"Very tasty!" says the bible. "One of my favourite meals in Ho Chi Minh."
These words read like divine intervention. They are guidance from a higher power. If Dan Hong – executive chef at Sydney restaurants Mr Wong and Ms G's, Vietnamese-Australian foodie extraordinaire, and the author of said "bible" that I'm clutching in my hands – says this is one of the best meals in Saigon, then this is one of the best meals in Saigon. You can take that as gospel.
The only real problem now is finding it. Nguyen Canh Chan isn't in a tourist-friendly area. It's tucked away down the south-western end of District 1 in central Ho Chi Minh City, near a busy freeway, next to an agricultural supplies store. Its shop-front is discreet, with scooters crammed on the pavement out the front, and a red awning providing shelter for a couple of cooks gathered around a bubbling vat of soup. You'd walk past this place a thousand times and not give it a second thought, if not for the bible.
The bible is Dan Hong's guide to eating in his family's country of origin, a no-frills Word document simply titled "Where to eat in Vietnam". It's the collected knowledge of Dan and his Saigon-based family and friends, a simple list of the best food in southern Vietnam, and advice on where to eat it. For fans of Vietnamese food with an appetite for adventure and a lack of knowledge of where to find it, it's the bible. And I have it.
I have it thanks to Dan's generosity, thanks to his urge to share the experience of good eating in his family's homeland with as many people as possible. I'd met Dan several weeks earlier, when he'd appeared as a guest on Traveller's podcast, Flight of Fancy. After taping I'd mentioned that I was heading to Vietnam soon for a holiday. "Oh cool," Dan said, "I'll send you my list."
And to my surprise, a few days later, he did. The list. The bible. Dan Hong's guide to eating in southern Vietnam, a document I would use to plan my gastronomic adventures in one of Asia's most exciting cities.
The list is handy, because it turns out that even if you think you know Vietnamese food, even if you've had a basic education in restaurants in Australia, there is still a lot to learn. This isn't a cuisine that begins and ends at pho, the ubiquitous noodle soup, as wondrous as that dish is. Vietnamese food, in Vietnam, is multi-layered and fascinating, highly localised and occasionally bizarre, full of dishes you wouldn't even think to seek out without some inspired guidance.
And so here I am at Nguyen Canh Chan, taking shelter from a tropical storm outside, perched on a small plastic stool in the back of the dining area and signalling to the waiter that I'll have the only dish that's on the menu: bun rieu, which according to Dan is "crab and tomato broth with vermicelli noodles", a description that's accurate, although does sell it some way short.
Bun rieu is seriously complex, a soup stock made with freshwater crabs and tomatoes, served with lightly fermented noodles plus a ball of crab meat, a hunk of congealed pig's blood and a few slices of roasted tomato, and topped with shredded banana flower, bean sprouts and shiso leaves. It sounds challenging, but it tastes incredibly good, filled with umami richness, and you just want to dive in and eat more.
"Very tasty," says the bible. I have to agree.
And this is just the beginning of my gastronomic adventuring in the southern half of Vietnam. There are 17 entries under the "Saigon" heading alone in Dan's guide, 17 dishes I've mostly never heard of, the likes of bun bo Hue, ban canh cua, bo la lot, hu tieu, banh xeo, oc, and more (the best of which you'll find listed in the panel next to this story). Each dish has a recommended restaurant, usually some backstreet joint where locals gather on plastic stools and drink beer and feast.
Oc Chi Em is like that – again, provided you can find it. The restaurant is set off a busy street in central Saigon, down a narrow alleyway, up a few flights of stairs on a rooftop. It's busy when I arrive on a Friday night, filled with groups of young diners sitting around low tables that are laden with empty beer bottles and stacked up plates.
The speciality at Oc Chi Em is "oc", or sea snails. These are a southern Vietnamese favourite, sea slugs of all different shapes and sizes each served in their own special way. There's no English menu here, so I make it be known that I'll take whatever is good, whatever everyone else is having.
Soon my table is full too, with small snails fried with chilli and lemongrass, with larger snails poached in a garlicky stock, and with scallops grilled on the half-shell with a mornay-type sauce. You use toothpicks to prize the little snails from their shells. You drink Saigon beer. You mop up the juices with a crusty baguette. It's different to the Vietnamese food I've eaten at home, and delicious.
Next up: bun bo Hue, a staple in Vietnam that hasn't quite hit peak popularity in Australia. As the name suggests, the dish originated in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. However, according to Dan's bible, there's a place in Saigon that "beats all four places I tried in Hue".
Bun Bo Chu Ha is easy to find, set on one of central Saigon's busy main streets, walking distance from District 1, a place that starts churning out this pork noodle soup at the crack of dawn and keeps going long into the night. I grab a table there at lunchtime, and once again order the only dish that's available. The bun bo Hue here is slightly sour and meaty rich, a big bowl of goodness that's the perfect antidote to Ho Chi Minh City's bustling insanity.
It's also perfectly representative of the food here in southern Vietnam, where every meal is an experience, every order an avenue for adventure. Everything here is interesting. Everything is good. And all it takes to realise that is a little divine intervention.
The Reverie Saigon is a luxury five-star property in central Ho Chi Minh City with beautifully appointed rooms and amazing views over the city. See thereveriesaigon.com for bookings.
Nguyen Canh Chan, 18/5 Nguyen Canh Chan, District 1, Saigon; Oc Chi Em, 3 Cong Truong Quoc Te, District 3, Saigon; Bun Bo Chu Ha, 300 Vo Van Tan, District 3, Saigon
Ben Groundwater travelled at his own expense
FIVE MORE DISHES TO TRY IN HO CHI MINH CITY
BO LA LOT
Known colloquially to English speakers as "beef in a leaf", bo la lot is one of Vietnam's finest: minced beef is wrapped in betel leaves, skewered and grilled over hot coals, before being wrapped in lettuce and fresh rice paper and dipped in sauce. Try it at Co Lien Bo La Lot (321 Vo Van Tan, District 3).
BANH CANH CUA
This dish of rich crab soup served with thick, udon-like tapioca noodles and prawns is an absolute must-try, and you'll find it throughout Ho Chi Minh City. The best version, however, is served up at the imaginatively named Banh Canh Cua (87 Tran Khac Chan, District 1).
Turmeric-infused rice-flour pancakes are fried in plenty of oil until they are crisp, before being filled with a mix of seafood and fresh bean sprouts. In the south of Vietnam the slices of pancake are then wrapped in lettuce and rice paper and dipped in a rich sauce. Try it at Tan Dinh (46 Dinh Cong Trang, District 1).
Be prepared to queue for the seriously meaty pork rolls served up at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng, District 1), one of the most popular sandwich shops in District 1. These traditional baguettes are packed with pork of all kinds, plus a small smattering of vegetables and herbs for good measure.
"Hu tieu" can mean just about anything. Basically, it's a clean, crisp broth served with noodles, a traditional dish of southern Vietnam and Cambodia, and the toppings can range from slices of pork to fried spring rolls to whatever seems to take the chef's fancy on any given day. Give it a whirl at Hu Tieu Nam Vang Nhan Quan (72 Nguyen Thuong Hien, District 3).