Scarfing Street Snacks in Sài Gòn

Before heading off to Vietnam my goal was to experience as much of the local cuisine as possible. On my first day, after a somewhat hearty breakfast and a lengthy walkabout, it became painfully obvious that big eating was out of the question. The extreme humidity literally sucks away a great chunk of your appetite. That’s probably what accounts for the locals eating small, light meals  throughout the day. With that in mind I headed off to Ben Thanh Market for a nice, light snack.

Chợ Bến Thành (Bến Thành Market) is Sài Gòn’s main marketplace. Normally a vibrating hive of phrenetic energy, at 8 in the morning, not so much. Kind of perfect for someone who just wants to scope the place out without the onslaught of arm-tugging vendors.

After spying out a stall with some favorite items, I settled in for some refreshment.

One thing I’ve always been meaning to try is Young Coconut Juice. Actually, it’s green coconut water. The liquid is nature’s sports drink. Slightly sweet, mild-tasting and an excellent source of potassium. A great revitalizer in this climate.

Nem nướng (Vietnamese Grilled Pork Skewers). Usually served atop vermicelli noodles or wrapped up in rice paper with assorted veggies, these are intensely garlicky and a bit sweet. This particular batch was a bit tough and a tad heavy. Still, for about 50 cents, can’t complain too much.

The market is a seafood lovers’ dream come true. Fresh soft-shell crab go for about a buck a piece. If only my hotel room had a kitchenette!

The coolest part of Sài Gòn, for me, are the narrow lanes that snake throughout the neighbourhoods. They’re a quiet respite from the street noise and a sure-fire way to find good grub. These alleys are basically the homeowners’ back yards. You find folk exercising, kids playing and a whole lot of great food (and beverage) on offer.

An alleyway barista serving up some phenomenal iced coffee.

After rambling around awhile, I came across a vendor advertising Phở gà and Phở bò (Chicken soup and beef soup). Using my fool-proof communication device of pointing at what I’d like, the lady replied with a shake of her head. Uh-oh. Plan B: raise one index finger (“I’ll have one of whatever you got.”). That did the trick.

Not too sure what to call this bowl. Phở đặc biệt (specialty phở) maybe? It’s pretty much loaded with a bunch of everything. Vietnamese ham, chicken and fish balls, scallions and a variety of herbs in a light, chicken broth. The best part is the selection of condiments. Pickled garlic and chili slices, a hefty chili sauce and mắm ruốc, an intense purple fermented shrimp paste. This is flavour overload in the best way!


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2 responses

  1. Good post, buddy! Again, for comparison purposes, how much were the other dishes? And, most importantly, while pointing what to order might not necesarily be difficult (or there are workarounds); how did you manage with things like how much to pay? 🙂

    September 20, 2010 at 6:46 am

  2. Karl

    Hi Kim! More often than not the prices are affixed to the side of the vending carts. Soups are (street-side) usually 20,000 to 30,000 VND ($1.00-$1.50). Some vendors who don’t display prices may charge the “tourist” rate. I think the mark-up is dependant on how friendly you are. I don’t think I was ever gouged too much.

    The two items at the market were 50 cents each, if memory serves.

    September 20, 2010 at 7:30 am

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