We quickly noticed that the food in the south of Vietnam is quite different to that of the northern and central areas. We’d spent our four months in Hanoi making a note of the names of dishes we enjoyed, recognising specific words that referred to various kinds of noodle or a style of cooking, and built up quite an impressive repertoire of Vietnamese dishes. So we thought we’d have a head start in Saigon when it came to navigating our way around the street food scene. This was quite far from the truth. We felt completely bewildered upon pulling up a kiddy stool at any of the food spots we stumbled upon, as many either had no menus, or the Vietnamese words explaining the dishes were completely foreign to us as they simply didn’t exist up in Hanoi. We were starting from scratch, which resulted in a few dodgy dinners along the way, but over a month in and we think we have it sussed. Now that we’ve had the chance to sample the northern, central and southern cuisines, we have concluded that central Vietnamese food is our favourite; particularly the dishes we enjoyed in dreamy Hoi An. Oh to be back there gobbling down wontons…However, there are certainly some firm food favourites that we’ve discovered since living in Saigon and we’ve narrowed it down to our top four, that are also quite specific to this area of Vietnam:
- Chicken corner, ‘Ga Nuong Anh Tu’: As mentioned in ‘Ali & George get mugged, and other short stories’, we discovered a corker of a BBQ chicken restaurant, just round the corner from where we live. Saigon beers are only 10,000 VND here and the charcoal BBQ’d whole chickens are tender and juicy. You have to wade through a deliciously scented haze of smoke coming from the sizzling chickens to reach the seating area, escaping rush hour traffic from the main street. The hissing BBQ produces hundreds of crispy, tasty chickens for its many local customers who partake in this feasting frenzy. The chicken is served with a crusty baguette, chilli sauce and a salt, chilli, lime dip. We always devour this meal, leaving only a stripped chicken carcass, two clawed feet and a little chicken head (we won’t ever be THAT Vietnamese).
- Com Suon: ‘Com Tam’, or broken rice, is a really popular dish in HCMC, and also ridiculously cheap. We enjoy this unpretentious dish served with pork (suon), grilled over a charcoal BBQ, giving it a smoky flavour. BBQ-ing meat here is a really common means of cooking, and for us, the signature scent of Saigon is a mixture of grilled pork and exhaust fumes mingled together; com tam is pretty iconic in this city. One of our favourite spots to eat this is ‘Com Tam Ba Ghien’ in the Phu Nhuan District in which we live. Thick and juicy marinated pork chops are generously slapped on to plates piled high with broken rice, cucumber and spicy fish sauce (we even got a runny fried egg once). The slabs of meat are flipped over an open flame, smoking, charring and dripping with meaty goodness. The aroma is enough to entice you in and the atmosphere is also the reason it makes it into our top four. It may not be the most conventionally aesthetically pleasing of places, but to us, the jumble of metal grills, large chimneys funnelling smoke, bone strewed floor and peeling plaster is what gives it its charm. Coming here is a quintessentially Saigonese experience.
- Bun Thit Nuong: We’re a big fan of the ‘dry’ Vietnamese dishes and tend to avoid soups; particularly since being in Saigon when the temperatures are scorching and the last thing you want is to have your sweaty face in a bowl of steaming broth. Bun Thit Nuong is one of our go-to meals as it’s light, tasty and cheap. Cold rice vermicelli noodles on a bed of lettuce leaves are topped with grilled pork, fresh herbs and spring rolls. The dish is fragrant and flavoursome; the smoky BBQ-ed meat is topped with roasted peanuts and pickled carrots, mixed with herbs like basil and mint and drizzled with a chilli fish sauce. It’s sweet, sour, crunchy and aromatic, all at the same time. It ticks all of the right boxes.
- Oc (snail eateries): Snails and shellfish are a real delicacy in Saigon, with hundreds of tapas style street food spots serving a variety of crustaceans to eager and hungry Vietnamese customers. It’s particularly popular on the weekends when groups of friends descend on these stalls, eating, drinking and socialising over the indulgent dish. Initially, we were a little apprehensive about dipping our toes into this cuisine, but the pungent smell of garlic from a local snail stall down the road from Botanic Towers had enticed us in, and we were glad we tried it sooner rather than later. They offered us an extensive menu that we attempted to translate with the assistance of Google, but in the end played the old Russian Roulette game. Snails are farmed from Vietnam’s fresh water sources as well as the ocean, and are accompanied with other shellfish such as clams, oysters, mussels and shrimp. Ours was served with chili sauce, morning glory (spinach) and A LOT of garlic. The bite-sized morsels were inhaled in a matter of minutes. All that remained were splatters of garlic juice on our t-shirts but part of the fun was getting dirty and popping every scrap into our mouths with greasy fingers. Other tables surrounded us telling similar stories of indulgence. The debris of breadcrumbs, discarded shells, empty beer bottles and soiled napkins are the sign of a delicious meal in HCMC.