Saigon has a slightly different cuisine from Hanoi in the north, and no better way to discover it than living like a local. I enjoyed styaing in an apartment (another score through airbnb.com) outside the city center, in Binh Thanh District, and took advantage of the neighborhood market to explore new foods close to home. I loved cooking in with all the fresh fruit and vegetable selection right outside the door, but Saigon is too much of a foodie haven to eat in every day.
At street vendors you can fill up on pho soups, bun bo hue (beef noodle soup), or com tam (broken rice served with meat and condiments), for a dollar a meal. I couldn’t get enough of the little bowls of coconut rice porridge with sweet red beans topped with more coconut cream (for all of 25 cents) that I ate for breakfast almost every morning but alas have no pictures of. And of course the necessary condensed-milk laden iced coffees. Just writing about it makes me want to get on a plane and go back for a fix.
Here are a few particular favorites from eating in the city.
A Tour of Snail Street With Saigon Street Eats
I almost never take a tour, opting to stumble on sidewalk cafes and street food vendors by chance, but I don’t like leaving shellfish to chance. It’s a food I’m not too familiar with am paranoid about getting sick from, but it’s a must-try in Vietnam so in this particular case a tour was in order.
That’s where Saigon Street Eats came in.
One of their xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers picked me up at the apartment at 6:30 pm and took me to join Barbara and Vu, our fearless leaders, and the five other travelers in our group on the aptly named Snail Street, Nguyễn Thượng Hĩền, in District 3. I found out after the fact that Anthony Bourdain had highlighted the street on his show No Reservations. How cool is that?
Barbara and Vu not only taught us how to eat what we ate—open the little gate on the sea snails with the tip of the safety pin before digging them out of their shells—but also filled us in on the stories and culture surrounding the foods. Snail street is a popular date night for new couples, a sneaky way to gauge your potential mate’s oral skill. Slurp!
We got to sample a few non-seafood “treats” as well. Duck fetus, fried crickets, and grilled coconut-y rice crackers. Duck fetus wasn’t so bad (tasted like egg). I discovered I prefer my crickets battered, which is the thing on the stick I am daintily eating in one of the pics above.
Also handy was learning how to toast in Vietnamese: Moat hi bah, yo! (one, two three, yo!) or just Yo! which came in handy a few days later on the train, when the family in my sleeper cabin insisted I have a (warm) beer with them.
Anyway, fun was had by all and I was sent home stuffed and toasty from all the toasting. Thankfully, the local beer has a low alcohol content.
Breakfast right outside the door
Food stalls in Vietnam have a way of appearing and disappearing throughout the day. Every few hours a sidewalk or alleyway will look completely different, vendors setting up for a few hours then packing up and leaving, carting an entire sidewalk restaurant setup away, gear piled high and stunningly balanced on what looks like a small ice cream cart. And then another vendor moves in. It’s a culinary game of musical chairs and I love it, except it’s hard to navigate a neighborhood based on landmarks when the landmarks keep up and moving.
The best breakfast in my neighborhood was “the breakfast guy” next door. And when I say next door I mean step out the front door, look to your right, and there he was (with bleached blond hair). He made a big batch of one thing fresh each day (usually soup) and sold it from 7 am til it ran out, usually by 10. Just my luck the one day I bring my camera he doesn’t make soup, but this dish is beautiful, too.
Com Tam (broken rice) with three kinds of pork. You can (and should) add a fried egg on top (I didn’t). It’s really common to eat savory, dinner-like meals for breakfast across Asia, and fried eggs go on everything.
The Rare Restaurant: Papaya
It’s rare that I go to restaurants. I’ve kept trying them but have almost never enjoyed the food as much as I do street food. The food at these places is out of my preferred price range and lacks that quintessential flavor oomph for me. But in Saigon I ate indoors at an actual restaurant, and I liked it.
Papaya came highly recommended by my host and did not disappoint. I wish I’d tried it sooner (not my last day in the city) because I definitely would’ve returned to try other things on the menu. That’ll teach me to go turning my nose up at restaurants.
Up next, Hoi An in Central Vietnam, where I get a cooking lesson!