Vietnam will forever be one country that I will remember vividly. I could visit a hundred more countries and yet the experiences Vietnam provided will always stay with me. That may have to do with almost getting run over by a sea of motorcycles, but more on that later! After my time along the Mekong Delta, I headed to Ho Chi Minh city (formerly called Saigon, but they’re used interchangeably) without much of a plan, but I did meet two fellow travelers who were also heading back at the same time. With the reputation of Vietnamese street food, I knew, I had to sample as much as was within my power. As luck would have it, I now had partners-in-crime named Heather and Ngan who would be willing street food accomplices. The bonus was that Ngan was born in Vietnam, grew up in the U.S. and was returning to Vietnam for the first time and spoke perfect Vietnamese! And while I did get by on my own with a lot of nodding, pointing and hand gestures, having someone who spoke the language made life so much easier! Our goal was to go on a Vietnamese street food feast and we certainly did!
There is definitely more to Vietnamese cuisine than just pho, but after watching and hearing about the Lunch Lady on No Reservations, it was something I wanted to check out for myself. As an added incentive, it’s definitely not in a touristy area and anytime you have the chance to explore something different, you take it! After a little bit of wandering, I spotted the yellow “Lunch Lady” sign that I assumed probably went up after her feature on No Reservations. We went for the soup she was famous for, but we got much much more!
So, the deal with the Lunch Lady is that she makes one kind of soup every day and that’s the soup you get. I was expecting more tourists than locals, but we were the only tourists at the time, which again made me feel better about our decision! Once we sat down, they brought over two huge plates of spring rolls and salad rolls. They looked terrific, so we didn’t really complain and figured it was standard with the meal so we didn’t say anything. But after looking around, it was obvious we got up-sold without knowing it as the other tables weren’t brought the rolls and definitely something they do for tourist. But, of all the things to be up-sold on, I could have done a lot worse than fresh spring rolls and salad rolls!
As luck would have it, the soup on the “menu” was Bun Bo Hue, which is different from the traditional pho that we all know and love. Whereas pho is typically a beef broth, I would say the broth for bun bo hue is more complex. It’s still beef based, but it also is prepared with lemongrass and fermented shrimp paste. On this particular day, it was served with an egg, crab, shrimp, slices of pork and it lived up to expectation.
There are no prices listed anywhere, so we were left to wonder what the total would be. There was no receipt either, it was just one of the guys walking over to our table and counting and mumbling to himself while pointing to the table. It came out to about $4 for each of us which is a lot for a bowl of soup meal, but considering it was so much more than that, it was money well spent!
Chinatown Market in Saigon (District 5)
The best known market in Saigon is the Ben Thahn market. It’s located in District 1 and definitely more popular amongst tourists as it’s located near the backpacker hostels and many hotels. Since we were staying in District 1, we paid multiple visits to the Ben Thahn market, but in the name of adventure, we wanted to experiences something different. We knew even less English would be spoken at the Chinatown market, but we had our secret bilingual weapon! As it turns out, this market is where many of the other market vendors go as virtually everything is sold in bulk.
As soon as we arrived, it was obvious we were out of the tourist bubble. The area had a different pace and feel to it. It was bustling with motorbike delivery drivers with boxes piled much higher than any reasonable person would expect! I had been warned it would be filthy, but it wasn’t any dirtier or cleaner than other parts of the city. It definitely had a more authentic and gritty feel to it and that’s exactly what we wanted.
I’m sure the idea of bulk foods didn’t originate here, but it certainly felt that way. Stacked piles of anything you could ever want or imagine were on full display. And just like the floating market, it was all nicely laid out and divided by sections.
I can assure you it was very evident when we walked into the fish section. It wasn’t unbearable, but if you weren’t planning on buying anything, there was no reason to linger and browse! The kitchenware section, the dried shrimp section, the very graphic butcher section, there was truly something for everyone!
Of course, we weren’t just there to wander, we were there to eat. Knowing there is more than pho in Vietnam, we stopped for an egg drop type of soup with what appeared to be full of crab meat. I tend to base my decisions on where to eat by the people behind the counter and this woman looked like she knew her way around a huge cauldron of soup! When it was served, she pointed to specific condiments that it should go with, so I followed her instructions.
