Our experience in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to locals, was worlds apart from Cambodia. In Cambodia we used Hostelworld or Agoda to book rooms, which were usually near the established tourist trail. Before arriving in Saigon, we booked a room through Airbnb; in the past, we’ve used Airbnb to rent out our place in Denver during long weekends out of town. Although there are still only a handful of properties in HCMC on the site, we found a room in a tall and skinny 5-bedroom house in the Da Kao area of District 1, miles from the tourist hub. Changing our home base from a foreigner-centric area as we had in Phnom Penh to a local-centric area completely altered our view of the city: instead of sleazy street touts and overpriced restaurants, we had residents sitting down for their morning pho. (Pho is a breakfast dish in Vietnam, rarely eaten for lunch or dinner.) Instead of jaded tour operators, we had truly friendly business owners more than willing to work though the language gap; getting and paying for a meal involved a lot of pointing and fingers held up for price. Instead of tourism, we had an unadulterated view of the city, vibrant and bustling.
Beside the location, we gained an excellent host, An. She is a young marketing exec and studied in Australia, so she speaks good English. People like An are what make Airbnb great: she not only gave us a room, but also invited us to hang out with her friends and showed us a few hidden gems in the city. Our second night in town, we went to a swing-dance night at a local café – it was the equivalent of Denver’s Mercury Café swing night. It felt odd to learn swing dancing, a uniquely American dance, so far from home. We certainly weren’t overly graceful, but we could at least move around the floor by the end of the night. Later in the week, we met up with the same group for a southern Vietnamese delicacy: snails prepared four different ways. Two of them were served in the shell, a small type of snail, with a safety pin to impale and pull out the snail. The larger variety of snail were removed from their shell, then diced and served with vegetables in a savory sauce. This was way beyond escargot. The diversity of flavors, both within a single dish and between each dish, played colorfully on the palate unlike any garlic-and-butter French preparation. The perfectly-done baguettes soak up any leftover sauce.
Speaking of baguettes, the French colonization of this part of the world had terrible consequences (i.e., decades of war), but it left at least two indelible but highly edible impressions on Vietnamese culture. First, the aforementioned baguettes (banh mi) are always perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Sandwiches made with them are a common snack on the streets, filled with any number of delicious insides: pate, grilled pork, veggies, spicy sauces, or anything else the creative street vendor can imagine. The other French influence is coffee, with a distinctly tropical spin. Instead of hot lattes or espresso, the Vietnamese drink their coffee black, strong, sweet, and over ice. Getting used to this drink, known as ca phe den da (or sua da, with milk, for Jacque), has been a drastic change from my usual black drip coffee back home. Vietnam grows their own coffee in the Highlands, and there are coffee shops on every block – more coffee shops than Seattle. They take their coffee seriously.
Banh mi and ca phe den are only two parts of the Saigon food culture. Of course, there is the pho everywhere, a noodle bowl with wide, flat rice noodles, but there is also bun (roundish rice noodles), banh canh (thick noodle made with rice or tapioca), banh cuon (rice-paper wrapped around pork or chicken filling), banh xeo (flat pancakes with prawns and pork), and a host of other rice, soup, or sweet dishes. The possibilities seem endless, and indeed they are: all one needs to do is walk through the city to find a street vendor advertising some sort of food from their cart. Which brings me to the street food. For Americans, street food is suspect, probably with rats, roaches, or rotten meat. For Vietnamese, the opposite is true. They eschew restaurants in favor of eating right there on the street, with motos whizzing by and the ever-present honking horns. They want to see the food that will be served to them – it’s a way to check that it’s not spoiled before it’s cooked and look your chef in the eye. The street vendors surround themselves with tiny, child-size tables and chairs (my knees did not once fit under the table at any of them), and the best ones are always busy. With the exception of one night when I got culture-saturated and just needed a freakin’ pizza (from a Vietnamese chain called Al Fresco’s, if you’re wondering), we ate every meal out on the street. The best part? These amazing dishes, served with fresh herbs and off-the-boat seafood, cost about $1.50 at their most extravagant. It’s a culture that I wish we had at home.
The other aspect of Vietnamese food culture is home cooking. The market near the tourist part of Saigon, Ben Tranh, is a packed-yet-orderly cacophony of sounds and smells. Ben Tranh market is a foodie’s wet dream: still-moving crabs are packed into orderly rows near just-picked herbs and vegetables. Many of the fish are kept in small buckets or tanks, swimming until the minute you pay for them. There are also some unusual delicacies for the exotic eater: pig brains or dried silk worms, anyone?
To get a flavor of home cooking, we took a class from a local restaurant called Hua Tuc. We made three dishes. Canh chua tom is a sweet and sour soup that our chef-teacher swore every Vietnamese mother made sure her future daughter-in-law knows how to make; goi ga bap chuoi is a salad made with banana blossom; and banh xeo is a rice-flour pancake with prawns and pork, as I mentioned earlier. All of them came out surprisingly well (for me, anyway, Jacque knew what she was doing) and gave us a nice flavor of southern Vietnamese cooking.
If you were to consult a reputable guidebook, you wouldn’t find many tourist activities in Saigon. Beyond a museum or two and a pretty lackadaisical Catholic church, they’re right. We found that getting involved in the culture, though, was easy and rewarding. Certainly Saigon should be on any foodie’s short list of cities to visit for its unique variety of tasty meals. It does require a bit of bravery to step outside your comfort zone – don’t go in a restaurant! – and just learning to cross the street will be daunting at first. I guarantee that your efforts will be amply rewarded with an experience outside the usual and a true taste for how great the city can be. If nothing else, when you find yourself in Saigon, I implore you: go to 26 Le Thi Rieng street, hold up one finger, pay your 30,000 dong (~$1.50), and wait for the most delicious sandwich you’ve ever had.
You can see more of our photos from Saigon by visiting our Picasa album here. Choose the “all photos” tab to see all 44 pictures.