Lingering Sidewalk Snacks

Saigon has its own snacks which are favorites of students. These childhood food favorites often last with Saigonese throughout their lifetime.

Last week, during our chat about the best foods in town, one of my colleagues asserted, “No places in HCM City offer foods better than sidewalk food stalls do.”

This 52-year-old gentleman is widely respected in the office for his straighforwardness and pointed remarks. Therefore, although he is not a native of Saigon, his comments gave me some careful thoughts.

I think he may be right, at least when it comes to Saigonese snacks.

Like other places around the globe, the city has its own snacks. Some of them actually originated from elsewhere, but they have been all localized to fit the local taste.

Take bò bía, spring roll of chopped jicama, carrot and small fried shrimp served with bean dipping sauce. This snack is a particular favorite of schoolgirls. Yet many ladies still keep this school-age preference. Or gi khô bò, green papaya salad with chopped cow lung. This favorite snack for Saigonese, especially students, is a preference of boys to a certain extent.

Another snack that is typical of Saigon is bt chiên. Originating from Chinese immigrants, bt chiên is prepared by cutting thickened flour batter into half-inch cubes. The cubes are fried with eggs and served with soy sauce and vinegar. If bò bía is somewhat more preferred by schoolgirls and gi khô bò by schoolboys, bt chiên is a favorite of both boys and girls, especially young couples.

The latest “invention” and, I believe, it is purely Saigonese: bánh tráng trn. It is a mixture of extra-thin rice paper, chopped young papaya and mango, fried tiny shrimp, cow lung, and soy sauce and vinegar. bánh tráng trn is currently so popular with schoolgirls and young female shopkeepers.

The way to eat these snacks is also a characteristic of the Saigonese lifestyle. As snacks are sold on the sidewalk, everything must be neat and mobile. Sometimes, customers have to eat their food while standing.

A good place to witness how Saigonese enjoy snacks is Le Van Tam Park on Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1. Snack eaters simply sit on the curbstone in front of the main gate of the park.

In other cases, tables and chairs have compact sizes and are low. The small sizes allow owners to deploy or remove their foldable tables and chairs in a few minutes.

“Tableware” is compact, too. For instance, gi khô bò is contained in round aluminum dishes as they are so light that a hundred of them can be carried by one person.

These snacks are favorites of students for several reasons. First, students like to eat snacks. Second, sidewalk snacks are often cheap, suiting students’ budget.

Ask any Saigonese and you will have the same answer: They won’t forget their childhood snacks.

Nobody better illustrate the above argument than Viet kieu of the first generation who used to live in Saigon. Many overseas Vietnamese of this category are nostalgic for sidewalk snacks and tasting them is often on their itineraries for a visit to the hometown.
Some recall what they term “the most memorable moments of school age in Saigon.” That was when after class they went together to eat snacks on the sidewalk of the corner of Pasteur and Le Loi streets. Finishing the snacks, and then emptying a glass of sugarcane juice offered by Vien Dong (Far East), then the best shop in town, was unforgettable memories of the time when they were young.


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