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Published: December 27th 2014
So, I decided to celebrate the end of my trip with a street food tour of Ho Chi Minh City. Street food has been harder for me to manage than in Thailand. In Thailand, often there are multiple dishes in a stall, and you can just point to what you want, or there is a menu with English or pictures. Not so much in Vietnam. There is usually a stall which only does one dish, and this is advertised in Vietnamese, and there are just random things hanging in the glass and covered pots of simmering somethings. Also, many dishes have pork, which I don't eat, making things more difficult. The street food has been good, but not with the variety and complex flavors of Thailand. The best food I've had thus far is in vegetarian restaurants. So I decided to try a tour.
The first tours I looked at were over $70 dollars and had large groups of people. After a lot of hunting, I found a small group walking tour outside of District 1 (the tourist area). A local guide walks you around and explains all the foods in the markets and
the stalls, and then orders you whatever you fancy at any time. 4 hours and $30, a steal. I meet my guide at the tourist office, and I find out I am the only one on the tour. Score. Personal tour of the street food of Southern Vietnam. His name is Caoang and he is 29 and studied tourism at Dalat University. He wears a red chefs cap and says I can call him "streefoodman". I don't. He has only been doing the tour for 3 months or so. He says he really wants tourists to have the local experience, and to try food outside of the tourist targeted areas. I'm in.
We catch a cab to District 4, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, but still rarely frequented by travelers. I don't see another tourist for the next 4 hours. We get out of the cab, and the amount of street food stalls is overwhelming. The streets are just lined with them. District 4 is where the locals live, so this is the busy time as people get done working downtown and then pick up dinner on their way home. We slowly amble the streets and the
eating begins. I resist some of the more common foods in the beginning, because I know I need to save room. My first snack is rice dough balls fried in peanut oil, one plain and one with an egg custard inside. A bit like a doughnut because the dough is sweet, but more bready and less savory. And 100% tasty. As we munch, we walk by a Com Tam, or a "broken rice" stand. This woman is just shelling out dishes of broken rice with a few vegetables and a choice of meat. These vendors earn their dollar. She must have made 20 plates in 5 minutes. Caoang says it's a very cheap and local dish, and this is the most popular stand in the district. It makes sense to order from a stand which only has one dish, they probably do it well.
We head to the fruit and vegetable market and we sample some different fruits. Most of the wares come from the nearby Mekong Delta or Dalat. Most notable is the "breast milk" fruit. Not making the name up. Caoang keeps gesturing to his pec and making milk motions to awkwardly explain the fruit's
name to me...I assure him I understand to make him stop. It's like a round, apple sized coconut, which has soft white meat inside and when you bite down, your mouth fills with fruit milk. Yummmmmm. Just don't think about the breast part. I also get a bag of a seasonal berry/nut type thing. The local women travel to the forests to pick these berries at the right season. There is a soft shell you can break with your finger, and then the fruit is a powdery substance around a large pit. It's reminiscent of prune and tamarind. I guess it's very popular with the young generation.
At this point it's time for a larger meal, so we stop at a famous pancake stand which has been up and running for 40 some years. Vietnamese pancakes (banh xao) are thin and crispy, made out of rice and egg and fried, and then filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork. We skip the pork. It is served with a humongous side of different Asian greens, so you make a fun multicolored lettuce wrap filled with the pancake and dip it in a sugar/vinegar sauce. So good. Even the greens are interesting, some fresh, some bitter, some like anise. We also get two small fried savory custard cups filled with shrimp. We wash it down with an iced tea.
I am now so full. But oh no, not done. We pass a soya milk (soy) stand, and I've seen it everywhere but haven't tried it yet. There is a white and a yellow soy milk which they heat up in a large kiln. The vendor takes a plastic bag and cracks an egg inside. She then fills the bag with half white and half yellow soya milk, and then serves it over ice. It's the most delicious soy milk you've ever had, sweet and thick and frothy. We then grab a banana leaf filled with sticky rice and durian fruit and it's a nice little predessert. Durian is quite a polarizing fruit - the smell often turns people off. But it is subtle in the sticky rice. One complaint, because I have to say something
critical, is the rice was a bit dry, and I'm used to sticky rice being, well, moist and sticky.
Our next stop is a booth which has stacks of big cylindrical plastic vats filled with anything from snakes to fish to frogs. The liquid inside the vats is rice wine. The rice wine which is steeped with snakes is supposed to be good for a man's virility. So we try some. I have to. My most adventurous move. It honestly just tastes like rice wine.
We pass by some other crazy booths. We see cow's lung which is supposed to be a delicacy, tiny birds on a rotisserie stuffed with eggs and their hearts on a small skewer, filleted frogs, fish heads, and chicken fetuses. Mind blowing. A vegetarian's 7th level of hell.
I'm convinced I can't eat anything more, until we come to a stall with fresh shellfish. Caoang says it's a must do. So like a queen I pick through the shells and we decide on oysters, snails, a conch and two Saigon beers to wash it down. The snails come first, and they are sautéed with morning glory greens in a sauce that is unbelievable. Fried garlic and sugar and vinegar and a billion things I wouldn't know. The best thing I have eaten THUS FAR. And then the conch came out and was cooked to perfection. Flaky and not rubbery at all. Caoang tells me the conch is "good for females" and then he eats the roe, which I'm assuming is "good for males". I guess shellfish are aphrodisiacs around the world. We chew on bitter leaves as a digestif. We end with grilled oysters topped with a type of hollandaise which we slurp down. I am convinced I'm done, cannot eat more, but Caoang says we must try the local dessert. It is flan covered with sugared coffee granita. I don't even like flan, and it was so good. Sort of like a Vietnamese affogato. Creamy and cool and crunchy and the coffee cuts the sweetness. Finally, I surrender. No more. No more. I feel myself rapidly expanding. Completely, utterly, expandably full. We decide to walk home to burn off maybe one dish we ate, and Caoang is drunk and red off the one beer, really funny. He keeps telling me I look like a Vietnamese woman. I wonder what he seeing as I am white and freckly with a red braid, wearing turquoise elephant pants and sneakers. I give him a questioning eye, and he insists it's because I am small and natural. Yup, he's drunk.
If you are in Ho Chi Minh, this is a MUST DO. Not just for the food, the whole experience. Google "streetfoodman". It is worth twice what you pay. Such an amazing, authentic experience, and the local people just smile and laugh with you, show you how they make the food and then give you a hug. Just make sure to wear loose pants. And only let Caoang have a half of a beer.
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