Bún Thịt Nướng BBQ – 70 of 365

Bún Thịt Nướng

Seeing our Saigon home through the eyes of an outsider can change our own insider’s views.   Things that once wowed us soon fade into the background only to now go unnoticed.  What seems so normal and mundane now had once upon a time transported us on a journey far, far beyond our comfort zones.   Perhaps Bill Clinton stumbled upon something back in the day when he questioned and redefined what “is” is.   Well I fully understand your quandary now Mr. President.  What “is” is in Saigon is so many different things depending on who is asking what this is is.

A rather hectic visit to District 1’s overcrowded Ben Thanh Market in search of clay cooking pots happened to be my “is” this particular day.  This very one track mission was a world away from camera wielding western tourists aimlessly milling its hot cramped aisles while gawking at the hustle, bustle and cheap knockoff goods.  Though I do live in Saigon, the vendors would never peg me for a “local” armed with secret inside knowledge about their tricky ways and they looked at me like I was some sort of  western ATM ready to part ways with my cash.

Market Stall Eating

Two ladies from Western Australia chatted me up as I haggled for some $2 clay cooking pots.  The “is” of my two new friends was trying to interpret and digest the constant bombardment of overstimulation hurled their way.  They sought advice on what’s a fair price for souvenir tchotchkes but more so just really needed friendly reassurance from a fellow westerner that Saigon would eventually spit them out unscathed.

My cookware purchase prompted them to ask what is safe and local to eat in Saigon since the more tourist oriented food circuit still held them firmly in its bland and pernicious grip.   One of them mentioned that while the food at the market gives a good appearance, she worried food safety (and I use that term loosely) would only hours later cause a rebelling stomach.   Following the locals at peak eating times to a relatively clean (by Vietnam standards) place normally holds the food demons at bay.   My challenge became finding a meal at the market that would both wow them and give them a proper introduction to Vietnamese street food cuisine.

Six elderly women hovered over noodles at a corner stall and the place seemed to do a brisk takeaway business as well.   Obviously people don’t reach their 80’s eating bowls of e. coli so I took this as a good sign.   “Is it safe?” one of my new friends asked.  Well, just wait about six hours and an answer one way or the other shall be forthcoming.  In all seriousness though, that’s the same question I’ve asked myself in over 100 countries.  Living in Vietnam has lowered my food standards to about nothing, and these ladies helped remind me my normal is definitely anything but for visitors fresh off the plane.

No matter what “is” is to the three of us, we could all agree our bowls of bún thịt nướng were a most satisfying bridge between western sensibilities and a solid eastern taste sensation.   Picture it.  A large white bowl filled with sweet rice vermicelli barely fits atop a narrow silver metal counter in the middle of a noisy market.  Next a layer of chopped lettuce, mint, and Thai basil add some deep color and earthy taste against the plain white palette.  Two sorts of sweet marinated barbecue pork and a shrimp paste grilled on a sugarcane stalk take center stage atop the noodles.  Chopped peanuts and cut up spring rolls with pork stuffing support an already eclectic cast while spicy nước chấm with julienned carrots and daikon tasting so much more authentic than any “Asian Dressing” found back home binds it all together.

My two Australian friends commented this was their freshest and tastiest meal to date in Saigon, and their newfound courage will allow them to venture a bit deeper into the cuisine.  So mission accomplished and bon appetit.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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