What in the world!? Seriously. Only a few days into our trip and we’ve already eaten insane amounts of food, met some incredible people, and drank enough sweetened Vietnamese coffee to keep us buzzing through 110 degree heat (+humidity).
There is much to say upon landing in this fast-paced-crowded city of motorbikes and street food stalls. One could remark upon the incredible vibrancy, the intensity of smells wafting thru each and every alleyway, or the organized chaos of the city’s wild intersections that make a couple of foreigners like ourselves weak in the knees.
But, if you know anything about Udi and myself, you know that we are here to talk food. AND HOLY MOLY the food here is living up to every salivary expectation. You would expect a city of this many people – which is hotter than hell, to be full of that raunchy stinky-city smell. But in the case of HCMC the smells actually get better and better as the day goes on.
HCMC is like DisneyWorld for quick, fresh, energetic food, made with the tender love n’ care of someone (mostly women, btw) who clearly know what they are doing.
Here, the morning time is no different than the rest of the day in terms of flavors. For example you might find yourself partaking in a porky Banh Mi sandwich on warm toasty bread alongside a strong, sickly-sweet Vietnamese coffee on ice with tons of condensed milk. OR you might opt for the popular Banh Xeo; a crispy crunchy huge coconut milk and rice flour crepe, fried in oil and filled with pork, shrimp & heaps of bean sprouts. This is served (as are many things), with a pile of fresh herbs including mint, basil, fish herb or fish mint (Diếp Cá), and I think sorrel (Rau Chua). The last two herbs have a distinctly sour and almost off-putting taste, but are divine once you are used to them and their stink. Roll it all up inside giant crunchy lettuce leaves and dip into a sweetened fish sauce to get the full experience.
This whole fresh herb thing here is perfection. Take something deep fried in oil and throw some clean, bright herbaceous piles of stuff and you end up with a balanced bite, every. single. time.
If you aren’t eating everything from a street cart, you are a sucker. There, I said it.
We sniffed out a bunch of good stuff, literally by following our noses. Place trust in your olfactory instincts you are going to be better off as a result.
Lunchtime seems to thrive from around 12-2, and includes a variety of yummy choices. The people of HCMC spill into the street and beyond with plastic tables and chairs coming at you from every which way. The selection is daunting to say the least. From overflowing bowls of Pho, to plates of broken rice topped with marinated pork chops (Cơm tấm) and pickled daikon salad, steamy bao, skewers of meat, grilled to order and more. Many things are served with a small bowl of simple broth, made with a meaty stock and greens. Our assumption is that this aids in digestion – but we actually have no idea, we just eat and drink what is put in front of us. We also ate hot soup with broken rice and tons of animal parts we could not distinguish, some pate, some beef, some intestines, some sausage looking thingy, all topped with golden fried bread and fresh grated ginger. Add a squeeze of lime and prepare to be satisfied! Like a funky chicken soup for the soul. Salty and delicious.
We also tried a crispy noodle dish dripping in some sort of mucus and topped with pork and sauteed greens. While this dish did not visually appeal to us (or probably anyone, ever), it actually tasted quite good!
Udi begged to differ (unable to overlook the visuals), but even those experiences are worthwhile, if the people who live here are gobbling it up then I’m willing to give even the ugliest dishes a fair chance.
RULE #1: This applies anywhere, but most importantly, when you don’t speak the language EAT WHERE YOU SEE PEOPLE EATING. Meaning, if it is lunch time-and there are loads of Vietnamese people crouched over tiny tables in an alleyway slurping down this or that bowl of noodles and soup, then you should too.
Listen, we’ve played Russian Roulette with the food gods many-a-time, and we are still alive to tell the tale. What else is life for if not to take our chances on delicious bowls of unrecognizable substances?
RULE #2: No menu? no problem! Just point to something someone else is eating, you win! No idea what it is? If you really must know, sign language your way to an answer, flap your arms like a chicken, moo like a cow, oink like a pig, for christs sake.
RULE #3: To feel more confident about your street food choices – try scoping out the area around the vendor. Is it swarming with flies and cockroaches? Does the turnover look steady? A big customer base means fresher food and faster turnover of ingredients. But if you simply don’t like the look of a place or the way in which they are preparing it – then don’t eat there. Trust that there will be other choices to satisfy your hankering which won’t gross you out on face value.
And even with these rules, there are exceptions. We ate three dinners our first night here and two of them were consumed in a plaza swarming with young people, ladies with food stalls on the actual ground (no cart necessary) and yep – cockroaches. But, we figured, do as the Romans, no?
Dinner can run from 7 in the evening until midnight and beyond, depending on what you are looking for. It is easy to eat street food for this meal as well. The street scene in HCMC is popping! We had the chance to eat both in a restaurant that was written about in Travel & Leisure magazine for it’s famed crab dishes as well as several street-side vendors dolling out noodle bowls to HCMC ‘s young and beautiful. Either option can be a great choice – just know that any sit down spot is going to charge more, and if they have an English menu than they are most likely already charging you more. But you can really decide how much that matters to you, since anyway the cost of most meals here is less then the cost of a loaf of bread back home.
While we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this place, both food and otherwise, we have been so warmly welcomed by everyone we’ve met so far. A soft spoken Kung Fu instructor talked to us in depth about the importance of the mind/body connection in Vietnamese culture, our home-stay host helped to make sure we knew where to get the best coffee, families leaning out of their homes in back alleys smiled and said hello as we wandered past them with mouths gaping, (looking severely dehydrated), and random teenagers want to take pictures with me! Our first night here we even managed to sit and chat with 4 friends who all work together and they not only gave us some good tips, we exchanged Instagrams (as one does in 2016) and then they bought us dinner!
It is also impossible to cover everything the food in HCMC has to offer. It is a huge place, with tons of people. The feeling though, is that food is life force here in a way that I’ve never experienced before. It nourishes the people of the city in such a critical way, that without the many women (and some men) that stand curbside under hot sun, the city would fall apart. Each cart focusing on 1 or a handful of small dishes offers their customers a certain assurance that what they are doing is great – or at least good. Which for the most part is what we are all looking for – a good solid meal to keep us going. Thank you Saigon for giving us that.