Monday, January 18, 2010

Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You

Saigon Street Life

Since the first day I was with Jeni, I told her that I wanted to see Vietnam. I had a lot of Vietnamese friends in college and they had introduced me to the Vietnamese culture in Orange County, California. It was one food I enjoyed eating and wanted to know more about it. Both the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove are better known to outsiders as Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese enclave in California. To Vietnamese immigrants, it was a satellite home with many of the attributes of their country, completely intact. To the group I had met in college, Little Saigon meant occasional visitations to tailor shops to make my own slacks, late nights dining at the old Spire's diner, weekend loiterings at the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho), karaoke lounges, Vietnamese electronic clubs and of course, a TON of good eating.

In 2007, we had an amazing trip to Yangshuo, China. She was meeting me in Hong Kong via Vietnam, and from there we would take off to Southern China. I was actually more interested in hearing about her trip to Vietnam than introducing her to my motherland of Hong Kong. She promised me that we would go together one day to experience half of her heritage.

It was almost October and we still had not planned our Christmas holiday trip. We had just visited Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, so we had to stay off the South America track for a little while. If you haven't noticed, our budget has only allowed us to do Central/South America and Asia. We're not at the point where we can get a butt-kicking in places like London, where a burger will cost you nearly $20. $20 in our choice countries goes a long way. So we looked to Asia again. We had the idea of visiting each of our motherlands. She, being Vietnamese and Japanese and me being Chinese and Laotian, we would go for this. I would get to see Vietnam and she and I would see Laos (my father's country) for the first time. We've both been to Hong Kong together and Japan separately, so those were somewhat checked off the list.

A few days before Christmas, we stood at Tom Bradley International wielding our plump backpacks. We said goodbye to her mom and walked into the terminal with a glow on our faces. It was our third Christmas of traveling and time away from Los Angeles – what a feeling that is.

12 hours later, we took a pit stop in Taipei and we found ourselves standing...

Hello Kitty Lounge Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

in the Hello Kitty Lounge of the Tao Yuan International airport. What sicko decided to build something like this? Pink chairs, shiny murals and checkered tiles. Look what they did to one of the EVA Air planes! If you ask me, it's cute-overload terrorism. Didn't they know that it was narcotics to Jeni and every Asian girl in the world. And that every one of those doped-up girls would make their brothers, fathers, boyfriends and husbands take photos of them. There I stood, taking photos of my adult-wife in front of murals and waiting for her to shop for things she didn't need in the Hello Kitty store. But I didn't care really, because in a few hours, I was about to have an authentic bowl of pho. I immediately forgot where I was and smiled. I must have looked like a still-living-with-parents pedophile, standing there in that Hello Kitty Lounge. The day will come when Hello Kitty becomes an evil dictator, you'll see.

We were back on the plane in a few hours. You know that interactive map channel in planes? I checked it periodically to see how our little white airplane was doing. I love how the cartoon representation makes you forget that you're flying at 500+ mph. 35,000 feet in the air. Over deep oceans. I watched it pass Korea, Japan, Hong Kong... and finally approach Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We finally landed and I expected the airline attendant to get on the speaker: "Hello, we are now descending into Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare you for the delectable foods of Vietnam, we've begun to pump fish sauce and pho broth into the vents to whet your appetite. Enjoy your time here and don't drink tap water. Thanks for flying with us."

Jeni looked at me and just shook her head. She knew what I was thinking about.
"Hey! Hold on okay? Be patient." I was ready. To eat.

We picked up our backpacks at the carousel and found a taxi driver. Of all the times I've driven or been in other countries, I was not prepared for the type of traffic Ho Chi Minh City is known for. There was traffic EVERYWHERE. Scooters, motorbikes and trucks came from all directions, even towards us, like the city was one big beehive. Some motorists were so close to the vehicle I could have reached out and given them a high-five. And at times, there were people crossing through this madness with caution, yet they seemed relaxed. Jeni looked at me and laughed, "Welcome to Saigon." I sat back in my seat to give my eyes a break from this visual overload and just soaked it all in.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

After a few minutes, it just seemed to make sense to me. And I couldn't help but laugh to myself. To any foreigner, this was the end of their life. To Vietnamese, this was the theory of yin and yang in action. It was the norm. Saigon has made me appreciate the beauty of LANES. If the game developers of Gran Turismo run out of ideas for their next game, I've got a suggestion. Racing on a track against other people is easy, but what about adding the obstacle of dodging people, animals and vehicles from all directions. Think of it as an updated version of Frogger.

