Monday, January 29, 2007

Travel Food: Savory Streets of Saigon

This is the first in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.
Walking the streets of Saigon, you'll past a whiff of fish sauce or the crackling sound of oil frying up something savory. The Vietnamese are an entrepreneurial people, so many will just cook up something from home or, most likely, right there on the sidewalk and sell it to anyone who strolls by with an appetite.

During my trip, I found that there were two types of street food: First, the ones from vendors who pushes a cart or wagon and are selling things from snack foods like fresh fruits, local-style drinks or crunchy favorites, or second, the street food vendors who have elaborate set ups to sell pho or bun and encourage people to just pull up a plastic chair and eat on the sidewalk.

You'll see street food vendors all over the city, but with the growing tourism trade, the government is cracking down on street vendors near the touristy areas. One day I was strolling near the square that features the Notre Dame Cathedral and it was near the end of the day and you could see workers sitting on plastic stools enjoying several cheap street meals like bun when I saw another vendor quickly pack up his things, hopped on his motor scooter and took off, honking his horn all the time. He was escaping a police officer who was coming down the street and his honking was a warning to the other street vendors, who quickly packed up and scurried away. I felt sorry for all the customers who were eating at the time because they quickly had their food taken away.

As for me, I have to admit that the most daring thing I did street-foodwise was buying the yummy bahn mi sandwiches as an instant snack as I walked around Saigon/HCMC. You've probably already heard me complaining about the humidity during my trip, so it was unbearable for me to sit in the 90-degree weather and eat a hot bowl of pho or bun. I stuck to the restaurants where I could at least get some air-conditioning with my pho.

So I can't give an expert review on the street food of Saigon. But it is diverse. Some looked good, some mysterious while others a bit scary. It definitely is a gastronomic adventure to eat on the streets of Saigon.

These women were frying up something interesting close to the tourist district and not too far from Ben Thanh Market.

This was a cafeteria-like local street restaurant where people would pick what they wanted at the counter and then sit on plastic stools and tables on the side of the building. It seemed really popular.
Coconut juice straight from the coconut was a popular seller around town. I've had coconut juice growing up in Hawaii so it wasn't anything new to me, but it was definitely refreshing.

This woman is selling the popular fresh spring rolls or goi cuon with fish sauce for a dipping sauce all ready to go.
This vendor near the Chinese district of HCMC called Cho Lon is selling some Chinese stir-fry noodles.
Barbeque pork on the grill. You always feel hungry walking the streets when you can smell that great scent of burning meat. Hmmmm.
A cart full of jackfruit for sale.

4 comments:

Seth said...

Well, it certainly looks good, although I'm curious about the "scary" food. Food with sharp claws and teeth? Food turning green and fuzzy in the mid-day sun?

Chef Ben said...

More the later, food with flies buzzing around. And on another note, even though street food is super cheap, sometimes the quality isn't. I noticed several vendors who sold noodle soup and the noodles were the blocked noodles from the instant noodle packages. So it must have been a matter of providing a food for the price rather than the quality. Like I said, it was a mix.

Marianne said...

bahn mi?? What are they like?

Here in Philadelphia there is a fairly large Vietnamese population and there are beginning to be Vietnamese "hoagie" shops. (The hoagie is the classic, hero-like, sub-like local sandwich.) So now we have a Vietnamese take ... classic Italian market roll with cilantro, hot peppers, fish sauce (I think) head cheese (!) meat paste wonderful. But I have to wonder how they relate to street food in Saigon.

Chef Ben said...

Hi Marianne, I love the banh mi and eat them all the time in the Bay Area, where we have a pick of shops with varying qualities. (I talk about them in the previous post.

But in Vietnam, they're everywhere and very consistent. I'm going to dedicate a whole post just about this sandwich wonder in the near future (remember, every Sunday and Monday!) so I don't want to give away too much. But I can say it's always crunchy and in Saigon, very spicy. Sounds like the one's you're seeing might be similar, with the cilantro and hot peppers. But I've never seen cheese in any traditional banh mi. Thanks for your question!