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Of Phở, Fish Sauce and Tea, in Saigon

The Airbus 320-200 touches down on the tarmac, turbines thundering, and taxis to its berth at Tan Son Nhat airport, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), still known as Saigon.       

Place names are like features at an archeological site; they reveal which culture and which power dominated a place at various times in its history.

HCMC was known as Saigon from the late 18th Century, when it was the capital of French Indochina, until the Republic of South Vietnam surrendered to the Viet Cong there in 1975. Centuries earlier, it was called Prey Nokor a city of the great Khmer Empire, which held sway over the Mekong Delta region and the heartland of SE Asia.    

Some city names are adopted without question while others are chewed on: Consider Istanbul and Constantinople: It was a century before the Turkish name supplanted the Greek on maps and in the popular psyche. Although it’s been over 40 years since Saigon was rebadged to honor the leader of the north, there are those who have not fully accepted it, perhaps out of subliminal loyalty to the south and its culture. Or was it resentment at losing its status as capital city of an independent country?  

Whatever you’re inclined to call it (the name police will not tongue-lash), Saigon is the heart of the south, Vietnam’s commercial and export hub and its biggest city. It’s a swinging, modern place and the driver of growth in a rapidly growing economy. It’s liberal-minded and open because, unlike Hanoi, its northern sister, Saigon has experienced strong American and French influences and mostly avoided Chinese and Russian.

Ca phe da at Saigon Park

Ca phe da at Saigon Park

Rivers Run through It

HCMC is embraced and defined by nine rivers: including the Sông Bến Nghé and the Saigon, which snake their way hundreds of miles through its urban heart. The Mekong Delta lies 20 kilometers to the southwest. Islands and coastal towns with lovely beaches lie just a few hours to the west, south and east.   

The Saigon River is HCMC’s life blood, its source of drinking water and site of a unique deep-water port that accommodates ocean-going vessels with drafts of as much as 35 meters. It’s the busiest port in Vietnam, providing a direct outlet to the South China Sea for rice, coffee, cotton peanuts, tea, sugarcane and rubber exports.

Early settlers dug an extensive network of canals and irrigation channels similar to the klongs of Bangkok, which were highways of commerce linking rivers to markets, markets to harbors.  They made old Saigon the commercial hub it is today. Only eight of the canals can be seen today, but most are in disrepair.

The Thi Nghi canal, an 8.3 kilometer waterway, dug in 18th Century, has been restored – some would say “sanitized” – using World Bank funds. It’s now a watery boulevard framed by roomy pedestrian walks, benches and neat landscaping. In the process its natural charm has been lost: clusters of tottering shacks at water’s edge, old trees bending over it umbrella fashion, a scalloped shoreline, punctuated here and there with gardens. The poor who lived there have been resettled. The canal, now dominated by massive steel and cement retaining walls has been “saved,” but some mourn the old waterway that was home to the homeless.          

Immigrant flows into Saigon have always been part of an enrichment process. One that profoundly changed Saigon was the Chinese wave of 1778, in which commercial Chinese fled from their traditional settlements northeast of the city to settle on the west bank of the Saigon River. There they founded a vibrant market town and trading center known as Cho Lon, now part of Saigon District 5.    

Saigon’s Chinatown is the largest in the world. A lot has changed, of course, since its founding in the 18th Century, but there are more ancient traces of old Saigon here than in other districts. You have to look for them, but they will pop up as they do in Bangkok’s Chinatown in Yarowarat Road.

Saigon’s original district, District 1, was the old French capital. It is now a crowded place with a noisy, back-packer vibe, particularly in and around Bui Vien Street, which reverberates every night with rock music that can be felt in hotel rooms several blocks away.  

Being the heart of old Saigon, District 1 seems the natural place to begin a tour of the city; the superb bus system with its central terminal near Ben Thanh market makes it safe and convenient to do so.       

The northern part of District 1 is home to the city’s old zoo: not a place to witness humane treatment of animals, but ideal for unobtrusive people-watching. There is an extensive, formally laid out botanical gardens next to the zoo and the eye-opening History Museum of South Vietnam, whose stunning, informative, bilingual exhibits illustrate the ethnic and cultural diversity of the region.  

