meat, a tough meat-like yolk, and jelly-ish parts.
#5 and last stop: Chè Thái Lan 280
Address: 272A Nguyễn Tri Phương Q.5, Ho Chi Minh
To end off, a pleasant array of desserts at a local dessert store. Nothing mindblowing (or even exotic, for a Southeast Asian palate) – I guess dessert is what really binds together Southeast Asia culinarily!
Rau Cau Dua (3.75/5)
“Young coconut, water of which is made into jelly”
The top is either made of almond/custard/coconut milk. I encountered this is Kuala Lumpur as well, in a pasar malam (a dying tradition of night market).
Dau Hu Ca Cao (3.25/5)
Sinh To Mang Cau (4/5)
Bi Sua Hot Ga (3.5/5)
“Vietnamese pumpkin bread pudding”
At the end of the trip I was stuffed. The next time you’re in Saigon, I recommend taking a bike tour to try the street food as well! [The personal tour I did was the Back of the Bike Tour (TripAdvisor link), but there exist others] Daytime tours will be slightly different, since different stalls open at different times.