A Beautiful Bowl of Soup

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 08, 2010

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, June 18, 2010


On our second full day in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we went looking for a bowl of soup.  We found much more than that.

If you, like us, are regular viewers of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, you might remember the episode in which he was in Saigon and paid a visit to a woman simply called The Lunch Lady.  Apparently she is something of a legend and has not only been featured on his show, but also on several foodie blogs and as a result, has garnered a quite a following from food tourists.  A quick Google search yielded an address and a crude map so we left our hotel in search of soup.

We made our way through the busy downtown streets, passed the gated compounds of the French, American and British consulates, over a bridge that we shouldn't have crossed, and eventually found the quiet shaded street of Hoang Sa, and eventually found a narrow alley between 23 and 25 Hoang Sa.  Under the shade of a large tree, the scene from the No Reservations episode suddenly replayed in front of me.  There were a few tables, some red plastic chairs spread out under the tree.  In the middle of it all there was a cart, a bubbling stockpot and a few women busily preparing ingredients.

It is by no means glamorous.  There are flies buzzing around, old bone fragments on the cracked sidewalk and Pam saw a rat scurry by as we sat down.  My tiny plastic chair was split down the seat and stitched together with wire.  There is no menu.  There are no options.  She simply makes a different soup each day and you get what you get.  Friday is bun bo Hue, a beef noodle soup with a spicy lemongrass broth, so that's what we got.  According to the blogs we read, she gets up incredibly early every day, goes to the market where she's given the best ingredients because everyone knows her, then comes back and puts a pot of water over a charcoal fire.  It might sound like a simple thing and certainly not up to the standards of western food safety, but as it happens so often with traveling in strange places, you have to abandon your preconceived notions of how things should be and just settle in with the locals. 

The soup came with two shrimp spring rolls with peanut sauce, a bowl of steamed greens, and some limes and chilies for garnish.  The broth was the star...a knee-buckling concoction you could tell was simmered for hours, rich and spicy with layers of flavors that keep coming well after you've swallowed.  The noodles were perfect, the beef was tender.  It simply was a beautiful bowl of soup.  I sat in a foot-high plastic chair, feeling like an over-sized kindergartner, hunched over my bowl, slurping up the magic.

And it all cost $1.75 - for two spring rolls, two huge bowls of soup and all of the garnishes. We paid our bill, let her keep the change and walked away with the feeling you get when you've eaten something totally satisfying and delicious.

We left the alley and walked along the polluted river, looking across at run-down houses, backyard brush fires and garbage piles.  Five minutes later, we were cooling off in the air-conditioned blast of one of Saigon's finest shopping malls - the Vincom Plaza - looking at Armani-clad mannequins, shining cases of Cartier watches, and a food court with every international food choice imaginable, including Carl's Junior and Popeye's.  There were teenagers on cell phones chasing each other up escalators, designer label women browsing the racks, and businessmen dressed way better than me trying on Italian watches and sunglasses.  We had iced coffees on a patio looking out at the HSBC Tower and an upscale bakery called the New York Dessert Cafe - and our coffees cost more than our lunch.

This half-hour change of scenery was a perfect representation of what we've seen all over Vietnam.  There are without question extreme levels of poverty here.  We've seen people faced with incredibly difficult circumstances, scratching out an existence either in a rice paddy or begging on a city street.  People for whom a 75 cent bowl of soup is probably a luxury.  But we've also seen a growing middle class of consumers, great quantities of young people adopting western culture, topped of at the highest level with the immense wealth of designer clothing and Mercedes.  And more so than anywhere else we've been in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is a city on the rise.  There are glass-paneled skyscrapers going up, air conditioned shopping malls all over, and more cars - really nice cars - than we've seen anywhere else.  You can get practically anything you want here.  There is an energy and a feeling of ascendancy here.

I just hope that while it's moving up it doesn't forget about where it came from and the people who still need that way of life - the life of red plastic chairs around carts on broken sidewalks, the delicious less-than-a-dollar meal extracted from cheap cuts of meat, the hard-working women who rise at dawn to create things that people love.
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twanda on

Kids, your narrative was wonderful along with a side of compassion. Thanks for stopping to journal and share each day.

Dad on

Your stories are so fascinating I don't want them to end. Love your insights into the local culture.

Dad on

I forgot to mention - that soup looked damn good!!

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