GT Saigon Box

Here's some footage of us zipping through Saigon. Jeni and I ended up renting a scooter anyway because it was the best way to get around and really experience the city. Plus, we didn't have to deal with shady taxi drivers and cyclo drivers that base their rates on your country of origin. I've heard too many stories of people being locked in a car until they paid the driver's amount. Most people would avoid all problems and just give in. Riding around in Saigon was seriously like driving in a video game. Motorists, vehicles and pedestrians came from all over but there was constant visual contact which made everything work. Like ants in a colony, there was a telepathic understanding. If you wanted your way, you were aggressive about it and honked your horn. It was actually more stressful being in a car because you had to give way to scooters. You didn't have to stop for pedestrians but you swerved slightly to the side of them to let them walk. We had an awesome time. After cruising around, we just found something simple to eat and call it a day. Because tomorrow would be a more focused day of eating. I fell asleep shortly after midnight with an English Premier League game on.

Saigon Street Life

The next day I woke up at around 5:45 am. Not to the sound of my alarm or iPhone, but a LOUD rooster. I smiled and thought to myself, "Only in Asia!" I took a look outside of the guesthouse window and spotted the rooster that signaled the beginning of some good eating. He paced back and forth on a small balcony like a military soldier on patrol duty. All around me, I could hear the never-ending cacophony of street life. People chattering and scooters honking. I showered, got dressed and gave the wife a kiss. Without asking me where I was going, she said, "have fun." Of course, she knows. She's my wife.

Saigon Banh Mi Lady

At 6 am, life was happening here in Saigon. District 1 of Saigon to be exact. We stayed in an area called Pham Ngu Lao, an area where most backpackers stay. The whole street of Bui Vien, is lined with backpacker-friendly streets. Guesthouses, bars, laundromats, stores selling photocopied collections of Lonely Planet books and non-Vietnamese food. There were food stalls already serving up breakfast to locals. There were groups of men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Little children on their way to school. Other clueless foreigners walking around. Honking scooters. Dogs. Cats. Chickens. All minding their own business.

Saigon Street Life

I saw this wedding car right outside the guesthouse. I looked behind to watch groom and his groomsmen carrying a large roasted pig in front of a small complex. They laughed as they beckoned their way into the bride's home with their crispy dowry. I've seen this done at family gatherings but this was happening at 6 am on a busy street on a Wednesday. It was beautiful.

Saigon Pho Bo

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo)
I walked no more than three blocks before I found my first victim. I had my first bowl of pho in 1987 and 23 years later, I was going to have my first bowl in the country of Vietnam. I hoped it would be as special as eating a real bowl of wontons in Hong Kong. When we were heading to our guesthouse from the airport, I stared at every business that had the word pho in it. From a dictionary, the word pho, with the correct accent marks also means things like "to escort/assist", "a deputy", "to show off" or "snowy". None of these words matter to me. Like any street with heavy competition, the employees at this corner pho restaurant waved me in with their hand gestures and stuck a menu to my chest. It was 6 am and way too early to go running around the city for a convincing bowl of pho. All the food I saw on the street looked convincing.

I was directed by the owner to a stool right in front of the "kitchen". The "kitchen" consisted of a four-wheeled, metal table with a glass display case and shelving. There was also a large steamy pot in the middle of the table for cooking noodles, a chopping board and a folded counter top enough for four patrons to digest their meal. All along the display case were the assorted goodies from the cow you could choose from. At this particular pho stall, they only offered rare beef, brisket, tendon and beef balls. Behind the cook, was the soul of the restaurant: a huge cauldron of pho broth.

