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The revered 92-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh sums up his teachings on food and the first meal of the day like this: “I asked some children, 'What is the purpose of eating breakfast?' One boy replied, 'To get energy for the day.' Another said, 'The purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast.' I think the second child is more correct.”

At Hoa Nhon, the cơm chay (vegetarian buffet) is self-service, so the portions are invariably generous and at breakfast time, you’ll certainly find all the day’s energy you need. But more importantly, as the famous monk alluded to, you can find joy in the simple act of eating unpretentious, lovingly prepared plant-based food here. I’d argue Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote holds true for any meal, and I have a feeling he’d love Hoa Nhon. Thankfully, you can also come here at lunch and dinner time too.

The restaurant strives for a harmonious ambience, and nearly succeeds. There are homey touches: traditional oil paper umbrellas hanging above the main buffet and lotus flower paintings that symbolize purity on the walls. Gentle, chiming Buddhist melodies play in the background but these can’t quite compete with the shouts from the busy wet market outside on an even busier hẻm, where the shared language of beeps and honks is unrelenting. Two resident dogs napping in the shady corner don’t mind one bit though. And neither do I, once I tuck into my buffet plate.

Luckily for vegetarians, there are hundreds of cơm chay restaurants in Saigon. So what makes Hoa Nhon special? Here are three things: many cơm chay places seem to take pride in having a messy floor strewn with discarded paper tissues, a sign of their popularity; Hoa Nhon, however, is virtually spotless. It also displays its dishes in lovely faded orange earthenware pots unlike their rivals’ metal containers. What’s more, other joints cannot match the view of a 40-foot-tall winged Buddha statue, the 3,000 year-old religious swastika emblazoned on his chest and his left hand holding a lotus flower in the pagoda next door.

Here’s a fourth reason: if you come when some Buddhists abstain from meat (on the 1st and 15th days each month of the lunar calendar), the place will be packed, but the buffet choices will be particularly fantastic. If you don’t fancy the buffet, there’s an eight-page monolingual menu. Highlights include mì xào giòn (supremely crispy fried noodles) and cơm gói lá sen (mixed veggie rice sitting snugly inside a lotus leaf), the latter simply yet elegantly presented. You won’t find any dishes cooked with onion or garlic here, though; Buddhist monks believe these have an aphrodisiac quality, and so refrain from eating them.

Some cơm chay places skimp on the vegetables in favor of fake meat so the meal feels unbalanced. But not here. There’s bitter melon, okra, water spinach and Chinese cabbage alongside protein options like fried lemongrass tofu, eerily genuine-tasting fake ham, and tofu stir-fried with chili and tomatoes, a standout dish. The grilled eggplant is also charred perfectly, and neither too bitter nor too slimy, as sometimes is the case elsewhere. It’s a testament to the skills of the cooks that seemingly every customer polishes off every vegetable, tofu chunk and grain of rice from their once-mountainous plate.

Afterwards, walk off your meal in the adjoining grounds of Long Van Pagoda, built in 1933 by a monk named Giai Minh, which Hoa Nhon raises funds for. Although not a famous Saigon temple, it looks immaculate. Red lanterns and bright pink peach flowered trees clash in color but do so prettily. You can stroll around several shrines featuring both the male and female Buddha in their main iconic postures. There’s also a statue of the chubby Chinese ‘laughing monk,’ Bố Đại in Vietnamese, sitting cross-legged. He represents good fortune and looks like he’d thoroughly enjoy Hoa Nhon’s chay cuisine. Incense sticks are available at the pagoda’s entrance to make a wish, or even say a prayer.

On reflection, my simple wish is for Hoa Nhon to keep doing what it does so well — making satisfying, plant-based comfort food — on this hectic hẻm in Bình Thạnh District for many years to come.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 4/5

James is in Brexile from the UK. Saigon's sunshine, swimming pools and superb veggie food help to keep him sane in these maddening times.

Vegetarian food

125/72B Bui Dinh Tuy, Ward 24, Binh Thanh District

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During the day, the dining area at 89 Nguyen Du houses a bún bò restaurant, but once the afternoon comes to an end and the sun starts to set, the area turns into a boisterous nhậu spot filled with northern fare and jug after jug of bia hơi.

Saigon is a melting pot of regional cultures, thanks to its enclaves of residents from Da Lat, Hue, northern provinces and the Mekong Delta. When settling in the city, they brought along the dishes from their hometown and the special ways the eclectic soups, snacks and noodles are crafted, making Saigon a dream for food enthusiasts. In previous Hẻm Gems, we’ve sampled cuisine from Da Lat, Phu Yen, Bac Lieu and many more, so it’s only fair that this week’s addition lionizes a slice of northern creations.

