Saigon, Vietnam – Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You
Since the first day I was with Jeni, I told her that I wanted to see Vietnam. I had a lot of Vietnamese friends in college and they had introduced me to the Vietnamese culture in Orange County, California. It was one food I enjoyed eating and wanted to know more about it. Both the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove are better known to outsiders as Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese enclave in California. To Vietnamese immigrants, it was a satellite home with many of the attributes of their country, completely intact. To the group I had met in college, Little Saigon meant occasional visitations to tailor shops to make my own slacks, late nights dining at the old Spire’s diner, weekend loiterings at the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho), karaoke lounges, Vietnamese electronic clubs and of course, a TON of good eating.
In 2007, we had an amazing trip to Yangshuo, China. She was meeting me in Hong Kong via Vietnam, and from there we would take off to Southern China. I was actually more interested in hearing about her trip to Vietnam than introducing her to my motherland of Hong Kong. She promised me that we would go together one day to experience half of her heritage.
It was almost October and we still had not planned our Christmas holiday trip. We had just visited Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, so we had to stay off the South America track for a little while. If you haven’t noticed, our budget has only allowed us to do Central/South America and Asia. We’re not at the point where we can get a butt-kicking in places like London, where a burger will cost you nearly $20. $20 in our choice countries goes a long way. So we looked to Asia again. We had the idea of visiting each of our motherlands. She, being Vietnamese and Japanese and me being Chinese and Laotian, we would go for this. I would get to see Vietnam and she and I would see Laos (my father’s country) for the first time. We’ve both been to Hong Kong together and Japan separately, so those were somewhat checked off the list.
A few days before Christmas, we stood at Tom Bradley International wielding our plump backpacks. We said goodbye to her mom and walked into the terminal with a glow on our faces. It was our third Christmas of traveling and time away from Los Angeles – what a feeling that is.
12 hours later, we took a pit stop in Taipei and we found ourselves standing…
in the Hello Kitty Lounge of the Tao Yuan International airport. What sicko decided to build something like this? Pink chairs, shiny murals and checkered tiles. Look what they did to one of the EVA Air planes! If you ask me, it’s cute-overload terrorism. Didn’t they know that it was narcotics to Jeni and every Asian girl in the world. And that every one of those doped-up girls would make their brothers, fathers, boyfriends and husbands take photos of them. There I stood, taking photos of my adult-wife in front of murals and waiting for her to shop for things she didn’t need in the Hello Kitty store. But I didn’t care really, because in a few hours, I was about to have an authentic bowl of pho. I immediately forgot where I was and smiled. I must have looked like a still-living-with-parents pedophile, standing there in that Hello Kitty Lounge. The day will come when Hello Kitty becomes an evil dictator, you’ll see.
We were back on the plane in a few hours. You know that interactive map channel in planes? I checked it periodically to see how our little white airplane was doing. I love how the cartoon representation makes you forget that you’re flying at 500+ mph. 35,000 feet in the air. Over deep oceans. I watched it pass Korea, Japan, Hong Kong… and finally approach Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We finally landed and I expected the airline attendant to get on the speaker: “Hello, we are now descending into Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare you for the delectable foods of Vietnam, we’ve begun to pump fish sauce and pho broth into the vents to whet your appetite. Enjoy your time here and don’t drink tap water. Thanks for flying with us.”
Jeni looked at me and just shook her head. She knew what I was thinking about.
“Hey! Hold on okay? Be patient.” I was ready. To eat.
We picked up our backpacks at the carousel and found a taxi driver. Of all the times I’ve driven or been in other countries, I was not prepared for the type of traffic Ho Chi Minh City is known for. There was traffic EVERYWHERE. Scooters, motorbikes and trucks came from all directions, even towards us, like the city was one big beehive. Some motorists were so close to the vehicle I could have reached out and given them a high-five. And at times, there were people crossing through this madness with caution, yet they seemed relaxed. Jeni looked at me and laughed, “Welcome to Saigon.” I sat back in my seat to give my eyes a break from this visual overload and just soaked it all in.
