Apr 2008

Eating in District 4


The Astronomer and I have taken a good number of friends and gas•tron•o•my readers on food tours of District 4, but never took ourselves on one until last Saturday.

While we usually stick to Ton That Thuyet Street, also known as the “corridor of temptation,” we decided to venture into unchartered waters on this trip. I started off the tour with a cool hunk of Vietnamese JELLO from my regular dealer, while the Astronomer dug into a bowl of bun thit xao (10,000 VND). The Astronomer has eaten countless bowls of bun thit nuong, but this was his first bowl of its sister dish.

What sets bun thit xao apart from its well-known sibling is how the meat is prepared. Rather than grilled, these slices of lemongrass marinated pork are pan-fried with tomatoes and onions. The Astronomer liked this dish just as much as his old standby.


As The Astronomer finished up his noodles, a vendor selling pickled fruits and green mangoes rolled our way. During a conversation with my mom a few months back, she mentioned that green mangoes dipped in fish sauce were a divine treat that I needed to try. I ordered half a mango (2,000 VND), which the vendor sliced up and served with a cup of sugary fish sauce with chilies.

While I can’t say I prefer this combination over ripe and juicy mangoes eaten straight up, the intermingling of tart, sweet, spicy and salty flavors were very good.


The fish sauce dip was syrupy thick, spicy and contained a heap of undissolved sugar to mellow out the sour mango.


Next, I went for a super-tall cup of sương sa hột lựu (3,000 VND), which is a variety of che that contains black beans, green tapioca strands, pomegranate seeds, agar agar, coconut milk and crushed ice. Although seemingly harmless, the hefty cup of che filled me up quite a bit.


In between bites, we saw a statue of an angel viciously stabbing something or another. Yikes. I thought angels were peaceful beings…


The Astronomer ducked into an awning-covered stall selling bun dishes and cha gio for his second and third course. The cha gio (2,000 VND each) were surprisingly crisp for having sat around for awhile. The rice paper wrapping was golden and blistered, while the innards were porky and well-seasoned. I detected some taro root in the mush of innards as well. Mmm, just like Bà Sáu‘s.


He followed up the two cha gio with another bowl of bun. This time around, it was bun thit bo la lot (14,000 VND). Bo la lot are savory morsels of grilled meat wrapped in betel leaves. Each bite is slightly sweet and very fragrant.


Who has two thumbs and loves noodles and grilled animal protein drenched in nuoc mam? The Astronomer!


While exploring the hidden alleyways in District 4, we found a giant “rock cave,” also known as a nativity scene. It was connected to a rather impressive Catholic church complex undergoing renovations.


While my heart doesn’t skip a beat for doughnuts the way The Astronomer’s does, banh cam (1,000 VND) still has a very special place in it. We bought two and happily scarfed them down while zigzagging through our ‘hood.


This little doggy is chillin’ in a pile of brand new hangers.


Even though we were both quite stuffed at this point on the tour, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample bánh ít trần (5,000 VND). This dish is a savory version of one of my all-time favorite desserts, che troi nuoc. Bánh ít trần are medium-sized tapioca balls stuffed with mung bean paste, topped with scallion oil and pickled carrots and daikon, and served in a sweet fish sauce with coconut milk.

All of the usual Vietnamese food suspects are present and accounted for—sweet, sour, salty, sticky, chewy and awesome.


As we neared home, I spotted a vendor selling goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) for 1,000 VND a piece, which is ridiculously cheap even by Vietnam standards. The Astronomer ordered two to see if they were any good. Although they were missing the quintessential boiled shrimps, these spring rolls were not the least bit shabby.


For my final course, I ate some xoi gac (gac fruit sticky rice – 2,000 VND) that I procured earlier. Although I’m not one-hundred percent certain, I’m pretty sure the vendor uses actual gac fruit rather than coloring because I sometimes find gac seeds in my xoi. However, the color does strike me as a bit artificial. The crushed peanuts atop the xoi are a tasty touch.

Even though The Astronomer and I have lived in Vietnam for quite some time, we’re still floored by how inexpensive delicious food is. Our afternoon food tour of District 4 set us back $3. That’s crazy business.

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17 thoughts on “Eating in District 4

  1. I have the same photos of those food, but taken in my city and at home. My mom is very good at making bun thit xao and xoi gac. I love steamed sticky rice a lot.
    Last night, my mom just made che bap (corn sweet soup) with coconut milk. So good 🙂
    anyway, I still love to read your articles about food. Same food and same thinking ^__^
    Good day!