A significant portion of my formative years were spent out and about in District 1’s Ben Nghe Ward, and etched in a corner of my mind are the lively pavements of Nguyen Du and Ly Tu Trong streets, filled with small shops and restaurants selling a smorgasbord of Hanoi treats. Take the Nguyen Du-Pasteur intersection, for example; it used to house two famous phở establishments — one had the most flavorful phở gà, while the other was among the handful of spots in the entire city that served crispy fried phở. Alas, the latter has ceased to exist, and the site is now a Highlands coffee shop.

The presence of a sizeable population of northern immigrants in the area might warrant more in-depth research, but I’m thankful for their existence, as it brought about a range of eateries with flavors my family has grown to love over the years. While some are resolute in perfecting one dish, usually northern classics like bún chả or phở Bắc, this week’s Hẻm Gem, Ngõ 89, takes a more trendy approach: nhậu snacks.

Ngõ are the hẻm of the north, tiny alleys that divide cities into smaller and smaller micro-communities with their own quirks and ways of living. In recent years, Saigon has witnessed the rapid proliferation of northern-style restaurants adhering to this trend: serving casual snacks like nem chua rán with bia hơi or iced lemon tea. Most of them are also named after ngõ, usually followed by the numerical part of their address, and voila, a casual hangout is born.

Every day from 4pm, when nearby shopfronts are closed for the day, the staff at Ngõ 89 start setting up their table sets along the pavement. When I say “table sets,” I mean a dome-shaped chicken cage, on top of which rests a huge bamboo tray, along with a few tiny stools. Patrons can freely settle down at a set and start ordering snacks to their heart’s desire. True to the snacking spirits, Ngõ 89 offers an extensive selection of bite-sized morsels, from mainstays like nem chua rán (deep-fried pork nuggets) and chân gà (spicy chicken feet) to more adventurous additions like fried chicken intestines and goat meatballs. These will set you back VND45,000-65,000 per plate, and you can wash it down with a glass of lime or kumquat iced tea at VND10,000.

After trying out Ngõ 89’s prolific menu, should one still feel peckish, they can opt for a bowl of bún chả or a set of bún đậu tá lả, which includes some of the biggest pieces of tofu I’ve ever seen in my experience with bún đậu. Admittedly, the main dishes are decent, but nothing to write home about, because there are specialized bún chả and bún đậu places in Saigon that can do a better job.

Hem Gems - Ngo 89 - Cha Ca La Vong - YouTube

After two jugs of bia hơi, our stay at Ngõ 89 is greeted with the rumbling of an imminent summer shower. By 8pm, this section of the pavement on Nguyen Du has grown dark and deserted, save for the yellowish hue of lights from inside Ngõ 89 and groups of diners huddling around steamy hotpots, deep in jovial banter with friends.

Ngõ 89 is open from 4pm to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 3/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 5/5

Khoi loves tamarind, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Hanoian dishes

89 Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe Ward, D1

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The craft beer craze that originated in the west has arrived in Vietnam in full force, but the trend of incorporating the beverage into local food recipes hasn’t yet followed.

Usually imperceptible, often gimmicky and occasionally downright strange (beer-battered unfurled fern fronds?), American restaurants, bars and home chefs have been adding brews to a variety of dishes for years. With a few exceptions, such as a prawn recipe that calls for it to be used when steaming, Vietnamese cuisine rarely make use of it. Saigoneer was curious how this might work, so we called up one of our favorite chefs in the city, Tam Le, to see if she would like to experiment. Maybe we’d stumble upon some new recipes that would go viral on social media and thus temporarily satiate our ravenous egos and need for attention? Or maybe we’d just have a pleasant afternoon and get to drink the brews that didn’t make it into the pots and pans. No real loss, either way. 

We selected three of our favorite craft beers made in Saigon — a rich, chocolate-laden imperial stout; a zesty white ale; and a surprisingly hoppy pilsner — and left the rest up to the creative mind of Tam, who brought to the city guacamole with bánh đa (rice crackers) and found the gooey, melted Laughing Cow middle ground between fried spring rolls and taquitos via her pop-up fusion Saigonita dinners

From my habit of smuggling bottles of malt liquor into the cinema to getting banned from my local library for sneaking a sixer into the poetry section, I’m a true believer that beer makes just about anything better. Tam, however, is quite the opposite. She has a fair excuse though, I suppose. She is allergic to alcohol. She, therefore, hadn’t cooked with beer before and had to do some research on the ways others have incorporated it in dishes. Western chefs frequently make use of its carbonated elements for baking bread and deep-frying battered everything. It can also add nuanced flavors to soups, stews and sauces. 

