Make friends with a drink vendor
Get an inside track.
What we say:
Street food in Saigon: it basically makes life here worth living. If you walk down any street in HCMC you will probably find some food, but the problem is that you can’t be guaranteed much of a selection. For this reason I say that the best place to get street food in Saigon is by going to a local market.
Here you will find several food carts together selling a wider variety of food. This option also has a problem, and it may start on your first visit. You find the market and its food section, you happen to try banh cuon first and you fall in love, then you have the banh cuon several times the first week thus you make friends with the server. As you get more adventurous you want to branch out to try the other food on offer, but you have to pass your new friend every day and it makes you feel a little bad. Luckily I’ve found a solution to this problem: make friends with a drink lady.
The drink vendor is easy to find. Just look for the cart that is lined with bottles, sometimes empty, and complete with a styrofoam cooler. If you’re lucky they may also have a machine that presses sugar cane into a juice, called nuoc mia, or a blender, which they use to make smoothies. The drink vendors are important to befriend because they are like the brokers of the market. They can order you food from any stand and give you a place to sit. This way, since the drink lady is your first friend, you don’t feel as bad by not continually patronising the same food stand.
Besides helping you order your food, the drink lady (and it is usually a lady) can also help you pay. Instead of having to go to every stall that you got something from and pay individually, she will sort out the final total price for you, then take your money and divide it up accordingly.
Obviously they also have drinks, which you will need to wash the banh mi down anyway. Usually on offer will be Western sodas, like Coke and Sprite, coffee, tea and fruit juices — something for everybody. My choice of late has been nuoc chanh leo, or passionfruit juice. A common drink found at most drink stands, it is made by straining the insides of a passionfruit into a glass and then mixing it with a heavy dose of sugar. The final product can be served with or without the seeds.
Even if you don’t feel the pang of guilt when you walk by a food friend, the drink vendor is a good ally to have to ease the payment process and to simply get drinks. So, keep your eyes peeled and make a new friend!
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