Saigon is a city that lives with the constant hum of motorcycles. All day and night a cacophony of horns and revving engines reverberate through the streets as the city’s 7.4 million scooters clog the roads and pavements. Just crossing the street can be a throw of the dice, a quick ‘close your eyes and dash that will have even the least religious of pedestrians pressing their palms together and looking to the sky in a show of thanks that they survived another day.
It is the motorbikes, along with Ho Chi Minh City’s love of street food, that persist in my memory; forever etched in my eardrums and on my tongue. Saigon’s two passions assault your senses simultaneously and at every available moment; sooty exhaust fumes and low-grade petrol merge with the steam of boiling broth and fragrant lemongrass. Soy and ginger mixed with clouds of tobacco smoke drifting from a roadside food stand. Chicken shit blending with warm offal and burnt oil. Each odour individually distinguishable yet when combined they take on a new identity – The unique smell of Saigon.
Vietnamese people live out much of their lives in public, with the fronts of homes wide open. Eating is no exception. Every aspect of its production and preparation is on display for all to see. Restaurants spill out of buildings and onto the street where tiny plastic stools scatter, often up to the roadside, leaving no space for walking. In turn, the pedestrians flow inside, filling the interiors until they themselves pour out onto the pavement, settling with ice cold beers around knee high metal tables. Most stalls are borderless, blending into one another leaving you questioning where the neighbouring table bought their delicious looking dish. Where there is no restaurant or cafe you will often find an enterprising cook, armed with just a hotplate and some pans, sliding a variety of offal into a pot of bubbling broth and dishing it out in bags to customers that pull up on scooters – The Vietnamese take on a Macdonalds drive through. There isn’t a corner or cranny without an illuminated sign peddling some kind of cuisine.
The sheer choice can be overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start. As well as not knowing the names of the dishes on offer, I had witnessed the blackened pans and caught glimpses of seafood that had never seen the inside of a refrigerator. There were pigs heads and meat on hooks, speckled with so many flies that you would be forgiven for thinking they had a particularly serious bout of chicken pox. Chickens pecked and scratched around on the floor next to open containers of ingredients. Each meal can be a gamble, not knowing if it will mean a few days on the toilet in exchange for a full stomach. If I wanted to try the best streetfood that Saigon had to offer, I was going to need some local guidance.
That is how I found myself on the back of a motorcycle, my hands grasping for the edge of my seat and the tips of my fingers getting paler as my grip tightened. We overtook other scooters so closely that I could feel the sleeves of their riders brush my bare forearms. I could almost hear the tinny drums emanating from other rider’s headphones as our helmets passed just inches apart. “This is exciting, isn’t it?” Sơn called out to me as we whipped through a roundabout, passing between two cars while he had his head tilted back towards mine, his view of the road too peripheral for my liking. I could just grit my teeth and groan in reluctant agreement. I didn’t want to criticise his driving because, after all, my life was in his hands.
Sơn is a marketing student at Ho Chi Minh City University by day. By night he dons his fluorescent green uniform and motorcycle helmet to take tourists around his favourite food spots in the city that he loves. He couldn’t be much older than 18 but speaks impeccable English, honed by his nightly conversations with foreign visitors. Although this is a way for him to make a little extra cash and practise his language skills, it was the connections he makes that he loves the most.
We pulled up alongside a non-descript looking cafe, its inside is a sterile mix of white tiles and metal tables that are so common in Vietnamese establishments. We were here to try the dish most ubiquitous dish; phở bo, a beef noodle broth originating from the north that has now spread around the world to be the food most commonly associated with Vietnamese cuisine. I had started each day in Ho Chi Minh City with a steaming bowl at Phở Quỳnh, said to be the best place to buy phở in Ho Chi Minh’s backpacker district but Sơn assured me that I hadn’t tried anything like what I was about to taste. This was the best phở in the whole city.
We ducked inside the cafe and plonked ourselves beneath the electric fans. Despite the fading sun, the temperatures were still well beyond 30 °C and the air was thick with humidity. My head felt slick with sweat from where my helmet had clung to me. As soon as a frosted glass of sugar cane juice was placed in front of me, I swept it up and drained half of it before even thinking about the effect the ice would have on my stomach. “You’ll be fine” Sơn assured me. “Don’t drink tap water but you will be okay with ice” It was a strange logic but it put my mind at rest. Gradually the waitress filled our table with treats; a bowl of beef brisket and noodles in a broth flavoured with onions – both spring and regular – pepper, star anise, ginger and fish sauce. In the centre of the table were plates of greens; morning glory, shredded banana flower, Thai basil, bean sprouts and mint. We took a little of each and added it to our bowls while Sơn walked us through the correct way to consume our noodles. You take the ends of the noodles in your lips and with one hand, thread them into your mouth using the chopsticks while holding a spoon below them with your other. What was more enlightening was learning the correct pronunciation of phở. It is “fuh” – a short, sharp exhaling sound like you have been punched in the stomach while saying the letter “f”. It turns out that I had spent my first few days in Vietnam extending the “O” in pho bo, asking for a ‘beef prostitute’ wherever I went. luckily no one had taken my request seriously.
