Saigon is called the culinary capitol of the country, and with good reason. There is food everywhere. Everywhere you go there are people cooking and eating in the street at all times of day. All of the restaurant menus look just as good as their neighbors, so finding a place to eat is a difficult decision, though there is usually very little risk involved. Thing is, though, as tempted as you are to sit in a nice restaurant, the best and cheapest food thus far has been found on the street. To prove this, I will walk you through a day of eating in Saigon.
Wake up early in the morning and prepare yourself for a culinary extravaganza. For breakfast, you could just walk downstairs and partake of your hotel’s included fare of a small loaf of fresh bread with butter and jam, an omelet, juice and tea. But this is only is offered at some of the hotels. In the event your hotel is stingy, head out to the street where vendors eagerly await your rumbling tummy. There you can buy fruit of all kinds, freshly chopped for you and put into little baggies with a fondue stick to eat it with on the go. Add to this some pastries off the neighboring cart: cream puffs, chocolate cream puffs, croissants, and meat pies. From here, continue on with your morning’s activities.
Around noon you will start to get peckish again. Head to the big market in District one, where an entire open-air building is full of vendors selling all kind of things from silk scarves to dried squid. On one side of the building there are between ten and fifteen mini-kitchens with benches all around where locals and internationals alike sit happily munching on Vietnamese fare. It may take some time to pick which of the booths to choose, particularly because each of them has their own extremely aggressive marketer pushing her menu in your face and pointing to an open table. Be assertive with what you want and make the rounds before you decide. Look at what the other people are eating and make your choice that way.
When you finally do sit down, I recommend partaking of either the fresh or the fried spring rolls: very different experiences with the same name. The fried spring rolls differ from place to place, but the best ones I’ve had so far are wrapped in what tastes like crispy lace. Chew this slowly and meditate on the complexity and delicacy of a thousand quiet crunches. The insides can be full of whatever you wish, be it meat or veggies or shellfish or some kind of combination. If they are sprinkled with black pepper, prepare yourself for a treat. Dip them into soy sauce for a little bit of heaven. The fresh spring rolls are made with magical rice paper. Rice paper is deceptive, for at first it is tough and crackly, like paper. When it gets wet, it turns soft and moist and delectable. Inside a fresh spring roll are some vermicelli noodles, rice, shrimp, a strip of pork, lemongrass and Thai basil. Find yourself some of the dipping sauce made out of hoisin and peanuts to complete the perfect spring roll experience.
For a main course, try something a little out there. I got myself a dish called tiny pork with udon and a special coconut sauce. The coconut has a might power, friend, and it works unexplainable wonders when added to fish sauce. The noodles were thick and worm like, but don’t let this deter you from slurping each one with the same satisfaction as Pumba enjoyed when eating grub in the Lion King. The little strips of pork added nuggets of protein, the basil strips slices of bursting flavor.
The afternoons in Siagon are the hottest time of day. Your body will become sluggish and weary, particularly if you just visited the war museum. You see around you that many of the locals happily sip iced coffee on the sides of the road. Ask them where they got it, and they will point you to a guy on a motorbike. Order one of these and will return a minute later carrying iced coffees dangling on trays hanging from the sides of his bike, each cup full of swirling, sweetened, condensed milk . Stir, sip, stir, sip, stir, sip, be happy.
At dinner time, head back to the market. Restaurants have set up stands at the night market on the streets outside the main building. As with lunch, prepare yourself for the same level of marketing agression, but also as with lunch, do not succumb to the pressure. Go to the restaurants where a guy is grilling on the outside. Check out his sizzling bbq’ed beef and pork and shrimp and then find some dish that puts that on top of vermicelli noodles or fried rice. Order some of the garlic greens on the side and one of the local beers to top it off. Don’t be afraid to pour all of the fish sauce on your dish. That stuff is magical, I swear: spicy, savory and sweet all at the same time. I heard one of the Top Chef winners used it on everything and it was to fish sauce that he acreditted his victory.
Vermacelli noodles, I find, are one of the most satisfying foods on the planet. They slurp so well. I think this is why everyone in Vietnam eats them for three meals a day. They also take on the flavor of whatever sauce they are in, no matter how long they have been there. They are good dry, wet, and fried. The feeling of having your mouth overflowing with delicious noodles is one of the best food experiences of my life, and here I can have it as often as I please.
And this, my friend, is a day in Saigon.
Oh, and might I add, something that makes all of this taste even better is that each meal costs just about $2. Boo ya.