The Pride in the Porkchop

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

foodtrip in Ho Chi Minh
Storytime is a series of  stories about my most memorable travel experiences. Read more here.

It was only our second day in Ho Chi Minh, but already we had settled into a routine: wake up late, walk around to get some food, amble back to the hotel, lounge in bed, then repeat steps two to four until it was time to sleep.

My husband Dennis noted how much like a "staycation" this leg of our trip was. I knew he wanted to do more, to take perhaps another one of his wonderful photos. But, for the past two weeks, that was what we've been doing –across the thoroughfares of Melaka, up the volcanoes and temples of Indonesia. In all earnestness, I really just wanted to eat.

"Food," I said pointedly, reminding him of the imaginary waiver he'd signed on to at the start of the trip. "We came to Saigon for food."

We'd arrived to this city in the secret hours of midnight, only to find out that the hotel we've booked were on the wrong side of town. In the midst of exhaustion, with eyes barely open, I'd cancelled our 4-day stay before booking another hotel. This time, I made sure it was in the city center. 

The next day, we packed our bags and followed Google Maps to the nearest bank. We still needed to exchange our dollars for Vietnamese dong. Along the way, we saw a roadside food cart, selling what looked like waffles. Dennis and I agreed this had to do for breakfast. Aside from the fact we still didn't have money, we were still too tired and sleepy to eat. 

By the time we came to our new hotel, it was still early. We went straight for bed and slunk back to sleep without much effort. When we regained consciousness, it was almost noon – perfect for beginning what was to be a weeklong food trip. 

I've always been a fan of Vietnamese dishes since my sister took me to Pho Hoa. I love how there's so much "going-ons" in every dish and yet it somehow remains light and fresh. The sole reason I included Vietnam in our itinerary was because I wanted to eat authentic Vietnamese food.

So we stepped out of our hotel, into the wild streets of Pham Ngu Lao and found ourselves in the local market. It was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, but I guess we came in late that day as most of the stalls were already deserted. But, eventually, we found an open one. 

On a long stainless table, between upturned wooden stools and bowls piled up high, we were seated. From here I had a whiff of meat grilling; caught the sound of sizzling oil. The sound of traffic was so ubiquitous, you'll soon get used to it. After a while, our food finally came: two steaming bowls of Banh canh, and a glass of cam sanh (King Orange) juice.
saigon street food

saigon food market

They came with mandatory plates of parsley. The old man who brought them, sporting a toothy grin, pointed at the cluster of sauces and utensils. We nodded our heads and grabbed some fork and chopsticks. 

I hesitated. What if it doesn't turn out the way I imagined it would be? What if it doesn't taste as good as Pho Hoa's? I shook my head and went for it. 

And, oh my god, was it delicious. The broth was a harmony of flavors. There was definitely garlic. Onion, too. And a sweet and slightly sour taste. The noodles were excellent, with just the right bite to it. The beef and liver and egg were magnificent additions. I loved every bit of it. I slurped happily and with utter abandon. Hello, Saigon
eat like a local in saigon

Satisfied with our first proper meal, we decided to get some water in the convenience store nearby. On the way there, I eyed a stall selling Banh mi across the street. I convinced Dennis to get some. We took our haul back to our hotel and spent the day just laying down; Dennis washing our clothes. 
banh mi ho chi ming

saigon banh mi

Come dinner, we explored Bui Vien and watched in awe at the colorful signs and the ensuing chaos. We ate at a roadside eatery, on plastic low tables that lined the gutters. Dennis had grilled pork chop while I had pho. Both were delicious. And cheap.
bui vien at night

evenings in bui vien

bui vien ho chi minh

where to get pho in saigon

food trip in saigon

vietnamese food trip with celineism

The next day, we woke up early to have breakfast, and again headed to the market. At this hour, it was buzzing with activity and all the stalls were open. I had bun cha gio thit nuong (pork barbecue and spring rolls with noodles) while Dennis had another pork chop. Both of us had a glass of iced coffee.
bun cha gio thit nuong street food

vietnamese barbecue

vietnamese iced coffee

For the next few days, we would frequent these stalls and order basically the same things. I so love the food that I'd sometimes get some for takeout.
vietnamese noodles and spring rolls

I'd also noticed that we were often the only foreigners there, but it was so popular with the locals. It takes me a while to place my order though, because unlike in Indonesia where I could already haggle in bahasa, I had a hard time traversing the language barrier here. So, imagine my delight when the aunties at the stalls started recognizing us, beaming and looking happy that we were there again. I can still clearly picture their faces and their smiles even today.  
market in pham ngu lao

bun cha gio thit nuong

We did try eating at one of the fancy spots in Bui Vien. On New Year's eve no less. But we regretted it so badly. The food was ridiculously expensive and after having tasted the market's food, we found the ones served at the former as disappointments. It's true what they say: go where the locals eat.

One memory I'm particularly fond of is lunchtime on our last day. Dodging scooters, I dragged my husband across the street from our hotel. We slid past cam sành hawkers and roadside performers, all shielded from the afternoon heat by one of those conical hats known as nón lá. Finally, we arrived at an alley. Its mouth flanked by a couple of food carts. 
vietnamese king orange

A hẻm eatery. 
hem eatery vietnam

I'd spent the last hour in our hotel room googling Vietnamese food terms. I'd listened to recorded pronunciations, testing how they sounded with my own voice. I was excited to try out the words I'd learned. So, over the sound and smell of pork grilling, I spoke. 

The small elderly man who took our orders ignored my mangled Vietnamese, resorting instead to pointing at the array of pork, egg, and meatloaf and watching if I nod or not. I sighed and relented. He then ushered us further down the alley where several low plastic tables were strewn on one side. We picked our spot and squeezed ourselves between local patrons. 

It didn't take long for our order to arrive. I was expecting a lunch of rice with grilled pork and fried egg. The pork was missing.

I tugged the arm of the lady who brought our food. She looked at me, then to my plate, then back at me quizzically.

I started to say "pork", but the lady just furrowed her brows. I squeezed my eyes shut, racking my brain for the right word. 

"Su...", I began. 

She blinked. 

I tried again. "Su...suon?"

She smiled. "Sườn."

I nodded triumphantly as I watched her shuffle away with my plate. Moments later, she was back with all my orders.

I beamed as I dug through the food, dousing everything in tangy fish sauce.

That meal had been especially satisfying.
food trip in hem eatery saigon

It's true we didn't get to see much of Saigon, but still I'd like to think we are well acquainted.

That was one of my most favorite trips ever.

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