After our first course, we took some time to wander around the area of Nguyen Thien Thuat street. Here the roads converged into a makeshift square, surrounded by tumbledown apartment blocks that bathed the stalls below in iridescent light. Bundles of telephone wires tangled themselves around poles in thick, black nests before going their separate ways and spreading across the sky towards each building. On the street, hundreds of tinystands served up all manner of foods to the customers stopping by on their scooters.
We made our way up the winding staircases of an apartment block as Sơn explained that this was one of the most expensive places to live in the city. Looking at the apartments, it was hard to believe. Most were small, two-room flats – practically bedsits – originally built to house soldiers during the war that devastated the country for 20 years. Now, these flats can cost up to $700 a month – an insane price when you consider that the average income of a worker in the city is just $148.
It seems that location is everything. In a city where street food is so important, it pays to have a stall or cafe in a central area with such a high footfall, so living here is incredibly desirable. Unfortunately, it comes with a cost. The city’s population is ballooning at a rate that the infrastructure is struggling to keep up with. Housing prices continue to rise while wages remain stagnant. It’s not uncommon to find more than one family squeezed into these tiny units or a number of young professionals being forced to share a bedroom. Every inch of the city is fully utilised; we even find that one apartment has been converted into a Buddhist temple, monks and worshippers standing before a huge golden Buddha, lighting incense in what was once somebody’s living room.
As we descended back to the street, Sơn met us holding our second course; a small plastic bag filled with yellow liquid. Che Bap is a corn pudding, made from cooking sweet corn kernels in coconut milk with sugar and tapioca pearls. I squeezed the gelatinous liquid from the bag and into my mouth. It was surprisingly sweet, not dissimilar to rice pudding.
Just two meals in I was already beginning to feel full but we still had a long way to go on our culinary adventure.
We sped off again in search of our next delectable treat, weaving through traffic and speeding down narrow, labyrinthine alleyways with the just the dim light of neon signs to guide us. Nestled in District 5, beside Nguyen Trai – the city’s premier shopping destination – are a small cluster of streets that are home to Saigon’s flower market. Any colour and variety of flower that you can imagine lined the road, their sweet, fragrant scents mingling with the aromas of meat searing on nearby stalls. Customers pulled up on motorcycles, hauling bundles of vibrant blooms into cardboard boxes before pulling away.
I watched as an old man, his face hidden behind a surgical mask, worked at a metal stove surrounded with gas canisters. He poured what seemed like litres of oil into the charred pans before spooning circles of batter on top. As the pancakes began to brown, he fished shrimp from a tepid-looking bowl of water and added them along with shredded pork, chillis and bean sprouts before folding it all over into a perfect semi-circular parcel. By now, I was so far down the streetfood rabbit hole that the lack of seafood refrigeration failed to bother me, although it may bother my bowels the next day. Any malicious bacteria was probably already making itself at home in my gastrointestinal tract.
“The first thing to look out for is cleanliness” Sơn explained, “If the workstation is clean, it shows that the cook is careful and you should be fine. Next, make sure that the stall is busy. People will only eat at stalls they know are safe and that way you now that there is a fast turnover of food. Everything will be fresh.” I couldn’t help but notice the lack of a queue. We were the only customers. However, Sơn assured me that this was the one of the best Bánh xèo – literally meaning “sizzling cake” – stalls in the city. We settled on our tiny stools and Sơn punctured the centre of each pancake with his chopsticks before spreading them outwards to break apart the crust and reveal the steaming interior. He lay a piece of round rice paper on his palm and scooped the broken Bánh xèo, along with fragrant herbs, on top before rolling it all into a slick cylinder and dipping it into a chilli infused fish sauce. I followed his lead. It was an explosive mix sweetness, umami and spice – surprising me that something so simple could be one of the best mouthfuls of food I have ever tasted. Sơn watched on with a knowing smile as I devoured the lot.
By this point, I felt like a gluttonous wreck. My stomach swollen with pork, I could barely balance on my stool. I had no idea how Sơn would continue to drive us. I had the image in my mind of inflated Violet Beauregard figures bobbing dangerously around the city on two wheels. His excitement was palpable though.
