Showing posts with label saigon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label saigon. Show all posts

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - A Morning Market

Saigon Market Morning Market

On the morning I went hunting for breakfast, I came across a morning market that was very much alive and kicking. It was now 7 am and life was going on here. People picking up breakfast, people shopping for groceries and vendors competing with their neighboring competition. A little more to eat wouldn't hurt I thought.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Morning Market

While some locals run their businesses at a farmer's market or stall, there are vendors on wheels. Two wheels to be exact. Most of them sell fruit but I've seen something as wild as a guy riding with a hot deep fryer filled with oil on the back seat of his bicycle. I named him "Mr. Deep Fry-cycle". If the LA health inspection gets riled up over a taco truck on a street, imagine what they would say about the "deep fry-cycle". He would be sent to prison!

No matter where I am, the sounds and smells of a farmer's market are all part of the experience. Your senses are put to the test with each step that you take. In a sense, it is a bit of a sensory overload, but that of enjoyment.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

Similar vendors are grouped together and although they are selling the same product and directly competing with each other, it's a friendly rivalry. I bought these freshly-fried fish cakes (ca chien) which I love almost more than anything. The fish was so tasty and full of that 'bouncey' bite that I look for in pureed/paste-like Asian products. Thai fish cakes for example, oh man.

Saigon Morning Market

Who doesn't like fried tofu. I didn't see anything that resembled Taiwanese stinky tofu, which I enjoy as well.

Saigon Morning Market

7 am, and the grill masters are out. Here's a Vietnamese version of yakitori. You've got various ground meat that are shaped into balls and chicken/pork organs. They served fish sauce dip on the side and the smell was great.

Saigon Morning Market

In addition to your standard seafood fare like fish and mollusks, you get beautiful blue-colored prawns fresh from the sea. These things were some of the largest prawns I've seen.

Saigon Morning Market

Most of the vegetables and seafood were all set outside. I then walked into a large depot that had something entirely different going on: meat. And to my surprise, there was not one single man wielding a sharp cleaver. Here in Saigon, the women are the Queens of the Kitchen and can very well chop up a pig faster than you can ever.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

While most Westerners turn away upon the site of a completely butchered pig, it is actually more respectful and resourceful to use everything. I saw everything chopped up and ready for purchase. There were no putrid smells of death because everything was so fresh.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

Ribs, chops, shanks, ears, offals, feet, tails and head. Nothing gone to waste. These were some of the most bad-ass women I've come across. And the irony of it at all, they still managed to look as beautiful as they could with jewelry, dyed hair, make-up and painted nails. Nothing will get in the way of good looks, even if it means dissecting a 250-lb pig on an early morning. Thanks for reading.

More postings on Saigon, Vietnam:
Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Meet You and Eat You
Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, a Taste of Vietnamese Crepes
Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, An Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh
Saigon, Vietnam - Saigon Seafood Stalls

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Saigon Seafood Stalls

Saigon Seafood Stall

After J and I got back from eating banh xeo and bun bo hue earlier in the day, we headed back to rest. We were still jetlagged and again I found myself falling asleep to another great English Premier League match. I love that Asia has games going on all day long on TV. We woke up and it was now 10 pm and we still had not eaten. Rather than take the scooter out into the wild streets of Saigon, we decided to do it like foraging tribesman and walk around. And I has had stated earlier on my breakfast hunt, you don't need to go far to find food in Saigon. All you really have to do is stand and do a 360, and you'll realize that it is actually the food that finds you. Pho was cooking on the left. Banh mi was being prepared on the right. But straight ahead, we were attracted to a small stand lit by the greenish, fluorescent lights that seem to be so prominent in Asia. Like moths in flight, we headed towards the light source.

