I love Saigon.
I also love street food.
Match made in heaven? You bet.
Perhaps even more than the rest of South East Asia, street food is everywhere in Saigon. In most neighbourhoods you can’t walk five metres without seeing a banh mi stall on wheels or stepping around someone slurping a steaming bowl of pho on a little plastic chair.
Smoke billows from chicken on charcoal grills, vendors walk past offering chewy dried squid, cooked ducks hang inside glass boxes … and those are just the things I can identify.
Eating is a serious business in Saigon, and more often than not, it’s done on the streets.
It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that a couple of friends of mine decided to start up a street food tour when they returned to the city after a year away. Saigon Street Eats has been running for a few months now, so when Barbara and Vu offered to collect us from the airport at dinner time and show us what their new venture is all about, I wasn’t going to say no.
Plus, what better way to introduce someone to Vietnam than on the back of a couple of scooters, weaving through the tooting mass of crazy that is Saigon at rush hour? Well, that was how I saw it, at least. Lauren‘s eyes told a different story.
Our little convoy made its way through the evening darkness, Barbara and Vu arguing about the best way to go, Lauren and I grinning from ear to ear and little Poppy chirping away with questions from her seat up front. The warm breeze whipped around us, carrying the scent of a thousand meals along with it and causing my stomach to rumble in anticipation.
It didn’t have to wait long.
Pulling into a short, nondescript road that looked much like any other, we parked the bikes and wandered towards a nearby stall. “This,” announced Barbara, “is Snail Street”.
I can’t imagine why it’s called that.
All manner of snails, clams, squid and other seafood lay in metal bowls, with Vu pointing out a few particularly interesting options – enormous sea snails purported to increase male virility (“you’ll be wanting a few of those”), or crabs with claws big enough to remove a finger without thinking about it. Yes, this meal was looking a little more adventurous than a Big Mac combo.
Perched at our table an inch from the road, we received instructions on how to eat snails (with a safety pin) and drink beer (mostly involving loudly shouting YO!), and then began to do both. Repeatedly.
There must have been seven or eight different dishes turn up at the table over the next hour, each one with a brief story attached. Most favourite? Probably the tiny, garlic soaked snails, clumsily extracted with a pin and then dunked in a spicy sauce. Least favourite? Nothing, really … although the photo below perhaps suggests otherwise.
More likely it was just a reaction to one of Barbara’s dodgy stories.
Finally we pushed ourselves away from the table, the sidewalk piled high with the discarded shells of our dinner. Completely satisfied, our taste buds still tingling, the one thing we knew is that we definitely didn’t need any more food. No, not even one more giant conch.
So, obviously, we headed down the road for a seafood hotpot.
Perched on the mezzanine level with our food bubbling away, ice-cold beers being forced down my throat by a scantily-clad waitress, I had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn’t all some kind of wonderful dream. We’d been in town no more than four hours, and again I’d fallen hard for what, a couple of years ago, I called crazy awesome Saigon.
Cheerfully alternating between drinking beer, cracking crab shells and stirring vegetables around the steaming bowl, this was pretty much my idea of heaven.
As midnight approached we finally stopped eating – but only for a few hours.
The following morning we all headed out again, this time to Barbara and Vu’s favourite little pho restaurant in the Binh Thanh district. I had been dreaming of this moment for weeks, and it didn’t disappoint. Large slabs of rare beef slowly simmering away. Handfuls of leaves and herbs torn up and dunked on top. A few chillies to spice things up, all washed down with a strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee.
Welcome back, Dave. Welcome back.
That introduction – the food, the tour, the friendliness of the people and the city’s cheerful brand of crazy – paved the way for a wonderful three weeks in Vietnam, and has us now planning for a multi-month stint back there next year.
They say you can tell a lot about a city through its food.
Saigon is no exception.
If you’re interested in taking part in one of Barbara and Vu’s street food tours next time you’re in Saigon, just drop them a line. I’m sure they’d appreciate it.