Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 13: Saigon Street Eats

Blogs - Vietnam: May 23, 2014

KathleenKathleen Brown, her husband John and their two adopted children, Peter Quang and Claire Xuan, are touring around Vietnam during their Christmas holiday. Kathleen is a long-time television producer and /media consultant for humanitarian agencies and her husband, John, a professional photographer. Every couple of days, they will post a story along with photos on their travels and adventures.

Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 13: Saigon Street Eats - Family Adventures on the Pho Trail

It's an adventure for visitors like us, yet, in Barbara and Vu, we have studious experts in the foods, customs and etiquette for the newly initiated in the sometimes intimidating world of the 'foreign' food of Vietnam. But of course, a trail leading to some of the best ‘phở’ and street foods in Saigon, may just take you, away from District 1. That's food 'foreign' to us!

PhoWithout a doubt, the Saigon Street Eats Tour was one of the most exotic and engaging things we did on our "heritage" trip. The Phở Trail tour is a sensory field trip into the alleys, marketplaces, food stalls and street-side cafes where the authentic food of Vietnam can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted and even, yes, heard! It is an education in the best sense of the word: truly a delightful exploration of all that leads up to a meal in Vietnam.

Living as my family does just one mile from Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, the epicenter of Vietnamese-American culture on the East Coast of the US, whets the appetite for truly authentic ‘Phở’.

e are on a mission to find broth even richer with beef marrow and layered in the spice of star anise and garnished with fresh herbs such as cilantro, saw grass and spicy basil.

Our steaming ‘Phở’ is found in District 5, apparently in our tour creator's very neighborhood! It's a family-run shop that has been in operation for more than 30 years. I can't divulge the name of the place -- it's their secret! 

Pho TrailVu, leading our tour in Barbara's absence, explains what makes this pho so superior is the excellent quality of the meats and its broths simmered for hours in the beef and chicken bones and marrow.

Indeed, this ‘phở’ is magnificent. It is layered in flavors, fragrances and tastes.  We are taught to make a sauce by mixing the sriracha and hoisin sauces, adding spicy red chilies, should we desire.

Our traditional Vietnamese breakfast of ‘phở bò’ is thankfully delivered at a regular size table, instead of the tiny plastic chairs at street side, which our un-oiled limbs sink into!  During our breakfast we're briefed on the explorations we're about to undertake along the street eats trail.

We begin across from restaurant's doorway – where the owner's family keeps an altar full of photographs of the ancestors and deceased relatives, a shrine also bedecked with flowers, food and incense burning!  We both begin and end here – as you'll see as you read on.

We explore bakeries where baguettes, pastries, and every kind of cake is created.  Our children point to chocolate treats they'd like to devour!  Next comes a stop at a ‘bánh mì’ cart where grilled pork, vegetable slaw and sauce is wrapped to go; we then make another purchase at a popular lunch counter for several beef dishes to share at our picnic lunch destination.

In a busy street market Vu leads us to various stalls to select our fruits to both taste on the spot and accompany our lunch!  There we are able to point and ask, point and inquire, point and wave off.  Fruits range from the known to the hardly ever seen -- pineapples, and mangoes to the durian, rambutan, and orange spikey gacs, described by Vu as a 'super fruit' and colorant for fruit drinks.

There are rice merchants selling every kind of rice imaginable -- all varieties, many grades, and even different colors and shades. More than 20 selections are offered.  Who knew?

Pho TrailAround another corner, I spy a Chinese medicine shop. Eureka! Now's my time to inquire about several remedies I would dearly like to try.  Vu, our intrepid interpreter, inquires about remedies for my child's asthma, my arthritic toe, and other naturopathic cures.

Several packages of pills and scented bandages are dispensed as the Chinese herbalist takes a break from filling many, many orders for herbal concoctions.  Business is booming in this fascinating shop!

Our lunch is shared in a pagoda's beautiful garden.  I'm told it is a pagoda of homage to a military general who defended the city from invaders many years ago! 

Here we unpack and savor the remarkable street delicacies - sandwiches, noodles and meats, along with platters of fruits and sweets to enjoy!   It is a lovely way to wrap up our three-week visit, our "homeland" tour with our children, both now so much more connected to their birth country. Pho Trail Market

In a final touching ceremony, our daughter and son, light incense and bow in thanksgiving to this unfamiliar hero who saved a nation; another individual in a long-line of noble people whose blood they share and legacy they've inherited. Afterward they shake out numbered sticks to divine their fortunes and take away wisdom and light for their journeys.

We return to the USA with a renewed sense that fresh, local and unprocessed is the best way to eat -- no matter where one calls home.  It's a day for the memory books.  Thanks to our hosts, Barbara and Vu, our family leaves the pho trail with full stomachs and warmed hearts.

Cám Ơn!

Photos by John Cullather

To book this tour, or several others,  go to:  http:/saigonstreeteats.com/tours.html

Other articles written by Kathleen:

Family trip in Vietnam - 1st episode: Enter the Dragon
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 2: Cai Rang Water Opera
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 3: Hoi An ancient town
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 4: Hoi An Countryside
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 5: the LifeStart Foundation
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 6: Hoi An Cooking Class
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 7: Project Runway in Hoi An
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 8: Water Puppets - Vietnam's Original Muppets
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 9: Time to Cha Cha with the Chả Cá
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 10: A Visit to the Hung Kings Citadel and Au Co Ancestral Site
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 11: Our Visit to the Perfume Pagoda
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 12: Can Gio Reserve
Family trip in Vietnam - Final Episode: An Afternoon in Cholon
Tribute Episode to our Guide Stars
Club Opera Novel – A Diva of a Restaurant, Yet Without Pretense
A little gem on a search of something else: Finding Ganesh!