In Saigon, Tommy and I each found our own reason to set out on a food pilgrimage. Seeking out delicious and unique food caused us to change our travel plans, ride into unexplored parts of the city, and wander the streets asking stranger after stranger for directions. Totally worth it.
Mine was to visit the Lunch Lady. I first saw the Lunch Lady on No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain’s food and travel tv show on the Travel Channel. In his Vietnam episode, I vividly remembered him visiting a lunch cart on the street for noodles. Sitting at a low table (the kind that would be a kids table at an American family Thanksgiving), he delighted in her noodles. On Wednesday, we set out to visit the Lunch Lady. I looked up directions online, and we marked the spot on our map. It’s a lunch cart, so it doesn’t have a sign, but she’s on the same corner every day. After walking around all morning in the 100 degree heat, we were sweaty and hungry. Instead of walking, we hopped on the back of three motorbikes. (The simplest way to get around Saigon is a motorbike taxi, which is just a guy with a motorbike and an extra helmet. You negotiate a price, and hop on the back. He zips through thousands of other motorbikes and delivers you where you want to go. They are everywhere, and kind of fun if a bit terrifying.)
Our motorbike drivers spoke very little English, but they were able to get us to the intersection we requested. We tried to ask them where to find the Lunch Lady, but all we got was confused looks. We set off to find her on our own, and we knew we were close. We started to wander down a narrow tree lined street with a food cart and low tables on every corner. We questioned ourselves – how would we find her? But then all the people started to point us toward her…they knew where white people like us were trying to go – the Lunch Lady! We got directions that explained exactly where to go (in Vietnamese – body language really does communicate a great deal) from another lady working a competing food cart. As we rounded another curve, I saw her. I recognized her from the show – traditional Vietnamese hat, round face, big smile. She gestured us to a table and we sat down.
The Lunch Lady makes one, sometimes two kinds of soup every day. No ordering is required — you just have what she’s made. The broth cooks in a huge pot all morning, and she buys all the ingredients fresh every morning. From her tiny cart, she produces some of the most amazing soup I’ve ever eaten. Wednesday features Hu tieu Nam Vang. I did a bit of research – “it is a Cambodian-Chinese concoction that the Vietnamese borrowed and made their own; it consists of a sweet pork broth and a number of odds and ends like quail eggs, innards and liver. Nam Vang is the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh.” (thanks to gastronomy). What I knew while I was eating it – it was amazingly good. We accompanied our soup with a cold lemon soda, very very sweet and a nice complement to the spicy, complex soup.
My food pilgrimage actually kept us in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for an extra day. Our first day in the city, we found an ice cream shop called Fanny’s that was recommended by our guidebook. Like Singapore and the Philippines, Saigon is brutally hot (90-95 with high humidity every day), so ice cream was something we sought out. We’d had some really terrible ice cream in India, then had a brief respite with the Blizzard in Singapore before going back to terrible desserts in the Philippines. I didn’t have high hopes, but Lonely Planet really recommended Fanny’s.
So we found it. Their menu was really cool – they had 30+ flavors of ice cream and 14 flavors of sorbet. They featured “Cool Creations” – like the bicycle made of ice cream and waffle cone, the Banana Hanoi (a Vietnamese banana split, complete with silly hat) and other interesting ice cream sculptures.
What the three of us settled on was the Fondue Sampler – for $10, we got a pot of hot chocolate sauce, strawberries, watermelon chunks, pineapple, some waffle cone triangles (like chips) and our choice of 14 flavors from their menu. Because I like drafts, we had a draft to choose the 14 flavors. We had all been wanting to try something durian-flavored, and soursop is supposed to be a local favorite, so we thought we’d get those two and then each pick 4 others. I chose mint chocolate, chili chocolate (chocolate ice cream with a hint of chili aftertaste), dark chocolate, and avocado (apparently their most popular flavor). But they were out of avocado (probably because it’s so popular) and I settled for caramel. They were also out of durian (damn!) so we asked the waitress to suggest something. It turned out to be the only bad flavor in the bunch – rum raisin. Emily and Anna’s choices – chocolate, cinnamon, passion fruit, stracciatella, ginger, mango, banana and Bailey’s.
