Snapshots from Vietnam: Chillin' in Saigon
It’s bloody hot in Saigon.
The dry season is in full swing, and the days of motorbiking in the rain while donning ponchos are now a distant memory.
Unlike most foreigners, I love the heat. It’s probably the product of my Saigon genes and SoCal upbringing. And even though it’s already suitably warm right now, temperatures will likely continue to soar until June. I hope I don’t melt.
On those occasions when a cool wet-nap just isn’t enough to keep the heat at bay, here are ten truly local delights to keep from going bananas during the long months before the rains return.
1. I often refer to thach as Vietnamese Jell-O due to its similar texture. The light dessert is made from water, sugar, agar agar and a variety of flavorings including coconut milk, coffee and pandan leaves. Thach oftentimes contains a number of different layers and flavors, but when eaten together, I find it impossible to differentiate pandan from coffee from coconut. To me, it just tastes sweet, refreshing and gelatin-y. Thach can be purchased from ladies pushing glass cases filled with small bowls on giant blocks of ice for 2,000-3000VND a serving.
2. Sinh To is Vietnam’s take on the western smoothie. Fresh fruits such as mangoes (xoai), soursops (mang cau xiem), papayas (du du), pineapples (thom) and avocados (bo) are blended with sugar, crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk until smooth and frothy. A serving of sinh to is an easy way to get a healthy dose of fruit while sipping the afternoon away. Depending on the market price of raw materials, a glass of sinh to ranges from 8,000-15,000 VND.
3. Rau Ma (pennywort juice) is definitely not for everyone (myself included), but word on the street is that this green chlorophyll-intensive liquid is like coolant for the soul. At 2,000 VND a glass, everyone should take a swig at least once.
4. Unlike its ugly stepsister rau ma, nuoc mia (sugarcane juice) is not an acquired taste. Made from freshly pressed sugarcane with a squeeze of trai hanh (sour citrus fruit), nuoc mia is the next best thing to a headfirst plunge into a swimming pool. A cup (or bag) of nuoc mia on ice can be procured at numerous roadside stands around town for 2,500 VND.
5. There’s nothing like chilled trai cay (fresh fruit) on a hot day. Saigon’s proximity to the fertile Mekong Delta makes it possible for city residents to enjoy an abundance of wonderfully delicious and inexpensive fruits year round. From mangoes to custard apples to papayas and bananas, the possibilities are endlessly satisfying. Fruit vendors on every other block makes it possible to indulge in a plethora of trai cay without having to bother with slicing and dicing. For a little kick, try dipping tart fruits in a little chili salt.
6. Kem Trai Dua is served at a number of ice cream parlors around the city, but the best rendition is at Con Truong, located on the corner of Vo Van Tan Street and Pham Ngoc Thach Street in District 1. Sorbet-like coconut ice cream is served inside a fresh young coconut and adorned with crushed peanuts, dried bananas, pineapple preserves, and topped with a dried plum “cherry.” Chilled coconut juice is served on the side. Kem dua brings a taste of the tropics to a bustling and chaotic city. Priced at 24,000VND a pop, this “pricey” frozen treat is worth every dong.
7. After bia (beer), ca phe sua da is probably Vietnam’s next most popular beverage. This classic Vietnamese drink is comprised of freshly brewed Robusta coffee sweetened with condensed milk and served on ice. The end result is a cold and creamy caffeine jolt. Pull up a stool at any of the beverage carts strewn around town for a cup of ca phe sua da and expect to pay somewhere between 5,000-6,000VND.
8. Nuoc Ep is a general term for fruit and vegetable juice. My two favorite drinks in this genre are winter melon (bi dao) and passion fruit (chanh day). While winter melons are a gorgeous mint green, their juice is strangely black. Served over ice, this dark liquid is a unique thirst quencher. Passion fruit juice is made to order, bright tangerine in color, and sweet and tart in all the right places. Winter melon juice goes for 2,000VND a glass, while passion fruit costs 6,000VND.
9. Hacked to order, trai dua (fresh young coconut) is a self-contained drink and snack in one. First, sip the cool coconut juice through a straw. Then ask the vendor to chop off the top, and eat the white flesh with a spoon.
10. Che Nhan is made from nhan (dried longans) and suong sa (agar jelly) and served in a tall glass over ice. Although not the prettiest che on the block, it certainly has its merits. Che nhan’s cool liquid tastes like a soda-less cream soda with hints of vanilla, while the jelly’s playful crinkly texture reminds one to take it easy or risk a stroke. Che nhan can be purchased from most che vendors for 2,000-6,000 VND per serving.
Cathy Danh lives in Saigon, where she works as a copy editor and writer. She aims to eat five-a-day, and avoids trans-fats like the plague. When she's not blogging, talking, or reading about food, she’s likely running along the Saigon River.