Saigon Seafood Stall

The lady behind the stall spotted us approaching her stand and smiled, pointing at the tiny red and blue stools in front of her. We could hear the sound of something heavy being cooked in her pan, a sound very similar to the shuffling of Mahjong tiles. Based on the pitch, we knew it could only be one thing: mollusks. But she wasn't just offering a few clams, her little humble stand offered you a nice glimpse of the ocean. She told us to come up and waved her hands over her offerings like a magician about to reveal his trick. There was an enough assortment of 'fruits of the sea' to give you a food boner. Shrimp, squid, crab and clams I had never seen before. This was like Jacques Costeau's snack shop.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

There are many tough decisions you make in life, like friendships, relationships and careers. Add this seafood dilemma to the long list because there was just too much going on. I love extensive menus but when almost everything looks appetizing, I get very annoyed. So we picked a few, mainly rarities, and she asked if we wanted a choice of garlic, spicy garlic or sweet & sour tamarind sauce. We asked for one of each with our dishes.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Blood Clams with Tamarind Sauce
Beside the fact that these delicious clams are banned in Shanghai for carrying hepatitis, typhoid and dystentery, this was my first time trying the 'blood clam'. The shell itself has a pattern of rivets and a more jagged texture to your standard Manila clam. The rivets themselves are almost the perfect type of clam to serve with a sauce because they can 'hold' the sauce in its grooves. I picked up the clam and sucked all the sauce off the shell, it was slightly spicy and tangy. Quite good considering I don't really care for dishes that call for tamarind paste. All the clams were shut and suggested they were either very stubborn or not cooked through. But with little effort, the clam gave in to me. To my surprise, the clam was dark red in color, and the juice had almost a muddy brown color. I took the juice in and tasted something deep, earthy and slightly muddy. And it was fantastic. I personally decimated this blood clam village. Had I known that there was a potential threat of contracting hepatitis, I might not have eaten it. But I'm glad I did.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Razor Clams with Spicy Garlic Sauce
I'll never forget the way we had to remove a razor clam from its shell back when I worked in a restaurant. A razor clam can range anywhere from 4" to 8-9" with varied widths of 1/4" to 1". The shell is rectangular and opens exactly like a book. With the head and tail ends of the clam exposed, this isn't the most protected clams out there but it's not easy opening. In order to get the clam out you take a paring knife, nudge the blade in between the shell and slash down the line of the shell, basically slicing the clam lengthwise. What happens next varies. You'll either see the clam ooze out of one end, wriggling in pain or see some sort of bodily fluid ooze out of the body. One time, that fluid nailed a colleague in the face and she shrieked in disgust. It's a bit cruel but the fastest way to get it in your stomach. The ones I had here with by far a midget version of American razor clams. The shells were super thing and with enough force, can probably be broken quite easily. I loved these clams for their king mushroom-like texture and garlicky sauce. This dish was also completely finished.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Sea Snails with Garlic Sauce
I enjoy evicting these mollusks out of their homes. A simple pronged utensil, a steady pull and you've got your buck naked snail. I love snails but it's VERY easy to overcook them. When they are overcooked, they are almost rubber-like – not tasty. We didn't finish these.

As we sat there in front of the stall, we completely forgot about our surroundings. This whole seafood meal only cost EIGHT DOLLARS and was more than worth it. We were in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon's District 1, eating seafood. I think we're too used to eating seafood this fresh by the sea. I didn't think about it during the time, but you may want to be careful considering the fact that not many vendors refrigerate or ice their goods. Seafood generally has to stay cool, so be aware. But if this seafood stall wasn't doing things right, it wouldn't be packed every night with customers. For the most part, if you're willing to be adventurous with street food, you'll be rewarded. This stall is one of many in the city. I had heard that there was even a seafood alley in the city. Man how I love blood clams and razor clams! Thanks for reading.

Saigon Seafood Stall
Bui Vien (1/2 a block east of De Tham)
District 1

More postings on Saigon, Vietnam:
Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Meet You and Eat You
Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, a Taste of Vietnamese Crepes
Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, An Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, an Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh the Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

A few hours earlier, Jeni and I were able to sample one of Bourdain's first pit stops in his No Reservations: Vietnam episode – a Vietnamese crepe-like snack called banh xeo that was both fun to eat and somewhat tasty. We got there the hard way and saw first hand how hectic Saigon street traffic was from the perspective of a cyclo transport. No thanks, we were done with that tourist trap. At our guest house, we were able to rent a scooter for only $7 the whole day, which was killer cheap. Jeni didn't like the idea of it, nor would the mother-in-law, but hey, you only live once.