The owner came by with a plate of bean sprouts and thinly sliced orange/yellow chilies that were quite fiery - not jalapenos. For condiments, there were two small tin jars with the orange chili sauce we know as Sriracha and brown hoisin sauce. Both of them tasted different than I expected. The "Sriracha" had a sweetness to it and the hoisin was much lighter in strength. I watched the cook as he prepared the bowl of noodles in under one minute. I added a few slices of the chilies and black pepper and first dipped my feet in the water. The broth was very light in color and strong in spices. It was very good and much different than any bowl of pho I had back at home. It was very light and had a homeyness to it that made me finish all the soup - I enjoyed it. I took a taste of the brisket which was excellent, due to low & slow cooking and the usage of free-range cows we pay more money for here in the U.S. This wasn't the best bowl of pho I've eaten but I wouldn't think twice about eating here again at 6 am with locals on a crowded street. It was humbling. Especially when the bowl only cost me $1.25.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Banh Mi

Vietnamese Style Sandwich (Banh Mi)

In Los Angeles, Latino street vendors have their taco tables and shopping carts loaded with Gatorade/Igloo coolers. Here in Vietnam, they've got a luxurious table with glass display case and wheels. This is basically your Subway on wheels - minus Jared. Almost all vendors of banh mi had this set up. You've got your bread, loaves of Vietnamese meatloaf (cha), roasted pork, cheese, dried pork sung, huge block of liver paté and condiments. Underneath, you've got cabinets for storage and a portable gas stove to fry up some eggs for that special banh mi with fried egg. I watched the banh mi lady preparing a dac biet sandwich (literally means special, "the works"). She first smacked on margarine, mayonnaise and a heavy serving of pate. Next she laid out two pieces of the roast pork (i think it was pork butt, rolled up, tied with twine and then roasted) and two pieces of the Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua). Then the pickled veggies and cilantro were added, followed by a nice dosage of Vietnamese soy sauce (aka Maggi Sauce) and chili sauce. This foot-long banh mi set you back $0.75. Some vendors had a coal oven that they warmed the bread in. It tastes so much better when toasted. Jesus.

Saigon Banh Mi

It was now my turn to order and I knew this because the lady gave me a blank look with her hands out. With no knowledge of the Vietnamese language, I employed the point-and-order technique which always works. I ordered the dac biet minus the cheese and chili sauce. But with a fried egg (trung chien), because life is always better with a fried egg! She knelt down with a grunt, opened up the cabinet drawers and flipped on her portable stove. She scrambled the egg, added some margarine and cooked up my eggs rare and juicy. I stopped her while she bagged it, and she gave me a puzzled look. No point in wasting plastic because that banh mi was going to have the lifespan of no more than 5 minutes. I paid her and she and her baby daughter watched as I devoured it. I gave her a thumbs up and she responded with no facial expression. And we both lived happily ever after.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Life12

I saw this lady for the next few days and dubbed her the "Gangster Porkchop Lady" (thit nuong gangster). She always wore that hat, protective glasses and a mask - ready to do some surgery on me. All you needed was some Snoop playing in the background. With the mask I could never tell if she was smiling. She more or less looked like she was dogging me. Probably saying stuff like, "if you don't fucking buy a pork chop, i'm going to kill you." JK, she was really nice. We are now in the same gang and have each other's back.

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

Vietnamese Beef Stew with Rice Noodles (Hu Tieu Bo Kho)
If you're into food like I am, you try your best to remember the names of each culture's food, as well as know its pronunciation. I learned how to read the phonetic Korean alphabet JUST so I could order food off their menu. With Vietnamese, it's pretty much a romance language with squiggly accent marks. So when I stood in front of this stall like a stranger walking into the Cheers bar, the cooks and patrons all turned around to stare at me. For about three seconds, there was complete silence as people stopped eating. From where I stood, I could see something orange in the soup pot. It smelled like beef, tomatoes and carrots and could only mean one thing. As soon as I said the words "bo kho?" came out of my mouth, everyone smiled and welcomed me. I got the go ahead to join the pack.

