A Hem For All Meals

I’ve been exploring Saigon’s alleys for new foods and the delicious results inspired this week’s article for Tuoi Tre newspaper.   Unlike back home, alleys are not the sort of place where the unsuspecting might get jacked up and robbed.  These are vibrant neighborhoods where the authentic Saigon rises around the narrow passageways.  Here is the link and the text follows:

http://www.tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/city-diary/a-hem-for-all-meals-1.73003

Much to my surprise and delight, I have discovered the hem, or alley, to be an integral component of the Vietnamese cityscape.  I do admit to having arrived in Vietnam full of alley stereotypes – largely a product of my growing up in the United States.  Whether a dark and foreboding passageway between skyscrapers downtown or a serviceway for trash collection and parking in the suburbs, an alley back home is just not a destination lending itself to pleasant exploration.

Quite the opposite, Saigon’s hems are a portal into a hidden world of laundry hanging from balconies, the scent of cooking wafting from open kitchen windows, and music playing in small shops all shielded from the hustle and bustle of the main boulevards.  The first time I entered such a hem, I felt as if I had been transported back to an American state fair negotiating the “Maize Maze.”   Much like navigating this huge labyrinth of corn stalks built into a puzzle, the hem’s complex web of midrise concrete buildings and never-ending narrow streets caused me to wonder if I would ever find my way out.

Besides a glimpse into the real lives of people beyond the guidebook pages, many of Saigon’s hems are wonderful food destinations well off the beaten path.  Whether you desire a full meal on the cheap or only a quick snack on the go, chances are that a hem near you will hit the spot.  So no more “hemming and hawing” as we say in America…Let’s get out there and explore a few of District 1’s alleyway street food offerings.

Hem 18A off Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street is home to several food shops ranging from vegetarian to Bun Bo Bao Tram Restaurant where I discovered a complex crab noodle soup known as bun rieu cua.  Crabs, shell and all, are pounded into a paste which along with tomatoes forms the basis of a slightly sweet broth.

Sausage with black pepper bits, fried fish cake, and even a slice of meatloaf compete with the crab for center stage in this rich liquid tinted red by annatto seeds.  Scallions, onions, and garlic round out the flavor combination which is further elevated with a squeeze of fresh lime, birds eye chili peppers, and vinegary pepper relish.  Each steaming spoonful reminds me of why this soup has become one of my all-time favorite hem meals.

A narrow alleyway only slightly wider than the metal tables lining one wall at 179 Ly Tu Trong Street not far from the Ben Thanh Market serves a twofer of savory and sweet street food treats.   A small VND20,000 (US$1) portion of bot chien with a sunnyside up egg is the perfect light meal.  Frying cubes of thick pho noodles yields crisp outer shells encasing insides remaining chewy soft.  Hot sauce combined with the egg’s runny yolk provides a surprisingly good sauce the sweet bot chien eagerly absorb.  This one tastes close to the scrambled eggs and home fries I enjoy for breakfast in the US.

Sliding down just a couple of meters to a different set of tables allows us to sample a wallet friendly VND25,000 ($1.2) dessert.   Fresh fruits including pineapple, coconut, strawberry, papaya swirl into yoghurt and crushed ice to provide cool respite from the night’s warm air.   The addition of avocado takes me somewhat aback as in the West this is considered more vegetable than fruit, but in any case the slightly sour pulp meshes well with its sweeter tropical friends.

The setting sun gives rise to a whole new side of sidewalk dining with our final snack only available after dark at the very top of Hem 15B off Le Thanh Ton Street.  With origins in Japan, takoyaki is the perfect evening delight served straight from the griddle in a tiny storefront at number 15B/12A.  Batter filled with small slices of octopus turn into piping hot balls finished off with liberal amounts of hot sauce and mayonnaise along with a sprinkle of dried seaweed.  35,000 VND buys nine pieces, and for a real dietary splurge the hungry can exchange VND65,000 ($3) for 18 takoyaki.

Major boulevards and busy highways crisscross our city’s surface with the hems leading us straight to Saigon’s heart and soul with a few great meals to boot.  I hope these three locations provide a diverse taste filled foundation on which to build your own delectable hem explorations.

Categories: Uncategorized

One Comment on “A Hem For All Meals”

  1. May 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Glad I found your blog – I live in Saigon and want to get out and try the street food a bit more!

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