It's a bit like a food court. Except the foodcourt has motorbikes driving through it, your table is half in someone’s living room, half out in the street, and you’re squatting on a wee plastic stool that looks like it could have been taken from a preschool classroom. There’s no menu - you’ll have what’s being served that day. And that said, there’s zero shame in buying spring rolls from one stall and bringing it to the stall down the road, because, like a food court, all of the seating is more-or-less communal.
Some stalls serve the same thing everyday, perhaps switching it up with a vegetarian meal on a moon day, but others have a rotating menu. My noodle lady is one of the latter. The area where I work is outside the tourist center, so there’s a plethora of fabulous, and fabulously cheap, street food options just steps from my office. By far my favorite is from woman named Cẩm Hồng.
From Monday to Friday, she serves a different noodle soup each day – the bò kho (beef stew) is mouthwatering and takes the edge of of a Monday, but hu tieu (pork & seafood noodle soup) Fridays are a very nice way to finish off the week. She speaks about as much English as I speak Vietnamese - so we don’t talk much - but she knows to pile mine high with vegetables and to go easy on the chili. And yes, there’s a sprinkle of MSG, but c’mon, live a little!
How did you learn to cook?
I actually learned how to cook noodles by myself. But also I learned some cooking from my mother because she owned a food stall serving rice.
What’s your favorite soup that you serve?
Everything is delicious! But if I had to choose one, bun thai (Vietnamese Thai noodle soup.)
What’s your most popular dish?
Bun thai and bun bo (vermicelli & beef soup).
How long have you been serving noodles to legions hungry tech professionals?
Only one year. [Cẩm Hồng’s husband chimes in] 2 years!
One thing that sets her apart from the rest is that she runs a tidy business. Street food has a reputation for being chaotic and “dirty” (although I’ve always felt this is very much up for debate), her shop is always pristine and well-organized. To boot, makes all of her own condiments, like an addictive ginger sauce for dipping meats.
For germaphobes (and those with sensitive tummies) who are curious, but a little nervy about street food in Saigon, just remember to follow the 2 golden rules and you should be fine:
1. Eat at mealtimes.
These are typically a little earlier than mealtimes in the West (6am-8am for breakfast, 10am-1pm for lunch, 5pm-8pm for dinner). This will ensure you get the fresh stuff.
2. When in doubt, look for steam!
If it’s boiling, you shouldn’t have to worry about germs. Soups are generally your safest bet. Just remember to blow!