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Chowing down in Cholon

Duncan Forgan tours the culinary labyrinth of Saigon’s famous Chinatown.

From as far back as its 17th-century origins as a Chinese refugee settlement, Cholon—Saigon’s Chinatown—retains the ornate pagodas, shops and restaurants bearing Chinese characters that betray the area’s long link with the Middle Kingdom. Its culinary identity, meanwhile, also remains highly Sinicized with a profusion of roasted meat stores, stalls and restaurants proffering classic Chinese dishes. The catch: a whopping lack of infrastructure makes it a challenge to explore. But anyone seeking a comprehensive overview of food in Vietnam’s southern hub will want to check out its bustling street life and array of dining options. Here we offer guidance to navigating the mayhem and finding the best spots.

Chè Tàu Hà Ký

Photo by Chè Tàu Hà Ký

The hideous traffic outside on Châu Văn Liêm makes this one of Saigon’s more unlikely spots for a romantic tryst. But, the reputation the 26-year-old outlet has for serving up some of the city’s best chè (sweet soup) means it is perennially packed with sweet-toothed couples (or, perhaps more accurately, sweet-toothed girls and their accommodating consorts). From an initial six varieties, the restaurant now serves nearly 40, and the owner prides herself on her use of rock sugar rather than (more unhealthy) syrup. Intriguing options include a Guangzhou-style soup made with phuc linh, a species of mushroom that grows on pine roots, and a delicious tofu and almond brew. For many love-struck Saigonese, however, the version of choice features egg as the highlight ingredient, boiled and then poached in tea mixed with sugar and Chinese medicinal herbs. The egg whites turn brown and become stiffer as they absorb the tea—resulting in a concoction whose devotees believe promotes liver and lung health, as well as vitality.

Mì Thiêu Ký

Known colloquially as Tu Ky, this alleyway institution that’s been dishing up dumplings for more than 70 years is a legend among Vietnamese yet virtually unknown to Westerners. Tucked away near the gigantic Cho Ray Hospital, the stall is an oasis compared to the maelstrom of honking horns and suicidal traffic maneuvers that surround it. Songbirds in cages swing next to the flower-bedecked doors of shophouses as the proprietors expertly shape hoành thánh (wonton dumplings) from mounds of minced shrimp and pork. These are dunked in a peppery broth drawn from a cauldronandservedupwithfreshly made thin, yellow noodles and crunchy bok choy, and garnished with scallions. The noodles are the star attraction but the stall also does a mean crispy wonton and tender siu mai (pork dumplings).

Hai Ký Mì Gia

If there’s one dish that perfectly encapsulates the Hoa (Chinese/ Vietnamese) culinary style it is mì vit tiêm. Deceptively simple—in essence it involves a large duck leg braised in Chinese spices, some yellow egg noodles, mustard greens and a rich, dark broth flavoredwiththemedicinalherbsand spices from the duck—the best versions of the dish easily transcend the sum of its parts. That’s certainly the case at this family-run institution. Outside in the alley portion of the restaurant, one of the two portly brothers who preside over the proceedings lovingly tends to the noodles and, when satisfied of their perfection, transfers them into the bowl along with the broth and the mustard greens. The coup de grâce, however, is the duck leg: a meaty miracle that delights all the way from the first bite of its darkly glazed skin to the last morsel to fall off the bone.