Vietnam’s cities are growing up and this has been met with a tinge of sadness from former visitors and residents. Nostalgic for the authenticity of ramshackle streets, petite girls dressed in flowing ao dai pedalling on bicycles, and street-food vendors jostling with ambling pedestrians, it’s hard to visualise from afar how a modern edge will cut into the inherent charm of Vietnam.
So it was with a hint of trepidation that I returned to the country that has remained in my family’s heart since we lived and worked in its most bustling and hectic centre, Ho Chi Minh City, still commonly known by its former name, Saigon. For five extraordinary years I careened along uneven roads on a motorbike, lurching up mountainsized kerbs to navigate sidewalks, snaking alongside bikes groaning with families, building supplies and live animals, zigzagging the flooded streets to deliver two little boys to school, dry and unscathed, before twisting back into the whirlpool of traffic to find my own destination. I loved every minute of those bike journeys, as they heightened my sensory experience of this diverse 24-hour city.
My fears of an unrecognisable city were unfounded. The changes are evident but not all are disappointing. My heart didn’t break as I wandered the streets on foot. Boulevard-style boutique shops for the rich and famous are appearing, but the traditional life of Saigon remains at the core and once again enlivened my senses.
The newly opened Nguyen Hue pedestrian promenade in District 1 was fascinating. As the sun set, crowds blossomed here and everyone mingled. I was reminded of an Italian passeggiata as I watched the young and old enjoy the warmth of an evening, socialising, zipping past on hover boards, eating street snacks and sipping on coffee.
An old apartment building that has somehow avoided a wrecking ball is now filled with quirky cafés. Mini balconies lit with fairy lights tempt you to leave the street and come to investigate. I loved the opportunity to sip on a lotus tea as I peered over the
balcony railing and watched people below embrace their city.
Along with my deep love for this country and its people comes my enthusiasm for their food. On my first ever trip to Vietnam, I had Peta Mathias’s book, Noodle Pillows, tucked permanently under my arm and used it to source and track down every quintessential dish I could in a three-day visit. I never imagined then that I would one day reside in Ho Chi Minh City, free to explore the diverse and evocative foodie scene.
With so much on offer it can be tricky to navigate, yet the street is the best spot to begin any adventure. Footpaths are wonky and filled with strolling pedestrians, haphazardly parked motorbikes and street vendors. Manoeuvring around all of these is part of the charm.
The oppressive heat and humidity will strike you the moment you venture forth so it’s vital to drink constantly – and not just water. Street vendors offer a myriad delicious fresh options that can boost hydration.
Coconuts can be ordered fresh, cracked and spiked with a straw; they are nature’s sports drink, full of electrolytes, refreshing and a perfect energy kick. While meandering the alleys of Ben Thanh Market I held up a coconut at a vegetable stall and gestured a desire to drink it right away. The friendly vendor borrowed a cleaver from a neighbouring stall, magically proffered a straw from within an array of plastic bags and, voila, an instant healthy liquid fix. The stall owner beamed as another customer appeared, pointing at my coconut and requesting the same. A local explained to me that the vendor felt I had brought her luck for her day. For me, it was confirmation of the ever present, friendly, happy nature of the Vietnamese. Smile and engage with the locals and they will give instantly and generously in return.
Another favourite refreshment is sugar cane juice. As an expat child in Hong Kong I was fascinated with the pressing of sugar cane through a hand-cranked machine to extract the sweet nectar.
I’m still intrigued, and love how a glass of sugar cane juice and fresh lime over ice will rejuvenate and energise me. Sugar cane should be pressed to order, so perch yourself on a plastic stool and enjoy the theatre of it as the cane is rolled through the iron press.
A true Vietnam experience doesn’t come without trying the local coffee. As the world’s number two coffee exporter, Vietnam has a coffee culture all of its own. I am addicted to this strong, dark brew, tempered with a tablespoon of rich, creamy condensed milk. I love it served over ice, ca phe sua da, made by dripping hot water over robusta roasted beans through a traditional phin perched delicately over a glass. It requires some patience, as the coffee drips oh so slowly before converting into the dark golden sweetness. Don’t be surprised to receive a glass of weak iced tea alongside your coffee. This is the local palate cleanser, which will refresh you before and after your ca phe and help keep you hydrated.
Eating in Vietnam is a collaborative, shared experience. The miniature tables and tiny stools dotted on the streets reflect the tradition in the home where families sit on the floor around a shared table of food with an individual rice bowl at the ready, to which you add your favourite bits and bobs from the array in front of you.
