Saigon is a hot city. It’s quite sunny, too. Both combine nicely to make this place feel like Miami in August by high noon. So in this tropical heat bath is piling raw meats on dirty tables and cardboard sidewalk mats really the sanest way to purvey a perishable item? Evidently this system works given the endless stream of potential customers buzzing around the meat like flies on you know what. We can even watch motorbikes pull right up to these vendors in some sort of drive through scene gone horribly wrong. The driver will fondle chunks of meat barehanded without even alighting. Meat is hacked with a cleaver and then the contents shoved into a bloody plastic bag soon dangling from the bike’s storage hook.
You get the picture here. In my quest to connect more with my local neighborhood apart from the meat ladies, I’ve been sampling some of the small food joints set up in front of people’s homes. My “restaurant” today competes for sidewalk space with those piles of animal scraps just steps away. Surely this restaurant meat isn’t from the nearby carnage, is it? Something tells me what I fear to be true really is, and I wish it were possible to just wish away this probable reality. Then again what we don’t know for sure, can’t hurt us.
While I looked for the watermelon man who peddles his wares from the back of a battered bike on a sidestreet behind The Manor Apartments in Binh Thanh District, a friendly woman of the seasoned citizen age group smiled at me and motioned for me to sit down on one of her squat stools. She sat wedged in between a giant vat of boiling liquid and a miniature grill blowing smoke all over the table. This little sidewalk operation wouldn’t even have the remotest chance
My ordering a bowl of bún riêu, or crab and noodle soup was enough to fascinate a couple of older women who parroted my words to no one in particular. I brought them even more fodder when I said the Hanoi word for yes, “vang.” I heard a bunch of what to me sounded like babble followed by “oooohh. Hanoi, Hanoi, Hanoi” and a bunch of laughter. Perhaps learning the Saigon word for “yes” at some point can help me blend in even more than I already do.
Since I lack enough Vietnamese vocabulary to even let the lady know how much I enjoyed her food other than giving two thumbs up and leaving behind an empty bowl, inquiring into her secret recipe is well beyond any possibilities. But in general, bún riêu is normally prepared by pounding freshwater rice paddy crabs into a paste, shell and all. This interesting base then mixes into a liquid tinted red by annatto seeds and truly is where the flavor’s at. Fried tofu, tomatoes, pork, a type of sausage steamed in a banana leaf, congealed pig blood, mint, perilla and more add an interesting combination of sour and sweet. Finally, lime juice and hot chili pepper paste are common table condiments kicking the flavors up a few more notches.
After sampling all these fresh simmering liquids such as bún riêu and pho cooked the time honored traditional Vietnamese way from scratch, how can I ever go back to the canned Campbell’s stuff masquerading as soup back home? If such an equivalent to all this flavor exists in the west, someone please let me know. Eating in Vietnam feeds more than just our stomachs. Our senses walk away from the table full as well.