After a few minutes, it just seemed to make sense to me. And I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. To any foreigner, this was the end of their life. To Vietnamese, this was the theory of yin and yang in action. It was the norm. Saigon has made me appreciate the beauty of LANES. If the game developers of Gran Turismo run out of ideas for their next game, I’ve got a suggestion. Racing on a track against other people is easy, but what about adding the obstacle of dodging people, animals and vehicles from all directions. Think of it as an updated version of Frogger.
The next day I woke up at around 5:45 am. Not to the sound of my alarm or iPhone, but a LOUD rooster. I smiled and thought to myself, “Only in Asia!” I took a look outside of the guesthouse window and spotted the rooster that signaled the beginning of some good eating. He paced back and forth on a small balcony like a military soldier on patrol duty. All around me, I could hear the never-ending cacophony of street life. People chattering and scooters honking. I showered, got dressed and gave the wife a kiss. Without asking me where I was going, she said, “have fun.” Of course, she knows. She’s my wife.
At 6 am, life was happening here in Saigon. District 1 of Saigon to be exact. We stayed in an area called Pham Ngu Lao, an area where most backpackers stay. The whole street of Bui Vien, is lined with backpacker-friendly streets. Guesthouses, bars, laundromats, stores selling photocopied collections of Lonely Planet books and non-Vietnamese food. There were food stalls already serving up breakfast to locals. There were groups of men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Little children on their way to school. Other clueless foreigners walking around. Honking scooters. Dogs. Cats. Chickens. All minding their own business.
I saw this wedding car right outside the guesthouse. I looked behind to watch groom and his groomsmen carrying a large roasted pig in front of a small complex. They laughed as they beckoned their way into the bride’s home with their crispy dowry. I’ve seen this done at family gatherings but this was happening at 6 am on a busy street on a Wednesday. It was beautiful.
I walked no more than three blocks before I found my first victim. I had my first bowl of pho in 1987 and 23 years later, I was going to have my first bowl in the country of Vietnam. I hoped it would be as special as eating a real bowl of wontons in Hong Kong. When we were heading to our guesthouse from the airport, I stared at every business that had the word pho in it. From a dictionary, the word pho, with the correct accent marks also means things like “to escort/assist”, “a deputy”, “to show off” or “snowy”. None of these words matter to me. Like any street with heavy competition, the employees at this corner pho restaurant waved me in with their hand gestures and stuck a menu to my chest. It was 6 am and way too early to go running around the city for a convincing bowl of pho. All the food I saw on the street looked convincing.
I was directed by the owner to a stool right in front of the “kitchen”. The “kitchen” consisted of a four-wheeled, metal table with a glass display case and shelving. There was also a large steamy pot in the middle of the table for cooking noodles, a chopping board and a folded counter top enough for four patrons to digest their meal. All along the display case were the assorted goodies from the cow you could choose from. At this particular pho stall, they only offered rare beef, brisket, tendon and beef balls. Behind the cook, was the soul of the restaurant: a huge cauldron of pho broth.
The owner came by with a plate of bean sprouts and thinly sliced orange/yellow chilies that were quite fiery – not jalapenos. For condiments, there were two small tin jars with the orange chili sauce we know as Sriracha and brown hoisin sauce. Both of them tasted different than I expected. The “Sriracha” had a sweetness to it and the hoisin was much lighter in strength. I watched the cook as he prepared the bowl of noodles in under one minute. I added a few slices of the chilies and black pepper and first dipped my feet in the water. The broth was very light in color and strong in spices. It was very good and much different than any bowl of pho I had back at home. It was very light and had a homeyness to it that made me finish all the soup – I enjoyed it. I took a taste of the brisket which was excellent, due to low & slow cooking and the usage of free-range cows we pay more money for here in the U.S. This wasn’t the best bowl of pho I’ve eaten but I wouldn’t think twice about eating here again at 6 am with locals on a crowded street. It was humbling. Especially when the bowl only cost me $1.25.