However, when I reached for what appeared to be a chili oil of sorts, I got a stern look and she shook her head from side to side since it apparently didn’t go with that particular soup. Not wanting to offend her, we enjoyed her soup with the proper instructions. It was indeed full of fresh crab meat and the egg drop base was comforting which proved it isn’t just a soup for a rainy day!
Since soup isn’t really a meal (for all you Seinfeld fans), we kept searching for more to eat. Maybe it was the sweltering heat, but we settled on something cold that could be construed as half drink and half dessert. This Vietnamese drink/dessert is generically referred to as “chè” and it’s basically as many things as you can jam into a glass! A variety of beans, tapioca, jelly, fruit are available and you pick and choose what you want in the drink. It gets all combined and poured over with coconut milk and ice. It looks really great when it’s presented to you but once you mix it all up, it definitely loses its beauty! I just couldn’t get accustomed to the multiple textures, especially having to chew my “drink” with the different kinds of jellies. But it was refreshing and temporarily allowed us to beat the heat!
It was time to head back and while making our way to find a taxi, I spotted a street vendor who caught my eye. Never been known to turn down a spring roll, we made a quick detour and found three little stools and enjoyed multiple rolls to end our Chinatown market adventure.
More Eats and How My Life Flashed Before My Eyes
Since the heat combined with eating is hard work, the three of us parted ways for a much needed afternoon nap. We agreed to meet up at the Ben Thahn Market for more wandering and of course, more food. There was a request for pickled tamarinds, so we made that a reality. I can’t say that was my favourite, but I chalked it up to something new to try.
The find of the evening was what I can only describe as grilled rice paper. I later found out it is called Bánh Tráng Nuong and not only was it $0.50, it was incredible! Over a very small grill, a combination of dried shrimp, beef jerky and green onions were mixed together with a quail egg on a sheet of rice paper. The rice paper was then moved around expertly and quickly as the woman ensured none of it was burnt. She kept swirling the ingredients around with the back of a spoon while moving the rice paper itself around with her fingers. It was dark and for the life of me, I couldn’t get a picture of her keeping still, but then I realized her constant movement is part of the whole experience.
Once it met her approval, she folded it in half with a napkin and gave it to me. The grilled rice paper had a texture unlike anything I’ve had before. It still had a crunch to it like you’d expect, but it was soft enough to bite into without cracking into a dozen pieces like a hard taco! The egg and all the ingredients gave it an omelette feel. Needless to say, it was a a hit!
Now, I can tell you there are an obscene number of motorcycle bikes on the road in Vietnam, but quite honestly, if you haven’t seen it firsthand, it’s tough to visualize it. From the moment I landed, I was fascinated by the motorcycle culture. I’d say they outnumber cars on the road by 500 to 1 and I’m probably being conservative. It was also not uncommon to have to jump out of the way while walking on the sidewalk because a bunch of motorcycles decided they didn’t want to wait for the light to turn green! I was especially captivated by the sheer number of bikes that would idle and wait at a red light and I decided I needed to take a photo of it.
I had been scoping out a few different locations and finally settled on an intersection that seemed to have a long red light which meant more bikes! With friends by my side, I was feeling confident and after a few test shots from the sidewalk to test my settings, I was ready to go. When the light turned red, I waited a few seconds and walked into the street. At the time, I was about ten feet away from all of them and even in the dark with their helmets on, I could see I was getting some odd looks. Weird looks aside, I stood in the middle of the street and took my photos!
As for what happened next, I blame adrenaline and completely losing track of my internal timer. I thought I had more time, so as I clicked to take another photo, I heard engines revving and they all started coming towards me. By the time I took the photo and moved the camera away from my face, the bikes were driving past me. Thankfully, they’re accustomed to driving around pedestrians, so they avoided me as I “froggered” my way back to the sidewalk. I’ll be honest and say that it took a while before my heart went back to its normal rate, but I got my photo and a story!
I did tackle a few more things in Vietnam, but that will have to wait for another day. After reliving the motorcycle story, I need to take another breather.