It’s time for a little retrospect. And a little recognition of someone special to old Saigon. When I first came here in the early 1990s I found a charming and slow-moving little low-rise city whose tallest building was the then 10-storey Caravelle Hotel. Clerks in the few existing banks spoke French and closed up shop from noon to two for le déjeuner. But soon the leisurely Lady Saigon bestirred herself and began to rise. Office and hotel towers shot up like bamboo and sugar cane, seemingly overnight. In a twinkling of history’s eye, the sleepy town of a thousand charms transformed herself into a city of big shoulders and pounding energies. Urban canyons began to muscle out the leafy villas and the quiet cul-de-sacs. And the acres and acres of sidewalk eateries, the clusters of bistros and bakeries, improvised com and pho, and mobile sinh to stands served their last, tipped their caps, and then succumbed to urban progress. No doubt the populace is materially better off.
But whither the city’s charm? Especially its edible and drinkable charm? The sad truth is that much of it is gone forever. It’s been bulldozed, demolished and built over. And of what remains there is a disturbing trend to abandon old ways and traditions; to replace time, effort and love with labour-saving soup powders, MSG and shocking amounts of sugar. In recent times I have, quite literally, spat food out and refused to eat it, and protested at paying for it. This has happened in both pseudo-foreign and Vietnamese establishments, both high-priced and low. But there are still some refuges, among them many of the hem, those tangles of dark and narrow alleyways that in every neighbourhood conspire to form a mini-Casbah.
Delve into one of these urban cave complexes. You may see little shops, little hotels, little cafes, little dwellings, little everything. For here, despite the city’s staggering increase, the human scale is maintained. In these living grottoes you may hear the clatter of mahjong tiles, kids shouting in their play, the music of caged songbirds and the clanging banging glorious sounds of cookery. You may smell the urgency of garlic, the sting of chilli and the insistence of durian and the flower of coriander. Here is where intimate dining takes place. Here is where little knots of al fresco diners gather as families, friends or couples to commune at a tiny table with tiny chairs at the tiniest restaurants in the world. Here is where old Saigon survives.
‘The Pham’ has a Casbah that you can easily find. Most of it is between Do Quang Dao and De Tham streets, but a few paces east of De Tham is ‘Mini Hotel Alley’. If you know Chi’s Cafe or Bread and Butter (or the back side of Le Pub) you know the alley. At the southwest corner of the alley, where it spills out onto Bui Vien, you’ll find Miss Ba, the Pho Lady of the Pham.
In the daytime this is just an empty spot on the shoulder of the road next to a popular tourist restaurant claiming to have some kind of connection with Mexico. But for 25 years, around about sundown most days, Miss Ba has wheeled her battered old charcoal burning pushcart kitchen into place here. If you come in or out of the alley here on an evening when the breeze is with you, you can catch a whiff of what might be the best pho bo in town. It’s redolent of star anise and good beef bones, suggestive of cinnamon and assertive of the care of a good cook who worries over it for hours before offering it to you.
She sells nothing but her soup, but she’ll nip round the corner for a beer or soda if you wish. I like to sit on one of her little plastic stools during the evening and admire the scene. Across the narrows of Bui Vien a new, bright and tall boutique with big picture windows looks down its lofty modern nose at her anachronism. She will still be here when the boutique is yet another souvenir shop or art gallery or Indian restaurant. The neon flashes at Crazy Buffalo and the music thunders at GO2. I remember when the latter was a spring roll shop and the former was a little restaurant that killed its chickens to order. In full view of the diner. And Miss Ba was there.
How she and the Casbah have survived the radical and ongoing transformation of the Pham I don’t know, and I do care. I want her to bottle the secret and sell it.