“Next we will visit street food heaven!”
It was a phrase he had used to describe Ho Chi Minh’s District 4 throughout our trip. “Street Food Heaven”.
Situated on a small island at the confluence of the Sông Sài Gòn and Bến Nghé Rivers, District 4 is the smallest district in Ho Chi Minh City but also the most notorious. As we crossed the Nguyen Van Cu Bridge it was clear that this neighbourhood was distinct. Stilted, wooden houses on perched on the banks of the canals in makeshift shanty towns, a far cry from the skyscrapers just a few hundred metres away in the District 1 or the lush suburbs of District 7. Food vendors wheel carts through tiny alleys while the prematurely worn faces of children push through the crowds, trying to make themselves seen as they flog handfuls of lottery tickets. It is a slice of Vietnamese life and culture that you don’t see in the rat race of the city centre.
In the past, this is the area where the poor from all over the country came to settle, forming slums with plank houses along the river. Most people came to work as porters or labourers at the Saigon Port, earning little to no money and living in rundown housing with no water or electricity. Children didn’t go to school and instead, learnt to earn money in more nefarious ways, stealing and robbing to get by. “A lot of people still refer to this place as ‘Gangster Island'” Sơn explained, again leaning back towards me, taking his eyes off the road. “Do many people in England have tattoos?” I shouted through the hum of traffic that yes, a lot of people do. “In Vietnam only gangsters have tattoos. They’re becoming a little more common but it can be hard to get a job if you have visible ones. People will just assume that you’re a gangster.” I thought back to drinking on Pham Ngu Lao. Most of the staff ushering people into the bars of Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker district has inked forearms. Now I’m not sure if they were gangsters or just hipsters.
Now, the island’s mafia past has faded and is now known more for its street food than its crime syndicates. We made our way through the dark backstreets, stopping to sample everything we could get our hands on. At a small trolley, I bought a bánh mì – a soft Vietnamese baguette stuffed with pâté, salad, chilli and mystery meats. Despite watching it being prepared, I was unable to decipher the type of reconstituted animal that I was sampling but the queues told me it was worth a try. I washed it down with a kem flan, a tiny crème caramel set and served in half an eggshell.
Venturing further into the network of backstreets, I watched a woman ladle starchy liquid onto a hotplate and spread it into a thin disk like a skilled crêpier. After a few seconds, she dexterously worked it away from the heat with a stick before filling with beans and rolling it into a flaccid cylinder. She urged me to try and make my own, guiding my hands as I attempted to mimic her smooth, ladling motion. to say that I am not cut out to be a street food vendor is an understatement. Her husband and daughter looked on, giggling with heads in hands as my bánh cuốn broke apart whenever I tried to pry the disk from the stove. It was the only thing I had eaten that night that I didn’t enjoy. It was also the only dish that I had made myself but that may just be a coincidence.
We finally settled with an ice cold beer outside a bar on Vĩnh Khánh Street, so replete with food that I felt I fantasised about never leaving my seat, perching on this patio chair for the rest of time. The scallops and barbequed octopus in front of us remained untouched while all around us the atmosphere was electric. This was once one of the favourite haunts of the notorious Vietnamese gangster Năm Cam (he was executed in 2004 for the assassination of Dung Ha — a rival gangster from Hai Phong) but is now one of the most popular places for street food in Saigon. Thousands of people crowded the bars and cafes as large groups of friends clustered around tiny red and blue plastic tables, dipping into plates of steaming seafood and clinking frosted beer glasses. The thundering cacophony of laughter, road noise and pounding music mixed with wails of karaoke emanating from every other bar. It was a chaotic, unrelenting celebration of the county’s street food culture.
I expressed my surprise that so many people seemed to be partying so late on a weeknight. “This is every night,” said Sơn “People never eat at home and most meals are eaten with friends”. Home cooking used to be the norm in the city but the economic growth of Vietnam has meant extended working hours and longer commutes. People, especially the young, have no time to cook. Add to this the complexity of Vietnamese cuisine – each dish requiring a multitude of fresh herbs, vegetables and meats – it can often be cheaper to eat out.
We watched as a motorcycle pulled up, a speaker on the back blasting thudding Asian pop music. The rider stepped into the centre of traffic and poured lighter fluid onto the tarmac, lighting a circle of flames inside which they began to dance to the cheers of a nearby bar’s patrons. “Just look around,” Sơn went on. “All of these people coming together over food, enjoying themselves. It can only be a good thing.” After one of the most satisfying evenings of eating I have ever experienced, I was inclined to agree.
Like it? Pin it!