Part of Saigon’s beauty is its comprehensiveness. What I mean by this is that with a motorbike and the proper determination, one can find pretty much anything they desire at pretty much any hour of the day or night. No sliver of the market is left unfilled (peanut butter prices, nevertheless, remain high). Once, ahead of a short trip, I found myself in need of a small duffle bag; my flight departed in nine hours and, on a whim, I took a stroll around my neighborhood to see if I could procure something. Not more than 450 meters away I, quite literally, stumbled into a store devoted completely to duffle bags—I made the flight comfortably on time.
Another well-charted point of Saigon’s charm is, of course, the food (specifically that found on the street). Free of pretension and with a norm of all-day preparation, from stewing pots of tender beef to steaming, inexplicably-rich rice porridge, street stands dole out highly specialized dishes that, if not up to snuff, will quickly be replaced by someone who can do it better. As a general rule, the lower the plastic stool is to the ground, the better.
Perhaps the most quintessentially Saigonese cuisine is com tam, or a plate of rice topped with a tender pork chop, runny egg, pickled vegetables, and a drizzle of fish sauce and pepper flakes. It’s everywhere, and it’s usually very good. Finding a truly exceptional one, though, is a satisfaction akin to the feeling of the perfect topspin lob, the 7 iron stuck next to the pin, the un-recreatable haircut.
One June evening, finishing the last round of beers over the canal in District 3, conditions were right to sample a fabled com tam. My pal Andy, a Brit who had spent the preceding few months writing music and sampling dozens, if not hundreds, of the city’s humble dish of choice, had received a hot tip—deep down a dark alley in nearby Phu Nhuan was supposedly a com tam operation run out of an apartment that opened its doors only from 12:40AM to 3:30AM. Excited by this prospect, Andy and I hopped on our bikes and, after missing the alley’s entrance a couple times, putted down the dark, narrow strip in second gear until we came across a sign. At this time it was 12:20, and all was silent. Indeed, they hadn’t opened yet. Come back in 20, we were instructed.
Our minds already made up, collective hunger only barely tolerable, Andy and I killed some time at a neighborhood cocktail joint around the corner. Over very sugary concoctions, we chatted and he told me that I really needed to check out Istanbul, but it’s hard to explain why. Every few minutes there was a mutual glance to my watch. Finally, close to 12:50, we tried again. This time, cautiously traveling the same alley, we began to see billowing smoke from a grill and quickly realized there was nowhere to park; in 25 minutes, the alley, with roughly 7 tiny tables set up, was filled to the brim. We waited, and waited, then took a seat, our knees peeking over the metallic table.
I let Andy, with some Vietnamese under his belt, order for us. In the moment and not wanting to break the silence by speaking more words than necessary, something was perhaps lost in translation, and it turned out we ordered the wrong thing: pork ribs came out instead. We ate, enjoyed ourselves, laughed at the build-up and spectacle, then parted ways. You know what? It tasted good.