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.
I hope this ongoing tour of my local market is helping illustrate just how much nosh there is in this city. This market isn’t special, it isn’t big. It’s just like a squillion others in town, but I’m still not done exploring it. The thing is barely 100 metres long and I’m as tall as it is wide. So, you know, it’s small, it’s good and there are more, a lot more just like it all over Saigon. Go explore.
This stallholder sells Bun thit nuong (Grilled pork with vermicelli noodles) for 7,000VD and her stall is about midway down the alley. This is my first time stoolside at her perch. I’m a regular at the other thit nuong seller and I must admit I felt a bit of a slag sloping off to her rival four stalls and weasel’s burp up my back passage, but there are noticeable differences between the two. This seller doesn’t do the kebab numbers and she doesn’t do those freakin’ top rice roll rockers.
She’s a straight up ‘n’ down thit woman. Vermicelli noodles, chopped up cha gio (spring rolls), veggies and scissored, marinated, grilled pork in a bowl, mish-mash-mosh, slurp of nuoc mam (fish sauce) and whallop, you’re done.
I think old reliable four hops and a beetle’s scrurry to her right is better. This was a bit bland and I do like my rolls, big time and OK, I’ll admit I did stop by her rival for a nibble and a gulp on the way back to Pieman Towers. Whaddya think? Those cha gio above look a bit munchtastic ehhh?
The ‘Best Noodle Soup in Saigon’ Taste Everything Award goes to a 7,000VD (US$0.45) bowl of Bun Mam and the lady
chef who simply goes by the name of Ba Sau (Number 36). She’s been serving this one noodle soup from her small six-seater stall in an alleyway market in District
10 for the last 25 years. Bun Mam is just one of a
swarm of native vermicelli noodle soups on offer throughout Vietnam, but in
my opinion, it is Vietnam’s soup star and Ba Sau serves the
best I’ve found in Saigon.
So what is it? Pictured above we have part of the assembly line; bun
(vermicelli noodles), soup, aubergine and that green end of spring
onion-alike on your right, which is not a spring onion at all, but something called
he – a kind of garlic chive. Inside the table top glass cabinet are
pre-cooked prawns and fatty, roasted pork complete with a crispy fat trim. Some Bun mam sellers also
throw in squid and fish, but not here. The dish originates from Soc Trang Province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
The soup stock is the key.
It’s a pork bone/fish combo number rammed full of goodies. Ba Sau throws in a no nonsense, roughly chopped up bag of fresh lemon grass and there’s a healthy splosh or ten of Mam tom, that’s the purple prawn paste
monster pictured above and the one providing the punch
and the pong here. Bun mam does whiff.
Next up is the shrubbery pictured above. It comes on a side plate or ready blanched in your soup – your choice, but for the record I keep my hedgerow raw, add a squeeze of lemon and go easy on the yellow chilli slivers. This amazing bush is
peculiar to Bun mam. The wee green chap to the top right, rau dang (a
variety of cress), has the strongest flavour and is often served with
Chao ca (Rice porridge with fish). According to local food lore, rau dang is
very useful if you’re suffering from a stinking cold. The purple fella
is bong sung (water lilly root). We also have raw beansprouts, raw rau
muong (stripped morning glory) and the green leaf trio of rau thom
(sorrel), rau que (basil) and one sprig of sour rau ca which is a
powerful and unusual ‘fish mint’.
Moving on to the taste. The soup is a slightly sweet, complex, muddy Mekong flood
of fermented prawn paste and chilli lavered into a thick earthy stock. The aubergine has had time to soak the soup up and each velvet bite squeezes soup juice from the veggie core. It’s an unlikely sounding hit, but a hit it undoubtedly is.
It tastes blinkin’ marvellous which is why I have given it, and Ba Sau, the ‘Best Noodle Soup in Saigon’ award for the 2005 Taste Everything Food Awards. NB: I must thank Noodlepie readers, Ecr and Vickie for helping me with hedgerow herb translation work. See full list of awards.
