As I slurped up the noodles and sipped on the broth, I could feel my body being rejuvenated with every spoonful, ready to seize the day in front of me, before I had even taken a sip of my coffee.
A couple of weeks back I found myself on a plane to Vietnam for the first time. I had been all over Asia in the past - but the allure of the “chaos of Saigon” and many day-dreamed meals inside alleys on small plastic stools was now about to become a reality. Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, is a bustling metropolis in the south of Vietnam that never fails to surprise and enchant. And what better time to explore this vibrant city than during Lunar New Year, also known as Tet, when the streets are alive with color, sound, and flavor? The pros? I never got to experience the gridlock, stress-inducing scooter traffic Vietnam is famous for, with the added bonus of peace and quiet while walking around. The cons? One or two street food vendors were closed, spending time with family. I could live with that.
Wandering the streets of Saigon during Tet, I couldn't help but be drawn to the aromas emanating from the food stalls and vendors lining every corner. Walking one hundred meters without being sucked into the smells and sounds of sizzling pork proved to be a real challenge. And when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, few things can compare to the holy trinity of banh mi, pho, and bun thit nuong.
Banh mi is a quintessential Vietnamese sandwich that is a perfect blend of French and Vietnamese influences. A freshly-baked baguette is filled with a variety of fillings, including savory meats (my favorite being ultra crispy pork belly), pickled vegetables, and herbs. My first banh mi of the trip was at Bánh mì heo quay - Tuyền Kí. Before coming to Vietnam I had made a list of banh mi places to visit, all of which had some level of notoriety as “the best banh mi.” However, as fate would have it, this became my favorite after trying five places, and I’d just randomly popped in from the road. Sometimes the unplanned really just does turn out for the best. As I took my first bite of banh mi, the expectations I had for Saigon all came to a gentle conclusion in harmony. The crispness of the baguette gave way to the tangy, meaty flavors of the crispy pork belly, and soft pork pate, leaving my taste buds craving for more.
One of the three quintessential Vietnamese staples down, two to go. Up next on my culinary journey was diving into a bowl of Pho, preferably at 9am. Pho is another staple of Vietnamese cuisine. This steaming bowl of broth and rice noodles is served with tender slices of beef or chicken and is often accompanied by fresh herbs, lime, and chili peppers. In my eight days in Saigon, I had a bowl of pho before noon eight times. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans. In this case we’re in Saigon slurping bowls of Pho for breakfast. After a lot of trial, and not much error, as they were all fantastic and full of flavor, my favorite pho came to be Pho Le in District 5. As I slurped up the noodles and sipped on the broth, I could feel my body being rejuvenated with every spoonful, ready to seize the day in front of me, before I had even taken a sip of my coffee.
We’d checked off the breakfast of Saigon, the quick pop into a banh mi stall for lunch - what’s left? The meal I was looking forward to the most on this trip, bun thit nuong - grilled pork with rice (preferably eaten on a small plastic stool way too small for me.) One night I randomly popped into a 7-Eleven to grab a cold drink, and had overheard two other individuals proclaim in English how great that pork was. I interrupted their conversation to ask where I may be able to find this meal they spoke highly of - and pleasantly learned it’s right around the corner, just near a street I’d yet to stroll down. I had an early dinner already, but how many times am I going to be in Vietnam during Tet? I made my way to find friends, families, and individuals huddled around small tables, and even smaller stools; my Vietnam travel dream was coming true. My friend and I walked over to the street cart, pointed at all the different varieties of pork - grilled pork chop, crispy pork belly, pork sausage, pork cutlet - we asked for it all, and all of it delivered. After my eight days in Saigon, this collection of grilled pork lives in my head rent free as my favorite meal. While there is no address, you’ll be able to find this vendor directly east of the Tan Dinh Market on Hai Ba Trung street.
As I roamed the streets of Saigon, savoring the flavors of banh mi, pho, and the bun thit nuong, I couldn't help but feel the excitement and energy of Tet all around me. The streets were filled with colorful decorations and the sound of fireworks, while the aroma of food lingered in the air. Kids were running around, full of energy, innocence, toys, and streamers. Families were relaxed, excited, drinking beer at 7AM and 7PM, and diving into their own feasts and celebrations at all hours of the day and night.
Exploring Saigon during Tet is an experience like no other, and the food is just one of the many reasons to visit this incredible city. My journey included the ever growing Vietnam beer scene, and an endless amount of caffeine via Saigon’s incredible coffee culture - but more on that another time.