We pulled out our little food itinerary and talked about our next destination. There was just too much to eat but since we were on the Bourdain tip, we might as well have paid a visit to the lunch lady he also visited on the episode. This stall was a bit out off the radar but it only meant more good times on the scooter. Thanks to Cathy's many nice postings on her blog, Gastronomy, we were able to find our lunch lady with ease. It was time to meet Mrs. Thanh Thi Nguyen.

As we were on our way, I prayed to god that Nguyen Thanh Thi would make her bun bo hue. Bun bo hue, is a Central-region soup noodle dish that includes beef slices, pork sausage, fixings in an aromatic lemongrass and chili-oil broth. This is simply my favorite Vietnamese soup noodle dish. When I saw it on the Bourdain episode, I stood up, pointed at the screen and was like, "Goddamn! That looks good". With food flying out of my mouth. To fill the void, I think we got some bun bo hue that same weekend.

Go down a main street, turn left on to a smaller street and go down an alley - the instructions said. We were finally in the vicinity. I slowed down and started to look around what was basically a large courtyard with surrounding buildings. I flared my nostrils wide to detect the smell of sweet lemongrass. To my surprise, there wasn't just one food stall or restaurant, but more like 5-6 others. All with the same set up - a makeshift tent, small blue tables and small red stools. Men sat around on their scooters smoking and drinking. We scanned the courtyard from left to right and it didn't take us long to realize which one Nguyen Thanh Thi ran because out of the 5-6 stalls, there was one stall with a good 15+ customers. I took off my space-ship like helmet, removed my exhaust mask and ducked my head to look around. And there she was, as in the episode, wearing the traditional straw hat and working the control tower. We parked the scooter and she immediately greeted us with a warm smile.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Where's the Lunch Lady? Find her now!

I walked by her 'kitchen' and checked out the broth. YES! It was bun bo hue. I remembered sitting down on that little stool and just grabbing a chunk of towels to wipe my sweat. One of the ladies came over with a bottle of water and I guzzled that thing down. It was super hot and here we were about to eat some soup noodles. I looked over at Nguyen Thanh Thi and she was busting her chops over there, serving up noodles next to a scalding hot cauldron of bun bo hue broth. I know this is gross, but I wouldn't be surprised if her secret is some accidental salt if you know what I mean haha. Sick.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

The color of her broth was a fiery red, a sign of dense chili sauce and probably annatto seeds. The chocolate-like cubes you see are anything but chocolate. Andrew Zimmern would probably spend two whole episodes trying to eat this congealed, pork-blood delicacy. The Vietnamese call it huyet, and its used in pretty much used by every Asian ethnic group including the Chinese, Korean and Thais. It's not for everyone but I like it for the texture. There's not much taste to it.

Also in the cauldron were Vietnamese pork sausage patties called cha. I wish places like Wurstkuche would serve this because I'd for sure order it grilled with a bun. This is basically a beige-colored, Vietnamese version of spam that tastes good with virtually everything. Even pigs like it.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Once Nguyen Thi Thanh adds the hot noodles and toppings in the bowl, her "sous chef" takes over by adding the fragrant, red-colored broth and adding a few pieces of "pig chocolate" and Vietnamese "spam". She walked over to our little table and served us the piping hot bowls. Is it me, or do Asian servers have heat-proof hands made out of silicon? And it's not even like they're traveling a short distance, sometimes they are walking at least 50 paces to bring you your food. Most people couldn't even carry a hot bowl for more than 2 paces!

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Foreplay was over. It was business time. I had waited for this moment for a long time. To eat one of my favorite soup noodle dishes, in the country of origin, on little red stools, under heat and humidity, with my wife. I took a sip and tasted the soup, which was really nice. I've tasted a lot of bun bo hue, and this would be on the strong flavoring end that some people either like or dislike. There was a good amount of spice but a few slivers of the orange and yellow chilies could only make it better. The beef was tough and wasn't what I expected. She might have pulled out the beef shank an hour too early. But I think the best part was the "Vietnamese spam", cha. That log of goodness took up a good amount of surface area in the bowl and it was just done right – with large bits of black and white peppercorns - just how I like it. Overall, the bowl was very good and for those that may never travel to Vietnam to eat this, you can definitely find a decent bowl in Little Saigon but you won't get that Saigon experience. I still find homemade version of bun bo hue more comforting then any restaurants.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