After talking with locals and consulting a variety of cookbooks, Tam settled on three Vietnamese dishes that could incorporate beer in similar ways: tôm rang me (sauteed shrimp in a sweet tamarind sauce), deep-fried battered snakehead fish, and the best way to eat hearty stew for breakfast: bò kho. When we arrived, the ingredients were prepped and the bottles chilled and ready to go.

I’d never heard of tôm rang me before, but the ease of preparation and simplicity of flavor profile made it an obvious food to try and infuse with beer. Tam selected the lager for the tamarind glaze to stand in for some of the sugar without overpowering the somewhat delicate tart fruit elements. Of course, this was Vietnam, so plenty of sugar still got spooned into the rich sauce. The plump shrimps were plopped in a pot and simmered at low heat alongside garlic and soy sauce;  the tamarind mixture was then added along with a few extra sips of beer. The sweet, subtly tangy flavor was fragile without being inconsequential. As for the beer? It was present, but only slightly.

Next up was the fish. Fried fish is one of those foods that seems to have been “invented,” if one can call putting fish in boiling oil an invention, countless times in different cultures, and Vietnam is no exception. To give the dish a bit more local flavor, Tam selected snakehead — a common species found in lakes and rivers throughout the region.

Unlike some of her wilder concoctions, Tam kept most of the recipes this day pretty conventional, with the exception of the batter used for the fish. Rather than basic bread or panko crumbs, she chose cốm, or green, immature rice, an item she learned of during a recent ingredient exploration to northern Vietnam. It’s often eaten plain or mixed with coconut and pandan for a variety of desserts. It also makes for a great breading when mixed with eggs and flour, to which we added the citrusy white beer for a little extra brightness. 

Maybe it was because of the cốm’s neon color, or perhaps the simple novelty of it, but we may have been a bit overzealous with it and ended up with a bit of a batter-shellacked flesh that Tam affectionately called “a glob.” But it snapped and sizzled appealingly in the oil, all the same, quickly turning an appealing harvest gold. We just had to sort out what to dip it in. Typically, fried fish is complimented by creamy tartar, Salmoriglio, or cocktail sauce. Tam had some recently made duck egg mayonnaise on hand and a bottle of oil she’d infused with rau răm. The herbal spiciness of this latter addition gave the dip a pleasant earthiness that complimented the fresh cốm. As for the beer? It was in there, I suppose, though not noticeable, not unlike a whale's vestigial pelvic bone.

Not wanting to let anything go to waste, we then poured the remaining cốm-filled batter into the oil. The whimsically green clumps provided the perfect sauce vessels, allowing us to savor the rau răm a little more. While not the healthiest nor most traditional part of the meal, these “batter bites” as we dubbed them turned out to be a great surprise success.

Finally, it was time to sample the bò kho. This hearty beef soup originated in France and, some believe, represents a localization of pot-au-feu, with foreign herbs swapped for local ones and five-spice added in place of bay leaves. We decided to take the cultural mashup one step further, and that morning Tam had poured in an entire bottle of a 12% ABV stout. The decadent chocolate, coffee and toffee notes mingled with the already spice-abundant broth. The sweetness of the ale, she explained, would also help to counteract the bitter quality of the carrots. 

Of the three dishes, the bò kho made the best use of the beer, allowing its flavors to actually stand out. The hints of licorice and dark fruits imparted an extra complexity, without being overwhelming. The tender chunks of meat and vegetable hunks also received a slight sheen of alcohol warmth.

Once full, we had a moment to reflect on our experiment of cooking Vietnamese dishes with beer. The process could have invited ruminations on the evolution of food and called into question the use of the word “traditional;” it might have led to insights about the science of ingredients had we broken out our chemistry books; but really it was just a good chance to have fun tinkering in the kitchen and eating some delicious dishes in each other's company. Will cooking local dishes with beer catch on in Vietnam? I expect pretty soon a few trendy eateries with plenty of craft beers on tap will be adding beer-infused sauces and entrees. Like elsewhere, and as our experimenting largely revealed, the beer will hardly be noticeable. As long as you have a couple of cold ones stashed in the fridge, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Customers eager to avoid wet markets are increasingly turning to live social media auctions to satisfy their seafood needs.

Inspired by successful operations in Taiwan, several companies in Malaysia have begun selling fish via nightly Facebook auctions, according to MalayMail. Every day up to 8,000 people log in to see different species for sale and place their bids via messages and pay via direct bank transfer for fresh fish that are then quickly delivered. While the process can drive prices above what one would typically pay at a market or grocery store, customers appreciate the ease of ordering and delivery. Middle-aged men make up the majority of the clientele.

