I’ve been thinking a lot about Nguyen Thi Thanh ever since departing from Saigon in the summer of 2008. In the three years since I first sat down to interview her, there’s no doubt that her life has changed. In a corner of the city previously unknown to tourists, she now finds herself dishing up noodles to a steady stream of Anthony Bourdain fans. These days, it seems that a trip to Saigon isn’t complete without bargaining in Ben Thanh Market, flagging down a cyclo for a rusty ride, and sitting on a stumpy stool slurping up a Lunch Lady-made noodle soup.
I have often wondered how the Lunch Lady’s livelihood and that of her tight-knit community have been impacted by the fame and influx of foreign dollars made possible by modern travel journalism. Have her prices skyrocketed? Is her cooking watered down? Mostly, I wondered if I messed up something really great by blabbing about it to someone who had access to a global audience.
I found the 46-year-old proprietress more or less unchanged since we last met. She was clad from head to toe in a colorful do bo (Vietnamese pajamas) with a well-worn non la (conical hat) atop her head. Her smile was as big as ever. Nearly every table was occupied on this sunny afternoon, which meant that she and her team of workers were up to their ears in orders.
Continue reading ‘Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady’
When The Astronomer and I are noodled out, we cross the bridge to Binh Thanh District for lunch. Binh Thanh reminds us a lot of our home base in District 4, namely, helmets are totally optional and street food is abundant. Even though helmets are mandatory by law these days, as soon as motorbikes reach the halfway point on the bridge, everyone takes them off because there aren’t any traffic cops around. It always cracks us up how safety takes a backseat to fashion and comfort.
The banh xeo in Binh Thanh were larger and flimsier than the Da Nang-style ones that I prefer. But at 3,500 a go, we weren’t complaining. The Astronomer hates the large mustard leaves that are traditionally eaten with banh xeo and prefers romaine lettuce. I can go either way.
We also got an order or goi cuon. I firmly believe that hoisin sauce can either make or break this dish. This version was really watery, so it broke the dish (so to speak).
Our final course was banh bo nuong (5,000 VND)—a rice cake of sorts made on a waffle iron type device so that the sugar in the batter is caramelized and the texture is invitingly chewy. The Astronomer ate steamed banh bo stuffed inside a savory doughnut a few weeks back.
A lovely mini-food tour, but the lunch lady’s still where it’s at!
During my first few months in Vietnam, I developed an obsession with street donuts. Whenever I saw a cart frying up some sweet and savory balls of dough, I just had to have a couple. Perhaps my donut addiction existed even before I moved here, but it used to be suppressed by knowledge of the outrageous trans fat levels in each pillowy ball of joy. In Saigon, nutrition facts are not available, and it turns out ignorance is bliss.
Although nothing quite matches banh cam for pure sugary goodness, I also love Bánh Tiêu . These hollow, roundish pastries are nothing like Krispy Kremes—their primary flavor is salty rather than sweet, and they make for a relatively subtle but satisfying snack. Most Bánh Tiêu vendors pair the donut with a strange, gelatinous cake called Bánh Bò. At first this didn’t seem all that appealing to me, but the combination is perfect. The Bánh Bò is sponge-like and mildly sweet, and it provides a wonderful cooling contrast to the salty Bánh Tiêu . If you’re ever walking around Saigon and see a man slicing open donuts with scissors, you can be sure you’re in for a treat.