The fondue plate was so successful that Anna and I made it back to Fanny’s the next day for some Cool Creations. And that’s when I read about the Fanny’s First Friday All-you-can-eat Ice Cream Buffet! It was Tuesday and we’d only planned to stay in Ho Chi Minh for 3 days, max. We’d certainly be leaving before Friday night – the bus left at 7, but ice cream buffet didn’t start until 6:30. But I really, really wanted to see just how much ice cream would really be “All I could eat”.
We solved the dilemma when we looked at the train schedule. We could take an 11pm train on Friday and still get to Hoi An (our next destination) by 2pm the next day. And we wouldn’t have to sleep on a bus – always a dicey proposition. Give me an overnight train over a bus any day. So we ended up staying only 1 extra day in Saigon, rather than 2, and we were ready for ice cream madness!
We spent our extra day on a tour of the Mekong delta, where we met a nice Brit named Sebastian. Sebastian had been living and working in Hanoi for the previous 6 months – and when I started talking about the ice-cream buffet, he got excited. He didn’t realize there was a Fanny in Saigon – but apparently they exist in Hanoi and he’d attended several of the First Friday events there. I asked him his record – he’d eaten 22 scoops of ice cream at one of the buffets. And so I had a goal. 23 scoops. This would be complicated, slightly, by the fact that I’d be going straight from the buffet to a 15 hour train ride. Not exactly the best time to fill your stomach with a gallon of ice cream. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. By God, Fanny had challenged me to eat all I could.
Emily didn’t feel like eating a ton of ice cream, so when the time came Anna and I set out alone for the dessert Mecca. We arrived at 6:33, but already we were too late for a table. The place was packed. We paid our $5 each (did I mention it was only $5?!) and walked in. Immediately, we were shocked by the sheer volume of deliciousness. In the front, tables were set up with the same chocolate fondue sauce, watermelon, strawberries and pineapple. Next to that, vats of crumbled Oreo’s and Nilla Wafers, chocolate sprinkles and bottles of chocolate and caramel syrup. Across the room, waitresses were setting out ice cream bowls, waffle cones and waffle bowls as fast as they could. A crepe stand was set in the middle of the room and a line was forming of people getting fresh, hot crepes to cover with ice cream.
And against the back wall – a standard ice cream block with all the Fanny flavors (except avocado and durian, still sold out) and 4 girls standing there, scooping as fast as possible. You walked up, yelled out the flavors you wanted and they’d scoop it into your bowl or cone. I started out slow – one scoop of chili chocolate on a waffle cone. But I quickly realized that I’d have to step it up (and cut out the cones) if I wanted to get to 23 scoops. My next bowl, I went for dark chocolate, mint chocolate chip, vanilla, passion fruit and caramel. I was in heaven.
The longer we stayed, the crazier the scene at Fanny’s got. We thought it was crowded when we arrived – every table was full. But after 20 minutes, every chair was full (there were chairs placed all around the sides of the room for extra seating). There were numerous pregnant Vietnamese women who were taking full advantage of the buffet (and the chocolate syrup, it looked like). After 40 minutes, the staff couldn’t wash bowls fast enough and everyone started using the giant pile of plastic plates (not the ideal dish for ice cream).
After 50 minutes, I’d eaten 22 scoops (at least 10 of them dark chocolate – the girl scooping the dark chocolate just started scooping when she saw me get out of my chair and had it ready for me when I stuck my bowl out), 2 cones, 1 waffle bowl, probably 8 oz. of chocolate syrup and at least a pound of sprinkles. Anna did pretty well – a bunch of fruit and 8 scoops of ice cream. I had to take a break and gear up for the 23rd scoop – I didn’t really want it, but I’d set a goal for myself and I was going to get there. I finished the night by taking one scoop of dark chocolate on a cone to go.
I had a terrible stomach ache for 2 days, most of it spent on the train. I swear I woke up on the train sweating chocolate, though that is unconfirmed. I couldn’t eat dinner that night (obviously) and didn’t end up having breakfast or lunch the next day, either. I still put on roughly 5 pounds, but it was worth it. If only we were going to be in Hanoi for the first friday in June.