When I planned the trip to Cambodia last year, it was a choice between flying in to either Bangkok, Thailand or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. (There were no direct flights from Manila to Cambodia back then;but now Philippine budget carrier Cebu Pacific flies to Siem Reap, yay!) Picked Saigon because according to other travelers the border situation between Vietnam and Cambodia was more organized, plus I’ve never been to Vietnam, and I seriously wanted to spend an entire day eating pho, banh mi, the Lunch Lady’s special and other Vietnamese foods. So when P and I woke up on our first morning in the Vietnamese city after flying in at 1 am and getting to our hotel at almost 2:30 a.m. (after immigration and the long line at the lone money changer opened in the airport), our first goal was to find a bowl of good pho.
Pho for breakfast (or lunch or dinner). We were based in District 1, near the Pham Ngu Lao street, an area considered as the backpacker’s district. Pho Quynh, one of the many restaurants in Saigon known for good pho, is along this street. Most diners are Vietnamese, but since the resto has been included in the guidebooks, a good number are tourists as well. Pho is a soup typically made with rice noodles, meat (usually beef or chicken), leaves of mint and Asian basil, bean sprouts, and a side of lime and some chilies. I had Pho Bo Chin (beef noodle soup with well-done beef). The broth was fantastic (light with very subtle flavors of the herbs) and the beef just right to the bite. We would have other bowls of pho, by the sidewalk, the hotel, and more sidewalks. Nothing though compared to our first bowl.
Banh Mi for merienda. Merienda means snack or a light meal in Filipino, eaten during the gap between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner. Most of us Pinoys prefer to eat rice for the main meals of the day, so sandwiches (unless those scary supersize versions) are considered light. Banh Mi was our go-to Vietnamese snack. It refers to a baguette sandwich filled with meat (it can be pork belly, sausage, other cold cuts, grilled chicken, pork meatballs, etc. depends on the stall you find), pork liver pate, fresh cucumber slices, cilantro, some pickled veggies and even Laughing Cow cheese. The ones sold in Saigon also add mayonnaise.
Banh Mi is unabashedly a street food, so if you’re particular about all those ingredients being exposed to the elements all day long, you might find yourself asking to hold off the mayonnaise. Or some of the meats? Or the pate? We had everything though and thankfully didn’t get an upset tummy. Some of the ingredients were not the best slices of meat, but the bread. Oh the crsipy and soft bread. P and I made sure to buy a couple and some cheese from the Banh Mi stall along De Tham street before boarding the bus for Cambodia. The Banh Mi stall near Pho Quynh puts slices of pork belly in her sandwiches.
Look for the Lunch Lady. It’s all thanks to Anthony Bourdain. He and Gastronomy blogger, who first wrote about the Lunch Lady (Nguyen Thi Thanh) back in 2008. She makes a different noodle dish or two for every day of the week. And every day, her noodle stall is frequented by local residents and office workers. It is located under a shady tree in a Saigon neighborhood that didn’t really lure tourists before–that is until Bourdain shared her with his millions of audience.
We went there on a Wednesday and wanted to make it before the lunch crowd descended upon it. We were there by 11. She was still cooking her mi ga tiem, a chicken dish with a sweet star anise broth and fresh egg noodles. But she was also serving hu tieu Nam Vang, which according to Gastronomy “is a Cambodian-Chinese concoction that the Vietnamese borrowed and made their own; it consists of a sweet pork broth and a number of odds and ends like quail eggs, innards and liver.” It’s also topped with fat pieces of shrimp and served with either egg noodles or rice noodles. Loved the sweet and subtle taste of the pork broth, which went well with the bold flavors of the liver and innards. We also got fresh spring rolls, which we didn’t order but made sense now after reading Gastronomy’s latest entry on the Lunch Lady. Didn’t really mind this extra dish that made its way to our table.
While we happily ate our noodles, the Lunch Lady was busy cooking the mi ga tiem. P was getting seduced by the smell and wanted to wait and order a bowl. But by the time we finished our noodles, we were already more than full. (For more on the kinds of noodles she serves, check out Gastronomy blog’s Lunch Lady entries; Gastronomy also has a map of the noodle stall. We showed it to our cab driver who dropped us off Hoang Sa but we still had to walk down an alley or two before we found her stall.)
Coffee by the sidewalk. One of the things I loved about Saigon (aside from how cheap a lot of things are–from hotel accommodations to meals) was how the people congregated outside their homes, to cook, to eat, to shoot the breeze. Many street stalls have plastic tables and stools to accommodate them hungry folks. Along Bui Vien St., just outside our hotel, you can find families, students, office workers having a meal by the sidewalk–a breakfast of noodle soup, a dinner of barbecued meats, or a tall glass of coffee.
Vietnamese coffee is brewed using stainless coffee filters. My friend Pinay Traveller writes in her very useful Top 10 things to do in Vietnam entry that this practice was passed on to the Vietnamese by their past colonizers the French. Do you think they might have also passed on the practice of enjoying their coffee by the side of the road?
On our last afternoon in Saigon, while P and I were roaming around backpacker’s area, we parked ourselves at Thuy Linh, one of the several humble coffee shops lining the streets. We ordered iced coffee with a bit of condensed milk to ward off the heat. When we were almost finished with our drinks, the owner gave us two cold glasses of tea. We appreciated all the caffeine we could have for our late-night flight.
Before you get the impression that all we did in Saigon was eat, drink and slurp many bowls of soup, P and I did go to the city’s several sights, haggled for some souvenirs, survived crossing the road, survived rude shop owners, and spent a fantastic evening watching water puppet theater. More on that in the next post!