Saigon street food is not for the weak. For Vietnamese living abroad, the steaming bowls of pho and do vat – street food you eat for fun – are nightmarish temptations that can induce serious food poisoning that leaves you without an appetite for days. When I returned to Saigon ten years ago, my parents refused to let us eat anything on the street because they feared that we would stumble upon contaminated food. Few things turn a trip sour as much as food poisoning can, so I recall my parents bringing a suitcase full of canned food and granola bars for my brother and I to munch on while all these delicious spoils lay only meters away from us.
Fast forward to ten years later and I’m here with a stomach that has built resistance over time. Last night, I decided to put it to action. Call it being naive after my terrible dosage of food poisoning in Morocco where I vomited until the early hours of the morning and could not look at food the same way again for the subsequent days, but I figure I’m going to be here for some time so I might as well give it a go. My cousin’s cousins took me for a massive exploration of Saigon that lasted from the afternoon till the wee hours of the evening. At first, they wanted me to eat in the Park Son food court, which is a popular hangout destination for teenagers in Saigon. Park Son is an upscale, luxury shopping mall that is full of recognizable names such as Chanel and Clarins. J. had a cheeseburger at Lotteria, Vietnam’s equivalent of McDonalds, but it feels wrong to eat western food in this country famous for its savory cuisine. I decided to skip out on eating in the wealthy and “hygiene-friendly” areas in lieu of something more flavorful.
At first, J. and her sisters did not want to take me to eat Vietnamese street food because they were afraid that I would get sick. After some reassurances on my part that it would be fine, we hopped on the mopeds and zipped away into the breezy Saigon evening. Saigon is quite cool now because of the short lapses of rain that we get daily. If only the air was less polluted, I would be able to take off my face mask and breathe it all in. Few things compare to the feeling of absolute contentment, sitting on the back of a Vespa swerving through narrow alleyways and roads full of noise. The noise of people drinking in beer gardens, the noise of impatient taxi drivers, the noise of peddlers selling street food on their bikes, the noise of the hum of a thousand engines. Noise.
Our first stop was at pha lau. Pha Lau is pig intestines boiled down to a soft texture in a salty broth. We ordered ours with noodles, and in a few minutes, the entire bowl was empty. Now, I know the idea of pig intestines sounds a bit funky to those who’ve never tried this part of a pig, but its commonly eaten in dim sum and Asia. Meat is meat. We also ordered pig intestines in a grilled form and the sauce on top was similar to a sweet and sour seasoning. This second dish was dipped in the spiciest nuoc mam – fermented fish sauce – I have ever tasted, and I’ve been eating nuoc mam all my life.
Round two took place at a local eatery popular with young people. Similar to an all-you-can-eat style menu, we were given a list of foods available and we ordered by placing check marks next to the things we wanted to try and they would all come out on one plate. It’s comparable to a sampler plate. This restaurant was tucked in a hidden alleyway and unless you’re a local, it’s nearly impossible to know this place exists. Here we had fish balls, fried wonton, fried bean curd and meat wrapped in fried rice cakes.
Along the way, we stopped to get some bottles of corn milk. Corn here in Vietnam is creamier than in the US, so many Vietnamese often juice the corn and mix it with milk to create the refreshing corn milk. In the UK, they sell banana milk, chocolate milk, strawberry milk and even Skittles milk, so this is not the strangest milk and ____ combination I’ve seen.
Our last stop took place at a very shady-looking establishment that specialized in selling all parts of a chicken – especially chicken feet. In no way did this place look clean nor was the grill particularly sparkling. Now, this street vendor had alarm bells ringing loudly from afar, but in good spirits and good company, I decided to go all in.
Now, I sit and wait.
Sugarcane juice – Vietnamese nectar.
French influence is still clearly apparent with the use of “Jambon.” Here, this vendor is selling chicken sticky rice.
A sign advertising street food. Everything for sale is less than 1 USD.
J. with our avocado and saboche milkshakes.
Pha lau with soup and noodles
Fried wonton, fish cakes and meat wrapped in rice flakes.
Grilled chicken feet and an assortment of other chicken-related meat.