Screenshot of DD Fishery Live auction.

37-year-old Audrey Goo set up a selling partnership between MyFishMan and DD Fishery Live to cater to the local Chinese population in Klang, Malaysia. Through trial and error, he has seen the business grow and admits "since we began auctioning over a year ago, our profits have increased by 10 to 50 percent on average." 

The auctions can replace several of the middlemen often involved in the seafood trade. Lim Yew Ping, the co-founder of wholesaler Sea Fresh explains, "customarily fishermen spend an average of eight hours at sea. This means they are quite exhausted when they get back; hence, the prominent role of middlemen.” Yet auctions like those he facilitates may remove one or two of the intermediary companies and stores used to get fish from boats to home kitchens which would increase freshness and cut costs.

The digital fish auctions are catching on in Singapore as well. Online seafood auctions have also been introduced in countries such as Australia and America, though those rely on conventional websites and not social media livestreams. And while local seafood producers do sell their ware on Facebook in Vietnam, none have yet adopted an auction format. 

[Top photo via Malay Mail]

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One of the great benefits Vietnam's budget airline boom is the ease with which Saigoneers can now travel directly to wonderful destinations like Japan and South Korea without breaking the bank.

Taiwan must be included on this list as well. Prior to VietJet opening a route to Taipei, I hadn't heard much about the place. Friends started going and coming back with rave reviews, so it was quickly added to my 'must-visit' list. I've now been twice, and the hype is real - particularly when it comes to food.

From night markets packed with street stalls to casual open-air eateries and more formal sit-down restaurants, Taiwan has it all, and the wide range of dishes, including Chinese staples many will be familiar with and specialties created on the island, means you'll never get bored.

Sadly, Taiwanese cuisine hasn't quite taken advantage of cheap flights to Saigon. While it's nearly impossible to walk down a street here without tripping over a Japanese or Korean restaurant (and that's not a complaint), you'd be hard-pressed to find the dishes of Taipei or Tainan.

Enter Jeffrey's Kitchen Taiwanese Beef Noodles.

Located on Cong Quynh, the decor is simple: white walls, sturdy wood tables and a few paintings created by the owner's daughter. It's a family affair, with Jeffrey and his wife running the show while their daughter takes orders.

Hailing from Kaohsiung, Jeffrey has a background in R&D and technical management. He previously worked to develop rifle scopes, and then designed camera lenses for tech giants like Apple, Huawei and Canon.

"I was transferred by my company from China to Saigon two and a half years ago," he tells Saigoneer. "Eventually I quit since it kills your spirit and I was tired of 16-hour days."

Jeffrey grew up around his mom's cooking - she ran a restaurant back in Taiwan - and though she passed away three years ago, he still had her recipes.

So he opened up this restaurant about a month ago. "I want to share her plates and remember her," he says.

The enticing menu covers all the bases: noodles, rice and sauteed, featuring numerous pork, beef, seafood and vegetable dishes. I was excited, as was my colleague Alberto, who has also been to Taiwan before.

We started with the Taiwanese braised beef noodles (VND110,000), served in a rich, hearty broth that took me right back to Taipei. The beef practically melts in your mouth, while the home-made noodles are much different from your typical noodles in Vietnam.

Taiwanese braised beef noodles - YouTube

Then there was the combo Taiwanese braised pork leg and rice (VND88,000). I'll admit this dish may not be for everyone, at least visually, as the pork leg - which includes the foot - resembles dark brown jelly. You need to get past that though, as the flavor is fantastic, especially when mixed with the in-house chili sauce.

Taiwanese braised pork leg and rice - YouTube

The mapo tofu (VND80,000), on the other hand, is beautiful to look at, and absolutely spectacular to eat. Covered in a syrupy sauce, minced pork and ample chilies, this is a must-try dish, though if you can't handle spicy food you may want to ask them to tone it down.

We thought we were done at this point, but Jeffrey, bemused by our evident glee, brought out a serving of clams sauteed with fresh basil leaves (VND78,000), which he says is a true Taiwanese specialty.

Though already stuffed, we tucked into the excellent clams, which were packed with flavor and, thankfully, pretty light.

To conclude, I unreservedly endorse Jeffrey's Kitchen Taiwanese Beef Noodles - if you've never had food from the island nation, this is a great introduction, while if you've had it and love it like I do, you'll take a trip right down memory lane.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Michael has almost no sense of smell and was an on-screen extra in Jurassic World. You can usually find him with a craft beer in hand.