One “open secret” revealed there concerns the existence of the Cham people, an Austronesian ethnic group who lived in the central highlands and on the central coast of Vietnam from the 2nd to the 15th Centuries.  Champa, as their land was called, was an international trading center and a focal point of Indic culture, Hinduism and an Indian aesthetic in the region. A Cham remnant community, numbering 146,000, currently lives in Vietnam, mostly around Saigon. Additional Cham communities are found in Thailand and Cambodia. There are 46 other ethnicities in the country in addition to the dominant Viet or Kinh, contradicting the impression that Vietnam’s is a totally homogeneous society.

Another significant museum, the HCMC Museum of Fine Art, holds works by Vietnamese artists, painters, sculptors and print-makers whose principal subject matter is the trauma of the 1945-1975 wars of liberation.  In spacious galleries full of abandoned jars of watercolor and used brushes, there are heart-breaking contemporary paintings by children for whom the war is a remote, but nevertheless important cultural memory. Much of the adult work exhibited on the three upper floors is rather dark and forbidding, only occasionally rising above morbid preoccupation with war, but is it morbidity or protest or catharsis?  

In addition to its fascinating material culture, Saigon has plenty of accessible, leafy “people’s parks” where one can exercise, rest or socialize. “Don’t Step on the Grass” signs are nowhere to be seen. In fact, a very Vietnamese phenomenon occurs on the spacious swards of downtown Saigon on a daily basis.

At about 17:00, when local colleges let out for the day, students converge on the parks, gather on the grass in small, animated groups, like coffee klatches, to chatter and drink ca phe su da, milky, sweetened Vietnamese iced coffee. This is known as ca phe bet, having “coffee on the ground,” and it’s pure heart-warming fun.  Foreigners can easily join in as English language conversationalists. A place will be found on a park bench and a language exchange will ensue; the visitor will feel like a celebrity or a visiting professor.   

Eats of Saigon

aigon’s most important cultural treasure is its mouth-watering cuisine. It’s the result of at least three “outside” influences: Chinese, Indo-Malay and French. You discover traces of the first in the noodles dishes and stir fries and the dominance of rice; the second in the curries enriched with coconut milk, the use of turmeric, cloves, cardamom; and the French influences in the crepes, the crusty bread sandwiches with paté and coffee-drinking.

Rice is at the center of it all: “You have not eaten until you have had rice,” and the essence of being a Saigonian (and a good reason to visit Saigon) is the carnival of snacking and informal eating which gives street food its place of honor. One can take away food from countless food stalls perched on sidewalks, in the streets and parks, Vendors offer their delicacies from pots carried on shoulder poles, from jerry-rigged pushcarts glowing with charcoal fires and pop-up kitchens offering sit-down meals at rickety plastic tables.

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There are whole streets in Saigon devoted at night to impromptu dining. Phan Van Han Street, in Binh Thanh District and Van Kiep Street, at the border of Phu Nhuan and Binh Thanh Districts, offer vast selections of traditional food and snacks.  Both walking streets are packed with young people and hundreds of food stalls, some operated by the same family, in the “exact same spot,” for decades or generations. It is said every Vietnamese snack is represented here, a fattening prospect if ever there was one!

Eating in Saigon is a social ritual, but the lone tourist is welcome to pull up a rickety, undersized stool, fold her legs under an Alice-sized plastic table and chow down. It may be difficult, at first, to get ahold of a slippery intransigent noodle or a slice of rare beef with chop sticks, but she will not be laughed at.  The Vietnamese are friendly, accepting and non-judgmental.

Friend or Phở

No dish is more quintessentially Vietnamese/Chinese/French than a hot, steamy bowl of phở gà (chicken noodle soup) or phở bò (beef noodle soup), satisfying one-bowl meals that originated in Hanoi in the early 20th Century.

The northern, “classic,” version is clear, clean and flavorful, with a hint of richness. The chicken meat is infused with a blend of herbs and spices and cooked separately over a charcoal fire. The stock is simmered and skimmed on low heat for hours, then filtered to remove impurities. Piping hot, it is labeled on top of fresh, chewy rice noodles and tender cooked chicken meat.  Crunchy bean sprouts and herbs, such as mint and sweet basil, are served on the side.  Phở Bò substitutes thinly-sliced raw beef for the chicken and the stock is adjusted to suit.  In southern versions, the stock may be richer, sweeter and more redolent of spices.  It may not have the brightness and clarity of northern phở

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Phở is often mispronounced because the short final vowel hangs in thin air at the end. It’s pronounced “fu,” as in the word “fun.” It’s a very short, truncated “u.” By all means, avoid saying “foe.”     

