You’d think that finding one of the cities most famous eateries would be easy, but that turned out to not be the case in Saigon.
Before my first trip to Vietnam, I did the same thing I do before many of my trips. Watch Anthony Bourdain eat his way around the city or country I’m about to visit.
While Bourdain’s Vietnam episodes focus more on his experiences eating in the countryside, there’s one haunt in Saigon that he can’t get enough of; Saigon’s famous lunch lady.
He mentions that she makes one dish every day and like a diligent traveller, I’ve done my research and found her daily menu. With Thursday’s bún mắm (more on the soup later) as the obvious winner, I ask the hotel concierge to write down the address and my friends and I jump in a cab.
The driver takes a very brief glance at my piece of paper, gives me a thumbs up and we’re off!
About twenty-five minutes later, he pulls up in front of Notre Dame cathedral and turns around looking at me expectantly. Now, I don’t have Google Maps at my disposal, but I checked beforehand and I know that the restaurant is in fact near the river, not here in the heart of District 1.
I shake my head at the driver and think about the futility of me telling the driver, “No, this isn’t the right place.”
Looking a bit dejected, he turns the engine back on and starts driving after a little while, he pulls over again and looks at me in the rearview mirror. He looks at my two friends, and I see him trying to decide if the one in the passenger seat speaks Vietnamese. Finally, he stares off into the distance, clearly trying to conjure some kind of magic that will allow us to communicate.
Ultimately, he gives up and drives on.
Five minutes go by. Then ten. No one in this vehicle has any idea where we are going, I think to myself. My stomach grumbles in response.
When I finally gesture towards his phone, his relief is palpable. I, on the other hand, am horrified to find that it is a feature phone and certainly will not provide me with a 4G guided map.
That’s okay. It’s a phone. I’ll just call the hotel. Even I pause at this obviously brilliant thought. Little did I know…
A gruff voice answers at the other end and I get the immediate impression that this employee does not have a lot of time for this conversation.
Me: “Hey, I am a guest at the hotel. I was wondering if you could help me.”
The employee who is trying to get me off the phone: “200 Le Lai!”
Me: “Oh well, that is actually not the information I am looking for. Could you help me find an address?” Out of the corner of my eye, I catch my friend smirking.
Employee: *long pause* *more slowly this time* “200. Le. Lai. St”
Me: “Again, I already know your address. Could you perhaps find the address of the Lunch Lady for me?”
The smirks from my two companions have now become barely contained laughter. I realise the trap that I have set for myself. Not to be deterred, I persevere.
Me: “It is a famous cafe. It is called The Lunch Lady. I just need the address.”
Employee: “I don’t have a map.”
Me: *incredulously picturing the employee desk with 3 or 4 computers* “Um. Well, maybe you could use Google Maps? On your computer?”
Employee: *obviously getting more irritated* “What is the place?!
Me: *slowly and clearly* “The. Lunch. Lady.” I try to enunciate every syllable.
Me: “Can you help me find The Lunch Lady?”
At this point, the pained expression on the driver is the mirror opposite of my friends snickering at me.
Employee: “It isn’t here.” I have no idea what she was referring to since apparently they really don’t have Google Maps on their computers.
Me: *flustered* “Oh, uh, well, thanks anyway.”
The taxi driver pulls over again, and this time there is no communication barrier when he tells us to get out. We pay him and trudge to a cafe we had passed a few blocks earlier.
Feeling dejected (and hungry!), we order some coffees and use the cafe’s wifi to see where we are. Turns out we’re about 800 metres from where we want to eat!
We saunter over to the stall as if we haven’t just spent the better part of an hour travelling three kilometres and I hold up 3 fingers by way of ordering (there is only one dish prepared per day).
Soon we receive three steaming, fragrant bowls of Bún mắm, an amazing soup with a dark broth that is at once tangy and sweet. It’s full of large chunks of roast pork, shrimp, okra, eggplant and thick noodles. I add in a generous serving of bean sprouts, basil and a splash of lime.
Each bowl of soup comes with a plate of Gui Con. Made fresh when they’re ordered, these summer rolls are stuffed with vermicelli noodles, prawns and a melody of herbs. All of these flavours burst forward when you dip the roll in the tangy and spicy peanut sauce that comes with them.
One of my favourite things about Vietnam is the fact that you can sit down on little plastic stools (think the blue and red chairs in a kindergarten classroom) at any street food vendor in the city and be guaranteed an amazing meal. That said, I am glad we didn’t give up on The Lunch Lady and I recommend that you find her as well!