I’m not really sure how to translate “bình dân” into English. I’ve heard some people translate it as “popular,” but it also implies affordable for the working class. Food and drink for the common man. In my head, “bình” is part of “bình thường”; regular or normal, and “dân” literally means person or people. I like my coffee bình dân, I like my breakfast bình dân, I like my lunch bình dân and I like to drink beer in a place that can be described as bình dân. Why? No bullshit. There are no menus, no stupid ordering flow, no discretely signalling waiters if you need something. It is food and drink done right for people who don’t have time for all the other crap.
When you go to a bình dân place, you sit down at the first available seat you can find. Most bình dân places are out on the street, so if you’re lucky there will be some protection from the sun and/or rain, and maybe a fan. You want aircon? Go downtown and waste your money on a place completely overstaffed and with a badly translated English menu.
Sit down and someone will ask you what you want. If they don’t, tell someone what you want. If they’re busy, start shouting what you want until you’re acknowledged. There is no coming over to politely present a menu for you to look over and then standing idly around while you make a decision. These people are trying to make money, damnit, and the faster they can get you served, the faster another customer can take your place.
So you’ve got your food but need some chili or fish sauce? Start asking immediately. No one is there? Start shouting again. You aren’t expected to eat unless your food is exactly the way you want it. Is there a manager that needs consulted? Nope. They just get things out to you fast and with no bullshit.
Same with the bill. If you’ve had a few things to eat when you’re out for some beers with friends, you may get someone’s messy arithmetic scribbled on a scrap of paper. For breakfast, lunch and coffee though, the staff will just remember what you had, how much everything is and do the addition in their head. Usually the people telling you the bill will hold the money too, so there’s no waiting for your change either. You pay and you’re out.
This is the beauty of bình dân and why it appeals to me. There is no pretentiousness and everyone knows it. You get your beer, or your coffee or your food quick and efficiently and the business owners don’t waste money on overhead. It’s one of the greatest things about Vietnam.
I get really tired of reading about people who consider themselves to be “foodies” in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, especially when they brag about how they found this awesome food cart that was only 50 feet from their hotel in the backpacker area. Come on.
Before I moved in Saigon in June, 2010, I lived in Long Xuyen, An Giang, for nearly five years. I still look on my time there with fondness and try to get back to visit friends and family any time there’s a holiday.
On the occasion of Tết, I was able to spend eight days back in Long Xuyen. I met tons of old friends and went back to eat at all of the shops and stalls where I used to eat. And I also confirmed my theory that the food in Saigon is crap. Yes, sorry to disappoint all of you supposed “foodies” who continue to roam the streets of Saigon pouncing upon everything and calling it wonderful.
I’m not sure what exactly makes food in Saigon sub-par, but one theory that I have is that the meats and vegetables used simply aren’t as fresh as they are in the Mekong Delta. Perhaps the dust and pollution makes the food here less tasty, or worse, has affected the cooks to the point where they can’t taste as well.
Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the best dishes and meals that I had in An Giang during the Tet holiday.
My mother-in-law’s xá xíu, or char siu in English.
Unlike the bright red variants found in restaurants, this is much more traditional. It is marinated for several hours and grilled with charcoal, which gives the meat a delicious, smoky flavor. It’s served with đồ chua (pickled carrots and turnips) and everything is dipped in soy sauce with chilies. Absolutely delicious. I think I could eat a couple pounds of this stuff.
Bột Chiên, a delicious street side snack.
Bột chiên is as close to a comfort snack food that I can find in Long Xuyên. I always order everything they have, and they fry it up with an egg and serve it with a distinct sauce and grated, pickled papaya. Nothing in Saigon even holds a candle to the bột chiên in Long Xuyên.
Bò Chiên Nước Mắm at Quán Bình Dân
Beef doused in fish sauce and then grilled. Does it get any simpler? Does it get any better? As much as I love the beef, I am also crazy about grilling up okra covered in sate sauce and then dipping it in fermented tofu. Awesome. And yes, still have not found anything this good in Saigon.
Cháo Trắng Với Cá Cơm và Đu Đủ
I love this stuff. Rice porridge with beans and coconut milk, served with tiny pickled fish and pickled, grated papaya. Simple, cheap and delicious. I certainly have not found the savoriness of this dish in Saigon. The places I’ve had it here are very bland.
Bò né at Quán Tùng
Affectionately known by some as the breakfast of champions, this is quite the way to start your day. Beef, macaroni, onions and an egg all served in a sizzling skillet (cow-shaped, to boot) with a side of lettuce and tomato, just to make you feel a bit less guilty. You eat it with a baguette as well.
Bò né on Nguyễn Thái Học Street
This is yet another variant of bò né in the town of Long Xuyên. Note that at this particular place, there are no noodles and there is a generous dollop of pate. Another excellent breakfast. And I have never, ever found bò né in Saigon that comes close to the goodness of bò né in Long Xuyên.
Hủ Tiếu Mỹ Tho
“What is hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho?” the so-called Vietnamese foodies say while scratching their heads. It ain’t hủ tiếu Nam Vang (i.e. it doesn’t have shrimp or quail eggs) and it’s a lot better, in my opinion. There’s lots of meat. And then a little more. Very filling for less than a dollar a bowl. And the owner still remembered me, even though I hadn’t been there in over a year.
Many people might not agree with me about this one. But I have to say, don’t knock it before you try it. “Cháo” is rice porridge and “lòng” is inside. Basically, it’s rice porridge with a lot of pig offal in it. I like it with lots of chili peppers and a kind of fried bread called “bánh củ cải.” Put it all together and it’s delicious. I am also sentimental about this dish because when I was saving money for the move to Saigon, I ate dinner here almost every night. When you’re saving money, dinner for less than 50 cents makes sense.
Hủ Tiếu Khô at the Swimming Pool Cafe
Why order your hủ tiếu dry, you may ask? I don’t have a good explanation. But it’s just delicious. The pork is savory, the noodles have just the right amount of tenderness and it makes one hell of a breakfast. A good buddy introduced me to this wonderful dish years ago, and for two months, I lived across the street from this cafe. An amazing, and unique, dish.
Grandma’s food in Tân Châu
On the third day of Tết, Ngân and I went to visit her grandmother in Tân Châu, not far from the Cambodia border. I found out later that her grandmother has been involved in making and selling food for her whole life, and it surely showed. The flavors in these dishes absolutely came alive. There was thịt kho, a traditional Tết dish, mì xào giòn (crispy noodles) and tender chicken stewed in herbs. The food was so good I found myself not being able to stop eating. Possibly the best food that I had in An Giang on this trip.
If you’re looking to experience the real flavors of Vietnam, get out of the city and get away from the tourist path where all of the flavors have been dumbed down and all of the meat and vegetables have lost their crispness due to refrigeration. Personally, I think the dishes I listed are some of the best in the country. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.