Saigon (and Vietnam) Eats

I cringe when I see backpacker fare.  No, I do not want mediocre banana pancakes and a crappy burger (of which every other place in Vietnam likes to claim they have the BEST IN THE COUNTRY!).  It can’t be a hard competition, every one I’ve had has been awful and about three times the prices of delicious local fare.  So given the choices, although I do miss a good melty cheese and lots of international variety, I mostly stick to local fare.

Ho Chi Minh City reminds me of Los Angeles in that it does not have many specialties of its own as much as it is amazing at absorbing every other food around it and making it at least as good if not better.

I prefer savory breakfasts over sweet so Vietnam is a great country for me.  I did’t realize it extended beyond just rice noodle soups and porridges til midway through the country when I discovered bo ne: steak and eggs.

In Saigon, I discovered a better variation called bit tet involving pate and a meatball along with everything else. I forgot to get fries again though.

I’ve eaten a lot of op la (fried eggs) but heard a rumor there was a version covered in sausages and other breakfast meats. When I finally found it, it was as decadent as it sounded. The vegetarian meat makes it less greasy right?

One of my delightful local hosts took it upon her to show me some Saigon favorites.  She took me to eat pha lau, a coconut milk based soup full of offal that you eat with bread or noodles.  At this eating street outside a local high school I also got bot chien, a rice cake and egg mix that you slather in hot sauce.  I was still finishing up my drink when the police showed up and the entire street skedaddled.  My host seemed amused or pleased that a foreigner was so into something so odd so we continued our adventures.  Another day, we tore into various plates of snails, Canadian snails, clams, oysters and blood cockles in a huge two story restaurant full of drunk locals enjoying delicious seafood.  I’m definitely glad I had a local and more people to order this one, so much more satisfying than my point and hope seafood adventures alone by the coast.  Our last food adventure is the food known as hot vit lon (balut in Filipino food).  This is fertilized duck embryos where feathers and skeleton have just started forming, eaten later than the Filipino version.  You dip the whole yolky mess in chile lime salt and pepper sauce.  I found the quail version to be a better bite size alternative to the more disturbing duck eggs.

What would Vietnam be without more noodles though?  Rice noodles, wheat noodles, even glass or cellophane ones.  I went after some harder to get variations here because the vendors sell out so fast.  I started with bun thit nuong, a grilled pork and rice noodle salad that was absolutely delectable.  I went to a vendor that sells banh canh, extra thick rice noodles in their version of a thick peasant style broth.  They open daily at 3, and by the time I got there at 3:45 were out of all the delicious porky and meaty bits.  No worries, I took that as an excuse to get tamarind soft shell crabs at another place down the road.

The famous Lunch Lady as covered by the Gastronomy Blog and Anthony Bourdain. While some find her overrated I found her bun mam delicious. Full of fresh shrimp, fatty pork, eggplant and okra is a flavorful broth. She does a different rice noodle soup each day of the week so maybe some days are better than others.

Vung Tau is the home of banh knot, the little white cakes, but the version here is better than going to the sleazy port town or so I hear. The banh xeo are twice the size of what I’m used to seeing in America! Despite being full of delicious but bitter heart of palm, I found this too greasy to be enjoyable.

It isn’t all just white rice based things though. This place fried chicken underneath that waterfall you see and made tomato rice in the spinning fryer plate.

I was so hungry I took a few bites before I remembered to take photo evidence of the fryer waterfall. Sorry Krispy Kreme, this is my new favorite food waterfall.

I kept trying to find ca kho to, a river fish cooked inside of a clay pot with a sweet caramelized sauce. I failed miserably and only had mediocre canh chua sour soup in Saigon. Good thing my last stop in Vietnam was in the Mekong Delta, home of both these dishes to get fantastic versions. Restaurant Bay Bong in Chau Doc is much recommended for reasonably priced delicious versions of these dishes.

On a busy roundabout in midtown there is coconut ice cream with dried fruit in a coconut. It took me something ridiculous like five tries to find it when it was open, and it ended up being pretty disappointing for that much work. The coconut agar jelly in a coconut I had later that night was much superior.

I do miss american desserts and this sundae was the closest i could get. The cakes here are so not cutting it with their light crumb and supermarket like buttercream. Perhaps I should just stick to the che buoi (pomelo skin in coconut milk).

I have come from cities where there is a glut of food information and Saigon as a large metropolis is no slacker in this category.  So here’s my Eating Asia and Gastronomy Blog fed food map and one supplied by the excellent Eating Saigon!

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