One of the best things about Saigon is the abundance of cheap, fresh, and delicious street food. Many streets are absolutely packed with the ubiquitous stainless-steel push carts that food vendors roll out to their desired spot in the morning, and then roll back into storage at night.
The dishes available range from breakfast bánh mì (sandwiches), to rice or noodle offerings, desserts, fruits, and drinks. Seafood is no exception to this abundance of excellence, and I’m lucky enough to live a couple of blocks away from one of the premier seafood streets in the city, Nguyen Thuong Hien, in District 3. This street was featured on one of the episodes of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations filmed in Vietnam, and with good reason.
During the day it’s a bustling lane of commerce with no concern for pedestrians, as the complete lack of sidewalks indicates. Late in the afternoon, however, the clothing and shoe stores begin to close, while other shops open their doors and start to set up tables loaded to the breaking point with baskets of fresh seafood, mostly of the shellfish variety. A dazzling array of clams, mussels, cockles, oysters, snails, and many other things I can’t recognize soon lines both sides of the street.
Once the sun sets the action heats up, as plastic tables and chairs are placed along the side of the street, and hungry diners take their places to begin the feasting; motorbikes screaming by the whole time.
Earlier this week I visited Quãn Oc Bé Hai with a group of friends and had a fantastic street side meal, accompanied at one point by a fire-breathing child. The boy, who was no older than 10, plopped his backpack on the ground, pulled out two torches, and lit them. He then put one torch in his mouth, quickly took it out, took a swig of oil, and blew it onto the other torch, creating an impressively large fireball. He then walked over to our table, held out his hand, and shouted “MONEY!!” We gave him a bit, and he walked off. Not exactly the most uplifting sight, I have to say.
Anyway, back to the food. Before we even ordered, a plate full of mint and basil leaves, as well several slices of lime, was placed on the table, along with little saucers of salt, pepper, and diced chillies. This is a common sight on tables in Vietnam; what you do is squeeze the lime juice onto the salt and pepper, and then stir the mixture to create a dipping sauce. It’s a simple creation, but the amount of flavor it adds to your food is amazing.
Then, we started to order. First up was steamed morning glory with garlic. Also known as water spinach, this vegetable is hugely popular in Southeast Asia, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen it on a menu in the U.S., where it is considered a weed and is illegal to grow. Hopefully that will change someday, because morning glory is absolutely delicious; in fact it’s probably my favorite vegetable here.
At this point the seafood began to arrive, along with several little bowls of soy sauce and fish sauce, with red chillis cut up into both. The first shellfish plate consisted of some delicious clams with a savory peanut sauce slathered on top. The clam meat tender and perfectly cooked, not mention obscenely fresh.
Then, we moved on to clams in a stainless-steel pot, steamed with lemongrass. I think lemongrass tastes pretty awful on its own, but when it’s used to add flavor to dishes it is actually quite excellent. It brings a bit of a sweet and sour kick, and this helped enhance the taste of the clams, which would be rather bland without anything added to them.
Next up was a plate full of cockles; which are small saltwater clams. Oftentimes these take a bit of effort to open, but once inside you are treated to a somewhat gory-looking, but delicious, meaty delight. This was probably my favorite dish of the evening, and something I look forward to having many times in the future.
Finally, we had clams on the half-shell, with pieces of steamed squid, peanuts, and diced greens packed on top of the clam meat. A great conclusion to the meal.
All of that food, along with a several beers, cost about 90,000 ?ong each, or less than $5; a deal that is almost impossible to beat. This street is justifiably popular with tourists, but along with this fame comes the attendant annoyance of hawkers, some of whom are even more aggressive than the ones you encounter in the backpacker area in District 1. You will be bothered multiple times by people selling cigarettes, peanuts, quail eggs, and various other useless trinkets.
One woman stood at our table for a solid five minutes, despite our repeated demands for her to go away. Still, this is just a minor inconvenience when you take the high quality of the food into account. If you get a chance to visit Saigon, don’t miss a trip to Nguyen Thuong Hien.