I never learned Vietnamese as well as I should have. I lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a post-college year in 1996 and 1997, and by the time I returned to America, I had completed approximately three weeks of official language study. Most of what I learned, I learned on the streets, and most of that concerned food, since Vietnamese food—the myriad noodle soups, the grilled meats and exotic fruits, the heavenly pungency of fish sauce—had been my primary reason for moving to the former Saigon. I knew how to order bún bò Huế a very spicy beef noodle soup, and I could identify the herbs served alongside it, but politics, gossip—even the weather—were beyond my conversational abilities.
Which may explain why, one day during a return visit in 1999, I felt so unsure of myself. I was standing on a sidewalk downtown, around the corner from the war-famous Rex Hotel and the French Colonial Opera House, trying to find a ride. It was just before noon; car and motorcycle traffic was heavy as workers and students headed to homes and restaurants for the two-hour lunch siesta. Bizarrely, though, no taxis.
Nearby, however, a middle-age man sat on his parked Honda Dream, a 100cc moped that’s one of the most popular bikes in the city. Was he a xe ôm—a term for motorcycle taxi that means, literally, “hug bike”—or just a regular guy waiting for a friend? I didn’t want to offend him by asking, but I was getting hungry. “Are you a xe ôm?” I said.
He was! Now it was time to test my language skills further. As he turned the key and started the engine, I climbed on behind him—the “hug” position—and said the words I’d been rehearsing for days: “Tôi muốn ăn sườn nướng ngon nhất ở thành phố. Anh biết đi đấu?” Translation: “I want to eat the best grilled pork chops in the city. Do you know where to go?”
This was not a complicated sentence, but somehow I’d never composed it before. (Idiot!) It might, I imagined, be the key to eating in Ho Chi Minh City, a place where eateries tended to be highly specialized, often focusing on a single dish or related set of dishes. Here, asking for the best spring rolls or best crab restaurant made cultural-culinary sense. What’s more, there were zillions of restaurants, hidden in alleyways and garages and old French villas, and the Vietnamese people who patronized them tended to be highly particular and proud of their preferences. But could I get on a random taxi, ask for the best noodles, barbecued beef, or whatever in town, and eat well? I was about to find out.
My xe ôm set off, following a northerly route that led through neighborhoods I’d never quite noticed before, and deposited me at an open-air restaurant (I’ve forgotten its name) just far enough from a major intersection that it was nearly unnoticeable. As at many Vietnamese restaurants, the tables were close to the ground, and I had to squat on a low plastic stool. My food arrived with no fanfare: a melamine plate of cơm tấm, or broken rice, topped with a thin slab of pork chop, flecks of black char and chopped scallions floating on its film of fat and juices. On the side was a small bowl of nước chấm, a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and water. Altogether, this makes cơm sườn nướng, grilled pork chops on rice, easily the most popular lunch item in the city.
I pulled flimsy metal utensils from a container on the table and sawed off a piece of pork with the dull spoon edge, then drizzled it with nước chấm. Then I ate it. This…was…good! The marinade of fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and black pepper had penetrated deeply, and the high heat of the charcoal had caramelized it so quickly that the pork hadn’t had a chance to dry out. Even the broken rice, so named because it’s made from shattered, low-cost grains—it was a peasant staple I’d never cared for before—was just right, absorbing every drop of flavor.
Was this the best in the city? I wasn’t sure. I’d eaten cơm sườn nướng, dozens of times before, some of it quite excellent. But frankly, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that my experiment was a success, and I had a new way to eat in Saigon.