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

I sat next to an older woman who was hunched over her bowl of Vietnamese beef stew. She smiled at my cluelessness and probably wondered if I knew what the hell I was doing. If you haven't had this dish, you'll usually see it served in a thicker form with some toasted French bread in Vietnamese restaurants. This is a take on your basic French stew cooked with red wine, but in my opinion, even better. The Vietnamese version omits red wine, and uses fish sauce and a crap load of star anise. I was handed my bowl and the woman next to me (pictured above) immediately pointed to the condiments I had to add in. Some fresh chilies, a scoop of hot chili sauce, some herbs and lastly, a hard squeeze on a lime wedge. I have to say, this was even more appealing to me than the pho I had up the street earlier. The broth was very light in tomato flavor and the beef was done just right. The noodles were fresh and silky and went really well with the fresh herbs. This cost me $1. I drank all the soup and thanked the older woman for helping me eat this the right way.

Saigon Banh Uot

Vietnamese Rice Sheets (Banh Uot)
This is a favorite of mine. I first had this at the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho) in Westminster when I was 12 years old. To this day, I still go back to the same exact vendor for this dish called banh uot. It's probably not the best, but it's nostalgic. Thin, slightly translucent rice sheets are cut into large segments and served with generous slices of Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua), a deep-fried cake with mung beans (banh cong), herbs and bean sprouts. All doused with the all-mighty sweet and sour, fish sauce dip, nuoc cham. I call this a happy meal.

Saigon Banh Uot

I never get tired of this dish for its simplicity and lightness. You'll eat it and wonder where it disappeared to. Behind where I was sitting, there were about 4-5 motorists waiting on the side for their "drive-thru" order. The owner wrapped up everything in one plastic bag and tied it up with a rubber band. How fun it must be to eat this straight out of the bag. This was a choice stop for locals and I could see why – it was delicious. The rice sheets were the thinnest I've seen, the meatloaf was great and the fish sauce was tasty enough to swim in. J was sleeping at the time I was eating this and I quickly ran back to get here to try this. She and I used to pick up fresh banh uot sheets at the Thai Son store in Little Saigon, and I knew she would love this. We came back an hour later and the carnival had disappeared, vanished into oblivion.

Saigon Street Life

A few weeks later at an airport in Hanoi, I saw this airport sign letting us know what we could NOT bring back. And to my surprise, I find the lovely Vietnamese meatloaf on the roster. It was too funny. Was it a narcotic? I wouldn't be surprised for its addictive taste.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

You don't know this, but all the places I ate at this morning were all within 2-3 blocks of each other. As I learned, and you will too, good food is not hard to find in Saigon. Not at all. I told Jeni about the places I ate at and she knew I was very happy. I was very impressed with the food and quality here and loved that I could turn the corner and find a local gem. This was going to be one memorable tasting for us. And So far, Saigon has been good to me.

Thanks for reading. Bourdain's visit with the lunch lady, Vietnamese crepes and a Vietnamese restaurant with a great concept... up next.


KirkK said...

Hey D - Wonderful post.... dontcha just love the Hello Kitty gate??? Did you notice that most of the guys preferred to sit at the seat provided in the walkway area? It might be narcotics to all Asian Girls, but looked like Kryptonie to the guys!

Bill said...

That was awesome makes me want to at least visit the mother land eventually.

weezermonkey said...

(1) If Hello Kitty were a dictator, I'd gladly be her subject.

(2) I am terrified of Asian people on scooters, especially in Asian countries.

(3) The food and scenery are wonderful, but my fave is the old lady smiling with her chopsticks -- so sweet.

Gastronomer said...

Goodness gracious I miss that city. I'm so glad to hear that it treated you and your belly so well.

e d b m said...

KirkK, did you stop over there on the way to Laos? Did the missus pose in front of the murals, or was it vice versa haha. Who knows, maybe Asian men have an inclination for Hello Kitty? Thanks for reading.