From the scooter ride to finally eating a Bourdain-approved noodle stall run by a sweet lady, it was one awesome experience. Nguyen Thi Thanh is one of thousands of food stalls in Vietnam and in case you happen to visit on her day off, trust me when I say that you will never run out of food options. Thanks to the Gastronomer for a great find and thanks for reading.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Lunch Lady
23 Hoang Sa (Down the alley on the right side)
Cross Street: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
District Binh Thanh
Everyday from 11 am - 2 pm

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, A Taste of Vietnamese Crepes

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

FYI. The "46A" in the restaurant name refers to the address. Pho restaurants like Pho 54, Pho 79 and Pho 87, contrary to belief, do not indicate the years in which the families emigrated from Vietnam – they are the addresses of their business back in Vietnam. But Pho 69, that could be an entirely different story.

Rewind to the previous day, before the monstrous breakfast I had. When Jeni and I arrived in Saigon, we had already printed out a list of things/places we wanted to eat. Even though there was Vietnam's review site, cleverly named Yup! we were good to go. Three pages of paragraphs detailing exact locations of restaurants or stalls. With the help of our friend MN, we pretty much had a scavenger hunt map in our hands. No photos, but only descriptions that would take us through tight alleys and hair-raising traffic to places we would never have dreamt of finding.

Another bit of inspiration is always Anthony Bourdain. In Season 5, Episode 10, he travels back to Vietnam but with the intention of moving to a country that always wins his heart. For me, this is was one of my Top 5 Bourdain episodes. No bullshit sight-seeing or foreplay, it was pure eating. And that's why we all continue to love this man - just give him the food or he'll get mad. So of course, we wanted to try Banh Xeo 46A, the first place he ate at on the episode. The sight of the cook swirling the batter around in that frying pan immediately got me hot & bothered.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Bourdain's Chomp of Approval

It was 3 pm now. Tired and hungry, we decided to hire two cyclo drivers to take us around. What is a cyclo? If a tricycle and a wheelchair had sex, it would give birth to a cyclo. After the fall of Saigon, anyone that possessed a profession involving intellect was sent to an institution for re-education. The people that were once doctors, lawyers and scholars, sadly started back at square one. According to anonymous-in-law, many resorted to careers of servitude such is the life of a cyclo driver. So we were up for supporting these Centaurs of transportation. They seemed nice and even brought out their guest books filled with testimonials from foreigners.

Cyclo Guys: "Where you guys wanna go?"
Us: "You know Banh Xeo 46A?"

Cyclo Guys: "Yeah! Yeah! You like banh xeo?"

Us: "F-yeah."

Cyclo Guys: "Uh. Okay!"
He smiled at me as I turned away. Under his breath, I could hear him curse in Vietnamese. I would soon find out that the restaurant was like a 45-minute ride away. Oops hahaha!


We hopped in to the cyclo and embarked. I've already seen Saigon traffic from INSIDE a car, with doors and windows to guard my flesh and bone. But now, we were up for the true Saigon street experience FULLY EXPOSED. Here we were in a 3-wheeled rickshaw at the mercy of a skinny guy wearing nothing but slippers for traction on the pedals. He was already unhappy about having to go to another district. Buses, cars and scooters had to swerve past us because we were slowing down traffic. At one point, Mr. Cyclo ran the red light and busted a slow left turn. The opposing traffic was heading towards us at full speed and everybody slowed down for us. I could actually see the pupils of the bus driver. No scratch that, I could see the long nosehairs of the bus driver! All the while, Mr. Cyclo was puffing on his cigarette not giving a damn, going about his day. At 5 mph.