Jeffrey's Kitchen Taiwanese Beef Noodles

137 Cong Quynh, Nguyen Cu Trinh Ward, D1

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Contemporary coffee culture in Saigon is largely one of extremes. On one end, enthusiasts at trendy shops source, grow, roast and meticulously prepare some of the finest beans in the world, and on the other, humble carts serve cheap cups on hectic street corners. And in between? Cà Phê Tám Hường. The tiny stand situated in a shaded spot on Nguyen Du Street serves coffee fit for a connoisseur at pavement prices.

When Saigoneer moved offices last year we had to find a new go-to coffee spot to fuel our keyboard babbling. There were a few regrettable visits to overpriced chains, some dalliances with likely battery-brews, momentary considerations of keeping a French press at our desks (until we remembered the great water spill streak of 2018), and that one traumatizing day we decided to give up caffeine altogether. But then we tried the unassuming Cà Phê Tám Hường just around the corner from us; the first sip was akin to the season's first crack of thunder above a parched rice field.

An espresso machine right on the street.

“No, no, don’t take a photo of me, I’m not handsome enough for this shop, focus on our logo,” the shop’s owner Minh laughs. He would rather the drawing of the smiling coffee lady be the face of the stand, as it perfectly encapsulates his business’s friendly demeanor and, thanks to the subtle homage it pays to the famous ‘Cô Mía’ visage that graces nước mía carts, situates itself in Saigon’s street beverage culture traditions. Similarly, the name Cà Phê Tám Hường is a nod to the familiar way people often refer to street vendors that don’t even brand their stalls.

Minh first remembers having coffee from Da Lat that a friend had brought back to Saigon for his father. He loved the light, floral aroma and taste, and was therefore disappointed by the burnt, sugar-laden variety sold by most vendors and small shops around town. Those versions that had been sitting around for who knows how long in plastic containers at street carts failed to capture that first, fresh-from-the-filter taste. So Minh took to tea.

It wasn’t until years later, when new boutique coffee shops started opening up in the city, that his love for the drink returned. His day job designing interiors proved fortuitous. While constructing the interior of the city’s first Phuc Long location, he learned about the logistics involved in installing and operating espresso machines. This would prove especially helpful six years later when he purchased a second-hand machine.

One of Minh’s favorite hobbies is cycling to a quiet section of central Saigon and going for a stroll with camera in hand, hoping for candid shots of citizens going about their daily routines. On his walks, he realized that many of the people that he passed on their way to work or during lunch breaks likely couldn’t afford the time or cost of a coffee at a fancier shop. He thus decided to open his own stand that blends elevated flavors with the price and ambiance of street coffee.

Minh struck a deal with the northern food restaurant inside and started providing beverages to accompany the Hanoi-inspired cơm trưa dishes.

Location is critical. After an early attempt in Tan Binh District failed, Minh relied on his pedestrian instincts to select a place to open. While on a walk in 2018, he discovered a stretch of street whose large canopy of shade trees overhead and wide sidewalks were filled with walkers, as opposed to motorbikes, which made sense for Cà Phê Tám Hường’s newest iteration. All it took was a chat with the owner of the cơm trưa restaurant serving northern dishes at the nearest storefront. She wanted to provide her customers with drinks, but was too overwhelmed with cooking. It was a perfect fit, and a simple deal was struck.

Thanks to his many home experiments, Minh knew the exact blend and roast he wanted for his coffee: 70% robusta beans from Dak Lak and 30% arabica from Da Lat. He then worked closely with a roaster to develop the exact formula he needed, while ensuring it could be replicated exactly the same each time. This reliability is key, and requires a skilled barista because, as Minh laments, too many people make coffee for money and not love, and it shows in their product. Thankfully, Thanh, the younger brother of one of his coworkers, had recently completed his barista training course and was looking for a place to practice his passion.

Thanh, Tám Hường's main and only staff, is the younger brother of Minh's coworker and a trained barista.

So what makes a good cup of coffee for Minh? It should have a light, floral, perfume-esque aroma with hints of chocolate. The taste shouldn’t be too brash or bitter, just a little sour. And while he does cater to his clients’ desires — the cart offers sugar, fresh milk and sweetened condensed milk — Minh's go-to cup of joe must be black and splashed over a bit of ice.

“Making coffee is not difficult, but it’s not easy, you just must love it,” he says. This philosophy manifests itself in each cup. Neither soft or aggressive, the complex notes harmonize like the songs of the white-rumped shama. Order to your liking, but to best appreciate the coffee, we suggest getting it black. And whether you are going to rest for a few minutes on one of the tiny tables and chairs or take it to go, make sure you take a sip when its first handed to you. It's one of the best cups of coffee in the city at a price that can't be beaten.

