The best meals in Vietnam usually cook up beyond the reach of any mainstream visitor guides. Sometimes taking a leap of faith and following the locals to a crowded street food joint brings us westerners into largely uncharted territories. Indeed, downtown Saigon is full of tour buses disgorging dozens of awe struck guidebook wielding tourists. After running around snapping pictures of the maelstrom, their bus vacuums them right back up into its safe hermetically sealed confines. How dare a tourist actually soil the bottoms of his shoes on these frenetic streets walking from place to place! Seriously though, how much can one really soak in from an air conditioned bus stopping at only the must sees?
Remember the BBC article we examined a couple of months ago challenging us to collect experiences rather than ticking off a list of monuments while traveling? Most visitors to Saigon will collect snapshots of the Reunification Palace and the Bitexco Tower and really only see one face of this complex city. The same logic applies to discovering a city through its food. As that bus spits everyone out at the next dot on the tourist trail, let’s just leave them all behind. Follow me deep into a side of Saigon lurking right in front of us if we dare scratch through the surface.
At first glance District 1’s Nguyen Trai Street seems devoid of any truly authentic street food experiences with its chain restaurants such as Dim Sum House and Wrap and Roll. But keeping our eyes open uncovers whispers of the real Saigon. Right next to street number 37 near western clothing shops at the head of an alley is a metal pushcart filled with the standard serving trays of largely unidentifiable meat products.
This stand’s brisk business is usually a good sign of food both fresh and safe. Most of the selection proved a bit too authentic for my taste though, but is that what I think they are floating in a reddish liquid? Yes indeed!! Finally something I can eat. I call them squid blimps since they look like miniatures with their bulbous bodies and wing like rear fins. Only a few weeks ago Café 91’s spicy mực nhồi thịt had furthered my food journey along with this seafood I never would have tried back home. How things change as now a second version weighed down a pile of steamed rice.
This back alley joint’s preparation definitely falls into “same same but different” territory with a sweet reddish sausage like stuffing tasting more of fish sauce and sugar than the spice of Café 91’s brown minced pork. A table of construction workers welcomed me right in with a mix of both hospitality and genuine curiosity why a white dude who speaks virtually no Vietnamese was skipping the more upmarket choices for this street joint. They made sure I had a fork and spoon and a few squares of toilet paper doubling as napkins. Is a roll of single-ply buttwipe an omen portending lunch’s eventual fate? God I hope not. They watched in fascination as I tucked into the squid and gave enthusiastic thumbs up when satisfied I wouldn’t be spitting it out in horror.
How lucky we are tiny mom and pop eateries like this hang on in the back alleys a world away from the tourist monuments. Let those tour bus people have the Hard Rock Café and Hogs Breath Saloon. My most memorable meals are at little sidewalk joints like this soaking in the local flavor.