I looked over at the cyclo Jeni was in and we both just shook our heads and laughed. Somehow, after 45 of mins of peddling, the Cyclo Guys got us to our destination. Alive. They smiled, enough to cover up their exhaustion, and told us that they would be waiting for us.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I had watched the Bourdain episode enough to take one look at this place and say "Okay, Bourdain sat right... over... there." Stalker, I know. We didn't sit in the same spot. We parked ourselves on tiny tables and stools and a waiter handed us some menus.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

The setup here at Banh Xeo 46A was really simple and very accommodating for the cook. The cook sat on a wooden stool and around her, she set up her command center. She had stacks of plates on the left. The open fire was directly in front of her, along with the food. And on her right, the banh xeo batter in a large pail. Everything was on the ground and as I've learned, this is probably where the Southeast Asian crouch comes in super handy. Why stand and beat up your feet when you can simply crouch, recline backwards and have the weight of your arms balance you without tipping over. It was good on the legs and you could do anything you want in this position: eat, drink, talk, spit, cuss, cook, play cards, anything! I one saw this gangster in Alhambra crouching and smoking on top of a U.S. mailbox in the middle of the day. He looked like a vulture perching 4 feet above the ground. I expected him to suddenly grow wings and fly away into gangster heaven. I never understood why he did that. Anyway, back to the command center. Everything was within arms reach and very convenient for the cook.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I noticed that a lot of stalls used natural fire to heat/cook their food. A dish like banh xeo did not need the 'breath of a wok' so this would work perfectly. This is a slow-cooked dish that has to be done right. Next to the fire was this pail of what I thought looked like Edward Cinema's finest butter. It was probably a really rich stock or some sort of rendered fat, but whatever it was, it was going to make the banh xeo taste real good. I parked it right next to the cook and asked if I can shoot her while she made the banh xeo. She was more than happy to cook for the eye.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Birth of a Banh Xeo Part I
First, she adds some oil and adds a few onions and already cooked pork and shrimp. After a light sauté, she then takes a scoop of her banh xeo batter which consists of rice flour, coconut milk, turmeric powder, water and salt, and adds it to the pan. The coconut milk is key because it gives a nice sweetness and takes away the oily taste of the crepe. She then swirls the pan like an omelette so that the batter is spread throughout the pan in an even form.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Birth of a Banh Xeo Part II
Next, bean sprouts are added and a small lid is placed directly on the bean sprouts for some sauna action. Once the bean sprouts are slightly tender, a scrambled egg mixture is poured over the crepe along with a scoop of that rich stock for extra flavor. A few minutes later, she begins to pry the edges slowly to see that the crepe is browning. And finally when its ready, she takes the banh xeo and carefully folds it in half with the spatula. I remember this folding process vividly from the Bourdain episode. A perfectly cooked banh xeo if you ask me.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Here, banh xeo boy is preparing some veggies for us. A few years back, Jeni and I were in Little Saigon and ordered one. I had never had it and was tired of eating spring rolls and egg rolls. This dish came just as she went to the restroom. This thing was massive – it reminded me of the taco from SNL's "Taco Town" skit. I was so hungry that I just started eating it straight up. Dipping it in fish sauce and gobbling it. About five minutes into it, I was starting to get full and very sick. It was so oily. Never again I thought to myself. Jeni came back and was like "how do you like it?" "It's good but I'm feeling sick." "What? Is it undercooked?" "I don't know, it's just kinda too oily." She looked at the plate of untouched greens and herbs and put her head in her hands. I learned that day that banh xeo tastes much better with herbs and greens, not straight up haha.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

As the cook finished up the order, I went back to my seat. Washed my hands with those handi-wipe napkins and prepared for the long-awaited crispy snack. Or so I thought? It had only been two minutes and already, the banh xeo was starting to get moist and soggy. Sure the edges were crispy but the crepe was actually close to falling apart. I quickly took a small chunk and wrapped it up with the necessary fixings, dipped it in the fish sauce dip and took a bite. Hmm. The crunch is slightly there but now there's another problem. The filling was a bit under-seasoned. I double dipped again in the fish sauce and even then, it was only okay. It became better when I opened the crepe up like the hood of a car and threw in some salt/fish sauce.

