A surefire sign that a city is serious about street food is that every resident has an opinion. Just ask a New Yorker where to get the quintessential slice, a Parisian for his favorite crepe, or a resident of Saigon about the best version of pho, Vietnam’s famous noodle soup.
As the unofficial dish of Vietnam, pho is ubiquitous in Saigon (now named Ho Chi Minh City, though nobody outside of the airport seems to call it that). On the way in from the airport, my taxi driver swung blocks out of his way to show me his favorite pho spot, watching carefully as I wrote down the name. But pho—which, in its ideal form, is deep, bright, meaty, and floral all at once—is by no means the only street dish to inspire such strong proprietary emotions.
My notebook quickly filled with tiny maps hand-drawn by people directing me to, say, the perfect banh mi (a French bread sandwich traditionally eaten for breakfast) or an exemplary banh xeo (a light, crisp crepe folded over chopped pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and mung beans). A Sofitel PR executive who had two restaurants of her own to promote urged me to visit a back-alley cart that served bun bo hue, a spicy beef soup from her home city of Hue. Everybody in Saigon has a favorite dish—and it was my futile quest to try every one of them.
It’s no secret that Vietnam, in the midst of its exuberant blossoming, has become the food-minded traveler’s dream destination. Anthony Bourdain is moving there to write a book. Respected Vietnamese chefs like Michael Huynh of Bao 111 in New York and Mai Pham of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento (whose recipes appear in this story and on bonappetit.com) have been leading cooking tours through the country with students from The Culinary Institute of America—a kind of CIA infiltration that would have been unfathomable here a generation ago. The world is coming to Vietnam to eat, and where it eats best is on the streets of the culinary capital of Saigon.
Navigating those streets is another question entirely. Saigon is divided into 17 districts, which may have once made sense to a colonial administrator homesick for Parisian arrondissements but now form a dense, chaotic spiral emanating from District 1—the tourist and business center bordering the Saigon River. On my first morning in the city, I stood for a full ten minutes at an insanely busy traffic circle across from Ben Thanh Market, trying to figure out how I could ever cross to the other side. The answer, I realized—after watching an elderly woman toddle across while the sea of trucks, bicycles, and motorbikes parted around her—was to take a deep breath and wade in. To hesitate would be the most dangerous thing of all.
And that’s an equally good approach to the vast universe of Saigon street food. The most important Vietnamese phrase to learn is Cai do la gi? (“What is that?”), followed by Toi muon mot (“I’d like one”). This philosophy was imparted to me by Graham Holliday, a hearty 36-year-old British expat who writes the blog noodlepie.com, an entertaining and exhaustive digest of “scoff and swill in Saigon.” Holliday does not pretend to be an authority on Vietnamese cuisine. Rather, he is an enthusiastic pointer and taster—and thus, the perfect guide.
When I tagged along with him on an excursion, we stopped first at a restaurant called Quan Co Tam for banh trang phoi suong, a dish of sliced pork and herbs wrapped in thin rice pancakes. We crouched on brightly colored plastic baby furniture as the accoutrements for nearly every Vietnamese meal were set in front of us: a dish of pickled radishes and shallots, a bowl of salty and mildly pungent fish sauce called nuoc nam, and an enormous basket overflowing with bright green herbs. “You just chuck in a bit of whatever you like,” Holliday said.
In Vietnam, the climate giveth and taketh away; luckily, both sides of the equation benefit the food lover. On one hand, the hot climate produces an astounding bounty of ingredients, and on the other, the same conditions mandate that everything be served at the height of freshness, since things spoil fast where refrigeration is scarce. It’s one of the reasons that eating on the street—where you can observe the quality of the ingredients and watch everything being made—can be safer than eating at a fancy restaurant with a closed kitchen door.
“The Vietnamese are serious about their food,” Holliday told me. “If something is crap, they’re not going to stand for it.”
We hopped in a cab that took us to my Sofitel lady’s bun bo hue spot for a sinus-clearing meat broth perfumed with lemongrass and served with banana flower, herbs, and sprouts, and then across the street for another Hue specialty—banh canh cua, a thick, greenish soup filled with fat noodles, cilantro, and flecks of fresh crab.
By the time we headed over to Ben Thanh Market, I had given up all illusions of even scratching the surface of Saigon’s gastronomic variety. “Oh, that’s very interesting,” Holliday said as he spied a variation on banh mi that substituted beef patties for the traditional pork. “I’ve never seen that.”
For all of the welcome this sexy, cosmopolitan city is extending to the world, an American is bound to wonder: How exactly did we get from the Vietnam War to this? In fact, the “American War” is one chapter in a century that saw conflicts with the Japanese, French, Chinese, and Cambodians, and then a period of forced collectivization, re-education camps, and real hunger. The Communist government’s adoption in the mid-1980s of the open-market policy known as doi moi set the stage for the remarkable moment Saigon is now enjoying: Thanks to a peacetime baby boom, there are more than 83 million people in Vietnam, a country slightly larger than New Mexico, and their median age is just 25. Millions are now coming of age in a brand-new middle class, too busy partaking in one of the world’s fastest-growing gross domestic products to dwell on the past.
