We arrived in Saigon too early to check in to the apartelle that I booked months ago. The housekeeper advised us to have a meal first while she got our room ready. We left our luggage with her and started exploring the nearby streets.
I had already asked my daughter, Alex, what she wanted for our first meal in Saigon and she voted for banh mi. I had done my homework, I knew where the eateries and food stalls in the neighborhood were, so we went straight to a “bakery” that sells banh mi and bun bao. We ordered our banh mi then realized that everything sold in the establishment was meant for takeout and there were no tables and chairs where we could eat them. I suggested we look for a place where we could order drinks and eat the sandwiches.
We walked a little farther down the street and spotted a place where cold drinks were prominently displayed in a refrigerator with a glass door. As we were getting ready to order our drinks, a delicious aroma filled our noses.
Between the refrigerator and our seats was a stall that sold noodle soup. Oh, pho, I told Alex. But this was no ordinary pho. In fact, it looked and smelled nothing like pho. The broth was a milky yellow orange that smelled of coconut milk and lemongrass. I was intrigued. I asked Alex if she wanted to try it, she said yes, so I ordered a bowl.
I tasted the broth and was blown away. Despite the addition of coconut milk, the broth felt light in my mouth. I asked for an extra bowl and gave Alex a portion. When she tried it, she was equally delighted.
But it seemed we were not getting the total experience. The nice lady who prepared the soup came over, showed us how to squeeze lime juice into a condiment saucer and stir in some of the spice mix from the container beside the lime wedges. She instructed us, with just hand motions because she spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese, to drizzle a little of the mixture into the bowl of noodle soup.
We did as she said, dug into the bowl once more and our initial amazement was doubled, if not tripled. The tartness of the lime juice blended with the natural sweetness of the coconut milk and the effect was out of this world. And whatever was in the spice mix gave the noodle soup an extra kick too. I asked later what was in it, another lady whipped out her phone and, via Google Translate, we learned that it was a blend of chilies and salt.
We could not believe our luck. Our first meal in Saigon went beyond our expectations. I took out my camera, asked if I could take photos and the owner of the food stall graciously obliged.
Then, I stepped into the street and took a photo of the stall. I don’t know the exact address but I am sure that it is on Nguyen Thai Binh Street somewhere within the two blocks between Calmette and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia.
That was four days ago. We have eaten noodle soups in at least four other establishments since but nothing holds a candle to that bowl of bún cà ri on the morning we arrived in Saigon.
Every tourist in Saigon has pho in his or her list of “must try” but there is another noodle soup to include in that list. Bun ca ri.
P. S. If you’re wondering what happened to the banh mi, we ate it later after checking in to our accommodation.