Noodle Nation

The Vietnamese eat rice in many guises: noodles, “skins” crepes, rolls and sheets cut in myriad ways, eaten plain with dipping sauce, stuffed, stir-fried, used as a sandwich filling, in soups, etc.  These begin as rice batters, pastes, and dough.

One type of rice crepe, bánh cuốn, is made from short-grain glutinous rice soaked, ground and mixed to the consistency of a thin white gruel. This slightly fermented batter is poured onto a piece of cloth tightly fixed over the top of a cauldron of boiling water and steamed into a firm, exquisitely tender, “pancake” – delicious eaten plain with a splash of soy or fish sauce or with a spicy minced meat filling. In a thinner version, the batter is air dried on bamboo racks to make bánh tráng, the brittle rice paper wraps used for fresh spring rolls.  

The tender, elastic phở noodle is made from pre-soaked glutinous rice ground into a thick, somewhat viscous, white slurry then steamed in broad thin sheets in an oven or heated conveyor line.  It is hung to dry like laundry, and then cut into the desired sizes and shapes.    

Rice vermicelli is made in similar fashion, with a thicker batter, extruded through what looks like a large shower head, then boiled until firm.          

Fresh white sheets of uncut steamed rice noodles are distributed by bicycle, motorcycle and truck all over town in what look like packages of folded fresh linens. These large, spongy sheets are cut in the kitchen into broad or thin noodles for stir fries and soups.  

Bún chả is another classic noodle dish featuring rice vermicelli, tender slices of charcoal-grilled pork and ground pork patties. The meat and vermicelli seasoned with fish sauce is wrapped in large crisp lettuce leaves. This fresh green sandwich-sans-bread exhibits the essential elements of Vietnamese cuisine: crispy-crunchy, moist, savory, sweet and sour.    

For something a bit more French-style, looking slightly Mexican, but with an Indian twist, consider báhn xèo. The batter for this rice crepe consists of rice flour, moistened with coconut milk and spiced with turmeric, salt and sugar. Seasoned bits of pork belly and shrimp are added to the batter which is ladled into an oiled pan where it is topped with fresh bean sprouts, steamed and fried to a crispy finish.   


Fish Sauce Apprentice

While we’re in the watery realm, I want to pay homage to two of Vietnam’s national food treasures: nước mắm and nước chấm, sine qua non of the Vietnamese kitchen and table, as basic to the Vietnamese cook as salt is to the West. The first version is pure, unaltered fish sauce, used as an ingredient or seasoning. The second is a blend of fish sauce, lime juice and sugar with garlic and chilies, and used as a dipping sauce.    

I’m squeamish about fishy foods, but in Vietnam admitting you dislike fish sauce is like saying to a group of parents you don’t care for children. Fortunately, over time, I’ve warmed up to the brew; the finest are delicate, clean-tasting, subtly complex and not that salty.  

Fish sauce is made by steeping whole fish or fish parts in a vat with lots of sea salt for several months. Friendly, salt-loving bacteria and enzymes in the flesh of the fish turn the solids into a thick slurry, while a light amber liquid extract rises to the top of the vat. The first decantation is the finest and most expensive. Used plain or mixed with other ingredients, it adds needed panache to plain fresh vegetables, a sweet and sour-salty luster to noodles, a moist, acid shot to dry foods, such as baguettes, rice and barbequed meats.  Subsequent drawings tend to be saltier and stronger-tasting, and are less expensive.   

Epitome of Sandwich

My uber-favorite Vietnamese (Franco-Vietnamese) food is bánh mì , a crunchy lightly-toasted baguette, toasted, sliced open, partially gutted, then filled with meat, cheese, raw and pickled vegetables, pork liver pâté and  mayonnaise. There are thousands of versions in all price categories, some with gourmet pretentions, others stripped down for the hungry working class crowd.  

The breakfast banh mi can be filled with tender scrambled eggs, a soft cheese, salt and pepper, a dash of fish sauce, cucumbers, coriander greens and a thinly sliced red chili.  Just writing this, makes me want to toss my mouse and grab a cheap flight to Saigon!

Wet Your Whiskers

A few years ago I toured northern Ha Giang province to sample ancient tea made by Dao farmers living in an isolated region along the border with China. One of their specialties is tra shan thuyet, snow mountain tea, a product made into a pure  white bud tea. This product has a sweet, delicate, yet complex, flavor. The Dao have been producing this tea in traditional fashion, by hand, for generations. It is fairly rare and fairly expensive.  

