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I tried 'pho,' 'banh mi,' and a broken rice stall becomes my local eatery in Saigon

Thursday, December 15, 2022, 16:31 GMT+7
I tried 'pho,' 'banh mi,' and a broken rice stall becomes my local eatery in Saigon
An illustration photo shows two plates of 'com tam' (broken rice with grilled pork) served at an eatery in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Editor’s note: English/Japanese Liam Langan, 24, has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for around four months. He spent time exploring the local food scene and eventually found his local eatery at a com tam stall right in the heart of the city.

Before moving to Saigon, when I thought of Vietnamese cuisine, two dishes came to mind: pho and banh mi. At the start of my new life in Vietnam, it was these two dishes that I searched for. 

I distinctly remember my first evening in Saigon four months ago. I ventured out of the hotel I was staying in and found a lady selling pho out of a vendor-on-wheels. It was everything I pictured. Reimagining myself as some kind of young Bourdain, I slurped on my noodles and sat on a plastic stool on a random street in Go Vap District as motorbikes whizzed past. 

After my flight from Japan and the strange but wonderful sense that I’d been dropped off on another planet, that bowl of pho was all I needed. The broth was so delicate that it tasted like a hug, while the noodles were perfectly cooked. I couldn’t speak the language so I only nodded and muttered 'thank you' when I paid, and the lady smiled and nodded, too. The kindness in her smile etched itself in my memory and I often thought of her when I felt out of place in the city. 

The next day, after heeding the recommendation of one of the hotel receptionists, I went and had a banh mi. The cart was in an alleyway right by the hotel, with a playful kitten lounging in a spot of shade on the ground. As the kitten nuzzled against my leg while I was standing there, I wondered whether I’d come at the wrong time as no one seemed to be around. Finally, a man emerged from a doorway, sauntering over while I raised a finger for one -- One banh mi, please. 

An illustration photo shows a banh mi stall in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: DOng Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

An illustration photo shows a 'banh mi' stall in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Saying goodbye to the kitten with a rub under its chin, I continued walking down the alley. I was more lost than ever but the kitten’s affection had comforted me and when I was halfway through the sandwich, nothing mattered but the delicious heat from its green chillies. 

From then on, I ate more than my fill of what Vietnamese cuisine has to offer. From sidewalk street food vendors to grill-your-own-meat restaurants, it was all around and there was so much of it. How could one feast on it all? 

By that point, I’d left the hotel and moved into a flat in District 1 and come to two conclusions. 

First, likely owing to a Japanese upbringing where rice was a daily staple, com tam, Vietnamese broken rice served with grilled pork, had become my favorite dish of them all. 

Second, I realized that because of the sheer number of eateries in Saigon, what becomes important -- in my mind, at least -- is not the actual food, per se, but the locality of the establishment. I noticed it everywhere. Locals seemed to have a cafe or eatery right outside their home which they used as a gathering ground to meet with neighbors or friends, or simply just to enjoy a meal. There’s so much to choose from in Saigon. Sometimes all you want is the comfort of your local eatery and after three weeks I found mine in Cơm Tấm Cô Cám on Dinh Tien Hoang Street in District 1. 

A plate of com tam served at Cơm Tấm Cô Cám eatery in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Liam Langan

A plate of 'com tam' served at 'Cơm Tấm Cô Cám' eatery in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Liam Langan

Three weeks is a while, some might say. And it’s true. If it takes you three weeks to find your local eatery, it’s probably not that local, is it? But the reason it took three weeks before I decided on Cơm Tấm Cô Cám is because a few steps down the street it’s on, there’s another com tam spot. 

Initially, the other one enticed me more. With a rumbling lunchtime service and an array of meat, fish, and vegetable side dishes on display at the front, I found it more in line with my preconceived idea of Saigon: busy and fast and with so many options it’ll make your head spin. 

That all changed when I met the bow-legged man. 

I first noticed the bow-legged man when I passed Cơm Tấm Cô Cám on my way to the other spot for lunch. I didn’t know he was bow-legged at the time, seeing as he was standing stationary behind the charcoal grill, cooking the pork ribs. 

It was only when I was eating there on a different occasion I noticed the jut in his leg and the bump in his step. He wore a black cap, black polo, and black shorts, the only outfit he seemed to own as he trudged from the grill to the kitchen, delivering trays of nicely cooked pork to a lady making plates for the customers. 

Under the blazing heat of Saigon at noon, motorcycles never stopping on the street, there was something quiet and pleasant about the bow-legged man. Watching his slow, irregular steps, I got the sense he was at peace in himself and his way. He never appeared to be in a rush. 

Cơm Tấm Cô Cám eatery in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Liam Langan

'Cơm Tấm Cô Cám' eatery in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Liam Langan

When I left 'Cơm Tấm Cô Cám,' I paid the bill to the bow-legged man. He smiled and said, “Thank you,” in the best English he could manage. 

From then on, I found myself thinking of the bow-legged man. I almost felt bad when I passed his store for the other, but gradually, I found myself choosing 'Cơm Tấm Cô Cám' instead. 

The choice of food, though much more limited, was just as delicious. A plate of com tam with sides of a fried egg, a steamed egg meatloaf I couldn’t get enough of, and vegetable soup came to VND40,000 (US$1.67). 

But more than that, it was the feeling I got about the place. There was a homely feel about it, like I was being taken care of. Even if I couldn’t say much more than a few words of Vietnamese, the bow-legged man and the other staff never minded. They always smiled when I got up to leave and said, “Thank you.” 

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