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Hungry in Ho Chi Minh City

LiveMint logoLiveMint 29-09-2017 Vidya Balachander

I don’t have an aptitude for maps. When I arrive in a new city, my mental compass still in transit, the lines and squiggles on a map give me cold comfort. Unlike those who fearlessly conquer unfamiliar roads, wielding their maps like a weapon, I generally straggle along, searching for a signpost that can set my bearings straight. Usually, that signpost is a street cart. There is no surer consolation than the yeasty aroma of just baked bread, or the smoke rising from meat barbecuing on a rickety roadside stand. No matter how disoriented I am, hitting upon a street stall is usually all it takes to push the reset button.

Shortly after I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s frenetic commercial capital, I knew it was a city that I would have no trouble navigating. It was chaotic in that familiar South-East Asian way. Unruly telephone cables snaked like tangled threads between crumbling, Communist-era buildings and swanky skyscrapers; scooters darted in and out of serpentine traffic jams; and people sat at roadside cafés, content to linger over cups of coffee. At every turn, I found small groups of people immersed in the business of snacking—twirling their chopsticks around noodles, or tucking handfuls of herbs into a crusty bánh mì—unmindful of the oppressive humidity or the beads of sweat forming on their brows. It was clear that I had come to a city after my own heart.

Hawkers selling peanuts at the Cho Lon open-air market.

It was well past lunch hour, and the slanted afternoon light collected in pools in the quiet backstreets of central Ho Chi Minh City. On our Airbnb host’s recommendation, my husband and I had ventured out in search of Pho Hùng, a joint in Nguyen Cu Trinh, that enjoys a local reputation for its rendition of the country’s most iconic noodle dish. As we walked along, I noticed that the broad sidewalks were communal spaces shared equitably between cafés that were little more than two stools and a street view; groups of elderly men huddled around mahjong, a board game; and the generic chain restaurant that served to interrupt our idyllic reverie.

At Pho Hùng, the spotless stainless-steel tables, immediately calibrated our expectations. The food—not frills—is the essence here. We ordered two bowls of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup. Rich from the meaty broth, and liberally laden with slices of barbecued pork, the pho was the lattice upon which the accompaniments added layers of flavour: pungency from the generous pile of green herbs, crunch from bean sprouts, sharpness from pickled garlic cloves, heat from sliced chillies, acidity from quartered limes.

A vendor selling doughnuts and pastries on the city’s Bui Vien Road.

As afternoon turned into evening, the city’s streets surged with the urgency of office-goers looking to beat the infamous traffic gridlocks. Taking advantage of the cooler evening temperature, groups of fashionable youngsters sprawled on the stairs of Saigon Square, a mall selling souvenir T-shirts, knock-off luxury brands and Korean clothes. My eyes wandered to a small, hand-pushed cart that had just taken its place on the side of the road, besides a busy traffic intersection. Small clouds of steam rose from the cart, which held neat mounds of xoi or sticky rice that were arranged as thoughtfully as a piece of art. The sticky rice came in a variety of flavours, and corresponding colours: green pandan, purple yam, orange, and black bean. The vendor heaped generous spoonfuls of four varieties into a takeaway box, and topped the sticky-sweet rice with salty coconut cream, sesame seeds and a shower of powdered sugar. Tucking into it right away, as the city switched to its neon-lit, nocturnal avatar, I began to appreciate why Ho Chi Minh City is hailed as one of the world’s street food capitals. Not just for the sheer variety of street eats that constantly compete for your attention, but also for the care and artistry with which they are prepared and presented.

A few days later, I bought a book dedicated to street food in Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh is still popularly known among locals. It reinforced Saigon’s reputation as a city that is singular in its dedication to street food. Where I had expected a general summary of the city’s street food scene, I found pages dedicated to each street food, with astonishingly precise instructions on where to find the one vendor who makes the best xoi bap or corn sticky rice, or banh xeo, crepes smeared with shrimp, pork and mung (green gram) bean paste.

As you might imagine, we spent our days in Saigon purposefully drifting from one street food to another, with brief pit stops to appreciate the city, as it unfurled around us. More often than not, both sustenance and sightseeing were to be found in the same place.

A stall selling barbecued fish.

With space at a premium and apartments that are often cramped and airless, the street is co-opted as a necessary extension of everyday life. On slow Sunday mornings, the cafés lining the city’s sidewalks are full of customers, browsing the papers as they would in their living rooms, with a cup of cà phê or strong, Vietnamese-style drip coffee as accompaniment. Some may find this constant company of strangers in public places exhausting, but I felt a kinship with them that transcended culture and language. To me, the city’s streets—and all the people who share it—added an essential and inalienable texture to my experience of it.

I left one quintessentially Vietnamese experience—the quán oc or snail restaurant—for the very end. Snail-eating is something of a shared national obsession in Vietnam, so much so that the act of snail-eating even has a term dedicated to it, “ăn oc”. While snails are the star attraction at a quán oc, it is also a showcase for all kinds of other seafood—from crabs and shrimp to scallops and mussels.

On our penultimate night in Saigon, we visited Vĩnh Khánh Street, a seafood street lined with several oc restaurants spread out on both sides of the road. When we entered one of the eateries, my first reaction was not an exuberant one. I felt like an unwelcome intruder at a dimly lit house party, where all the guests had long left, leaving a pile of snail shells as evidence of their attendance. Heaps of crab claws and mollusc shells lay stacked on rickety tables, and a cat skulked in search of some tasty morsels. A server soon arrived, and we ordered a plate of oc huong cay man or snails with chilli and salt, and scallops with scallions and peanuts.

Snails in a spicy butter sauce,

Around us, a group of young professionals were enjoying their night out. Between reapplying their make-up and taking swigs of beer, the girls delicately stuck pincer-like forks into snail shells, scooped the meat out and slurped it up. Taking a cue from them, I gingerly speared a mollusc with the handy tool I had just been given and took a bite—salty, spicy and slightly chewy, it made for an incredibly moreish snack. But even more than the flavour of the snails, it was the thrill of eating like a local—and embracing an unfamiliar experience—that allowed me to really soak in the spirit of Saigon.

On another day, I may have opted for hygiene over adventure, or the reassuring ambience of a restaurant over the shabbiness of a snail eatery. But on that day, I was grateful for this uncensored glimpse into how the city lives, eats and parties. With several cities across South-East Asia clamping down on street food, a way of life is under threat. Given that frightening prospect, dining in a dodgy snail eatery in Saigon was laced with an almost defiant thrill.

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