I fell in love with Saigon tonight, walking the crowded streets on a quest for bánh xèo.
Tuesday evening, and the streets teem with people. The roads are filled with motorbikes (moving), and the sidewalks are filled with them too (parked, mostly). People fill almost all the spaces where no motorbikes have parked, and almost all of them were eating. They were eating on the sidewalks, perched on tiny plastic stools. They were eating inside their shops. They were eating while balanced cross-legged on the seat of a parked motorbike.
As I was walking, starting out about 6 p.m., the streets seemed to become more crowded. Everyone is outdoors. As I reached a big roundabout northwest of the cathedral (with a weird tower structure), it became challenging to weave my way through all the people standing around on the the sidewalks. I found Hai Ba Trung Street, which was wall-to-wall shops, and the energy of the city went over the top. I felt excited just to be here. (Maybe it was the adrenaline from the adventure of crossing the streets, motorbikes whizzing past front and back all the while.)
Every few blocks, I stopped to consult my map. Closer. I crossed Dien Bien Phu Street. Closer still. I crossed Vo Thi Sau Street. There was the church, on my left. On my right, a narrow alley, well lighted and lined with shops. Not too many motorbikes.
Ohmigod, I thought I had eaten bánh xèo before. I thought I knew what bánh xèo is. Stupid barbarian that I am! This was so fresh, so crispy on the outside, so succulent on the inside, with salty, chewy shrimps, with a giant heap of fresh herbs and tender mustard leaves, and of course some nice fish sauce and mashed chili peppers. Heaven on a plate.
At first, I was just eating a few bites of the pancake to enjoy it by itself. One of the waiters stopped and patiently showed me how to construct a mustard leaf wrapper lined with mint and basil and whatever all those other leaves were — assuming I had no clue how to eat bánh xèo. I thanked him profusely.
A young woman sat down on the plastic stool beside mine, with her grandfather on the other side. She wrapped his bánh xèo for him, then wrapped her own while he was eating. She practiced her English on me: “Do you eat bánh xèo often?” I told her it is very hard to get it in my country. Later she said, “You seem to enjoy it very much.” (Was I slurping or something?) I agreed. Then, a bit later, she asked, “Do you want to eat another one?” She was very sweet. She also made sure the waiter brought some more mustard leaves for me when I had eaten all the big ones.
Check out the wood fire in a pot! Each bánh xèo pan sits on its own fire. Each one of four cooks has about five pans going at once. This place is serving up bánh xèo at an incredible rate. I couldn’t even count the number of waiters running back and forth.
“How long you stay in Saigon?” the young woman asked me. “You could come here every night, have something different each time. Or just have bánh xèo, you like it so much.”