It’s not that I’ve been off the Pho of late, I’ve just been eating at pho shacks I’ve already blogged, but I’m back on the case today. There’s a pho seller who occasionally pops her head above the parapet down the alleyway market. Not a firm fixture on my manor, but firm enough. Her stall merges into the adjacent Bun rieu. I only tried her pho a month or two back and I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from it. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover this local provider serving up a stonker.
Sweeter than yer average pho with mucho meatiness to boot. The only downer is the beef itself. I ordered the Pho chin variety (Pre-cooked beef noodle soup) for 6,000VD only to find myself entering the gates of chewdom – which is never a fun place to hang. OK – it’s not that chewy, but it’s a gum workout too far for my tender jaw. Herb selection is healthy and there’s the regular condiment crew of Hoisin and chilli sauce on hand. Some of the noodles were surprisingly wide.
This is often the case with pho noodles for some reason – must be a noodle compression outage at the noodle factory or maybe she goes to ‘Madame Nguyen’s Bumper Budget Noodle Store’ to buy her noodles. Whatever it is she’s doing, there are quite clear quality assurance issues within this bowl. However, like finding a stray, mutant three-headed chocko covered peanut inside a bag of M&M’s, it’s strangely pleasing to recieve a noodle oddity once in a while. Putting aside any disputes over carcass and noodle production, this is my new fave pho. Slurp, dribble, slurp.
Back down the local market scoping out new blood when I bump into crab girl. She has one of those nifty twin basket, over the shoulder numbers. She cruises the district looking for folk to ladle her soup out to. In one basket is a piping hot fusion of crabmeat, pork and quail eggs in a glutinous stock, Sup cua. The other contains a mish-mash of condiments and coriander. The wee plastic buckets in the middle contain takeaway plastic cups. A bit like a Starbucks drinks container, only transparent and sans straw. At 3,000VD it’s not a thriller and no filler, none the less it’s worth a gander if you bump into someone selling this globby broth.
Some of these soups can result in MSG OD, which gives a mild buzz up the spine. So long as you don’t suffer from the MSG headaches, it’s actually quite nice. Worse versions of this always appear as starters at Vietnamese weddings, that’s every single Vietnamese wedding. One note for overseas readers, Quail eggs are bargainsville in Vietnam. Loved by Chelsea toffs (probably?), they’re streetnosh in Saigon. The price did take a walk north with bird flu, but they’re around 4,000VD for 20 on the market. Smashin’ hard boiled with a salt/pepper combo side dip. Classy, yet common too – which is unusual in an egg.
If it’s cheapsville I’m after this is the stall I drop by. She serves two dishes only, Canh bun and Bun rieu cua. I’ve yet to gobble her Canh bun, but have splashed out on her Bun rieu cua on several occasions. It costs just 3,000VD. That’s one whole thousand dong cheaper than the younger, more glamorous, stallholder two steps and a horse’s sneeze along the alleyway. But, is it any better? Well, no it’s not, but she is up against the best Bun rieu I’ve ever tried. That said, this ain’t no slouch. The Bun rieu cua here is far darker (sorry no National Geographic macro closeup wankery today) and is more frugal on the spamsticks than her snazzy competitor.
However, she’s one of the chirpier stall holders down the market and even though her broth isn’t Olympic, I do enjoy pulling up a pew under her brolly for a slurp ‘n’ burp now and again. If you’ve yet to discover the delights of Bun rieu here at noodlepie, start you journey with Google juice. we’ve covered this beast several times previously.
Of all the stalls down the local shopping precinct, there are only two that I’ve spotted with stall front signs. Unfortunately for the hopeless, bumbling nguoi tay balo‘s of this world, if you don’t know your Vietnamese food, sign-less stalls won’t help you as you pound your way up this back passage.
Now, does anyone know what profit there is in a healthy, fresh soup that goes for 3,000VD at a stall like this? ‘Cos I’m buggered if I can figure it out.
For the clueless the handy noodlepie currency converter should help
3,000VD = 5.5 Russian Roubles, 20.3 Albanian Lek, 0.14 Jordanian Dinar, 0.52 Samoan Tala or not much of anything really.