In addition to this specialized, limited edition tea, Vietnam, the world’s 7th largest tea producer, makes black, green and scented teas. The majority is black tea (mostly CTC grade), while 35% is green tea. It is said that many discriminating (and presumably wealthy) Viet tea lovers prefer to get their tea from China. 

Thai Nguyen, north of Hanoi, is a well-known green tea center. Most is machine-made, but there are small-holders in the region employing traditional hand production methods and improved clonal tea varieties.

Of Vietnam’s novel flower-scented teas, lotus-scented is the most unique and special. The genuine (and expensive) article is made by mixing freshly-made high-quality green tea with lotus flower stamens, leaving it overnight to blend flower scent and tea essence.  The result is sweet and appetizing, when it is not cloying. 

Vietnamese tea can well-made and of good quality, but little is premium grade. There is a tendency to emphasize quantity vs. quality that has dominated the industry since it was launched by the French in the 19th Century and revitalized by the Soviets in the 20th.  

An interesting exception is in oolong tea production. A number of Vietnamese tea farmers in the north are collaborating with Taiwan tea experts to introduce a Formosa style oolong. Most of this tea is exported to Taiwan where it helps to fill a serious gap in stocks. This practice of using off-shore client farms to produce export quality tea also occurred in northern Thailand some 30 years ago. What I’ve sampled of the new Viet-Formosa oolong was a good facsimile of the Taiwan-made stuff, no small complement considering that Taiwan oolong is produced to very high standards.     

Finding good tea in edifying environments in Saigon can be a challenge as there are not many establishments devoted to tea, and not much premium-quality tea around. Although many Vietnamese are tea-drinkers, they are more apt to take tea at home than away. Going out to enjoy a fine cup of tea is not commonplace. Traditional restaurants and street side cafes serve tea bags.

On the other hand, coffee-drinking away from home is de rigueur.  The habit was introduced during the French colonial period and is now a ubiquitous social ritual.  

On the low end of the spectrum are the local coffee styles: ca phe den, ca phe su’a, ca phe su’a dac, and ca phe su da. (black coffee, coffee with milk, coffee with condensed milk and sweetened iced coffee). These are standard, not premium quality, drinks. It’s quite common for coffee roasters to add flavoring, such as butter, and to over-roast. The result is a strong, burnt cup with mouth-cringing bitterness. Black coffee is served with a pitcher of evaporated milk and granulated sugar, both of which are hardly able to mask the flavor.    

Fortunately, there are hundreds of Saigon coffee houses using finer grades of bean and modern brewing methods. There are at least a dozen global coffee franchises in the downtown area, particularly in District 1. There are locally-owned coffee house chains which tend to have more character and individuality.

The most interesting and challenging sector are the stand-alone cafe where one can acquire a “bespoke” cup of coffee in a one-off environment. Some of these spots are hidden away in the upper stories of old buildings on small tree-lined streets or on blind alleys in outlying districts.     

One industrial/post-modern coffee house made for the “coffee enthusiast” has a nicely laid out coffee menu that reads like a wine list and is almost as expensive. There, you can choose exactly how you would like your coffee drink made: French press, siphon, espresso machine, drip, no problem!  Another place is composed of an amazing labyrinth of jerry-built tree houses surrounding gurgling fountains in a lush tropical garden.  Here and coffee is “ok,” while the atmosphere is surreal – in a nice way.  (Google “Saigon’s Hidden Cafes”)  

View from Ho Chi Minh’s Statue

Saigon has a bit of everything, a skein of tiny streets with every kind of retail shop, a great book store, big public markets, food streets, gourmet supermarkets and friendly, courteous, hard-working people.  

While visiting the city, don’t miss the chance to visit Ho Chi Minh (“Uncle Ho”), who you will find standing at the head of Nguyen Hue Street, a super-wide landscaped boulevard with a paved parade ground that goes on for blocks.

Contemplating Ho Chi Minh’s metallic likeness I began to see the place he occupies in the hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese, both the reverent cadres who adore him and the die-hard southerners, who were not initially as sympathetic. He was, in spite of the one-party rule that is part of his legacy, an intelligent leader, a moral teacher and a liberator. He freed Vietnam from 88 years of oppression, 30 years of war.  

I got goose bumps standing some hundred feet from his likeness, seeing him stride forward (not seated like that other great liberator, Abraham Lincoln), his right arm raised toward the Saigon river, his image framed by a  modern skyline in a city named for him, gazing into a future he could only imagine.  

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