One night, I took a whirlwind motorbike tour of Saigon with a near perfect representative of this new generation. Vy is 25 and an accountant at a booming construction firm. She carries a cell phone that comes complete with two Vietnamese/English dictionaries. Her parents, she told me, eat out maybe once or twice a year, but she and her friends spend their evenings socializing in bars, restaurants, and coffee shops around the city.
I held on for dear life as we sped through the streets, zipping down Nguyen Tri Phuong street toward District 5. We spun past neon nightclubs and sidewalk restaurants, open-air billiard parlors and late-night vegetable markets, stalls selling pho in steaming bowls and grassy median strips where young couples come to flirt and make out on their bikes. For all of capitalism’s growing pains and the lingering oppression of a state that still controls many aspects of daily life, Saigon is simply bursting at the seams with the happiness of being alive. By the time Vy dropped me at my hotel, I was like a kid stumbling off a roller coaster: exhausted, shaky, but wanting to go again.
Peace and prosperity have had practical effects on food, too, allowing a free flow of ingredients into Saigon from all parts of the country and from all over Southeast Asia. “It’s difficult to say what is typical Saigon food,” Sakal Phoeung told me. “It’s a fusion of Hanoi, Hue, Cambodia, Laos, everywhere.” Phoeung is the Cambodian-born, French-trained executive chef at the Sofitel. But it was after-hours, and he and his Saigonese pastry chef and kitchen manager were hitting the town.
We were in District 5, at Phung Vy Restaurant on Nguyen Tri Phuong street, which is lined with late-night seafood restaurants. Sidewalk tables were filled with raucous families and groups of men, metal buckets of beer in ice at their feet. Cooks threw shrimp and crabs, still kicking, onto blazing charcoal grills. At the table, we dipped the sizzling meat into a paste of salt, chiles, and lime, throwing the shells into the gutter. Before doi moi, such freshness was an all but unattainable luxury, but now decent roads allow a daily flow of seafood from the coast and produce from the fertile Mekong Delta and Dalat regions.
On my final day in Saigon, Holliday took me to a local outdoor market near his house in District 10 for a final bowl of noodle soup, this time bun mam, an intense Mekong Delta specialty flavored with purple fermented shrimp paste. The market was the length of a single block and featured at least ten food vendors, each with his own specialty. At the moment, there are probably a hundred markets like it tucked away on side streets in Saigon. But there’s no telling how long before more fancy restaurants, gleaming skyscrapers, and Western franchises change the face of Saigon yet again. (For now, the sole representative of Fast Food Nation is KFC, and it’s impossible to ignore the striking resemblance between Colonel Sanders and Ho Chi Minh himself.)
“My concern,” said Holliday, “is that as the Vietnamese get richer, they’ll want to appear richer, and that might mean sweeping all this food off the street. And once some of these recipes go back behind closed doors, they may not come out for a long time.” Already, street vendors have been forced off two avenues in District 1.
All of which is to say: Go. Go now.
HUE BEEF NOODLE SOUP
Called bun bo hue in Vietnam, this is the heartier, spicier cousin to pho, the famous noodle soup. 4 SERVINGS
- 6 lemongrass stalks (bottom 3 inches only), outer layers peeled
- 3 pounds beef short ribs
- 8 cups low-salt chicken broth
- 8 cups water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 onions, thinly sliced, divided
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tablespoon (or more) sambal oelek*
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc nam or nam pla)*
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons red shrimp paste with soya bean oil*
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 8.8-ounce package dried thin rice noodles (vermicelli-style)
- 2 green onions, chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 cups thinly shredded cabbage
- 1/2 cup rau ram (Vietnamese coriander)* or Thai basil leaves* or regular basil leaves
- 3 dried Thai bird chiles,* chopped (optional)
- 4 lime wedges
Finely chop enough lemongrass stalks to measure 4 teaspoons. Cut remaining stalks in half. Place beef and stalks in large pot. Add broth and 8 cups water; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer 1 1/2 hours.
Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add 1/3 of sliced onions and garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon sambal oelek, paprika, and chopped lemongrass; sauté 1 minute. Add sambal oelek mixture to soup; mix in fish sauce, sugar, shrimp paste, and salt. Simmer until beef is tender, skimming foam from surface, about 1 hour. Remove beef from soup. Skim fat from surface of soup. Simmer soup until reduced to 8 cups, about 10 minutes. Add more sambal oelek for spicier flavor. Trim off any fat from beef; cut meat into bite-size pieces.
Bring large saucepan of water to boil. Add noodles; boil 1 minute. Drain; rinse under cold water and drain again. Using scissors, cut noodles crosswise. Divide noodles among 4 large bowls. Top with beef, remaining sliced onions, green onions, and cilantro.
Bring soup to boil; ladle over noodles. Toss cabbage and rau ram in small bowl. Sprinkle over soup. Top with chiles, if desired; squeeze lime over.
*Available at Asian markets.?—Mai Pham