Being Vietnamese-American and going to Vietnam for the first time was truly a life-time experience, even if it was just for five and a half days. As we went through customs and the airport, we could feel the tropical climate and the hustle and bustle of a city trying to make something for itself. Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a city that is rising in tourism and as the world gets to know more of Vietnam’s history and culture, the more people will love it. The first thing that hits you when you leave the airport is the amazing amount of motorbikes! They come in all directions and it seems impossible to cross the streets. But, they’ll just go around you as long as you walk slowly. In addition to the massive number of motorbikes and their courtesy, the people are super nice, sometimes because they want to sell you something, but sometimes just because they are truly sincere and want to help you.
In a city of 7 million people, 3 million motorbikes pack the streets.
As for the food, if there is one word that describes Vietnamese food, it is ‘fresh.’ Everything from the pho, banh mi, seafood, coffee and che is full of flavors like lemongrass, pepper, mint and more. Vietnam’s history is something to discover more and more about, not only because of the war, but because this is where my family is from and where they have some story about the war. In school, we only learned about the Vietnam War, which is what Americans called it. We didn’t learn about the other side of the war that the Vietnamese call the American War. Visiting Saigon and Phu Quoc for the first trip to Vietnam was the right choice because of what we learned. I hope that you enjoy reading the next few posts almost as much as I enjoyed visiting Vietnam.
Like I mentioned, Vietnamese food is FRESH. It is filled with herbs, spices, vegetables, meat or seafood and their staple ingredient – fish sauce (nước mắm). I had fogotten how much I liked Vietnamese food. I didn’t realize how priviledged I was to have that type of food when I was younger, until now. I never knew what I was eating, I just knew that it was good. Now, I know what the food is called, but sometimes I don’t know what it’s made of. So, some of the information I get comes from the Internet.
I loved having pho almost everyday in Vietnam. Pho is a famous dish in Vietnam and around the world. It’s made of rice noodles in a beef broth, with your choice of how much bean sprouts, lime, basil, hoisin and sriacha sauce you’d like. They have chicken and seafood too, but beef (Pho Bo) is the way to go. Another snack or dish that I missed was Banh Mi, which is a baguette filled with thinly sliced carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, mayonaise and meat or tofu. It’s definitely a sandwich that was influnced by the French.
Vietnam's most famous dish, pho
Vietnamese seafood is the best in the world. Korean seafood is different because it usually has a kimchi taste to it. But I prefer Vietnamese seafood, which has more of a fresh, herb and black pepper taste. The best seafood in Vietnam is on Phu Quoc Island. The clams at the Night Market were amazing! The Vietnamese make a dipping sauce with shellfish such as clams, shrimp, prawn, crab and crawfish. The sauce is simply made of black pepper and salt with lime juice. It tastes perfect with shellfish!
Hot pot with baby shark, fresh vegetables and clam at the Night Market in Phu Quoc
Other dishes that are worth trying are Banh Xeo (the Vietnamese version of a crepe filled with fresh vegetables and pork), Bún thịt nướng (Vermicelli with grilled pork or fried spring rolls) and of course spring rolls, fried or fresh. Vietnamese coffee blows away other types of coffee. Its strong taste and sweet condensed milk stirred together and poured in ice make it the perfect drink for a warm morning or sweltering afternoon. But for an even more refreshing drink, try che. Everyone makes their che different. It’s usually made of red or soy bean in a coconut milk and crushed ice. Sometimes, it will have jellies, other fruit or some sort of custard.
But, one of our favorite eating experiences involved a bit of an adventure. Although this ‘restaurant’ is tucked away from District 1 and all of the other restaurants and hotels, this special chef is known for her homemade soups. She was featured on the TV show, “No Reservations,” with Anthony Bourdain. She is known as the “Lunch Lady.” It’s people like her who make the country a better place. She makes her culture speak through her cooking. She’s like a mother or grandmother who spends countless hours preparing a meal from love.
There was no exact address for her restaurant, which in Vietnam is sometimes outside with plastic chairs and tables and considered street food. But this street food was something different, with full service and the best soup in town. We had a small map that we found online and headed toward the area in search of this legend. As we got closer toward the area we asked a few locals where she was located and they knew exactly who we were talking about. Her stand was tucked away in a small alley. This was definitely off the beaten track. Her customers were everyday locals who crave the “good stuff.” This is the type of place where hardly ever see travelers. As soon as we located her stand, her face lit with a huge smile, welcoming us to sit down and try her food. She is an amazing woman who truly has a gift. Anthony Bourdain said that she was one of his favorite street vendors in Vietnam.
The Lunch Lady's Saturday Special - Banh Canh
She often puts a spin on traditional Vietnamese food making her own unique dish. When we went on a Saturday and she prepared a classic Vietnamese dish called Banh Canh. But instead of a pork-base broth she added her own spin with a crab-based seafood broth. The dish included fish cakes, succulent shrimps, thinly sliced shallots, onions, peppers, and a few quail eggs. Anyone who loves food could see the love that she put into this food.
This was one of the best dishes that we had in Vietnam. We highly recommend trying the Lunch Lady’s soup. If you’re limited on time in Vietnam, make sure you make time for the Lunch Lady. Just make sure that you get there after 11am and before 1pm. For someone being so famous, she charges less than 18,000 VND per plate, which is equivalent to $1 USD. Despite her popularity she refuses to raise her prices.