Eating like a local in Saigon

It was a balmy night in Saigon, and I had found myself perched atop a low plastic stool, alternating between sucking on a cold brew and sea snails seasoned generously with chilli and salt.

It was a completely unexpected foray into the food scene of Saigon, and I was having the best time of my life.

How I got there, on the eve of my last day in Ho Chi Minh City could only be described as pure good luck.

If you know me, you know I travel for two things – adventure and food.

So I was slightly disappointed when after one full day in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon, I hadn’t found any leads on truly mind-blowing Vietnamese food. I was acutely aware that with only four days in this city, time was against me.

Being a non-pork eater in Asia has proven to be quite a barrier to enjoying the best that places like Thailand, Bali and Vietnam have to offer. Of course, I wanted to try banh mi and pho in Vietnam, but the best versions of those dishes are made with animals that go oink and I just can’t.

So I had kind of resigned myself to an unremarkable foodie fate when my Airbnb host Mai stopped me on my way out one day. She asked if I was interested in joining her on a food tour that she was testing out for guests in the Airbnb.

At the time I was still waffling between two other food tours and trying to schedule my tours for the next few days. I told her I would get back to her.

The following day I had my timing sorted out enough to say what the heck, and I messaged Mai to say she could count me in.

Two nights later Mai and Linh (her co-manager) met me at the apartment. I was kind of thrilled to find out I was the only one going on the tour with them. I love a personalised experience.

I hopped on the back of Mai’s motorcycle and we sped off into the night, out of District 1 and through the winding streets of Saigon, through hundreds – maybe thousands – of other scooter-bound motorists to District 10.

There we found Bánh Canh Ghẹ, a restaurant I am told is named after the main dish served there, so guess what we were going to have.

That’s right – Bánh Canh Ghẹ!

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Bánh Canh Ghẹ is essentially a crab noodle soup. The broth itself was thick and spicy, while slightly sweet at the same time (coconut milk perhaps). Swimming in the broth was a miscellanea of fish meat, spices, herbs, thick and meaty udon noodles, a few crunchy puffs (the name of these escape me) and an entire crab.

It was frickin’ delicious.

It was an amalgamation of some of my favourite things – seafood, udon noodles, spice, coconut and it was the exact thing I had been after in Saigon. Everyone eating at the restaurant appeared to be a local, I was getting the real deal.

Once we finished up with our bánh canh ghẹ we headed back to the bikes and I hopped back on the back of Mai’s scooter to zoom to the next location on our food tour.

Luckily for me, I’m a pretty adventurous and trusting person. So I actually wasn’t put off at all when Mai and Linh turned down a dimly lit alleyway off the main street, and pulled up alongside an open-air room, clamouring with locals, packed to capacity with low metal tables and plastic chairs.

We were at the snail spot I mentioned earlier – Quán Ốc Như.

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I gave Mai and Linh full authority on what to order – this wasn’t exactly the kind of place where I could peruse a menu.

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After some animated deliberation with a waiter, they settled on chilli salt sea snails, snails in a milky coconut broth, clams in lemongrass broth and cockles in an assortment of sauces. Despite my protestation that I absolutely do not drink beer, Linh ordered me a Saigon beer anyway, insisting that this was how the locals did it.

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Believe you me, no one was as surprised as me when that bottle hit the table empty. The beer, as it turned out, was the perfect accompaniment to the salty, chewy molluscs.

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As much as the food, I was thoroughly enjoying my company. Mai and Linh – both Vietnamese girls in their early 20s – made me feel like I was shooting the breeze with friends back home.

Despite my sometimes frosty exterior, I actually get along very well with people most of the time. We chatted about boys (I showed them pictures of my boyfriend which got them oohing and aahing), our careers, travelling and just general challenges they faced being bold young women in a somewhat conservative society.

Beer and sea snails safely tucked away in the confines of our bellies, we soldiered on to the next and final stop – dessert.

Vietnam, like most of the South East Asian countries I’ve visited, has a vibrant street food culture. Vietnam pavements are often lined with plastic stools and low metal or wooden tables. At any point in the day, you can observe a multitude of locals enjoying a meal amidst the minimalist furnishings, served by street side cooks.

We pulled up alongside one of these vendors, the girls giggling excitedly while promising me ‘the best ice cream in Saigon’.

I’m not a huge ice cream fan by any stretch but I’ve experienced some of the most satisfying ice cream in this part of the world – due in large part to their commitment to coconut. I looooove coconut so I’m always thrilled to dig into a scoop of coconut ice cream and find chunks of coconut jelly ensconced within.

This particular coconut ice cream was also topped with toasted coconut and served in a coconut shell.

Talk about staying on theme.

Also in this coconut shell? Purple sweet rice, corn and peanuts (yuck). I picked the peanuts off but everything else was bomb.

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Following our sweet treat, the girls and I headed back to our apartment building.

Back at the base, the girls said that as they were just doing a test run of the tour, they’d just divvy up the damage from the night and we’d split the cost evenly between us.

My grand total for a night of delicious Vietnamese food and great company? Roughly $16 USD.

Of course, once the ladies launch this tour officially it’ll set their customers back a bit more but even at four times this cost, I’d say the experience is totally worth it.

As a bonus, the following day I went to a restaurant that had been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in search of another traditional Vietnamese dish – bánh xèo.

Bánh xèo is basically a Vietnamese crepe, stuffed with assorted veggies and some kind of protein.

I headed to Bánh Xèo 46A on the back of my Grab motorcycle. It was evident I’d shown up during the lunch rush but one of the perks of eating alone is that there is almost always a spare single seat somewhere to accommodate me.

I foolishly ordered some fried calamari to start, ignorant to the size of the bánh xèo that would be heading my way in a few.

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I was more than a little puzzled when the waiter plopped a plate of greens in front of me – pretty sure I didn’t order a very plain salad with this meal.

I panicked.

What was the deal with this lettuce? A quick glance around provided me with a lead – it was no mistake, it had to do with the bánh xèo.

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I literally googled “bánh xèo” and “lettuce”, and found a YouTube video demonstrating the accepted way to eat bánh xèo – first by tearing off a piece of the crepe, placing it atop the lettuce, rolling it tightly then dipping it into the sauce they served with the meal – a kind of fish sauce and chili concoction.

The bánh xèo was massive; I actually read in one blog that bánh xèo is prepared a little differently across Vietnam, but that the crepes in Saigon were typically large.

No lie.

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The final verdict – definitely delicious but way too much for me to finish in one go. This might be a meal that’s better shared with friends.

I know I barely even scratched the surface of Vietnamese food. I’ve already resolved to return so I can travel to Central and North Vietnam and try all the regional dishes.

That’s all for now, hope this titillated your inner foodie a bit.

Until next time!