  2. i miss ba’nh cam a lot.
    I think i remember the statue of the angel . Back in the day i was in Viet Nam, I passed by that statue hundred times. Angel was not that peaceful. Lucifer, or Satan, used to be an angel.
    About the xo^i ga^’c, if it tasted bitter, then they definitely use food color in it.

  3. That bò lá lốt looks delish! I can just imagine the betel leaves curling up around the meat as the charcoal flames singe their edges. Aaaaah! Why do I keep coming back for more torture?!

  4. I am not only amamzed at the mouth-watering dishes that you ate but also at how much you two ( esp the astronomer ) ate and still stay thin. Is it the heat in Saigon or the running or just good genes or D- all of the above ?.
    Is this street a place to visit for some delicious street foods? Is it far ( relatively in Vietnam standard ) from the cho Ben Thanh? I’ll be going to Saigon in August and putting a list together of places to eat and see, I am following your footsteps ( and the Pieman’s) to these places.

  5. Wow how much food did you eat exactly? 😀
    What made me drool is the spring rolls in rice papers. I hate cha gio in Chinese springroll wrappers 🙁
    I’ve never seen bun bo xao in the south before. I had somewhat similar dish in Hanoi, called Bun bo Nam bo. Guess this is the original dish then?
    And banh cam… (sigh) so craving for one now.

  6. Yes everything looks and sounds so delicious! How fun to be able to go from place to place and everything is so cheap and looks to be fantastically delicious…

  7. Angela – You’re a luck ducky. My mom’s great and all, but she NEVER makes che or xoi gac. But speaking of, I just got a great recipe for xoi gac that I’m looking forward to trying out!! Eee!

    Duy – The xoi is totally sweet and almost coconut-y, so… the jury’s still out. That’s amazing that you used to pass by the same statue. Truly.

    Tia – “the betel leaves curling up around the meat as the charcoal flames singe their edges” <— PURE poetry. Love it.

    WC – You crack me up. No joke.

    Htran – The answer is: STREET AEROBICS! Just kidding. It’s good genes and lots of running. We both run at least five miles a day. District 4 is a hop, skip and jump away from District 1. If you decided to venture to these here parts in August, make sure to come early because my neighbors really like to nap.

    N – Word. My family uses lumpia wrappers for our cha gio at home because according to my mom, the rice paper isn’t fresh and tastes sour when fried up. Sadness. And I’m not sure about the origins of bun thit xao. By the way, I’ve never had it prepared with tomatoes until the food tour. WC – you got any ideas?

    Foodhoe – I love your name and as always, thanks!

  8. My family usually make bun bo xao with lemongrass, onion and diced jicama topped with peanut, but never with tomato. Maybe interesting to try it with tomato next time.

  9. yeah, you’re rice – xoi gac is almost coconut-y 😉
    My mom said xoi gac is originally from the North where people make it with oil – fat/vegetable oil but the Southerners prefer the fat of coconut and ‘cuz we get used to using coconut for every food.
    It is so fun to help my mom get the flesh and the seeds out and then all my hand is completely orange, LOL
    I love coconut. I just can’t use any from fresh coconut though 🙁

  10. WC – You don’t have a grill? Not even a little Weber? I am shocked! I think you need to get one of those small ones so that you crouch like the Vietnamese do. And don’t forget the fan! The fan is essential 😉

    Htran – Tomatoes are a nice touch. The ones we had were cooked ever so slightly. Definitely put them in after the onions and meat.

    Angela – I’m currently in Nha Trang and had REAL xoi gac today. I’m not sure I like it as much as the Saigon version because it wasn’t sweet enough. I will make sure to put lots ‘o’ sugar in mine. D

  11. I too have big calves, but am willing to sacrifice them for authenticity’s sake! I will buy a grill as soon as the plane lands, get the meat ready!

  12. Thank you so much for such informative guides. We are heading to Saigon later this year and I am certain we will take all of your tips to heart.

  13. the sign under that statue which tranlated our lady of lourdes alley. I know this because I use to live there.

  14. Wow you guys made my mouth watering when I see these pics of yummy food. I living in Syd they make these food here but the taste isn’t the same we eat in Vn ,some time they make me very disappointed after I eat . Any way I’ll go back to Vn soon to enjoy them.

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