How did the chicken cross the road? If the chicken, or the faint-hearted food writer, was crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City, the answer is VERY CAREFULLY.
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as many of us still think of it, is a huge city, more than 10 million in the metropolitan area. The primary mode of transportation is motorbikes. I’ve seen estimates of more than 2 million to nearly 8 million of them in the city. And there are, comparatively, very few traffic lights.
That was the biggest thing I was worried about when I made an eating trip there. I’d heard a little about it, and my friend Barbara, an Australian who lives in HCMC, wrote about it in her book. The bikes are everywhere, including parked on many sidewalks. Those security guards so often seen on the street? They’re there to watch the bikes, the biggest capital investment many of their owners have made, not because violent crime is rampant. And speaking of that, as a woman traveling alone, I never felt unsafe.
But the sidewalks are tricky to navigate for another reason, especially in the mornings, because women – somehow it never seems to be men – are operating al fresco feeding operations making and selling pho, the Vietnamese noodle on lots of blocks People cluster around, and eat off their knees sitting on low, very low plastic stools. I saw kitchen help at the very nice hotel I stayed at chowing down next to the employees’ entrance, for instance.
Pho (pronounced “fuh”) was the focus (or fuh-cus?) of a food tour from Barbara, who, with her husband Vu, runs Saigon Street Eats. Three of us, plus Barbara, went to a small family-owned spot to eat pho and talk about food. I had the chicken pho, the guys had the beef.
Well, I’m sure you understood about the bean sprouts, but the greens are considered the vegetables in the soup. So tear them up and throw them in with abandon. It is, of course, one of those dishes that everyone’s grandmother makes differently. Someone could make trying different pho spots the focus of an entire trip to Vietnam.
On from there to go through several markets. It’s heaven for foodists and photographers, beautiful and fascinating stuff. We learned how to tell the difference between Thai basil and holy basil, both of which were on the platter that came with the pho. (Clue: holy basil has purple stems.)
It’s interesting that there were plenty of spice mixtures available, and pre-chopped vegetables to shorten prep time for home cooks, plus some pre-made foods. It could be as easy as picking up your evening meal from a supermarket here. Ever hear of betel nuts?
Lots of those for sale, along with things like fresh turmeric, lotus seeds, and live prawns. We ended up sampling what we bought in a park that surrounds what looks like a temple, but is actually the elaborate tomb of a general.
That’s a walking tour, but we were picked up at our hotels and brought to the restaurant where we began, and then again taxied back to hotels. But for the evening Street Food tour, the usual transport is by motorbike. The reluctant can opt for four wheels, but I threw caution to the wind and rode pillion to our gathering place, out in a neighborhood. The first stop was a banh mi stand, the sandwich that’s become more common in the United States. They warm the bread over a charcoal fire, and remove a little of the crumb, or white inner part of the bread to make it easier to fill. The slight smokiness the bread acquires is part of the flavor profile. Lots of options for filling, as can be seen.
Next we tried banh xeo, the so-called Vietnamese pancake, which is really more like an omelet. I often order them here at Mai Lee, where it arrives with a plate of greens, both lettuce and herbs. Binh, who was the guide this evening, showed us how to deal with that. Place a piece of the egg mixture on the firmer end of the lettuce. Tear off leaves of the various herbs and layer them on top. Then tuck the sides in and begin rolling the whole thing away from you, just like your great-grandmother did when she rolled up blintzes or stuffed cabbage.
Restaurants around us didn’t just spill onto the sidewalks, they often quadrupled their capacity with their outdoor seating. The streets became giant outdoor living rooms, lots of chatter going on between tables and with passersby. Apartments tend to be very small for most people, and kitchens miniscule, so dinner at neighborhood spots is very common. We went to one on a cul-de-sac, alive with lights and people and conversation.
Seafood began coming. Scallops on the half shell. Steamed clams, shrimp. But the greatest dish was conch in an incredible butter-based sauce. Garlic, a little red pepper for heat, and some condensed milk to give just a little sweetness.
The conch was chewy, as is its nature. But it was the sauce that made us beg for more bread, a sauce that made the garlic-parsley butter for French snails seem like something in a school cafeteria. The last stop of the night was for Vietnamese sweets, but we were all so full of seafood and its predecessors, we just nibbled – and those Asian sweets are rather different, texturewise, than the Western ones.
And riding the motorbike was a lot of fun.
Another experience that turned out to be more about food than I’d anticipated was a Mekong River tour with a company called Les Rives. It was a speedboat trip that went off the Saigon River into the byways a good distance out of the city. Very comfortable, a small group – there were six guests total the day I went, with visits to a farm, a small town, and a temple, with lots of real-world life seen from the boat, like a wedding and a funeral. Lunch was lovely – here’s one of the things we ate:
but equally intriguing were the fruits we were offered as snacks on the boat. Little finger-sized bananas, thin-skinned and sweeter than what we get here. Clementines that were the size of the canned “mandarin orange” segments one can by, both sweeter and tarter than expected. And jackfruit, with a texture that was a cross between a pear and a peach, neither of which was quite perfectly ripe, but a slightly melon-like flavor, easy and un-drippy to eat. Not inexpensive but a delightful day and very worthwhile.
Restaurants? I went to several out-of-the-way unnamed dives whose locations I could never find again. But here are two I liked:
A deeply authentic dumpling experience that Barbara took me to is Quan Ca Can Banh Bao. These fat, fluffy guys are made with pork or chicken or even vegetarian. It’s pretty much point-and-eat, but they’re used to that. Lunch and dinner until 10 p.m. daily. You can read about them here, and there’s a map – it’s in District 5.
If you’re craving non-Asian food downtown, look for L’Uisine, a cafe-bistro upstairs, entered off a sort of populated alleyway. The shop is full of lovely modern things, and the (English) menu has sandwiches and desserts, beer and wine.
Saigon is a great shopping city, and prices can be very good indeed. Small shops, big markets and indoor shopping centers that are very modern. I was there right before Christmas, and saw this bunch of kindergartners roaring over to look at a display of penguins and polar bears on a pretend ice rink.
Don’t forget to have some of the wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee when you stop for a break.
As to crossing the streets: I mastered it in a couple of days. The trick is to think of it as wading across a moving stream of water. The bicycles will go around you as long as you don’t panic and stop. I waited until there were no four-wheeled vehicles coming and stepped out with confidence, just as though I were jaywalking in New York. Not even any close calls.