Dec 4, 2020 • 5M

Couchfish Day 169: How to start Chợ Lớn

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Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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I’m seated on a red plastic chair, on the pavement, at 6 am. My small aluminium table has a condiments holder, a strainer and a roll of toilet paper in a pale blue dispenser. Sweat is already beading up on the back of my neck, my forehead, and my arms. I haven’t even started eating yet.

Bình Tây market—pre–renovation. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The condiments include a screw top glass jar half full of chilli paste, the flecks glitter on the oily paste. There is soy, fish sauce, vinegar, pepper, a plastic tub of pickled something. A less than appealing cup of toothpicks. Wooden chopsticks stand to attention, a cluster of ceramic spoons at their base. The strainer is piled with herbs—basil, mint and other random green stuff I can’t identify. All rinsed, the water beads, collects, then runs off the leaves, dripping onto the shiny table top. Another small bowl holds lime halves.

Underfoot are chewed up pork joints, prawn tails, screwed up tissue paper, cigarette butts. When I leave, staff will wipe my table off, and all my discarded bits will rest on the pavement. Looking underneath, she’s been busy already.

Hủ tiếu Sa Đéc, in, funnily enough, Sa Đéc. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

A couple of metres away, a pyjama–clad woman is preparing by breakfast—hủ tiếu—beside a steaming stockpot. Within, a rich and sweet pork stock is on a slow simmer. Every time she lifts the lid, a cloud of steam rushes towards the sky—I sweat more watching it.

Hủ tiếu has its origins across the border in Cambodia—Khmers call the dish kuy teav. In Vietnam though, it is hủ tiếu, often hủ tiếu Nam Vang, Nam Vang being being what the Vietnamese call Phnom Penh. The signage on the woman’s cart simply reads hủ tiếu.

Invariably a meal and a half. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

She prepares my stainless bowl. First a bed of bean sprouts, then flat white noodles. Next comes the meat—a scattering of prawns, a little pork meat and liver. Then a dash of chives and diced celery.

She raises the bowl and pivots. The lid comes off the cauldron, steam billows, she dips a deep ladle in and pours the contents into my bowl which she holds, hovering above the stock. Lid back on, my bowl returns to her bench and gets a quick wipe around the rim. She sprinkles pepper and MSG over it, makes the few steps to me, and delivers it.

I squeeze in a couple of lime halves, a generous spoonful of the chilli paste concoction and a squirt of the soy. I stir and mix it up, pulling the beansprouts to the top. Then I wait for both the meal to cool and my coffee to arrive.

No bread, different noodles—so much variety in one dish. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The coffee doesn’t take long. The short glass is about two inches across and four high. At the base, a half inch of condensed milk. Atop, a tinny drip feed sits, too hot to touch. The black magic drips into the milk, shifting from jet black to chocolate to caramel in colour as it mixes with the milk.

The street stall is busy. Most of the other tables are occupied. Office workers, market vendors, xe–om drivers. There’s some chit chat but mostly eating. Each face hunched over a steaming bowl.

All around are sounds of life. I can hear, though not see, the crunching sound of a sugarcane crusher. Bikes zoom past. Bus horns in the distance. A parking attendant very busy on his whistle. Market porters speed by. Their trolleys loaded with everything from stuffed hessian sacks to fruit–laden baskets. A bike pulls up, so close I can touch it, two freshly slaughtered pics lay across the back seat. Into the market they go.

Different again. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’m a few steps from a side entrance to Bình Tây market—the biggest market in Chợ Lớn, and one of the biggest in Ho Chi Minh City. Fittingly, Chợ Lớn means “big market”.

Some travellers come to Chợ Lớn so see the markets. Others for the beautiful pagodas with their slow burning cones of incense. Others still for the cathedral with a marker on a pew noting someone who sat there was assassinated. Long streets, sometimes lined with towering trees are busy with traffic.

I’ll get to all that later in the day. The best way to start your time in Chợ Lớn however, is with a steaming bowl, a slow drip coffee, and some red plastic chairs on the pavement.

Tomorrow: How to finish Chợ Lớn