We’ve been here before. This is one of two Bun thit nuong sellers on my manor. I’m a bit of a regular at her stall. For those not in the know, Bun thit nuong is grilled marinated pork with cold vermicelli noodles (bun) and it looks like this. However, you can also get the same deal, herbs ‘n’ all, stuffed inside a rice paper. What’s interesting at this Saigonite’s stall is she’s always got a bunch of sideline dishes on the go. I’ve seen Banh xeo, Bun bo Hue, various Canh (soups) and a bash at tempura. Today she plopped a bowl of Mam nem on my table, instead of the my regular Nuoc mam (fish sauce).
All I know about Mam nem is that it’s an anchovy sauce, but there’s anchovies in Nuoc mam, so what’s the deal here? Comments please? There’s not much of a chili jolt to Mam nem, which is a good thing. Until enlightenment in the comment box, get a loada that roll above. Meat, herbs, noodles, rice paper, dip. OK, OK, it’s not gourmet carcass, but let’s not get picky. You don’t need flesh from a Tamworth to make this roll rock. I only stopped by for a nibble, I ended up getting through three of these. What a mix, what a taste. Who thinks these things up?
UPDATE: Reader Nguyen enlightens us in the comments box:
Mam nem is different from regular "nuoc mam" in that the fish hasn’t been extracted from the sauce, can feel scraps in your mouth (unless you filter it yourself). To create an even better sauce than what came in the bottle, add finely chopped pineapple, lime, garlic, a little oil and hot peppers. In my opinion, it’s among the stinkiest. No doubt could kill any flies and buzz too close.
Blog readers are brilliant, aren’t they. Thanks.
This girl is another occasional seller at the local market just around the corner from pieman towers. She sells boiled tapioca sprinkled with coconut and a dash of pandan leaves. Her tabletop spot is located near the entrance to the thin stall-lined alleyway that we have been crawling our way along intermittenly for the last couple of months. She also sells chopsticks and rice paper for building rice wrap dishes. A bag of Khoai my dua (Tapioca with coconut) will set you back 2,000VD.
They look better than they taste. They’re a bit too bland, the coconut doesn’t overpower, neither does it add enough grunt to tempt you into a repeat nibble. Handy way to grab your carbohydrates, but that’s about all.
On Sunday I noticed these two girls grilling eggplants up against the alleyway wall of the local market. They heat them whole on a pavement level charcoal barbie. When they’re done, they slice them wide open, bag ’em up warm and sell them with a small bag of garlic and chili rammed nuoc mam (fish sauce). They’re a snacktastic 5,000VD and better for you than a bag of Wotsits. These girls aren’t market regulars. Maybe they got these aubergines as a job lot.
Every week someone different crops up in a tiny recess selling anything
from tofu to sweet potatoes to full-on soups. Always interesting. Always worth checking out.
This lady serves Bun bo (Beef noodle soup) at the very far end of the alleyway which makes for the local market. Like most of the stallholders here, she sets her table up in front of her opened house. In this case that’s next to the Banh khot seller. Her young son is clearly visible in the small living space behind the stall. I take a plastic seat stall front, order my soup and wait as her son skillfully manipulates a bewildering arsenal of weaponry to help save the planet from a group of evil doers wont on creating a blonde utopia upon his TV screen. Jerry finally eats electronic lead and my soup arrives.
That slab of spam centrestage is a tasty, pepper filled giant. In fact it’s the best thing about this rendition of Bun bo. The thinly sliced beef looks wan and is a trifle chewy. The thick bun (vermicelli noodles) are fresh, as is normal and expected in Saigon, but the soup is sadly lacklustre. There’s little depth of any kind and we’re deep in watery territory here. This stall doesn’t seem to be the most popular on the market. In fact it’s empty. One of the two Bun rieu sellers further up the market win the ‘most popular with the punters’ prize. However, you will find pleasant service and a quiet seat here. You’ll need 7,000VD for a bowl of the beefy stuff.