Cà-Phê Tám Hường is open from 7am to 2:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 6/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Paul Christiansen is a Saigoneer staff writer who composes poetry for the same reasons plants photosynthesize. 

Coffee and cocoa drinks

89 Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe, D1

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The world never stops obsessing over giant food, and Vietnam is no exception.

Every year, farming communities across continents hold competitions on who can grow the most monstrous vegetable, from pumpkins to onion to cabbage. There’s something about producing the most massive versions of food that provides an equally immense sense of accomplishment.

This fascination with enormous food extends to fully cooked dishes like the world’s biggest pizza in Texas or Tokyo’s biggest box of chocolate. Vietnamese establishments routinely churn out huge bánh chưng every Tet with Saigon holding the world record for biggest bánh chưng, which was made in 2004 and weighed 1.75 tons. Last year, an instant noodle brand in the country established the world record for biggest bowl of instant phở, weighing 1.35 tons.

On June 6, as part of the Da Nang International Food Festival, the city successfully created Vietnam’s largest bánh xèo to date from 150 kilograms of batter, shrimp, pork, beansprouts, etc. The dish was a collaborated effort by 10 Vietnamese chefs and 13 foreign chefs from China, Germany, Greece, India, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sweden and Turkey.

By making the giant crepe, Da Nang broke its own national record established in May 2018; the bánh xèo last year was only 139 kilograms. The central Vietnam city is also a record holder of the world’s longest spring roll.

According to Tuoi Tre, the humongous bánh xèo was cooked on custom-made skillet made by artisans from a traditional bronzeware craft village in Quang Nam Province. The skillet’s lid, featuring Dong Son motifs, was a product of another artisan village in Thai Binh Province. The set weighs a total of 700 kilograms and took three months to complete.

After the record was established, the bánh xèo provided meals for 200 guests at the food festival. The Da Nang International Food Festival was held from June 2 to 6 on Tran Hung Dao Street in Son Tra District.

[Photos by Doan Nhan via Tuoi Tre]

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Vietnam’s extended coastline has bestow local fishing communities with great access to seafood, giving rise to a plethora of craft villages across the country that lionize marine produce. Perhaps the most well-known of these are fish sauce-making villages in Phan Thiet along the central coast and on Phu Quoc Island.

After two years under construction, a cultural tourism project based in the coastal city of Phan Thiet in Binh Thuan Province has been officially completed, according to VietnamPlus. The compound, named Lang Chai Xua, seeks to provide travelers with a comprehensive glimpse into the life and history of Phan Thiet’s fishing community. The most attractive destination of the project is perhaps its Fish Sauce Museum, reportedly the first venue of its kind in the country.

The museum in Phu Hai Ward spans almost 2,000 square meters with 14 separate sections displaying objects, photographs and exhibitions on the art of making fish sauce and the many historical figures involving in the development of the amber liquid. While the entire Lang Chai Xua project has only been completed recently, the museum has been accepting visitors since last year.

Phan Thiet is home to one of the oldest and most prestigious artisan villages making the funky condiment. It’s estimated that fish sauce-making facilities here date back some 300 years ago and was started by Tran Gia Hoa, a Phan Thiet resident who was honored by a Nguyen Emperor for his role in kick-starting the craft in the coastal city.

How to make fish sauce, as shown in an instructional video.

Since then, crates of traditionally produced fish sauce from Phan Thiet have spiced up meals of southern and central Vietnamese for hundreds of year. At the museum, spectators might spot rows of ceramic pots, a strange vessel compared to today’s omnipresent fish sauce bottles. These pots are called tĩn, the most popular fish sauce container in past centuries. Tĩn is more durable than glass bottles, which require packing and cushioning during transport, and can better survive the river trip from Phan Thiet to southern localities. Some argue that keeping nước mắm in these pots also accentuate the liquid’s flavor profile.

The Lang Chai Xua complex is the brainchild of its main developer Tran Ngoc Dung, who was born in Phan Thiet but had spent years living overseas. According to Tien Phong, Dung used to be a market analyst; he left his job and relocated his family back to his hometown to realize this fish sauce project.

“No matter where I go, my love for the East Sea and my hometown’s fish sauce-making village won’t fade away,” Dung told Tien Phong. “Now I’m truly feeling content, living in the most familiar of sights and flavors that our ancestors left us.”

Step inside the fish sauce museum via the photo below:

A timeline of Phan Thiet and Binh Thuan Province's development.

An old map of Phan Thiet, created by French cartographers.

A wall of old photos showing famous figures and landmarks in the city.

A miniature replica of a Cham structure.

Life-size exhibitions showing the process of making fish sauce.

A few important characters in the history of fish sauce. Fish sauce tycoons were referred to as "hàm hộ."

