Served by the Lunch Lady
Noodling ... Nguyen Thi Thanh, aka Lunch Lady, in action. Photo: Robert Upe
With no address but a powerful appetite, Robert Upe searches for a celebrity street vendor.
In a city of almost 10 million people and seven million motorbikes I hail a taxi, show the driver a piece of paper on which I've scrawled "Lunch Lady", mouth the words and then rub my stomach, thinking this will somehow seal the translation.
He nods and takes me to her faster than a hungry person can slurp a bowl of pho. Motorbikes buzz around our old cab as it rattles along the boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City, past French colonial buildings and famous wartime hotels such as the Rex and the Majestic, where enjoyment still comes at their rooftop bars with an icy-cold 333 beer at sundown.
On the way, we pass the busy Ben Thanh Market, where haggling is as intense as the traffic and where almost every tourist seems to make a beeline for a bargain.
We pass the War Remnants Museum, previously (and provocatively) known as the Museum of American War Crimes. There are tanks, helicopters and fighter planes outside, but the exhibits inside are more confronting than the machines of war. Photographs and descriptions in the three-storey museum pull no punches in condemning American troops for the My Lai massacre and the use of napalm and Agent Orange at a time when this city was called Saigon, before the communist Vietnamese rolled in one afternoon in 1975.
As the taxi heads to quieter side roads and into alleys, the traffic lets up and the whiff of humanity takes over. It hangs strong in the heat of closely packed neighbourhoods and drifts through the open car window. Overhead, washing is strung along concrete balconies and electrical wires sag in massive jumbles, worse than any fishing-line tangle I've ever caused.
As we crawl along looking for the "Lunch Lady" a motorbike stops kerbside next to us, carrying a steel cage of dogs so tightly packed they can't move a paw. The dogs, according to a tour guide I consult later, are bound for the dinner table at city restaurants.
There's just 60,000 dong ($2.75) on the meter when I get dropped off but I would have paid much more to find the "Lunch Lady", real name Nguyen Thi Thanh. She's making thick noodle soup while seated under a shady tree, just as she was portrayed in Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations television program years ago.
Since then, Madame Thanh has become a celebrity street vendor, preparing a set soup each day with fresh market produce. There are mainly locals at her 16 baby-size plastic tables and chairs but a handful of large tourists also grapple with the furniture.
When Bourdain finds her in his show, he describes the scene as "a rare quiet corner in the middle of a noisy chaotic city ... a shady square in what seems like an enchanted neighbourhood where every day something magic happens ... this is a broth that the gods were suckled on".
There are no menus and no English is spoken. Within moments of being greeted with a smile by Madame Thanh, a plate of three freshly made rice-paper rolls of prawns, sprouts and pork is automatically served, accompanied by peanut dipping sauce. Before they are gone, the broth of Bourdain's dreams appears.
If you go on a Saturday, you'll know Madame Thanh is making banh canh, a salty dish that mixes meat and noodles; on Thursdays it's bun mam with pork, prawns, eggplant and pineapple. I'm here on a Tuesday and it's meant to be bun moc: vermicelli noodles, shallots and spicy meat.
Instead, I'm surprised with a broth of unshelled prawns, meat that can't be identified and perfect noodles. The juice dribbles on to my T-shirt and the prawn shelling makes for sticky hands. I brace for a hit of chilli but surprisingly, the dish lacks fire. Just as well, as the humidity is already sending beads of sweat rolling down my cheeks.
The verdict? I don't know what I'm eating but I finish the lot. It's good, not remarkable, but the obsession to find the "Lunch Lady" has been satisfied.
On the way home I catch a xe om, a motorbike taxi. It gets off to a wobbly start, literally. Too much broth upsetting the equilibrium, I'd say.
Vietnam Airlines has a fare to Ho Chi Minh City from Sydney and Melbourne (about 9hr) for about $1250 low-season return, including tax; see vietnamairlines.com.
Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
The Lunch Lady is at 23 Hoang Sa Street, District 1. Spring rolls and broth cost 35,000 dong ($1.60).
Nha Hang Ngon serves inexpensive and hygienic street food in an atmospheric garden setting. 160 Pasteur Street.
Temple Club, in a stylish colonial villa, serves classic Vietnamese dishes. 29 Ton That Thiep Street.
Ngon Restaurant is chaotic, clean and recommended by locals. 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street.
Banh Xeo 46A is the place to try the Vietnamese savoury pancakes called banh xeo. 46A Dinh Cong Trang Street.
When hailing a taxi, rely on a reputable company, such as Vinasun and Mai Linh. Beware of scam companies with fast-running meters and fast-talking drivers. Lonely Planet warns that many of the scam companies call themselves by names similar to the reputable brands. Xe om motorbike taxis are popular and provide helmets, which are compulsory.