Bill, I have at least another 8-10 postings on Vietnam alone. The food in Vietnam was by far the tastiest on our trip. A trip to your motherland is always a good thing. Thanks for stopping by. I checked out your site and saw that you do review a lot of Viet food - nice!


(1) How creepy would that be? To see Hello Kitty and her 1,000,000 man army of cuteness coming at you.

(2) Haha! Why? I can see where you're coming from. They are quite aggressive on the road.

(3) I love the old lady too. She took care of me that day at the food stall.

Cathy, like I said to Bill, I've got like 8-10 postings on Vietnam alone. And yes, i lost ZERO weight ha!

tokyoastrogirl said...

D: Love this post. The stories, the photos...the food! And most of all, Porkchop Gangsta- she's hard. She'll pop a chop in ya.

Can't wait to read more about the trip. The scooter videos were also're a good driver, for an Asian!

Michelle said...

I love Vietnam! I've been there three times now and the food never ceases to amaze me mmm, this post makes me miss it deeply :)

What kind of effects do you use on your photos, I just love their look! Is it perhaps a lightroom preset ou'd be willing to share? Also, what kind of camera do you use, gorgeous photos!!!

Anonymous said...

You had me at Hello Kitty lounge.

Jo said...

Lovely post and pictures to go with it. I was in Hanoi last year (1st trip) and simply love the place. We hope to plan a trip to Saigon this year.

e d b m said...

TAG! Thank you, I'll let Porkchop Gangster know that you're fond of her. She may shoot you though. Haha, I know right? I was trying to drive normally but it just doesn't work - I soon found myself crossing lanes like everyone.

Michelle, thanks for stopping by. Check back in a few days, I have way more Saigon food to share with everyone. For my photos, I shoot in RAW and do post in Photoshop. You can use Lightroom as well. I like a cooler, desaturated look to my photos and you can do that with simple Curve and Saturation adjustments. We shoot with a Canon 5d and a Canon 1v-hs film camera.

justJENN, Hello Kitty! I feel bad for your husband. I hope you don't force him to take a stop-over in Taipei just for this haha.

Jo, Hanoi will be up in a few weeks. I actually loved Hanoi - great food and full of young people. Thanks for stopping by!

Mich said...

great post! i actually laughed out loud at the pork chop gangster lady part. thinking about going to vietnam too in a couple months, too. did u have the omelette too? not sure what the name of it is in vietnamese...

Kristina said...

Great post and photos. It's making me miss Vietnam (was there for 2 weeks last summer).
I'm also a big Bourdain fan and while we did find his favorite pho place in Saigon, we never made it to the Lunch Lady. Can't wait to see if you did.
My favorite meal in all of Vietnam was Bun Cha in Hanoi. I still dream of it...

EatTravelEat said...

Amazed with the story line and the abundance of Hello Kitty. How did you eat so much food! (A day's worth?) Quite shocking to know that all this was in two to three blocks. Everything is so close by to each other.

Anonymous said...


Bill said...

No no No EDBM, the blog you've have read is not. Please I don't want to be taking credits for someone else work. But I do enjoy reading the blog. Can't wait for the rest of the Vietname postings. If I ever go back I think I would be on a eating frenzy.


ps you're brave to have rented a scooter.

e d b m said...

Hi Mich,
Go! I did have the crepe (banh xeo), which is coming up next. Thanks for stopping by.

Kristina, thank you. Where did you spend your time in Vietnam? We did find the lunch lady thanks to a few people that have met her before (thanks Miki and Cathy). She was really a sweet lady, with solid food. Stay tuned for that. Bun Cha in Hanoi is definitely on the list. Are you in Los Angeles/Orange County? You can get versions of bun cha here.

EatTravelEat, thank you as always for your readership. You know, when we travel, we're always eating a lot of food but in small amounts. We'll share a plate usually just so we can 'hop' over to the next place. This morning breakfast in Saigon was definitely heftier, but I didn't always finish soup for example. Yeah it's so nice to have everything right there. it was seriously like having a food court right outside the guesthouse.