In Los Angeles, Latino street vendors have their taco tables and shopping carts loaded with Gatorade/Igloo coolers. Here in Vietnam, they’ve got a luxurious table with glass display case and wheels. This is basically your Subway on wheels – minus Jared. Almost all vendors of banh mi had this set up. You’ve got your bread, loaves of Vietnamese meatloaf (cha), roasted pork, cheese, dried pork sung, huge block of liver paté and condiments. Underneath, you’ve got cabinets for storage and a portable gas stove to fry up some eggs for that special banh mi with fried egg. I watched the banh mi lady preparing a dac biet sandwich (literally means special, “the works”). She first smacked on margarine, mayonnaise and a heavy serving of pate. Next she laid out two pieces of the roast pork (i think it was pork butt, rolled up, tied with twine and then roasted) and two pieces of the Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua). Then the pickled veggies and cilantro were added, followed by a nice dosage of Vietnamese soy sauce (aka Maggi Sauce) and chili sauce. This foot-long banh mi set you back $0.75. Some vendors had a coal oven that they warmed the bread in. It tastes so much better when toasted. Jesus.
I saw this lady for the next few days and dubbed her the “Gangster Porkchop Lady” (thit nuong gangster). She always wore that hat, protective glasses and a mask – ready to do some surgery on me. All you needed was some Snoop playing in the background. With the mask I could never tell if she was smiling. She more or less looked like she was dogging me. Probably saying stuff like, “if you don’t fucking buy a pork chop, i’m going to kill you.” JK, she was really nice. We are now in the same gang and have each other’s back.
If you’re into food like I am, you try your best to remember the names of each culture’s food, as well as know its pronunciation. I learned how to read the phonetic Korean alphabet JUST so I could order food off their menu. With Vietnamese, it’s pretty much a romance language with squiggly accent marks. So when I stood in front of this stall like a stranger walking into the Cheers bar, the cooks and patrons all turned around to stare at me. For about three seconds, there was complete silence as people stopped eating. From where I stood, I could see something orange in the soup pot. It smelled like beef, tomatoes and carrots and could only mean one thing. As soon as I said the words “bo kho?” came out of my mouth, everyone smiled and welcomed me. I got the go ahead to join the pack.
I sat next to an older woman who was hunched over her bowl of Vietnamese beef stew. She smiled at my cluelessness and probably wondered if I knew what the hell I was doing. If you haven’t had this dish, you’ll usually see it served in a thicker form with some toasted French bread in Vietnamese restaurants. This is a take on your basic French stew cooked with red wine, but in my opinion, even better. The Vietnamese version omits red wine, and uses fish sauce and a crap load of star anise. I was handed my bowl and the woman next to me (pictured above) immediately pointed to the condiments I had to add in. Some fresh chilies, a scoop of hot chili sauce, some herbs and lastly, a hard squeeze on a lime wedge. I have to say, this was even more appealing to me than the pho I had up the street earlier. The broth was very light in tomato flavor and the beef was done just right. The noodles were fresh and silky and went really well with the fresh herbs. This cost me $1. I drank all the soup and thanked the older woman for helping me eat this the right way.
This is a favorite of mine. I first had this at the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho) in Westminster when I was 12 years old. To this day, I still go back to the same exact vendor for this dish called banh uot. It’s probably not the best, but it’s nostalgic. Thin, slightly translucent rice sheets are cut into large segments and served with generous slices of Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua), a deep-fried cake with mung beans (banh cong), herbs and bean sprouts. All doused with the all-mighty sweet and sour, fish sauce dip, nuoc cham. I call this a happy meal.
You don’t know this, but all the places I ate at this morning were all within 2-3 blocks of each other. As I learned, and you will too, good food is not hard to find in Saigon. Not at all. I told Jeni about the places I ate at and she knew I was very happy. I was very impressed with the food and quality here and loved that I could turn the corner and find a local gem. This was going to be one memorable tasting for us. And So far, Saigon has been good to me.
Thanks for reading. Bourdain’s visit with the lunch lady, Vietnamese crepes and a Vietnamese restaurant with a great concept… up next.