To get a more thorough introduction to the world of Vietnamese street food, Brett Davis pounds the pavement with a serious foodie tour. Photos courtesy of Street Foodies Saigon.
It’s 5.30 on a warm evening in Saigon and the traffic is swirling and honking its way through the roundabout in front of Ben Thanh Market. From a streetside stall amid the noise and chaos, I am receiving a primer on Vietnamese street food. Even after living in Saigon for five years, I am something less than an authority on local roadside cuisine. All the banhs and buns elude me, and so I have signed on for an evening with Street Foodies Saigon.
The brand-new brainchild of American-Vietnamese photographer, food writer, culinary fiend – and AsiaLIFE Photo Editor – Vinh Dao, the tour promotes itself as a kind of street food tasting menu, like a degustation menu of roadside stalls, if you will. With seven stops over the course of an evening, guests walk from location to location, taking in the local sights and sounds as they cover the 2.5-kilometre route.
“The concept of the tour is to give the guest a sample of the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine,” says Dao. “I guess it came about from me constantly giving friends, and friends of friends, a food tour of my best spots around town.”
After quick introductions, we negotiate our way across Le Loi and Ham Nghi, diving into the bustling neighbourhood behind the art museum. Our first stop is a complete contrast to the city outside, as we head down a narrow alley and find ourselves in a quiet space next to a temple.
Seated on plastic stools and enjoying chanh muoi, or salty lemon, Dao talks more about the idea behind the tour and the elements of Vietnamese cuisine.
“I would love that people appreciate how balanced the food can be, not only in flavour but also in texture,” he says. “There’s so much great food to try but it can be intimidating to someone who isn’t used to street food. I hope the tour will give people the confidence to walk up to a street food stall, order a dish and dig in.”
In short order, we are seated on a busy corner grilling tender pieces of goat, okra and onions on a charcoal brazier brought to our table. A simple salad of lettuce, tomato and herbs dressed in a light vinegar helps cut the richness of meat.
After a leisurely stroll down the street, we are at a nhau joint, where local workers come to relax after a long day. Here, we down traditional beer snacks like dried squid dipped in chilli sauce with a few more cold ones. This being a street food tour means things can get unpredictable, and one of the advanced team reports back that the next stop, a shellfish place nearby, is closed tonight because it is the first day of the lunar month.
Not to worry, as there is always the ability to improvise. As we cross Nguyen Thai Hoc, the amount of roadside choices is almost overwhelming. In what will delight your taste buds, if not your waistline, we sample a banh mi featuring deep-fried chicken skin, thankfully cut into sections and shared among the group.
Further along is the banh trang nuong, also known as Dalat pizza, a grilled piece of rice paper filled with herbs pork and shrimp. Next is a vendor selling cha ca, the famous fishcake. Everything is delicious, start to finish, and we are happy to sample it all.
The further we delve into the neighbourhood around Co Giang, the more the action picks up. Almost every inch of sidewalk – and some parts of the street – is given over to food, and the atmosphere is filled with smoke from the charcoal barbeques.
After a few more stops, including bo la lot (grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves) and a bowl of Saigon’s signature hu tieu, we manage to find room for dessert. In this case it is kem xoi dua. Beautifully presented in half a coconut shell, the sweet sticky rice is topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, crushed peanuts and pieces of roasted coconut. Like a very Vietnamese sundae.
Wandering off into the night with amply filled bellies, my friend and I agree there were places we would not have gone and food we would not have tried otherwise. It seems if you are here for five years or just five days there is always something to discover about the amazing food available on the streets of Saigon.