Down in Saigon three weeks ago, I was loitering about the Ben Thanh market while my Mum was seeking souvenirs to take back to Australia. It's really not my scene. The whole "wanna-buy-a-watch" atmosphere gives me instant fatigue these days. She was looking for a mahjong set specifically but there were lots of shiny, oriental bits and pieces catching her eye...and granchildren to think of. I was acquiescing, big time!
I don't get to sample from the southern Vietnamese street food smorgasboard that often so was conscious of the shopping frittering away my eating time. There were noodles to syphon up and herb baskets to deconstruct; work to do at the table, limes to squeeze and chili to enkindle. In short, there was nosh to get to the cake hole.
I suppose the one saving grace of shopping is that food is never far away. Shopping malls have their food courts and markets have their snack and noodle purveyors. And even though Ben Thanh market in Saigon is smack-bang in tourist central, there is excellent tasty local food inside its halls and around its periphery. Just across the street, between the gold shops and the pedicurists, there is a fat man serving bún mắm. One of the more renowned eateries serving this dish, it's a no-nonsense plastic stool and table affair with lots of barking interference from anyone who's anyone within earshot. Nearby rambutan sellers and motorbike taxi drivers, kids and elderly folk flogging earbuds, toothpicks, lottery tickets and chewing gum are all intervening in whatever is going on. Sometimes they're told to pipe down, other times the whole scene dissolves into a giggling circus. Seconds later it's stern faces. And always, it's chopsticks pincing at food.
The chopsticks are conveying the features of a heady, earthy fish broth to the mouths of those assembled, me amongst them. Cuts of xá xíu (char siew), rings of squid, a shrimp, a length of eggplant, a wedge of fishcake and a fistful of fresh vermicelli noodles are, in turn, coming towards my face. I've added minced chili and lime to my broth and I'm plucking my preferred herbs and roughage from the garnish basket as I go.
I can't count the number of times I've eaten like this since coming to Vietnam. Mostly it's been in Hanoi.
But this; it's most definitely Saigon
Quán Bún Mắm
22 Phan Bội Châu, Bến Thành