I’m sure half the trick of a successful streetfood hunt is knowing how to look, not just what to look for. Much like a beachcomber scopes what appears to be a barren stretch of shoreline only to spy an edible species of kelp, enough clams and razorshells to feed a family of four and a washed up, half-submerged crate of ripe pineapples from Jamaica. It takes time to see your surroundings as forage. The same goes for streetfood in my current universe. Take the guy above on Nguyen Du street in District 1. He sells banh trung chien – slabs of fried sticky rice and ground beans – from his bicycle pan, scolding hot and wrapped inside a banana leaf.
Now how come I’ve never seen this peddled on the streets before? Well, I have. But only over the last month or so. And there’s no way this is a new street dish. It’s a bit of a slap in my own face to admit I’ve only just spotted this. Clearly some work is needed tuning up my beachcomber instincts. One slab is 5,000VD. It’s skin peelingly hot. Fried sticky rice must have some killer heat retention quality to it. I had to let mine cool off for nearly an hour before I could attack it. It was still warm, salty, rather greasy, but not over chewy or gumstickingly annoying. This is not bad streetstodge, so long as you’re not looking for an immediate nibble. More snaps here. We also covered the similar, but seasonal, banh Tet before.
Binh Quoi 1 Tourist Village is a big time outdoor riverside hangout for weekend scoffers. It’s a wee bit of a trek out from the centre of town to Binh Thanh District – about 20-30 minutes depending on traffic – and you’re not gonna find gourmet grub at the numerous stalls, stands and serving areas dotted around this green acres site. But after paying your 89,000VD entrance fee and receiving a ‘fee paid’ sticker on your lapel you’re free to roam, chew and slurp on whatever takes your fancy.
The seating has that rustic lo-rise bamboo theme goin’ on. There are two central huts, one with the grilled grub, rice, soups, porridges and rice paper wrap numbers. The other hut has the plates and bowls. It’s a serve yourself buffet deal. Dotted around the central stand are ten or twelve individual stalls all concentrating on just one or two dishes. There are also a couple of stalls right on the waterfront. You do have to pay extra for drinks. There’s the usual beer and coke and a sniffta of buzzmungusly rough ruou is sure to take the enamel off your teeth and put a tiger in your tank.
This is one of the first dishes you’ll come across as you enter from the car park. It’s a hollow puffed up rice ball skillfully made by deep frying and manipulating a wodge of rice paste in a very hot wok. it’s chopped up and served as snack scoff on a plate and tastes not unlike the rice section of a Banh Tet. Very greasy. If you’re interested I filmed the rice sphere chef massaging one of his balls in hot oil. It takes a little over a minute of gentle tossing to swell his ball to the size you see above. Quite a handful, no?
Here’s one of the snail sellers. Apologies for less than clear images, nightime and my digital camera are still having issues with each other.
The soup selection is meagre considering the range on offer on the streets. However Binh Quoi does say it offers only "40 pure and primitive dishes of the south". Here’s a Bun mam vat and behind here there’s a woman doling out Bun rieu.
You’ll also find Banh xeo, Banh khot, Banh beo and Banh cuon on some of the smaller stalls. Above we have one chef about to reveal her rice flour pancake, steamy hot and ready to fill with minced pork and dip in nuoc mam (fish sauce).
The grill section has unexciting pork, beef and chicken kebabs. You can also snag a grilled rat or two. Above is the grilled rat. It’s rather bony and tasteless. All a bit fiddly really. While you might impress the crap out of your mates by eating this, you won’t enjoy it. In fact you probably won’t enjoy an awful lot at Binh Quoi. I first came here a few years ago and I remember it being quite good, although not great. The location is certainly fun and family friendly, there’s plenty of clean green grass space for the kids to run around, but the food is patchy at best. That said, I’d still recommend it, just not sure why…
I seem to remember Marks & Sparks (purveyors of quality cotton undies, potted plants and executive sandwiches) would start flogging off left over Christmas puddings before the nation had had time to hit James Bond, crack open the Cognac and gobble down half a hundredweight of Brazil nuts. No-one in the retail trade wants a warehouse full of Christmas puddings on their plate first thing in the new year. Not so Vietnam. Yer average Joe Nguyen wouldn’t thank you for brandy snaps and cream on a traditional Brit pud – their loss, our heart attack. But they probably wouldn’t snort at a stray, seasonal Banh Tet if they cornered one that had somehow survived Vietnamese new year plump, live and fast running out of escape routes. This morning I found two sellers shipping the left over leaden rice bricks. And folk were buying, myself included. At 13,000VD a slab, they’re a steal.
As I blog, across Vietnam weighty bundles like the one pictured above are being made and eaten. This is Banh Tet, a traditional bundle of sticky rice, pork fat and soy bean paste squashed into a banana leaf cylinder. These two Banh Tet, arrived strung together with nylon courtesy of my landlady. She makes a tonne of them (well, a lot at least) every year on a wood fire in her garden. We get two every Tet.
This is what it looks like on the inside. The centre is filled with the bean paste. It’s the stickiest, stodgiest lump of lardiness on the Vietnamese menu and Tet would not be Tet without at least one of these. Tet is the Vietnamese new year. This year it will be celebrated on Wednesday 9th February and 2005 is the year of the Rooster – my year – yay. Is that a good thing?? There’s only one way to attack a Banh Tet. Slice it, fry it and serve it with small pickled onions.
Eat it any other way and you’re heading for trouble. One extra noodlepie touch – maybe a bit uncivilised, but here goes – I like to have it served with English Mustard. That gives some real bollocks to a Banh Tet. Head to the theatre in town if you want to see possibly the world’s largest Banh Tet. Now, if they could fashion a frying pan to fit that baby in, I’d be well impressed.