South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Catching the Travel Bug: Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

SARS. The subject was worked into every conversation amongst the expats and long-term tourists in Vietnam. The government claimed that the virus had been contained in several northern provinces, far away from Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City to Communist Party officials and fresh-off-the-plane tourists). Still. There were rumors about people’s neighbors being taken away in the middle of the night to be quarantined because of a persistent cough. Mostly, that was just speculation, fueled by one too many beers or one too many years in country.

Nonetheless, when I came down with a cough and fever, I had thoughts of gasping for breath in a hidden away hospital ward guarded by CP officials who didn’t want their SARS secret to get out. I wrote my illness off as a regular flu bug I’d picked up from being in a classroom teaching eight-year-old Vietnamese kids how to speak English. When my chest started to tighten and my cough to turn into a wheeze, I started to worry a bit more.

I confided in my girlfriend who took me to a doctor who had an after-hours private practice in his home. I was assured that he spoke English. He spoke great Russian because he’d been schooled in Moscow, but only a bit of English (like “Injection” and “Infection”). Between my modest Vietnamese skills and miming and his pidgin of Russian, English, and charades, I was able to get started on an IV of antibiotics. But he wanted an x-ray to rule out the unspoken disease. He kept asking me if I had been up north, to the areas that were hit by SARS. I said no, but he casually slipped a surgical mask on before starting me on the IV.
I got into the x-ray at a hospital the next day. It took two hours in the waiting room, which was not the best experience. Radiology was located by a nurses’ station and there were several people on hospital beds just parked in the hallway. I found out from a smiling but nervous lady in a neighboring seat that they were on a death watch. The nurses could keep an eye on them until the end.

The x-ray technician was unfamiliar with practicing his trade on someone of my height. It took 5 tries to get it right. I paid him 150,000 dong ($10 US) to hand the pictures directly to me instead of putting them up with the others.

My next antibiotic session consisted of me and about 4 others, sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the doctor’s back room with drips hanging from hooks in the wall. One guy smoked the entire time, but no one said anything.

A few days later, I went through the x-ray ordeal again. This time a smiling technician got it right on the second try. Through my girlfriend the doctor said that he chalked it up to a chest infection.

“No SARS?” I asked.

“No SARS.” He chuckled, said something in Russian, and patted me on the shoulder.

Check out the past travel-bug features here.

Symbol of Saigon: Cyclos to be completely banned by June 2008

It was a hot afternoon in Saigon. I was sitting in a small plastic chair, busy drinking an iced Vietnamese coffee, when a smiling man came up to me.

“City cyclo tour? I give best one. So good, I’m in magazine. Magazine comes by I wave and say hello and they take picture.”

Sure enough, there he was smiling brightly, smack dab in the center of a long article about cyclo city tours. When I told him “no, thank you very much,” that obviously wasn’t good enough for an answer, so he proceeded to leaf through a small, worn book that he was carrying. He pulled out two plasticized 3×5 cards and laid them down on the table. They were consumer testimonials. He had many in his book, probably in over 10 languages, but he put down one in English and one in French for me.

“See, these are your people. They like me. They have good time with happy cyclo city tour. I give best one.”

It’s hard to go to Vietnam and not spend at least a short ride in a cyclo, otherwise known as a rickshaw. Especially in Saigon, the Vietnamese capital officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, the bicycle-like contraptions that are a quick mode of transportation for both tourists and locals are almost a national symbol. They cover the streets, they cover postcards, and they employ about 60,000 people. Come June 2008 however, the cyclos of Saigon will all be gone.

In an effort to clean up the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, authorities have voted to ban all modified three- and four-wheel vehicles; in other words one of the treasured symbols, and livelihoods, of the city. The controversial ban was originally to take place on January 1, 2008, but in a crucial last minute decision, the complete ban was pushed back to June.

The ban doesn’t just affect locals in the tourist transportation business; other jobs like trash collectors which use modified vehicles will also feel the effects of the ban. Until June, cyclos and other modified vehicles can continue to run, but only at night. Giving them an extra six months is intended to allow time for the 60,000 people whose lives depend on the classic mode of transportation to find other means of earning a living.

Even though I didn’t take his magazine-featured cyclo city tour, I am sure that the smiling driver that approached me the warm afternoon in Saigon gave an excellent one. I only wonder what his next job will be.


GADLING TAKE FIVE: Week of December 22-28

Because Catherine is stuck at the Dallas Airport right now trying to get back to Alaska, I’m bringing you this week’s GADLING TAKE FIVE. Stay-tuned for Catherine’s tales of her holiday travels. In the meantime, here’s what happened this week in the midst of holiday mayhem.

Seriously, it’s very hard to choose from what’s written each week so I’m turning to the numbers game. For starters, here are the three posts that have been forwarded the most.

Aaron’s post “Are you smarter than a two-year-old” is one that can wow you or make you feel terrible that your geography skills are worse than a toddler’s. This toddler is also getting her 15 minutes of fame and more as she makes the TV circuit showing off her skills.

Grant’s “Christmas in Saigon” is one indication of how cultural traditions travel and that sometimes when a culture takes on another culture’s trait (Santa hats) it goes even further with it. I’ve seen the Santas on the motorcycles that Grant refers to. The man knows what he’s taking about.

Abha’s “Don’t miss the sky this christmas” gives reasons why it’s good to look up this time of year. The winter sky is perfect for star gazing. Christmas Eve may have been a perfect night, but there are still plenty of others.

Also this week, Neil’s must -read series on traveling in North Korea ended with his post, “Infiltrating North Korea Part 19: A Final Word.” If you haven’t read the series, click here to read it from the beginning.

As a series of sorts to follow, Jerry is embarking on a look at Nauru, a country you may not have heard of. Obviously, it’s one of the world’s smallest. His post appropriately named “A country you’ve never heard of” is the only posting so far, but I assure you there are others in the line-up.

Christmas in Saigon

Nothing helps you realize you’re eight thousand miles away from home better than spending the holidays in a foreign country.

Last year, traveling through Southeast Asia with my parents we found ourselves at the Oscar Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals), Vietnam over Christmas Eve. An interesting way that tourism has seized the country is the Vietnamese interpretation of Christmas. While about 85% of the population is Buddhist, pretty much everyone identifies with the holiday — or rather Santa Claus. It’s their understanding of what the Westerners know and will appreciate while they’re visiting Southeast Asia.

But instead of decorating their houses, exchanging gifts or getting a Christmas tree, I found that the Vietnamese seem to be most fond of riding around the city square, wearing santa hats, dressing up their children and socializing. Thousands of young Vietnamese youth come out to participate on Christmas Eve. Thousands.

As you go outside to witness the madness of what’s happening before you, the air fills with the sounds of ten thousand motorcycle engines humming, a two-cycle chorus revolving around you on the streets of Saigon. The heavy tropical air fills with motorcycle exhaust and you get the feeling that you’re in some sort of Cajun voodoo spell, children dressed as Santa flying past you disappearing into a fog, a foreigner in a strange land.

It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen — something that I think everyone should see once in their lives and something I will never forget. Back at home in Kalamazoo this winter, I breathe the fresh air and watch deer wander in our back yard through six-inch snow. Such a contrast to Christmas past.