Every single thing I’ve eaten in Saigon has been delicious. Seriously, there have been no average meals, not even any quite nice meals. They’ve all been transporting and wonderful and I want to blog all of them. I’ve a pile-up of notes and photos that I can’t possibly post quickly enough. So I am going to skip to the end, to our last meal in Vietnam, which was a fitting end to a truly wonderful trip. And never fear, at home I’m going to catch up on all those other memorable meals, and gradually post about the restaurants, the markets and the mysterious purchases…but for now, I can’t wait any longer to tell you about the unexpected pleasures of Vietnamese snail soup!
I had had Bún Ôc Thanh Hai on my “Things To Do: Urgent” list for Saigon, but for some strange reason, I could never persuade Mr Lemur that now was the moment for snails. I kept telling him that several trustworthy sources had written great things about it, but weirdly he was unpersuaded. We postponed it day after day until we only had our final day in town left. And then something wonderful happened: I saw on Facebook that a good friend from Iowa was at the airport in Cedar Rapids, leaving for Ho Chi Minh City. ZOMG! I replied quickly, letting her know that we were in Saigon, but worried that she wouldn’t get the message if she had no internet when she arrived. Several hours of modern communication hilarity ensued, with email, Facebook, this blog, cell phones and Skype all being called into use to establish contact. Finally we got in touch and arranged to have lunch on her first day, our last one. But…I still really wanted to go to the snail restaurant. Could Awesome Photographer M be persuaded to leap into Vietnamese food hardcore on her first day? Mr Lemur sagely recommended that I not lead with the snails. It’s a highly recommended local cafe, I said. They’re known for this one dish but it’s a full-service restaurant, I’m sure you can have something else if you don’t fancy it. Happily, she was in.
So off we went to Bún Ôc Thanh Hai. Snail soup is a northern specialty and the restaurant was started by a woman from northern Vietnam. But the snails she features are to be seen in all of the country’s rice fields, where they form a second harvest of sorts and are eaten up and down Vietnam as part of the country’s waste-nothing ethos. We’ve seen them in the Mekong rice paddies; little bobbles on the surface of the water. People tend to be ok with snails when doused in enough garlic butter to make you forget their origin, but I could see how these giant rice paddy creatures in soup might be offputting. Moreover, the restaurant is notoriously hard to find, which added to my worries about dragging the newly arrived APM down alleys looking for questionable food. Happily, she was completely up for the project and we had a blast exploring a non-touristed part of the city. And in the end, the place was easy enough to find. Yes, it is down an alley that is itself a turn off another alley, but perhaps by this point we were inured to the ways of Saigon’s streets and it all made perfect sense. The restaurant is a delightful open-fronted cafeteria…with no English menu.
Everywhere we’ve eaten has either had an English-language menu or has been a point and eat kind of place. But here there’s just a list of ten or so dishes on a poster on the wall, the only one of which I recognised in Vietnamese was the signature snail soup, bun oc rieu cua. Oops-ee! I felt like I’d conducted a bit of a bait-and-switch on Mr Lemur and APM but they seemed resigned to their fates as we ordered three snail soups. They arrived with even more than the usual Vietnamese side-dish fanfare.
One plate was heaped with the wonderful local mix of shredded banana flower and shredded morning glory along with beansprouts. Another was piled with herbs, including mint, Asian basil and perilla. Further dishes contained whole chilies, limes, nuoc cham and vinegar.
The soup iself is delicious, made with a rich crab and pork broth and filled with noodles, whole snails, tomatoes, and light crab roe clouds floating on top. It sounds challenging but in fact it is straightforwardly lovely. You add in fresh herbs and crunchy vegetables on top (and, in my case, a good spoonful of the dark red chopped and fermented chilies on the table) and you are in Viet food heaven. Mr Lemur and APM seemed to have forgiven me when something else arrived at the table: a heaping plate of stuffed giant snails! We looked at each other in confusion. Had we inadvertently ordered more food?
I swear I didn’t ask for these, but everyone else in the restaurant was eating them and I think the owner decided that the Loud White People needed to try them. My eating companions looked sceptical at first but once we tried them we were glad she sent them over. Inside the shells wasn’t whole monster snails but snail meat chopped up with pork, lemongrass and pepper. In fact, they tasted a bit like a Vietnamese version of Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, or of meatloaf. Snail loaf, if you will. They were completely addictive and soon the Loud White People had eaten them all up. It was the perfect final meal in Vietnam: tasty, surprising, fresh, a little spicy and like nothing I’d ever eaten before. Thanks Saigon, it’s been amazing…
Bún Ôc Thanh Hai, 14/12 Ky Dong Street, District 3, Saigon. Basically, walk down Ky Dong St till you find number 14. Then turn down the alley that’s close by, and walk down it till a spur goes off to the right. Take that right hand turn and voilà, you’ll be there.