Num Num ‘Nam in Saigon (by Carmen)
We were especially excited for our first visit to Vietnam. I have always enjoyed the fresh flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. Crunchy herbs are a staple added to soups, noodles, eggs, sandwiches…everything really. Overall, what we read and heard about Vietnam indicated that it was a country full of people who love to eat well. And Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that has an abundance of locally brewed beer. In short, our kind of place. Armed with recommendations from our friend Tran and the Gastronomy blog, we were ready to take on Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon).
On our first afternoon we wound through the park outside of our hotel. They happened to be holding a culinary festival, complete with wok masters dancing to some club beats while stir frying away. We only paused to look because we were on a mission to get the best bành mí in the city. We found it at Bành Mí Huynh Hoa, a well known and consistently crowded storefront. Imagine six people stationed around a table rapidly chopping veggies and peppers while four others are assembling sandwiches at light speed. There is no counter to queue at. You simply nudge your way through the crowds towards one of the sandwich makers and get your order in. You then hungrily watch them make your sandwich, wrap it a piece of paper, place it in a bag and finally hand it over. And it was awesome. The pickled cucumber and carrot blended perfectly with the mix of pâtés and meat, all on a fresh hot bread roll and with just the right amount of hot pepper slices. Our first taste of Vietnam was already winning us over.
Next up on our list of Vietnamese favorites was phở, a comforting and delicious soup. We selected Phở Hoa on Pasteur to do the honors. My beef pho came ready to be dressed up with basil, mint, bean sprouts and lots of lime, all of which are placed on the table for me. The springy rice noodles were perfect. We didn’t talk much as we enjoyed our soup among the many other patrons.
Over the days we followed the recommendations to more great eats. This included an excellent fried chicken with garlic rice at Xoi Che. Then there was the fried spring roll which you wrap with herbs and lettuce and dip in a spicy sweet sauce at Banh Xeo 46A. We even found the no name food stand with a blue awning that served rice and banana steamed in banana leaves and topped with coconut milk. It was all just so good!
Amid the snacks, we pagoda hopped around the city. Our favorite was the Jade Emperor Pagoda built in 1909. It was small and intimate and loaded with various statues representing demons and spirits. I watched quietly as people prayed with their incense. One man was even using oracle sticks to get some answers. We had a prayer too – to find delicious seafood. Fortunately, it was answered.
At Quan 94, we tucked into a delicious soft shell crab in tamarind sauce. This place smelled wonderfully of garlic such that my mouth watered as soon as I walked in.
More seafood was to be had a little further out from the city center where we found a collection of street cafes specializing in shell fish. This time we got crab claws in a spicy pepper rub accompanied by blood cockles covered in tamarind and mussels with green garlic. Everything was amazing and well worth the trip to Saigon’s district four
Back in the city center for breakfast, at Thai Binh Market, we were aggressively accosted by the food vendors. We finally settled on one with a large crowd around it. The stall happened to be selling banh beo hue, a variety of small rice dumplings and cakes doused with more spicy sweet sauce.
Breakfast was complete with streetside coffee. As we sipped our brews sweetened with condensed milk, we watched the owner and his friend attempting to revive their prehistoric scooter. They pushed each other up and down the sidewalk and we sat laughing with their wives each time they almost swerved into a tree or hole in the sidewalk.
While we walked around the city, we kept spotting a tall skyscraper in the distance. It was the Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s tallest building at 68 stories. We paid for tickets to the glamorous sky deck for vast views over the sprawling city. While I was up there I kept thinking about the fact that this was a war zone 40 years ago. Now, I was looking down at the busy city streets from an ultra-modern air conditioned perch high in the sky. It amazes me how resilient cities and people are.
Our glamorous sky deck had to be followed up by a swanky restaurant, which we were treated to by our friend’s relative. It was our first taste of banh can, which are little egg cups cooked over a fire. But the star of the show was a salad plate lined with slivers of a small silvery fish lining the edge, all topped with crisp garlic. All the sauces and herbs that accompanied our dishes delivered all the fresh flavors we love about vietnamese food. We were also very grateful that we were able to meet up with a local for an insiders perspective.
Ok, one more breakfast. This one was called com tam, or broken rice. I believe they grind the rice until it is a very short grain. This makes the texture a little more like couscous. Served with a slice of pork casserole, we found it to be very comforting.
Wow, this post was a little hard to write! There was so many good eats it turned into more of a food diary than travelogue. But I suppose that was our true experience of Saigon. A sort of city wide restaurant hop where we would order small dishes to save room for the next great find around the corner. Amid the tangle of traffic and electricity towers there are some great opportunities to find quiet pagodas, savory street snacks and boisterous beer halls. And the snowmen, snow flakes and santas around town reminded us the Christmas was just around the corner, even if it was 30C outside. The heat was intense and we were craving some cooler mountain air so we bid adieu to Saigon and wound our way into the mountains in Dalat.