I love Anthony Bourdain's show but I knew right then that a bit of entertainment magic was thrown in for well, entertainment. I was hooked on going to Banh Xeo 46A after hearing the crunch of the banh xeo. For sure, sound effects were added for maximum crunch or maybe Bourdain got it 30 seconds faster than I did. Whatever the case, ours wasn't Kettle Chip crispy. Pretty funny when I think about it.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I wasn't bummed at all. After all, I was eating in Vietnam which was amazing enough. I knew that if it weren't for Bourdain's visit, this would still do well because its a local favorite. At 90,000 dong, it's on the higher end of the cash spectrum. I'm sure there's way better places out in Saigon. I had a total of 5 days in Vietnam so I had plenty of time to eat great food. Again, this trip wasn't about scouring the streets for the best of the best. For me, it was just about experience. Again, I didn't care, we had a great time!

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

We said bye to everyone and thanked them for letting us take photos. Our cyclo guys were there still and we jumped back in for another wild ride back to District 1. In a few hours, we would be going after another one of Bourdain's pit stops... the bun bo hue Lunch Lady.

To be continued. Thanks for reading.

Previous Postings
Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You

Saigon Street Life

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...

Hello Kitty Lounge Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

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.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

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.

GT Saigon Box





Here's some footage of us zipping through Saigon. Jeni and I ended up renting a scooter anyway because it was the best way to get around and really experience the city. Plus, we didn't have to deal with shady taxi drivers and cyclo drivers that base their rates on your country of origin. I've heard too many stories of people being locked in a car until they paid the driver's amount. Most people would avoid all problems and just give in. Riding around in Saigon was seriously like driving in a video game. Motorists, vehicles and pedestrians came from all over but there was constant visual contact which made everything work. Like ants in a colony, there was a telepathic understanding. If you wanted your way, you were aggressive about it and honked your horn. It was actually more stressful being in a car because you had to give way to scooters. You didn't have to stop for pedestrians but you swerved slightly to the side of them to let them walk. We had an awesome time. After cruising around, we just found something simple to eat and call it a day. Because tomorrow would be a more focused day of eating. I fell asleep shortly after midnight with an English Premier League game on.

Saigon Street Life

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.

Saigon Banh Mi Lady

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.

Saigon Street Life

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.

Saigon Pho Bo

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo)
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.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Banh Mi


Vietnamese Style Sandwich (Banh Mi)

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.

Saigon Banh Mi

It was now my turn to order and I knew this because the lady gave me a blank look with her hands out. With no knowledge of the Vietnamese language, I employed the point-and-order technique which always works. I ordered the dac biet minus the cheese and chili sauce. But with a fried egg (trung chien), because life is always better with a fried egg! She knelt down with a grunt, opened up the cabinet drawers and flipped on her portable stove. She scrambled the egg, added some margarine and cooked up my eggs rare and juicy. I stopped her while she bagged it, and she gave me a puzzled look. No point in wasting plastic because that banh mi was going to have the lifespan of no more than 5 minutes. I paid her and she and her baby daughter watched as I devoured it. I gave her a thumbs up and she responded with no facial expression. And we both lived happily ever after.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Life12

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.

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

Vietnamese Beef Stew with Rice Noodles (Hu Tieu Bo Kho)
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.

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

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.

Saigon Banh Uot

Vietnamese Rice Sheets (Banh Uot)
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.

Saigon Banh Uot

I never get tired of this dish for its simplicity and lightness. You'll eat it and wonder where it disappeared to. Behind where I was sitting, there were about 4-5 motorists waiting on the side for their "drive-thru" order. The owner wrapped up everything in one plastic bag and tied it up with a rubber band. How fun it must be to eat this straight out of the bag. This was a choice stop for locals and I could see why – it was delicious. The rice sheets were the thinnest I've seen, the meatloaf was great and the fish sauce was tasty enough to swim in. J was sleeping at the time I was eating this and I quickly ran back to get here to try this. She and I used to pick up fresh banh uot sheets at the Thai Son store in Little Saigon, and I knew she would love this. We came back an hour later and the carnival had disappeared, vanished into oblivion.

Saigon Street Life

A few weeks later at an airport in Hanoi, I saw this airport sign letting us know what we could NOT bring back. And to my surprise, I find the lovely Vietnamese meatloaf on the roster. It was too funny. Was it a narcotic? I wouldn't be surprised for its addictive taste.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

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.