Southeast Asian Food Trail Part 3: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It’s my 3rd time to Ho Chi Minh City, a place that still holds a special place in my heart (read: belly). I love how HCMC is a harmonious blend of quaint tradition and modernity. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a shopaholic, a history lover, coffee lover, nature lover…especially if you’re a FOOD LOVER. DUH. Vietnamese cuisine is known for its use of fresh ingredients and herbs in flavoring dishes, which yields delicious, complex flavors with depth and finesse. It almost felt as if my taste buds were simmering towards maturity under the influence of these new and exciting flavors. This is someplace I’d definitely make repeat trips to in the near future (flights, accommodation, food, lodging is really affordable), and I’d recommend it to any traveler on a budget but with a heart for adventure and FANTASTIC FOOD!

Bánh mì chao and miên cua

Bánh mì chao and miên cua

We had our first meal in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) at Tra Chanh 176. Tra chanh (lemon ice tea with a slightly floral scent) shops are a huge phenomenon and seen as a trendy food in both HCMC and Hanoi. The term “tra chanh chem gio” which means drinking tea and chatting is a popular phrase among youths, who hang out at tra chanh shops in the evenings to catch up with friends or go on dates. The drink itself is super refreshing and extremely welcomed in the insane 36 degree heat, and I must’ve drunk 1-2 cups a day when I was there (on top of at least 2.5-3 litres of water daily ugh I’m a buffalo okay)!

Anyway, here we ordered bánh mì chao (baguette and fried egg with pâté pork ball and tomato sauce, served in a sizzling skillet. Think of it as an umami-packed Asian version of Moroccan shakshuka, really hearty and bubbling with eggy tomato-ey glory. ;D We also ordered miên cua; soya glass noodles with real crab meat, in a slightly tart, slightly sweet and hearty savory tomato-based soup, rendered fragrant with the addition of the customary heaping of fresh herbs and vegetables. My first meal here and already so mind-blowing.

Pho

Pho

And of course, no trip to Vietnam is complete without its ultimate foodie icon: pho! This one came with really tender, marbled beef ribeye slices and beef balls. Warm, hearty and aromatic, the ultimate soul/comfort food! There’s amazing pho all around HCMC/Hanoi, though the best probably should be found at roadside stalls. You’ll be spoiled for choice!

Hủ tiếu bò viên

Hủ tiếu bò viên

We visited the most popular market in town, Ben Thanh Market, a hotspot for tourists looking for souvenirs, food, or even groceries. Prices here are typically jacked up real high (about 3 times on average), but with a bit of friendly banter and persuasion you can get a reasonable deal. There’s plenty of roadside stalls outside the market (again, totally completely spoiled for choice), and we chanced upon a stall selling hủ tiếu bò viên, or vermicelli with beef meatballs. I almost mistook it for pho, but the soup tastes totally different (sweeter, pork bone-based), there’s the addition of boiled radish, minced pork, fried onions and thinner, silky glass noodles. Amazing treat for only S$2.00!

Cooking prep

Cooking prep

I attended a cooking class in HCMC, at a place called Mai Home. Yep, the ultimate foodie experience has to include a chance to learn from experienced local chefs firsthand ;P The class started off with a tour through the Ben Thanh Market, where the chef educated us on fresh local foods and tropical produce. Seafood here is so incredibly fresh; fish, frogs and the like are literally killed and chopped up on demand. I watched a frog seller assemble frog meat for a buyer with almost chilling ease. (Don’t read on if you get easily squeamish!) She held up a live wriggling frog, gripped it at its underarms, swiftly snipped off its head with a large pair of scissors, peeled off its skin from the beheaded neck downward, chucked the skin in a bag with a pile of other skins, then packaged the remainder of the frog for the customer. Not at all a pretty sight, but it’s comforting to know exactly how/where your raw meat was derived from!

Fried spring rolls with pork and shrimp

Fried spring rolls with pork and shrimp

During the course of the 5-6 hour lesson, I learnt how to make pho ga (chicken pho), steamed rice rolls with meat, barbecued pork skewers and fried spring rolls with pork and shrimp. I actually learnt to appreciate pho more than I already do… The number of steps you take to achieve the rich, complexity of the broth is absolutely maddening. I remember having to grill onion, shallots, ginger (with skins on) over a direct flame until the skins are charred, toasting spices (cloves, star anise, cumin seed, cardamon, cinnamon stick) on a dry pan to release their fragrances, adding them to a spice bag, and submerging them in boiling hot water with a chicken carcass, among other steps… I found a pretty detailed online recipe if you’re interested, from Spicie Foodie!

 Banh duc nong

Banh duc nong

This was our last meal (and thankfully, most pleasantly memorable) in HCMC, at the hugely popular Ngo 89, also the first tra chanh shop to open in HCMC. We ordered a bowl of banh duc nong each: a soft, slightly chewy and sticky rice cake similar in texture to Cantonese chee cheong fun, dyed green with pandan essence. Served with a very addictive savory/slightly sweet broth, minced meat and fresh herbs and crispy fried onion. We spent a total of S$3.50 here, together with 2 refreshing cups of tra chanh…WHAT A STEAL! Now you see why I love this place so much, cheap food, great food, new tastes and flavors, just amazing.

Next up on the blog Finale/Part 4: Hanoi, Vietnam, coming soon! Stay posted for more food lovin’ fun!!!

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