Vietnam’s history lines the streets of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It lives in impressive French colonial mansions such as the magnificent Hotel de Ville, and in evocative exhibits in the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. Its heroes cannot be missed either. Statues and portraits, most of them depicting Ho Chi Minh, Uncle of the People and Father of the Nation, stare out at you wherever you look.
The local cuisine, on the other hand, does not leap out at you in the same way. It has to be discovered in the alleyways and markets of HCMC.
A good place to begin is the bustling Cho Ben Thanh market, marked by its large cupola and belfry. Within the indoor market and on the surrounding streets are scattered many food stalls offering a wide variety of roasted, fried and spiced meat and seafood. I chose the tom rich rang toi, a fried mantis shrimp cooked with burnt garlic. This was a lively dish, the crushed brown garlic coating my tongue even as I crunched through the spicy, soft shrimp meat. A can of the local 333 beer (also called “Ba Ba Ba” by the locals, since three is ba in Vietnamese), bitter but frothless, was the perfect antidote to this pungent dish.
Street-smart: The facade of the Cho Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City; and a bread seller peddles French baguette.
Other offerings included the grilled blood cockle, the grilled leaping conches and cock’s testicles, indicating the Vietnamese fondness for virtually every form of meat, organs and blood included. They are presented surprisingly well for street stalls, a reflection perhaps of the French heritage, which surfaces at surprising places across HCMC.
France appears, for instance, on the carts of bread sellers and sandwich-makers, all of whom display and use only long French loaves. Vietnamese wine, served in a few food stalls, is also a happy hangover from the days of colonial rule, though beer is by far the preferred drink.
Just outside Ben Thanh market stands a small but famous food shop called Pho-2000 which serves pho, the signature dish of the city, comprising rice noodles in soup traditionally cooked with slices of beef or chicken. At Pho-2000, my dish came with a side offering of bean sprouts and herbs, which added a nice crunchy texture. The soup was piping hot, the noodles creamy soft and the chunks of beef succulent. Yet it is the heavenly combination of subtle spices that defines pho and makes it such an iconic dish: Without its herbs and spices, pho would be just another ordinary noodle soup.
I was, of course, looking forward to eating at Pho-2000, since I had read somewhere that former president Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea had specifically dropped in here for breakfast some years ago. Clinton had apparently relished the pho ga (pho with chicken) and liked it so much that he had an additional serving of the pho bo (pho with beef). He then suggested he would like to end his meal with Vietnamese mangoes. The outlet has since rebranded itself with the words “Pho for the President”, and displays prominent photographs of the former US president enjoying his meal.
A different facet of HCMC’s historical tryst with the US can be experienced at yet another small pho shop located on Chinh Tha Thang Street. Binh Soup Shop was the secret headquarters of the communist Viet Cong (VC) in the city, as they planned guerilla attacks on American installations. I wonder how many steaming bowls of pho were consumed by American soldiers completely unaware that they were being spied on by the servers at this eatery. The bowl of pho I quickly slurped up at this place was mediocre compared with the excellence of Pho-2000. Clinton certainly knows good Vietnamese food, even if he did not inhale and did not fight the war.
Leaving these noodle soup shops and walking down the backstreets of Dong Khoi in central Saigon, you encounter vendors of spiced eggs, elderly women with broad smiles, who call out to you loudly with a cackle and a laugh. They have large baskets full of hard-boiled eggs, which they serve with small bowls of a spicy mix and a dipping sauce, a thin oily liquid with strong top notes of the sea, garlic, chilli and fresh lime. Undoubtedly, a refreshing new way of eating eggs, but the sauce is the real secret, and I could not really establish what it is made of. I read later that many of these streetside sauces are inexpensive variations of nuoc cham, which uses fermented fish as its base.
Which brings me to the amazing variety of fish and seafood on the streets. Saigon revels in seafood. In places as diverse as the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Nha Rong Wharf, I found street vendors displaying dried octopus, squid, cuttlefish, eel and a host of other seafood. They also carry a small pot filled with hot charcoal, which is used to barbecue the seafood on the spot. I chose the eel, and using the services of a passer-by who knew some English, asked for it to be well spiced. The barbecue was heavenly, its crusty flavours and salty fragrance sparking fresh energy in my limbs.
My last stop was at a Trung Nguyen coffee shop, Vietnam’s answer to Café Coffee Day. These shops are all across the city, and the coffee is brewed right at your table using a steel dripper. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe) is strong and best consumed black. As I sipped my ca phe rang xay, an excellent local blend composed of Arabica and Excelsa beans, I reflected on all the delicious pleasures of Saigon’s street cuisine. Simple, cheerful and wholesome food. Sometimes unusual, but always delicious.
Harish Bhat is chief operating officer, watches, Titan Industries Ltd. He is an inveterate traveller and foodie, with a weakness for cities where seafood is celebrated.
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