The Lunch Lady, Saigon

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The Lunch Lady is a nondescript food stall on the outskirts of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It has become a must-visit attraction in Saigon since being featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. With the advent of Google Maps, GPS technology and social media, finding the place was a breeze. I just looked up the address using the hotel’s wi-fi, turned on the GPS on my smartphone, and showed the cab driver the location on the map. No data charges were incurred (fortunately, since Globe Telecom likes overcharging exponentially for international roaming, but I digress). We did bump into some visibly lost, slightly older Caucasian tourists after our meal, and I asked if they were looking for the Lunch Lady’s. It turned out that they were, so we pointed them in the right direction. Ha! Their lack of modern navigational skills were wanting, and almost cost them the gastronomic experience of a lifetime.

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The Lunch Lady herself is a pleasant-looking woman who seriously and dutifully attends to preparing her dish for the day. She only makes one kind of soup everyday from lunchtime onwards. Don’t expect your usual pho bo (beef and rice noodle soup) or pho ga (chicken and rice noodle soup), though. Her menu is much more adventurous, and more flavorful – with Thai, Cambodian and Chinese regional influences to go with the traditional Vietnamese. It was a Thursday when we visited, and that meant only one thing: Bun Mam.

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As with many Vietnamese street vendors, a lot of the items are already precooked and prepared, ready to just be dropped into a steaming bowl of broth. Nevertheless, you are assured that everything is still made fresh, prepped from earlier in the day. The fact that a different

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I have to say that this was probably the most unique, interesting bowl of soup and noodles that I ever tasted in my life. The base was a fermented fish broth which was savory and salty without being too overpowering. She used thick, udon-like noodles instead of the flat rice noodles in pho. The toppings were a fantastic combination of roasted pork, shrimp, okra, eggplant, pineapple, lemongrass and green onions, among other ingredients, along with the usual soup garnishes of fresh bean sprouts, mint leaves and lime. Wow. This was nothing short of spectacular, though I’m sure this is not a dish for everybody. That said, I’ll go on record and say that it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten in my life.

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Aside from the soup of the day, other vendors, purportedly her relatives, offer a selection of spring rolls – fresh or fried – and drinks to go with your noodles. There are no menus nor listed prices, which is why some foreigners complain that they get charged a little more than what locals are charged. Our total bill amounted to just under VND 100,000 for two bowls, a plate of fresh spring rolls and two cans of Coke. Even assuming this was tourist price, an entire meal for one person would cost a third of what “authentic” Vietnamese restaurants here in the Philippines would charge for one bowl of pho. I would readily pay more than VND 250,000, or Php 500 (just over $10) for a bowl of the Lunch Lady’s amazing bun mam. I don’t get why these richie-rich hypocrites on holiday are complaining, spending a little more on street food before going back to their $300 hotel rooms.

I don’t know if the bowls the Lunch Lady serves on other days are as tasty, much less as unique, as her bun mam. I haven’t even seen this dish in Vietnamese restaurant menus here in the Philippines, which is sad, because we have all those ingredients available here, as well. The fact that I write this entry almost three months after our visit is making me crave this glorious dish even more.

 

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