I'm back to Southeast Asia! Things are a little crazy here in Austin - we have a lot of adjustments happening very quickly. Details later, when things are a little more settled.
Anyway, I am on the second-to-last day of the terrific time we spent in Vietnam. We had arrived late the evening before from our three-day Mekong odyssey, so we did sleep in a little before heading just down the street to the Ben Thanh Market. I'd done some Noodlepie research, and Grant easily convinced us to spend several meals eating as much as we could at Ben Thanh.
And I'm an idiot who just lost half of this post and has to rewrite it. ARGH!
OK, so we ordered the My Quang, which I'd also read about on noodlepie and really wanted to try. Turns out I may have found my new favorite Vietnamese dish, and I've never seen it on a menu here in Austin. Of course.
There are so many textures and flavors here, and so many ways to put together the components of the dish. Shrimp, rice cracker, several types of sliced sausage, some sliced pork, bright yellow noodles, morning glory... and all bathed in this unreasonably delicious stock. It's not like a soup, sort of like a wet entree. I'm a big fan.
We also ordered their banh beo, which is on offer at lots of the stalls around the market.
Here's where I differ from the opinions expressed on noodlepie. I LOVE rice paper and will happily scarf it in pretty much all its incarnations. Here, there are two types - the disks around the outside, with a dash of mung (?) bean paste spread on top, and then the clearer dumplings you can see in the middle (under the sweet and peppery sausages and fried shallots), that are stuffed with chopped shrimp - shell-on! This is all topped with a dash of fish sauce. I was a big fan.
Not so much of the che, a cold, sweet cross between drink and pudding.
Husbear's a big fan, though, and likes to order one with everything. Beans, tapioca cubes, shredded... something, you know. For me, it's too starchy, and I feel like it's coating my tongue with powder.
After our lunch, we took a brief perambulation around Ben Thanh.
Much of the market seems to be devoted to flavorings.
There are also sections devoted to tourist tat and fabrics, but we didn't tarry to take pictures of them because any movement in their direction caused the vendors to descend on us to show off their wares.
Plus, to be honest, we were more interested in the food section. You guys can all thank US customs that we didn't bring home dried fish for everyone!
We also walked through the meat section, which was quite a bit smaller than the big markets of Italy as well as being even more open-air. People squatted on the tables to cut the meat. But, everything did look really fresh, and the smell was of fresh meat, not rotting.
And, of course, the vegetables. We saw so many things Husbear wanted to cook with, and were really feeling the lack of a kitchen. These eggplants, in particular, caught our eye.
We left the market and walked along the side, where you can find still more fruit sellers.
More sexy fruit porn, piled lasciviously for your voracious eye, you perv:
Whew! I have to wipe my brow after that!
Also outside of the market is an entire wall of flower vendors, with intricate displays. Some of them were weaving flowers into gigantic wreaths right on the street. These guys seemed like they were pushing arrangements on unsuspecting children.
We actually had a bit of a mission for the day - I wanted to have an ao dai made, the traditional dress of Vietnam. It's totally elegant and I thought it would be a great souvenir. First, we wanted to find a tailor shop that made ao dai.
Found one! Yes, we looked around for a while first, but the tailor shops in our guidebooks were expensive and mostly made 80s style business suits. Plus, there was something about this one that we really liked...
They had a rack of finished ao dais just inside that looked beautiful and well-made. Three people sat in front, each working on their own piece, while an older man and woman stood at the back cutting fabric. They spoke about ten words of English, and my Vietnamese was limited to "thank you", but we worked out two patterns and they wrote down how much fabric I'd need to buy. So, to the fabric store!
We brought the fabric back to the tailors, and without any pushing from us, they told us the finished garments would be ready the next day! Wow.
Taking care of all this actually took several hours, by which time we were a little peckish again. So, we stopped for a banh mi or two at the corner by our hotel. This lady made some of the best banh me we foung on our trip.
Figuring, you know, what the heck, we ordered one savory banh mi and one sweet - with Laughing Cow cheese spread (I swear it's ubiquitous in Vietnam!) along with strawberry preserves. The two sammiches made a great snack, along with a beer or two!
We munched contemplatively on our sandwiches, wrapped in what appeared to be paper cut out of the HCMC Yellow Pages (hey, it's free, right?), and tried to explain the presence of this charioteer on the side of our absolute trip of a trash can.
After hiding from the blazing sun for, well, several hours, we fancied ourselves up and took a taxi over to the Rex Hotel. This is where press briefings were held for the foreign press corps during the war. Now, it's a fancy hotel with a nice rooftop terrace where you can buy some of the most expensive mixed drinks in HCMC. We're talking like $7 or $8. It's very strange.
After dinner, we made our way back to Ben Thanh for dinner. There was a place we'd passed the night before that we really wanted to try...
Here's what their kitchen looks like from the street, which should give you an explanation of why we wanted to check the place out. Yes, those are frogs tied together on the end of a long string. And some clams that appear to translate to "blood area."
We orderd bi cuon, spring rolls with shredded pork skin (bi), of course - these may have been the best ones we had. They tasted like they were made fresh, which is more than we can say for a lot of the dry offerings we tried.
We also got an order of chao tom, shrimp paste on sugar cane - YUM! All grilly and shrimpy, and I have a weakness for seriously processed meats.
Here's an interesting video of the method for making these, from Noodlepie:
And here's what we should have ordered, but didn't see until we were leaving - a brick of rice, tossed back and forth in hot oil while it puffs and puffs up into a huge ball of fried ricey deliciousness. I guess they chop it up for a tasty treat.
And then a walk back to the hotel and collapsible girlie and husbear! One more day left in HCMC, before we go back to Thailand and take a day on an island paradise!
And l'shanah tovah tikatevo, happy new year to you and yours!