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Hungry Wanderer: Ho Chi Minh Street Eats

March 12, 2017

For tourists in Southeast Asian countries, especially for countries with their own alphabet or form of writing, the best way to eat is by ordering what catches your eye on the street. In modern Saigon (officially, the city is called Ho Chi Minh but is still referred to by its old name of Saigon by the locals), the alphabet is a little easier to comprehend as it is rooted in the English alphabet as we know it. Though, confusingly, a single word can refer to innumerable things depending on the words surrounding it. For example, bánh can mean cake or bread and come in varying forms from sweet glutinous rice cakes to savory meat-filled sandwiches and many others in between.

In a trip to Ho Chi Minh, we explored the street eats (and various iterations of “bánh”) beyond the famous Bánh Mì and Pho that have come to represent Vietnamese cuisine abroad, and discovered a complex and fascinating selection of local favorites. Being guided by the intelligent and savvy Vu of Saigon Street Eats for most of these dishes, we find our new favorite Vietnamese street snacks that may very well be your new favorites too.

Chả lụa

Though it appears to us like suman in its banana leaf wrapping, it is very much a different animal. The savory ham is boiled, instead of steamed as Filipinos used to suman may suspect.

Chả Lụa is essentially boiled pork ham. With its greyish hue and homogenous texture that is reminiscent of grocery frozen hot dogs (after they’ve been cooked), the dish is certainly off-putting. But perhaps even for the novelty of trying such an oddly created and presented sausage, Chả Lụa is worth trying. The Chả Lụa is typically eaten with other food, and we had it with Bánh Bèo (below).

Bánh Bèo

Bánh Bèo comes off as a savory dessert and in its large serving, is best shared with company.

Bánh Bèo is a rice cake based dish that is often topped with pork and other dressings. Different regions have different versions (and even in different parts of Ho Chi Minh, you may stumble upon variations), but the version we tried swims in a subtly sweet soup and is topped with shredded pork, picked radish, jicama, and croutons on top. The sweet and savory dish may not appeal to everyone, but it certainly was a surprising mix of flavors that gives you a glimpse into the complexity of Vietnamese local food.

Bánh Gai

As tempting as it is to stuff the whole dessert in your mouth, don’t forget to unwrap it from its plastic wrapper! It’s best eaten in small bites so you can savor all the flavors and textures.

This dessert is yet another rice cake, with a dark outside layer that is dyed so by edible leaves (though it is not wrapped by leaves, and its dark exterior maintains a gooey, rice cake-like texture). The inside is gooey thanks to the rice cake base and crumbly thanks to an interspersion of coconut meat. Its center houses a delightfully and tickling sweet yellow mung bean paste.

Bánh Khọt

Our Bánh Khọt pancakes cannot be seen wrapped in mustard leaves, but they are round and can fit squarely within your palm.

Also known simply as Vietnamese pancakes, these savory rice cakes are tinged yellow from turmeric, flavored with green onions, and topped with shrimp. Wrapping the Bánh Khọt in mustard leaves adds an element of character both to its flavor and texture. The Bánh Khọt is a very accessible dish for the most intrepid tourist taste buds who will no doubt be asking for more.

Bi

These stringy noodles are not noodles at all but shredded pork skin.

Shredded pork skin that tricks us into thinking they are rice noodles with their pale and almost translucent appearance, Bi is a street food we came upon in the Ba Chieu market. The vendors scoop the shredded pork skin into a plastic bag and toss them with roasted rice powder and various seasonings so its white exterior becomes coated in brown. Each bite is filled with rich umami flavor and delightful crunch that makes Bi (in our opinion) a great pulutan.

BÁNH CANH CUA

Just like with Pho, you can add chili, fish sauce, thai basil, and other leaves to flavor the Bánh Canh Cua broth to your taste.

We popped into a small patio of a family home to the left of the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh which served as the family’s small noodle shop. The noodle shop specializes in a beef and crab noodle soup with thick, udon-like rice noodles in a soothing broth. This combination that is not as refreshing but certainly more hearty than pho has won over our, well, hearts as a must-try noodle dish in Saigon.

VIETNAMESE Street eat

Utterly diverse and always balanced, Vietnamese food searches for middle-ground between Yin and Yang according to our tour guide Vu. A single meal in Vietnam is considered well-rounded if all colors and flavors are represented, he explains. It’s no wonder that each meal felt perfectly satisfying (Also, possibly because we were eating five meals a day).

Have you tried any of the above dishes? What did you think of them? What are the most interesting dishes you’ve encountered in Vietnam that you’d like for us to try next?
Bea Osmeña SEE AUTHOR Bea Osmeña Bea Osmeña is a healthy-ish eater who is just as likely to take you to a vegan joint as she is to consume a whole cheese pie to herself. A former picky eater, Bea has discovered the joys of savory fruit dishes, but still refuses to accept pineapples on her pizza. On the rare occasion you catch her without food in her mouth, you are likely to find her looking at books she can't afford, hugging trees, or talking to strange animals on the street.
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