Sampling the Food in Vietnam

Food is everywhere in Ho-chi-minh – in roadside stalls, on pushcarts, in baskets tied to bicycles, inside cafes and stores, and of course in restaurants. I have landed in the city with only one mission, to eat, and the city does not disappoint me. Within just a few minutes of my arrival, en route to my apartment, I have already witnessed a mindboggling variety – from Banh-Mi to Pho, from Rice Cakes to Deep Fried Buns, from Com-Tam to Ban-Cha, from Fish Cakes to Pancakes.

I soon find myself in a café called ‘Pho 2000’, situated across the street from the famous Ben Thanh market. Located on the first floor away from the din of the road, it promises to be a safe place to begin my gourmet sojourn in Saigon. It is bright, modern, and bustling with locals, and is serviced by beautiful Vietnamese women dressed in black.

I promptly order a pho – a clear broth with meat, vegetables, and noodles – and wait anxiously. The pho (pronounced ‘fur’) arrives quickly along with a fancy array of sides – some dark green leaves, a small portion of sambal, some chopped green chilies, and lime. In my haste, I hurriedly gulp a large spoon full only to scald my tongue. I am not sure if I should wait for it to cool or have it as it is, when I see everyone around me enjoying the steaming broth. Notwithstanding a burnt mouth, I follow suit; soon there is an explosion of flavours and textures in my mouth. There is the heat of the chili, the tang of the lime, the bite of the meat, and the body of the noodles. The leaves meanwhile add much-needed crunch.

It is difficult to decide what is hotter, the food or the cafe. While the hot broth has helped in bringing out the flavours of the ingredients, the same cannot be said about the ambient heat, which has caused me to sweat profusely.

To cool things off slightly, I decide to have a coffee.

Other than food, coffee was the second reason for me to be in Vietnam. My brother, who had recently been here, had told me that in Vietnam, one could survive only on its signature coffee, what he had clearly forgotten to tell me was what kind of coffee. While I know Vietnamese coffee is famous world over, what I do not know is which version of it am I supposed to have. Since I can do with something cooler after the pho, and coffee happens to be my weakness, I order a cold, black version of the drink. The beverage arrives in a matter of minutes. The tall glass with ice cubes peeping from within looks promising, but turns out to be extremely bitter and unpalatable. Disappointed, I decide to junk it.

With food place sprinkled like sea salt all over the city, you find something new at every corner. While going around the town I come across many such food places and use the opportunity to sample almost everything that came my way – the delicate yet flavourful fish cakes with noodles from an old lady on a cycle, some sweet, deep-fried bread, that looked more like a bhatura from a stall under a tree, a few rice cakes with sausages from a pushcart, paper thin pancakes with syrup from a shack, sandwiches from a café – I eat until I can eat no more.

While lunchtime is busy in the city – almost the entire population is on the streets sitting around plastic tables on low stools collectively satiating their hunger with – the most famous food places come up at night when they magically appear out of nowhere.

I see them when I return to Ben Thanh after spending the day ambling through the beautiful vestiges of Saigon’s colonial, war ridden past, eating almost everything that came my way.

But for the buildings, it is impossible to recognize the square. In a matter of a few hours the entire place has undergone a complete transformation. The shops have shut, the vendors have left, and the streets are illuminated by the lights of dozens of food stalls already set up on the pavement.

These stalls complete with open fire and grill, pots and pans, griddles and woks and many, many people, look far from temporary. A wide variety of seafood is displayed along the periphery of the counters; stunted plastic tables & chairs are neatly set up at a distance under a canopy, colorful lamps hang from the make-shift ceiling. Still full from the non-stop eating through the day, I am wondering should I stay or head home when a young lady smiles at me. The next thing I know, I am sharing a table with a young man waiting for my Com Tam to arrive.

The stalls along the street are clean and the service swift – a ladle of soup here, a plate of mussels there, some grilled fish on one table, multiple bottles of beer on another; people behind the counters are dressed identically and work in perfect coordination. The whole scene looks more like a well-orchestrated performance and less of a kitchen.

In the little time that it has taken for my food to arrive the man in front of me has already downed half a dozen bottles of beer and endless servings of seafood. Although amused by the speed at which he is eating, I try not to look at him and dig into my dinner of meat and rice.

The rice turns out to be nice, but I am still thinking about my coffee from the morning. I find it impossible to believe what I had in the morning is the beverage everyone raves about. It is then that I spot a girl walking by with a bicycle on which she has something that looks like coffee. I abandon my half-eaten rice to pursue her.

The girl, who has now parked her shop in a corner, is indeed making coffee. Hopeful, I order one. She moves like lightening and makes my drink by mixing condensed milk, coffee decoction, ice cubes, and a few other things and hands me a plastic glass. As I tentatively take the first sip of the beautiful beige liquid, I realize I have no reason to worry. I have finally found my coffee.

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