The Lunch Lady of Saigon
Saigon: a tide of motorcycles, tourists, and lately, American culture. Where East met West, both in war and peace. Where Old meets New, both in love and trepidation. Where Viet Cong hats and rubber-tire sandals meet iPhones and Louis Vuitton bags. This is where a Subway sandwich shop can coexist alongside a banh mi stand, where a Heineken is held at the same regard as the 333. This is where Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen, and Nguyen Binh Khiem are venerated alongside Uncle Ho, Quang Duc, and Ronald McDonald.
In Ho Chi Minh’s city, the world’s sharpest contrasts mingle together. It shows in the roads, the tourist destinations, and the food.
You spend a few minutes at the improvised cinema at the Cu Chi Tunnels listening to documentary/propaganda films about “American Killer Heroes,” and come back a few hours later to the densely-populated districts of Ho Chi Minh City dotted with Burger Kings and KFCs and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens. Here’s a country that swells with pride over its sound defeat of American forces in the Vietnam War, and swells with joy over the opening of McDonald’s branches.
And then there’s the Lunch Lady, almost always preceded by the travels of Anthony Bourdain. He spoke of it in superlatives: the broth that the gods suckled from. Whether it’s in the crowded backpacker hostels of Pham Ngu Lao or the gentrified establishments of Ngo Duc Ke, tourists speak of Saigon’s best-kept secret with a certain veneration. For Bourdain: the Ibn Battuta of our generation. And for the Lunch Lady herself, Nguyen Thi Thanh: the unassuming lady whose pots and bowls have simmered more than one blog post – likely from intrepid foreign foodies – about Southern Vietnamese beef noodles.
I’m pretty sure that for every Lunch Lady recommendation, there would be a few more that would attest to the “best pho in Vietnam” (using the word “pho” loosely). The in-flight magazine suggested Pho Thin in Hanoi. Still others have told me not to wander far from Pham Ngu Lao, if all I ever wanted were beef noodles. And pho – beef noodles – aren’t too hard to find in a city that has been sustained by it through thick and thin. But the girlfriend – the biggest Anthony Bourdain fan I know – insisted on the Lunch Lady.
So off we went, braving the tide of motorcycles and tourists and American restaurants standing side-by-side with the ubiquitous coffee kiosks, in search for the Lunch Lady.
* * *
Not all pho is created equal, but not all beef noodles are pho. For pho to be pho, I was told, requires a very specific cut of rice noodles: flat, fine, a tad wider than spaghetti. Pho would be the catch-all term that tourists use to refer to Vietnamese beef noodles, but the Vietnamese have just as many noodle soups as the Italians would have pasta. There’s banh canh: a noodle soup made with thick tapioca noodles. Or bun rieu cua: flavored with tomatoes and topped with crabs.
It was a rather long walk to the Lunch Lady’s stall in Hoang Sa. After a few missteps that led us walking around in circles, we finally found it. For my girlfriend, it was her Mecca: a dream of hers fulfilled (sans Bourdain). For me, it was the first sign of a very fulfilling lunch. In this unassuming alley filled with noodle soup vendors and outdoor coffee tables that are the developing world’s answer to the French bistros, we found the Lunch Lady.
At least three-fourths of her customers were tourists just like us, motivated to look for Saigon’s most popular culinary figure. A bunch of Europeans were even taking photos of themselves alongside the “Lunch Lady” sign, wrapped in plastic and hung from the tree that gave her stall good shade. A boisterous American was right by our table, regaling his Vietnamese tourist guide about the exaltations of Mr. Bourdain. And that he himself was brought to Vietnam by the trinity held by a few Americans in Saigon: business, broth, and memories of a war.
The Lunch Lady serves but one kind of soup at a given day, six times a week. For that day, it was bun bo Hue: Hue-style Vietnamese beef noodle soup. And I can tell you right now that it’s going to be a very long while before I set foot in a Pho Hoa in Manila.
Much to her irritation – maybe it was just me aimlessly loitering around the cooking area memorizing ingredients and technique – we were seated in tiny chairs and awaited for some menu or something. Without flinching, one of her assistants came back with a bowl of garnish, a saucer of chili peppers and fresh limes, and our bowls of bun bo Hue.
Now I won’t lie to you: I’m not a very good writer, and I’m not a very good photographer, either. I suppose you probably read more than one blog post about how awesome the Lunch Lady’s food is. But I don’t think I can give that lunch any more justice than in saying that it’s the best noodle soup I have ever had in my life.
The soup was tinged a very appetizing red – not just from chili (it was rather mild) but from the very generous seasoning of what tasted like shrimp paste. A note of lemongrass punctuated the soup: not overpowering, but accentuating the rich beef that had a hint of aniseed, onions, and pineapples. And all that was clothed in coriander, washing away all the heaviness that there could be in a soup this strong.
The noodles were thick, robust, and for something made of rice, quite flavorful. They had to be strong because of the invigorating stock. It was very beefy, reinforced by the flavor of marrow and pork. The meatloaf thrown in was also a very interesting treat that made the soup just as much about the texture as it was about the flavor.
I’m not a foodie or a glutton or an overenthusiastic traveler – I make for one really grumpy dude in the morning and the sight of fast food is enough to veer me off the touristy tracks – but there’s only one way I can think of to pay my respect and admiration for the Lunch Lady:
Yup, an (almost) empty bowl. An assistant, pleased by the thought of someone not leaving behind a lot to throw away, signaled if I wanted another bowl. I said, “No, thank you,” of course, but somehow I have a tiny bit of regret I didn’t take her up on the offer.
Damage: this is the best hundred pesos you’ll ever spend on any soup. Ever.
* * *
Saigon has a lot more to offer the gourmand and the glutton alike: be it the small house in the outskirts that would take a small payment to make you a bowl of banh canh or a fancy meal of ribeye at La Fourchette. With the trip to the Lunch Lady done I think that’s one thing off the bucket list. I’m looking forward to the next one: a bowl of pho – real pho – at Pho Thin in Hanoi.
But that’s for another time.
Meanwhile, maybe another trip to this city awaits: a land where noodle soups stand alongside Burger Kings, where Viet Cong memorabilia are sold alongside American signature brands, where a gentle people show their formidable inner strength more than just in the wars they fought, or the cultures that clash, but in the soup they serve.