Contributing Editor Matt Rodbard is currently traveling around Vietnam with four American chefs. He’ll be filing stories from the road, as well as posting to our Twitter and Instagram pages. The trip has been organized by our friends at Red Boat Fish Sauce. Photos By Bao Nguyen.
So you take three American chefs, one Vietnamese rap star and the head judge from Iron Chef Vietnam, fuel up with a bunch of vodka and bia hoi and drive (well, be driven) around Saigon on ’60s-era Vespa Sprints at night eating and drinking along the way. Not a bad time at all, and we only saw one accident. And it didn’t involve death!
The motorbike culture in Vietnam is a thing of legend. It’s approximated that in Saigon (also called Ho Chi Minh City) alone there are three million motorbikes operating within the city limits. The traffic patterns are anything but, more like a giant game of chicken that caused over 15,000 fatalities throughout the country in 2010.
So here we are, a dozen of us in a swarm cutting diagonally through the traffic circles and dodging crazy cab drivers — they make New York City hacks seem like Morgan Freeman in that movie — and rivers of raw sewage all for a kickass plate of com tam, a famous Saigon dish of “broken rice” topped with grilled pork ribs and sausage. But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves.
First, a roll call: There’s the three chefs we’ve been traveling with, Edward Lee, Stuart Brioza and Bryan Caswell. Caswell worked for Jean-Georges in the Bahamas, so knows his away around a sticky scooter clutch. There’s Suboi, a 23-year-old female rapper who rhymes in both Vietnamese and English. Think OutKast and Nicki Minaj, which you can see in her video. And finally, Iron Chef Vietnam judge and San Francisco restaurateur Khai Duong has joined as well. He’s been in the country researching a restaurant he hopes to open with Don Johnson (that Don Johnson) in Miami. Apparently, Don is a big bun cha fan.
After a 20-minute ride we find ourselves in District 4, which photographer and longtime New Yorker Bao Nguyen calls the Crown Heights of Saigon. Formerly a home base for organized crime syndicates, it’s an up-and-fcoming stretch across the Calmet Bridge from the centralized District 1. It’s slightly grittier than other parts of the city, with few Westerners in sight. We end up at a small outdoor restaurant with the sign Thit Xien Nuong Thai Lan (179 Doan Van Bo St.), a Thai-styled meat skewers restaurant. We crouch on low stools and char our own sugar-lime marinated chicken and pieces of fresh okra, while downing bottles of Singaporean Tiger Crystal.
We hop back on the bikes and set off for Tan Dinh Market in District One (Hai Ba Trung St.) in search of broken rice. Suboi has been talking it up a bit, and rightly so. After finding a street seller — in the process both Khai Duong and Suboi are recognized by fans and asked for photos — we’re seated and bottles of Saigon beer materialize. Then plates arrive to the table. Broken rice is typically found in the southern Vietnam and originates as a so-called poverty dish consumed by farmers who seek a use for their broken (and unsellable) rice grains. The green plastic plate arrives piled with four types of pork — a juicy patty, grilled pork rib, Chinese-style sausage lacquered with a sugary carmelization and shredded pork on top. Scallions and an egg cake rest on the side with a side bowl of nuoc cham (a dipping sauce made with fish sauce).
Several drinks in already, we cheers with the customary: moat – hi – bah – yo!!!! We mix the rice with the glistening pork and condiment. It’s a wonderful combination of sharp flavors and textures, with the undercurrent of sweet fishiness (the universal flavor of Vietnam). By the end most of the plates are clean.
Sensing we were about the move on, one of the women runs from the stall to ask if we want to try a boiled fertilized duck egg, which is a popular snack around Southeast Asia. We’d describe it as cross between the chicken and the egg. It’s called balut, a duck embryo scooped out of the shell and eaten (tiny beak, feathers and all). The juice is quite a delicacy and Khai Duong insisted that we sip it with great care, before cracking the shell to reveal the wonders of nature. Edward was the only chef who dared to join us. The reviews were positive, not offensive in flavor but still a little strange.
Our motorbike gang long gone, we hopped a cab back to Vasco’s (74 Hai Ba Trung) for vodka and dubstep with DJ Jase. Out on the patio, we throw down a beat box while Suboi freestyled like Harajuku Barbie and Edward Lee showed his best pop-lock moves. It’s a moment when we wish our phone hadn’t died, but some things are best left for that one long night in Saigon.
Thanks to the Park Hyatt Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam Vespa Adventures for organizing the ride. This is most certainly the best way to see the city, and eat at the out-of-they-way street food sellers. Call the hotel to arrange a tour.