Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city. It lies along the Saigon River, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the South China Sea. With 9 million people and over 6 million motorbikes, this bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan city always fills me with so much excitement and energy.
I head directly to Ben Thanh Market, a must-see for any visitor. Built by the French in 1912, it is surely Saigon’s most colourful and vibrant market and has everything you need, from fabrics and cooking gear to souvenirs, dry goods and fake Gucci bags. But I’m here specifically for the street food and fresh produce, and to cook one of Saigon’s most loved dishes: ‘Canh chua ca’, a tamarind and pineapple soup with fish, okra, tomato, elephant ear stems and fresh herbs.
I’m blown away by how fresh and cheap everything is. Pineapples, three for $1; tomatoes, 50 cents a kilo; herbs, a ridiculous 10 cents a bunch! With a spring in my step I move on to the seafood section, where most species are still kicking. Vietnamese love their produce super-fresh — alive where possible. My soup calls for mudfish, a fatty freshwater fish with great texture. The elderly lady selling them has no teeth and a great big smile, so I am drawn to her. She scales the big fish and chops it into thick cutlets, bone on. It costs $3 — a bargain!
Finding the soup ingredients is easy, but the market is so busy it takes two hours to find a spot where we are not in anyone’s way. The soup-making takes five hours to film, with locals demanding I make enough for them to all have a taste (you’ll find a similar tamarind seafood soup)
One of the locals tells me of a street-food dish I have to try. The only details she gives are: ‘It’s on Hai Ba Trung in District 1, just past Dien Bien Phu Street. She makes the best green papaya salad in town!’ So off I go in search of the Green Papaya Lady — but Hai Ba Trung is one of the longest streets in Saigon, so I’m not going to get my hopes up. As I pass Dien Bien Phu, I notice motorbikes pulling to the kerbside, all lined up in front of a cart with a cabinet filled with shredded green papaya. This has to be her!
As I approach her cart, she asks if I want to eat in or take away. Eat-in? How do I do that, I ask. She points across the road, where her daughter is waving at me, directing me to cross the road. The street is busy, three lanes on either side, and the traffic is thick, so it takes a while to get through. The daughter hands me a plastic mat and tells me to sit under a tree, where many other locals sit waiting for their salad. She takes multiple orders and shouts out to her mother, ‘Ten portions!’ Mum is busy, working frantically to serve the motorbikes that are lined up for takeaways. Five minutes later, she carries ten portions of green papaya salad on a tray, crossing the road dodging traffic, trying not to get run over.
This is Saigon street food at its best: raw, chaotic, fun, quirky and delicious. I sit for hours watching the mother and daughter teamwork: the shouting of orders across the road and the weaving through the traffic is enthralling to observe.
As the sun fades and Saigon lights up, the energy of the city reaches another level. More street-food vendors appear as locals finish work, looking for a light snack before dinner. I notice a great-looking cart selling beef skewers, fish balls, wok-tossed corn with chili, and beef rolled in betel leaves.
I’ve always wanted to cook on one of those classic food carts, so I chase after it as it is wheeled down the street. Tuan, the owner, kindly allows me to use it, and even volunteers to help me. Together we wok-toss thin slices of beef with lemongrass, garlic, chili, and wild betel leaf. The aroma of the lemongrass and garlic and the sweet scent of the betel leaf wafting through the streets attract a queue of locals, who want to buy our dish. It is a winner, they love it!
The next morning we make our way to Cau Ong Lanh, a market neighborhood in which both my parents grew up. Both sides of the family-owned wholesale fruit stalls — Mum’s side selling mangoes, durian, jackfruit and dragon fruit, Dad’s side selling custard apples, rambutans, longans, and lychees. The stalls were passed on to them from their parents, and my parents then passed the stalls over to their siblings when they left Vietnam. My grandmother, cousins, aunties, and uncles still live there today and the market is still active, but on a much smaller scale. This area is my favourite place to visit in all of Saigon.
To me, Cau Ong Lanh is the ‘real Saigon’; it feels as though nothing has changed for hundreds of years. The locals experience a lifestyle similar to the generation before them. The closeness of the community here — both in proximity and in-kind — can be shocking at first, but for me always admirable and unique. The bond these people share relies heavily on the cramped environments in which they live. And as much as this style of living is based on poverty, the richness of the relationships within the community cannot be replicated. Walking through its narrow laneways gives a true sense of the lifestyle of the Vietnamese people. Every time I return to visit my family here I imagine a life I might have had if my family didn’t flee Vietnam. I may have run my own noodle cart, or stayed within the family business of selling fruit; maybe I would’ve still ended up in the restaurant industry, and worked my way up to having my own place. Cooking, eating and spending time with my family in Cau Ong Lanh makes me appreciate the simpler things in life. We focus the conversation on food, family and neighbourhood gossip and life feels a little less complicated for a moment.
Another area I love to visit is Hoc Mon, an hour’s drive from the city, where my Aunty Eight lives. I actually don’t know my aunty’s real name; I’ve only ever addressed her by the number eight.
In Vietnamese culture, your parents are always regarded as number one, and the first child as number two, the second as number three and so on. It is rude to address your elders with their name; you must only address them by the position they are in the family. On my mother’s side there are twelve children, and on my father’s side there are ten, so growing up trying to remember each uncle and aunty’s number was a little tricky.
Aunty Eight runs a wholesale corn business; she receives truckloads of corn each day from Da Lat, in the central highlands. Her team sorts the corn into eight different grades, the lowest grade sold to make corn flour and the highest for grilling or making sweet puddings. My aunt kindly shares a recipe using the first grade corn when it is young and still white. Using it unripened releases a milky sap, which results in the pudding being slightly thickened, with great texture. My Aunty Eight is fun, loud and is always the life of the party, but she is extremely shy in front of the camera. This side of her I just adore watching.