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MUST-TRY DISHES AND WHERE TO BUY

Pho (Vietnamese rice noodle with beef, herbal broth)

Pho is the world-famous Vietnamese dish, generally served with herb, mung bean sprout, onion and green onion.

Northern Vietnam Pho is different from the Southern one: while the Northern Pho is served with gio quay (fried stick bread), Southern Pho typically goes with black soy sauce and hot chili sauce, but no gio quay. The Northern Pho usually has more MSG added, while the Southern use sugar to add sweetness to the soup. Also, the Northern Pho noodle is thinner but larger in width compared to the Southern.

Banh mi (Vietnamese stuffed baguette)

This is so far the most convenient and common breakfast of Vietnamese. You can literally find a banh mi vendor anywhere in Saigon, from small mobile stalls on the street sidewalks to fancy restaurants. The cost varies accordingly, usually it would take around 15,000 to 20,000 VND for a loaf of banh mi with full stuffing.

There is a huge variety of stuffing you can choose from. The most common are hams, cha lua, gio thu, cha que (types of Vietnamese pork sausages), grilled pork, omelette. The standard vegetables go with it are usually cucumber, cilantro and green onion. If you love spicy, ask the vendor to add some slices of hot chili.

A good loaf of banh mi should be crunchy outside, the stuffing inside should be fresh and juicy, presents a harmonic combination of tastes and flavors.

Banh cuon (Vietnamese rice noodle roll)

The stuffing inside banh cuon usually includes seasoned grounded pork, black fungus. The dish is served hot with fried red onion, cilantro, herb, fresh vegetables and sweet fish sauce.

The recipe may vary from region to region, however the original taste in the motherland still lingers in the expatriates’ mind. Being made of rice, banh cuon is a prideful symbol for an agricultural culture: it is the value of the God-given pearl (rice), the value of how such a simple dish equals thousands of working hours of hundreds farmers.

Banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake)

To eat banh xeo is sure a memorable experience, but to watch the making of banh xeo is another story.

The pan must be heated by charcoal to make sure the heat is distributed evenly throughout the pan surface. When the pan surface reaches a certain temperature, the banh xeo maker will coat it with a touch of cooking oil. Then, the batter will be poured into the pan, making the iconic sizzling sound “xeo” – the reason why it is named that way.

Then, the banh xeo maker will stuff it with mung bean sprout, shrimp, ground pork, green onion and fold it in half. It is served with many types of vegetables, rice paper and sweet fish sauce.

The locals usually wrap the banh xeo and vegetables all together, roll it, then dip it into the sauce and enjoy. A good banh xeo should be crunchy and tastes fresh (means all the ingredients must be strictly selected). The appealing yellow color of banh xeo is from turmeric powder, a common natural coloring ingredient in Asia.

Com tam (Vietnamese broken rice)

This is the second most-easy-to-find dish in Saigon, after banh mi. It is not exaggerating to say, com tam is the most local dish of Saigon. No matter where you have it, the taste cannot be the same, the ambience cannot be the same like here, in this loving, bustling city.

Cooking the good rice is not easy. The rice must be fresh, the water must be just in the right amount so that it gets neither too dry nor too pasty. Sometimes the vendor will open the lid and give it a well stir to loosen the rice, and for the steam to distribute evenly.

It is a marketing tactic of com tam vendors that they place the BBQ setting on windward side. The wind spreads the grilled meat aroma to miles away, attracting the hungry bellies considering what for breakfast. To prepare for grilling, the meat must be marinated overnight with salt, lemongrass, caramel (sometimes honey) ground onion and some more secret-ingredients that make it distinct from other vendors.

Unlike other traditional dishes, com tam does not go along with chopsticks. The locals often use fork and spoon to eat com tam. Besides just grilled pork, you can order a full combo com tam suon-bi-cha (grilled pork-cooked pig skin-egg stuffing). Com tam is served with pork rind, green onion oil, some slices of raw cucumber and tomato, sweet fish sauce with Vietnamese pickles. A plate of com tam could cost you around 20,000 – 30,000 VND at street vendors, and more in restaurants.

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