A Viet­nam food odyssey

A celebrity chef searches for a taste of old Saigon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special -

HO Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, is Viet­nam’s largest city. It lies along the Saigon River, 80km from the South China Sea. With nine mil­lion peo­ple and more than six mil­lion mo­tor­bikes, this bustling, chaotic, cos­mopoli­tan place al­ways fills me with great 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 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 are three for $1; toma­toes, 50c a kilo; herbs, a ridicu­lous 10c a bunch. With a spring in mys­tep I move on to the seafood sec­tion. The Viet­namese love their pro­duce su­per-fresh — alive where pos­si­ble. My soup calls for mud­fish, a fatty fresh­wa­ter species with great tex­ture. The el­derly lady sell­ing them has no teeth and a great big smile, and I am drawn to her. She scales the fish and chops it into thick cut­lets, bone on. It’s a bar­gain at $3.

Find­ing the soup in­gre­di­ents is easy, but the mar­ket is so busy it takes two hours to se­cure a spot where we are not in any­one’s way, so I can be filmed cook­ing the dish for my SBS tele­vi­sion se­ries. The soup- mak­ing takes five hours, and lo­cals who have stopped to watch de­mand that I make enough for them all to have a taste. One of them tells me of a street food dish I must try. The only de­tails she pro­vides 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 don’t get my hopes up. As I pass Dien Bien Phu, I no­tice mo­tor­bikes pulling to the kerb, where they line up in front of a cart with a cab­i­net full of shred­ded green pa­paya. This has to be her.

As I ap­proach, the ven­dor asks if I want to eat in or take away. Eat in? How do I do that? She points across the road, where her daugh­ter beck­ons me over with a wave. The street is busy, three lanes on ei­ther side, and the traf­fic is thick, so it takes a while to cross.

The daugh­ter hands me a plas­tic mat and tells me to sit un­der a tree, with many oth­ers wait­ing for their salad. She takes mul­ti­ple or­ders and shouts to her mother, ‘‘Ten por­tions!’’ Mum is work­ing fran­ti­cally to serve the mo­tor­cy­clists lin­ing up for take­aways.

Five min­utes later, she car­ries 10 por­tions of green pa­paya salad on a

PIC­TURES: THE FOOD OF VIET­NAM, HARDIE GRANT tray across the road, dodg­ing the traf­fic. This is Saigon street food at its best: raw, chaotic, fun, quirky and de­li­cious. I sit for hours watch­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing mother-and-daugh­ter team­work.

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 and go in search of a light snack. I no­tice a great­look­ing cart sell­ing beef skew­ers, fish balls, wok-tossed corn with chilli, and beef rolled in be­tel leaves.

I’ve al­ways wanted to cook on one of th­ese clas­sic food carts, so I give chase as it’s wheeled down the street. Tuan, the owner, kindly al­lows me to use his fa­cil­i­ties, and even vol­un­teers to help. To­gether we wok-toss thin slices of beef with lemon­grass, gar­lic, chilli and wild be­tel leaf.

The aroma of the lemon­grass and gar­lic and the sweet scent of the be­tel leaf waft­ing through the streets at­tracts 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, the mar­ket neigh­bour­hood in which 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 sell­ing cus­tard ap­ples, rambutans, longans and lychees. The stalls were passed on to them by their par­ents, and my par­ents then handed the stalls to their sib­lings when they left Viet­nam.

My grand­mother, cousins, aun­ties and un­cles still live here and the mar­ket re­mains ac­tive, but on a smaller scale.

This 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 cramped en­vi­ron­ment in which peo­ple live can be shock­ing at first, but for me it’s ad­mirable and unique. As much as this way of life is based in 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.

When­ever I visit I imag­ine a life I might have had if my fam­ily hadn’t fled Viet­nam. I may have run my own noo­dle cart, or stayed within the fam­ily fruit-sell­ing busi­ness; 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 talk about food, fam­ily and the neigh­bour­hood, and life feels less com­pli­cated for a mo­ment. This is an edited ex­tract from The Food of Viet­nam by Luke Nguyen (Hardie Grant, $69.95).

Luke Nguyen is in­tox­i­cated by Saigon’s mar­kets and ven­dors such as the Green Pa­paya Lady

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