A slice of beach life in Phan Thiet.

Labels, complete with retro art, of Phan Thiet's famous fish sauce brands through history.

An old article describing the art of making fish sauce.

Related Articles:- Shrimp Paste and Fish Sauce: A Brief Primer on Vietnam's Dipping HistoryHẻm Gems: Hear Us Out, Coconut Milk and Fish Sauce Are Actually Great TogetherFunky History: The Romans Made Fish Sauce, Too
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Tien, who’s been up since 4am, stops for a moment, lets out a small sigh of satisfaction and wipes the sweat from her brow with the well-used towel around her neck. It’s now 7:45am on another hot, humid morning in Saigon. Business has been brisk and she’s just served her final customer of the day with a generously filled bowl of bún măng chay (vegetarian vermicelli noodles with bamboo shoots). 

Tien works seven days except for public holidays at a small sidewalk space in Binh Thanh District. She’s been making vegetarian noodles here for five years for many satisfied, loyal customers. Before that, she had a meat-based menu at another spot in Saigon. Through Nguyen Thi Mai Dung, my trusty interpreter, I ask if she switched for religious reasons.

Tien initially started manning the cart after its owner, her aunt, was struck by an illness. Tien took over the business after her aunt retired.

“I had to," she replies. "My aunt used to sell chay food here, but she got sick. I covered for her so she wouldn’t lose customers. Then I took over when she retired.”

I ask why she thinks she’s so successful. “I’ve been cooking for a long time. My aunt and my grandmother taught me their recipes. They looked after me — my mother left when I was eight years old. I’ve tried to improve, step by step, adding more dishes,” she explains.

Tien changes her menu every day. Highlights include bún riêu chay, bún bò chay and mì Quảng chay, a yellow noodles originating from central Vietnam. The price? Just VND25,000.

I ask her about the most challenging part of her job. "Watching out for the police," she says, without hesitating. "If too many customers park their bikes on the street or there are too many people sitting here, I’ll get into trouble. The police fine my customers or they fine me."

Bún măng chay makes use of vegetables, like mushrooms and bamboo shoots, to arrive at a savory broth and flavorful toppings.

She's lost count of how many times this has happened. If you do visit her stall for breakfast, and you really should, be sure to park your bike on the sidewalk further down the street so you don’t cut into her profits and add to her legal problems.

I watch Tien in action as she multi-tasks impressively. She deftly serves up her dishes: heaping noodles into bowls, sprinkling fried shallots and salt/garlic seasoning on top, then adding a ladle of vegetarian broth from her industrial-sized metal container. She manages this while also shouting instructions to her assistant (having one is a sign of her success), chatting to her customers, and, of course, keeping an eye out for cops. 

Strips of dried bamboo shoots were rehydrated by the broth.

I do a quick survey of the diners around our small plastic table — a mix of young women on their way to work and older ladies returning from the wet market nearby. “How’s your food?” I ask. “Delicious,” everyone replies, between greedy mouthfuls of noodles, mushrooms and tofu spiced with diced chili, a generous pinch of ginger and a squeeze of extra lime.

Behind our cramped seating area, an apartment’s metal gate opened narrowly, a wheelchair-bound elderly man seems to be enjoying his regular morning routine of people-watching. He gazes at us impassively while we wolf down our bún măng chay in companionable silence.

Another customer, Dung, 27, from Binh Thanh District, says she’s been coming here for breakfast for two years. “People attract people. I first passed by on my scooter, feeling curious about why there were lots of people sitting here enjoying their food,” she shares.

On the surface of the noodles is a heap of toppings, consisting of herbs, various mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

I press Tien more on why she sells out early every day: “It’s experience, but also love. I like to see my customers happy by giving them a good breakfast.” She plans to retire soon, though.

“I’m 58 years old. I‘ve been cooking and selling on the street for a long time. I want to retire at 60 so I can look after my husband and watch my favorite Korean dramas on TV,” she says.

Her kids won't take over the business, as they all work office jobs.

You can find her stall at 99 Vu Tung Street, Ward 14, Binh Thanh early every morning. Look for her blue-and-pink striped umbrella underneath the ‘Long Van’ sign. But you must be doubly quick and get there early — 7:30am at the latest. And don’t delay the visit too long. Her family’s generations-old chay cooking will not be around to enjoy for much longer.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5 if you live in Binh Thanh, 3/5 if you don't.

James is in Brexile from the UK. Saigon's sunshine, swimming pools and superb veggy food help to keep him sane in these maddening times.

