If you walk down any street in HCMC you will probably find some amazing street food: it basically makes life here worth living. But I say that the best place to eat in Saigon is a local market. We usually track it behind scores of open-air cafes, jam-packed with young locals idly passing time on any Sunday morning. We settle in at corner, to take in the sights and enjoy our first glass of cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with milk). Then we repeat the order, and do so for several days in a row, until we make friends with the server. In Asia and Africa alike, the drink vendors are always important to befriend. They are like the brokers of the market. They can order food from any stand, bring it to our table, and even sort us with a place to sit when there’s a market frenzy. One morning a middle-aged woman standing beside her cooler filled with sinh tố (fruit shakes) notices our confused glances. Minutes later, two tiny plastic chairs were carried from her living room, arranged behind the vending stand, and a table was assembled: “Mời ngồi” she said, with a smile. Please, have a seat.
At the NO NAME VIET PIZZERIA things are even simpler. Scores of visitors place their orders, wait, then consume their treats, all while sitting on their motorbikes … and then they drive off, back into the maze of alleys. Bánh tráng nướng or banh da to those up north, is basically large, charcoal-grilled-to-a-thin-crispy-perfection rice batter cracker, served with different toppings.
We have already become addicts of the delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, but Saigon has its own versions that must be tried: bánh mì đặc biệt guarantees a bit of with “everything” – pâté, pickled vegetables, chili pepper, various pressed meats, mayo, and special sauces. Then there are the many things that can be done with rice paper (bánh tráng)! You can shred it finely like noodles and mix it with dried shrimp, chilies, lime, peanut, hard-boiled eggs and others bits and served in a bag for a yummy snack on the go. Or roll it with rice noodles, crispy veggies, cooked pork meat (thịt heo luộc) and cooked prawn to make fresh spring roll. The Vietnamese call these beauties “gỏi cuốn”, or “cha gio” if they are fried. Dip them in sweet soy sauce mixed with chopped roasted peanut and you’re set!
We’ve been coming to South East Asia for almost 9 years now, but we never fell for desserts. Fruits are too delicious and varied to have enough time to sample them all. But Saigon is a whole other ball game. Every day we find a new kind of che to dish up. Sweet shops are tucked at junctions, where once an order is placed, banh kem flan is scooped onto plates and topped with crushed ice. The Saigonese can turn anything – from beans, to corn – into a delightful pudding. One of my favourites: chè chuối – steamed banana in slightly salty coconut sauce.
And then, there’s cake. Sumptuous, soft and chewy, redolent with the aroma of coconut, like the bánh khoai mì nướng, which is made of cassava, condensed milk and or steamed mung beans, and made creamy with coconut milk, so it has no flour in the batter. But for me, nothing can be more perfect that bánh bò dừa. This one is really elusive, and a great find: naturally sweetened, coconut shreds wrapped in honeycomb cake. Divine!