~ A journal entry by Chef Nam ~
I returned to Vietnam in 1995 for the first time since I flee the country in 1979 with my family. When I arrived at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed that local Vietnamese still referred to the city as Saigon. The last pitched battle of the Vietnam War (what the North Vietnamese call the American War here) was fought on the airport’s runways. As you had seen in movies and books, do I have to tell you about the blast of heat that hits you in the face when you make it past the baggage claim and through the glass doors and the wall of humanity waiting outside? “Saigon”, a place I have never thought I’d live to see.
From the Caravelle Saigon Hotel, I walked out for the Ben Thanh market and along the way I stroll past squealing rabbits, squawking chickens, trembling deer mice, past meat counters where vendors squat barefoot on their cutting boards, calmly eating from chipped bowls. From the streets, the smell is heavy from narcotics, durians, jackfruits, seafood and nuoc mam – the ubiquitous fish sauce condiment. At the center of the enclosed market, vegetables, meat, fish, live poultry, nostrums, jewelries and groceries are for sale. Everything is brightly coloured, exotic, unrecognisable, and attractive.
I sat down at a clean white counter with a crowd of Vietnamese and ordered a bowl of Phở Gà (chicken). A bowl of hot broth, loaded with shreds of fresh chicken meat, soft noodles, garnished with bean sprouts, chopped spring onion and fresh herbs. I added fresh lime, a dip of nuoc mam, some chopped red chili peppers and started stirring with chopsticks. The pho is delicious, flavourful, complex and refined yet unbelievably simple. The astounding freshness of the ingredients and the whole experience is overwhelmingly perfect.
Sitting down on a tiny plastic stool, maybe about 30 cm off the ground, I ordered the classic iced coffee. I felt short of breath from the heat rapidly building up from the humidity and all those delicious smell from food, intoxicating smells pulling me in every direction at once. With an empty coffee cup and a French coffee stainless steel filter, the grounds strain slowly, drip by drip, into the cup with thick condensed milk. When it’s all done dripping, I stirred and pour the thick and rich coffee over a tall glass of ice cubes. Sitting on my stool sipping my iced coffee and watching the street life, smell from motorcycles exhaust, freshly baked baguettes, burning papers, the occasional waft from Saigon River, I feel like I am living in the movie. Saigon…Only in Saigon.
Kerbside dining fitted Vietnam’s collective culture of doing things together. Eating alone is frowned upon, so much so that the Vietnamese have coined a saying “Ăn một mình đau tức”, which literally means “eating alone is painful”. Luckily, squeezing at a communal table on low stools or wobbly child-size plastic chairs, close to the street life and the traffic isn’t lonely but connected to fellow diners and the surrounding community. An experience very different from private or formal dining venues.
Street food also satisfied another aspect of Vietnam culinary culture; a fondness for grazing, eating smaller portions dishes and snacks throughout the day instead of a couple of regular meals at a set timing.
Street stalls have very specific trading hours, and roving vendors often only set up during the best times for their specialty.
After the Vietnam War ended, street food culture faced significant difficulties. Food was in short supply and was rationed during the Chơi Bao Cấp or so-called subsidised period which lasted well into the 1980s. During this time, the government put tight restriction on operating small business. However, food stalls continued operating under the radar of the authorities. They often operated from private homes or with restricted trading hours. Soon after the introduction of economic reforms in 1986, the street food scene blossomed again and the whole range of culinary delights returned to the city pavements.
For many vendors, family recipes are cherished and became the springboard into the hospitality industry. While it is mostly the women who take the plunge into opening their businesses, family recipes are rarely passed on to the daughters. Instead it is the daughter-in-law who commonly benefits from learning the family’s kitchen secrets. This is particularly true in the more traditional countryside areas. Since women usually move into their husband’s family after marriage and might even live in different villages or towns from theirs’s, withholding recipes is an effective form of “copyright protection”, ensuring the culinary knowledge stays strictly within the family.
Although food stalls can be found on virtually every street corners, location still matters. The areas around markets are always street food hubs due to accessibility to vital ingredients and a steady stream of customers hungry from hours of tough bargaining. Office areas are also popular as well as venues near to bus stations.