Vegetarian noodles

99 Vu Tung, Ward 14, Binh Thanh

Related Articles:- Hẻm Gems: Where Chay Alter Egos of Vietnam's Everyday Soups ReignHẻm Gems: Finding Your Path at a Downtown Vegan BuffetHẻm Gems: Cô Khanh's Vegetarian Banquet and a Trip Down Memory Lane
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Tien, who’s been up since 4am, stops for a moment, lets out a small sigh of satisfaction and wipes the sweat from her brow with the well-used towel around her neck. It’s now 7:45am on another hot, humid morning in Saigon. Business has been brisk and she’s just served her final customer of the day with a generously filled bowl of bún măng chay (vegetarian vermicelli noodles with bamboo shoots). 

Tien works seven days except for public holidays at a small sidewalk space in Binh Thanh District. She’s been making vegetarian noodles here for five years for many satisfied, loyal customers. Before that, she had a meat-based menu at another spot in Saigon. Through Nguyen Thi Mai Dung, my trusty interpreter, I ask if she switched for religious reasons.

Tien initially started manning the cart after its owner, her aunt, was struck by an illness. Tien took over the business after her aunt retired.

“I had to," she replies. "My aunt used to sell chay food here, but she got sick. I covered for her so she wouldn’t lose customers. Then I took over when she retired.”

I ask why she thinks she’s so successful. “I’ve been cooking for a long time. My aunt and my grandmother taught me their recipes. They looked after me — my mother left when I was eight years old. I’ve tried to improve, step by step, adding more dishes,” she explains.

Tien changes her menu every day. Highlights include bún riêu chay, bún bò chay and mì Quảng chay, a yellow noodles originating from central Vietnam. The price? Just VND25,000.

I ask her about the most challenging part of her job. "Watching out for the police," she says, without hesitating. "If too many customers park their bikes on the street or there are too many people sitting here, I’ll get into trouble. The police fine my customers or they fine me."

Bún măng chay makes use of vegetables, like mushrooms and bamboo shoots, to arrive at a savory broth and flavorful toppings.

She's lost count of how many times this has happened. If you do visit her stall for breakfast, and you really should, be sure to park your bike on the sidewalk further down the street so you don’t cut into her profits and add to her legal problems.

I watch Tien in action as she multi-tasks impressively. She deftly serves up her dishes: heaping noodles into bowls, sprinkling fried shallots and salt/garlic seasoning on top, then adding a ladle of vegetarian broth from her industrial-sized metal container. She manages this while also shouting instructions to her assistant (having one is a sign of her success), chatting to her customers, and, of course, keeping an eye out for cops. 

Strips of dried bamboo shoots were rehydrated by the broth.

I do a quick survey of the diners around our small plastic table — a mix of young women on their way to work and older ladies returning from the wet market nearby. “How’s your food?” I ask. “Delicious,” everyone replies, between greedy mouthfuls of noodles, mushrooms and tofu spiced with diced chili, a generous pinch of ginger and a squeeze of extra lime.

Behind our cramped seating area, an apartment’s metal gate opened narrowly, a wheelchair-bound elderly man seems to be enjoying his regular morning routine of people-watching. He gazes at us impassively while we wolf down our bún măng chay in companionable silence.

Another customer, Dung, 27, from Binh Thanh District, says she’s been coming here for breakfast for two years. “People attract people. I first passed by on my scooter, feeling curious about why there were lots of people sitting here enjoying their food,” she shares.

On the surface of the noodles is a heap of toppings, consisting of herbs, various mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

I press Tien more on why she sells out early every day: “It’s experience, but also love. I like to see my customers happy by giving them a good breakfast.” She plans to retire soon, though.

“I’m 58 years old. I‘ve been cooking and selling on the street for a long time. I want to retire at 60 so I can look after my husband and watch my favorite Korean dramas on TV,” she says.

Her kids won't take over the business, as they all work office jobs.

You can find her stall at 99 Vu Tung Street, Ward 14, Binh Thanh early every morning. Look for her blue-and-pink striped umbrella underneath the ‘Long Van’ sign. But you must be doubly quick and get there early — 7:30am at the latest. And don’t delay the visit too long. Her family’s generations-old chay cooking will not be around to enjoy for much longer.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5 if you live in Binh Thanh, 3/5 if you don't.

James is in Brexile from the UK. Saigon's sunshine, swimming pools and superb veggy food help to keep him sane in these maddening times.

Vegetarian noodles

99 Vu Tung, Ward 14, Binh Thanh

Related Articles: - Hẻm Gems: Where Chay Alter Egos of Vietnam's Everyday Soups ReignHẻm Gems: Finding Your Path at a Downtown Vegan BuffetHẻm Gems: Cô Khanh's Vegetarian Banquet and a Trip Down Memory Lane

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