Pho (pronounced fuh) is the national noodle dish. Though different in each region, the ritual remains the same. Oversized bowls brimming with broth will be served, and you can add
“Sugar cane should be pressed to order, so perch on a stool and enjoy the theatre of it as the cane is rolled through the press.”
your choice of chilli, torn herbs, bean sprouts, fish sauce, lime juice, hoisin or chilli sauce and seasoning powder to taste. It’s deeply savoury and filling and can be found at any time of the day and at most cafés in Vietnam. In Saigon I always head to the Pho Hoa on Pasteur to revisit my very first taste of pho – where tables are shared with locals, food is piled high for sharing and your bill reflects what you have chosen to consume by what is no longer in front of you.
For a healthy snack you can’t go past a rice paper roll. Traditionally filled with pork and prawns, packed with fresh herbs and light vermicelli noodles, they are an addictive quick fix for hunger. Whether you eat them on the street simply dipped in a spicy lime sauce or have them delicately tied with a blanched chive in a pretty café, they are synonymous with the fresh, fragrant nature of Vietnamese cuisine. I also love the coconut milk banh xeo crepe, which is tinged with turmeric, flaky in texture and filled with pork, prawns and crisp sprouts.
If you start the day with a bowl of soup for breakfast, a delicate salad may be the perfect choice for lunch. Green papaya salad embodies the blend of textures and flavours that epitomises Vietnamese cuisine. Each café will have its own variation, as will each region, yet the tangy under-ripe green papaya shredded finely before being tossed with a sweet-sour dressing and topped with crunchy fried shallots and mint is the common base.
The An Café in District 2 offered a vegetarian version created with carrot, green beans, corn and crispy fried tofu. I sank into a brightly coloured sofa positioned amongst potted plants and surrounded by shutters and blinds. This was a perfect oasis and the fresh crisp lunch was cathartic.
I also had a gorgeous rendition at KOTO café in the heart of the city,
“The café helps vulnerable street kids turn their lives around by training in hospitality.”
where it was served with slivers of roasted beef and presented in a gorgeous mound topped with whiskers of curled vegetables.
The café offers amazing food and has an incredible story. KOTO, which stands for Know One, Teach One, helps vulnerable street kids turn their lives around by training in hospitality. The restaurant is run by the trainees, and the food is a fusion of traditional and regional with a touch of international. I have worked with some of these students and they are generous with their love and their joy at finding a world beyond the grime and crime of their past street lives. Even without knowing the story around this enterprise, their restaurants in Saigon and Hanoi are well worth the visit. My favourite dish was the lemongrass tofu. It was so good I booked in for a cooking class and begged for this dish to be an option. The tofu is scored with a knife before a lemongrass, garlic and chilli paste is pressed into the grooves and left for the flavours to be absorbed. The resulting vibrant dish is addictive.
Cooking classes are a wonderful option for learning about the cuisine of Vietnam and can inspire you to recreate the balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy flavours at home. It’s tricky to wrestle recipes from passionate Vietnamese cooks, whose pride – and often income – is firmly attached to their family’s secret way of creating a dish, so it is heartening to see a number of cooking schools popping up.
Grain, set up by Vietnamese/ Australian chef Luke Nguyen, is a unique example. Participants can shop at the in-house market for ingredients before setting forth on a demystifying foodie experience, with fish sauce tastings and recipes to inspire and ignite the palate.
At KOTO, you can join the head chef in a market visit or commence in the kitchen itself and learn the art of Vietnamese knife work along with the balancing of taste and aesthetics.
The Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc also offers a warm atmosphere for learning traditional and contemporary dishes, using Vietnamese kitchenware which you can then purchase.
From the carts piled high with pickle-filled crispy baguettes, to sticky caramel pork in a clay pot, from the tongue-numbing flavour of betel leaf, to the cooling leaves of water spinach, this is a lively flavour-filled cuisine.
The Vietnamese love eating and to see others enjoy it too. It’s a culture all about sharing, the nourishing of relationships over tasty dishes, where families eat together and friendships are forged over a mutual love of delicious food.
FROM TOP: The streets of Ho Chi Minh City bustle with pedal power and motor vehicles. A woman makes thin rice paper, for use in Vietnamese cuisine. Vanessa Baxter at the market. OPPOSITE PAGE: Lanterns on Nguyen Hue at night.
ABOVE LEFT: A street vendor prepares her food. ABOVE RIGHT: The Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal, which winds through the city.
RIGHT FROM TOP: Ceramic figurines on the Thien Hau temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Rice paper rolls – a tasty, healthy snack. Vietnamese coffee , served with a side of tea. A seafood grill at a the Ben Thanh night market, Ho Chi Minh City.
ABOVE: Cooking schools are a great way to learn new culinary skills and how to create the flavours of Vietnam at home. .