Anonymous-in-Law, hello! Thank you. I did my best to make everyone reading this feel like they were there. But I also took a lot of photos so that you would be able to see where most of your life was spent. And how you should go back before it's not possible. I loved Saigon.

e d b m said...

Bill, I made a mistake. I thought the links you provided under your account were your blogs. Stay tuned.

The Traveling Lao said...

Fantastic reading, can't wait to visit Vietnam first hand. How was the motherland, Laos? I traveled there two years ago with my parents, their first time back since emigrating to the US and it was a great experience to see where it all started. I look forward to hearing about Laos and the props for Lao food!! Or lam is the bomb!

a few pics from my trip (

e d b m said...

TravelingLao, thanks for stopping by! I won't say much about Laos right now but being that we are both of Laotian heritage, i'm gonna say it was impactful and I think I captured some of my most favorite photos there. hint: mekong, hmongs and dahmahoong.

Wendy said...

Hi Dylan, I'm totally drooling over the food and daydreaming of the day I get the chance to visit my motherland Vietnam (I'm 1st gen and have 3 brothers that have all been back, but not me). Since I just had a baby (btw she's half Vietnamese and half Japanese, like Jeni!) I won't be going anytime soon, but thank you so much for the sharing your experience and photos. I REALLY can't wait to go now.

Kristina said...

We started in Hanoi, then went to Hue, Hoi An and HCMC. It's all on my website (, including the food. :-)

Yes, I'm in LA, but the OC is a bit far to go for Bun Cha. I've found a decent place (not AS good as Hanoi, but good nonetheless) right outside of Downtown LA. Always on the hunt though.

luxelogic said...

RE: Hello Kitty Lounge - I want to go to there!

Protocol Snow said...

I lived in Los Angeles all my life and never ate pho until visiting my brother at Harvard in Boston, of all places. This was a year ago and I've been a Vietnamese food addict ever since! Amazing photos

e d b m said...

Wendy, hello. it's great that you love food because for a Non-vietnamese like me, I don't know what else I would have done to kill time in Saigon. Jeni & I are so used to making food our main objective in traveling. But for you, going back might bring out an epiphany or self-realization. In the next few weeks, i'll be writing about Laos - it definitely had a hold on me. Thanks for stopping by.

Kristina, hi. I checked our your site, looks like great eating done on your part too! For Bun Cha, do you go to Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village? I really like Viet's version but it's a bit pricey for what it is. I actually just made some at home on Saturday and set a small portable burner on the table and set the frying pan on it to finish up the cooking. The apartment smelled great. (i hope)

Luxelogic, no you don't haha.

Protocol Snow, thanks for stopping by. Pho is one of hundreds of good Vietnamese dishes you can eat. I've probably only eaten 2% of it.

dana Williams said...

Just wanted to let you know that your writing makes my mouth water and YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS! My brother sent me your blog and I didn't really have time to read but I did for his sake. Man, oh man, I'm hooked. You're addictive as Vietnamese food!!! Thanks for making my day. (I was having a crappy day from family drama in the motherland. It's as crazy as the traffic there.)

e d b m said...

hi dana, thank you for stopping by and appreciate the compliments. i've got a few more postings on Vietnam then it's off to Laos and Cambodia. amazing how food can change people's moods instantly.

Audrey said...

Are you sure the last dish isn't banh cuon? It looks that way to me from your picture.

e d b m said...

Audrey, I thought it was banh cuon too. But the sign on their stand said 'banh uoht', which probably refers to the meatless version of banh cuon.

Anonymous said...

How long did you wait in Taipei? Could you have stayed at a hotel instead? I'm flying to Saigon, Vietnam and stopping over Taipei for the night. Is there a close by hotel you can recommend?

e d b m said...

Anon, the stopover in Taipei was only a 2 hours. But you'll be glad to know there is a decent soupy dumpling (xiao long bao) place right near the Hello Kitty lounge. If you do stay the night over in Taipei, you'll enjoy the food there. Sorry I don't know any hotels to stay around there. Maybe stay near the Taipei 101 building?

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