Ho Chi Minh City has become my home-base hub; the place I go when I need to rest from travel. I have spent about a year here, off and on, in what could be described as slomadic travel (slow-nomadic travel. Groan, I know.) One thing I have noticed about returning after being away is how quickly I slip back back into old routines. Some of routines are good for productivity, like knowing where my favourite items at the supermarket are, or where to get paperwork printed. Some routines though could be classified as a rut.
I was in my studio apartment/office thinking about what to have for dinner, and it occurred to me that after being back for a week I was already revisiting the same eateries every night, usually within a two block radius of my place. So much for getting to know the city.
Identifying that the groove I was in was becoming a rut I made a commitment to visit at least one new eatery per week. Now, in Saigon you could eat at a new place every night for a year and not go to the same place twice, so one new place a week is manageable enough.
I love going on epic walks as a way to discover a city, and my method of finding a new place to eat involves looking up the excellent street food map on eatingsaigon.com.
As you can see the map is covered in dots of potential delicious noms, so my criteria for selecting a place to eat is:
– a decent enough walk from my house, thus ensuring I discover a new district.
– YUM rating (YUM YUM YUM being the highest), so I will work my way through the most highly rated eateries in the city.
The pin I randomly selected was The Saigon Cháo Lady. Sounds promising.
The location is about an hours walk from my place, which is an average days walk for me, but it involves walking along the motorbike-clogged road called CMT8 (Cách Mạng tháng Tám). It isn’t my favourite road in the city, but it’s always amusing to see this enormous roundabout.
It’s a swirling mass of traffic here, yet somehow the traffic works itself out. And somehow I have somewhat mastered the art of crossing these roads.
Off the major roadways, the little laneways (called Hems in Vietnam) are usually numbered and named after the road it branches off (like the sois in Thailand). These are the little streets I love wandering in Saigon.
There are streets like this everywhere among the 24 districts that make up this city of approximately 8 million people, and every time I leave my little world in district 1 I realise that I need to get out more.
I found the Chao Lady, and as recommended I ordered the súp cua as appetizer. Definitely worthy of the Eating Saigon YUM YUM YUM rating.
I looked on my phone for what I had to order next. Chao Muc. Hmm, rice porridge soup with blood cubes. I’m not usually a porridge soup guy, or a blood cubes guy for that matter, but getting out the rut means breaking out from my usual pho and rice meals. Not the most attractive looking soup but I ended up demolishing this bowl, and I am now at the point where I no longer wince when I eat blood cubes.
Little red chairs and motorbike traffic. So comforting.
Of course no wander of the city would be complete without stopping off at one of the bazillion cafes that make up this city.
[Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da)]
Going on your own Saigon food wander
When people come to visit Saigon I’m usually asked what there is to do here. The thing is, there isn’t a whole lot of touristy things to do. Sure, check out the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, but for me this city is best enjoyed by taking in the cafe and food culture.
If you are stuck for ideas on what to eat then check out the food resources that Joe and Hai have compiled at Eating Saigon. And for a recommendation, visit Dong Hoa Xuan, which is is Hai’s restaurant. I am friends with Joe and Hai, and as Joe said it might seem like a “potential conflict-of-interest” to recommend his partners place, but after eating there myself I can personally endorse this recommendation. I suggest getting there by 11:30 as the place gets busy, and you might miss out on the Cá Kho Tộ (caramelized catfish in a claypot). Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on the caramelized catfish.
Going on a Saigon food walking tour
For those who would like to go on a small group walking tour, Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads is offering Saigon food tours on a limited basis (limited on when she is in town). Tours are currently on between Jan-Mar 2014 (and other locations throughout the year) and on the tour you will get a sampling of five or so dishes from around the country that you wont find in the backpacker district.
[Jodi with Hai and Joe at Dong Hoa Xuan. Also pictured, caramelized catfish in a claypot.]