I've never been the sort of person to wax lyrical about pho and I'm not going to start here. This bowl of pho did not change my life. It was, however, extremely delicious. It's a fairly clear broth but one packed with beefy goodness. So much flavour that it belies the clarity of the broth. The soup is in balance, the herbs are fresh, the noodles nicely cooked and slippery and it's only $2.50 AUD. That's a lot for a bowl of pho over here, but still dirt cheap where we're from. It hits the spot.
After the pho we start walking around a bit and acclimatising ourselves to the traffic. Much is said about the traffic here and the complete lack of order and obedience to the rules, but it misses the point. There's a graceful flow to the chaos: the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way it has; stay moving straight and at a consistent speed and everything will flow around you; honking can be used to express disappointment but is also used a lot to indicate your presence.
Lunch is spent at the huge (and hugely touristy) Ben Thanh market, which is a somewhat challenging task because much of lunch can be spent a) deciding what looks good and b) avoiding the people trying to force you to eat at their stall. I decide to go with a fairly tried and true method of looking where the local-looking people are eating. This leads to me hammering down a bowl of bun rieu cua (noodles with fermented crab stock) and grilled pork on vermicelli. Having decided that avoiding ice is too difficult in this city, I'm washing it down with a super refreshing lemon drink. Despite it being in the overpriced market, this lunch only costs around $2.
We head to a relatively nearby icecream place called Fanny's which not only comes highly rated on TripAdvisor, but has also been called by one of my friend's "worldly" co-workers as "the best vanilla ice cream in the world". It serves as a reminder to why a) TripAdvisor reviews should be taken with a grain of salt and b) that not all personal recommendations are to be trusted.
It's all fairly light eating up to this point because we've booked in a food tour for the night and want to be sufficiently prepared for that.
After meeting our guide, Vu, at the hotel, we're chucked into a couple of taxis and
You know you're ready for a good time when you arrive to a place and you're greeted with this:
And it's here that having a local (or at least someone that speaks the language) comes in handy. Unguided we could have missed out on all the good stuff, but in Vu's hands he fills the table with things like BBQd conch meat (the meat is removed, BBQd on charcoal, sliced and put back in the shell), chilli crab claws and, on my request, blood cockles (served only barely cooked, dipped in lime, pepper and salt). One of the highlights had to be scallops stir fried with pork fat. Amazing:
Leaving that place (Quan oc Linh) we walk to the next place down the road and there's more tasty treats to come: juicy, charcoaled BBQd frog, grilled prawn skewers, duck tongues (chewy, pointless, but amazing sauce) and, for the more adventurous in the group, duck embryo egg:
While it may have been challenging on its own, despite all the beers we'd had, here it was done in a sour/sweet tamarind sauce with peanuts and herbs, offsetting an unpleasant taste or smell in the egg. It was something I've wanted to try for a long time and probably something I won't bother trying again as the early and later stages of egg development are far tastier.
We cross the road to district 5 to wrap up the savoury with a crab hotpot, okra with stinky tofu (not as bad as the Chinese one) and oysters. Dessert a quick cab ride away for some lotus seeds and seaweed on ice, and we're all done.
Normally food tours look pretty shitty and pandering to western tastes. But here, we got everything we wanted and more. If I ever return, investing in the services of a fixer could be worthwhile to break down some of the barriers that exist between me and tasty food.