Saigon is not always about the high-rise buildings, fancy cars or luxurious menus. It is the most ordinary and familiar things that keep this city wandering in my mind. In there, images of alleys play an essential part. Saigon has always been an alley valley because of its tremendous network of small streets, all of which predate the writer (and most of the readers) of this article.
What makes Saigon alleys even more special and interesting is a new cultural phenomenon that has grown up; alley snacking.
The Diagonal Alleys of Snacks
Many alleys in Saigon are now filled with various snacks, from bun rieu (crab noodles) and ha cao (mini dumplings) to nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) and trai cay (fresh fruit). You can find almost any traditional Saigon snack in these alleys, and even more — alleys are the cradle of snack inventions such as deep-fried cheese sticks wrapped in rice flake or seasoned crunchy chicken skin.
Things function simply in the alleys. You enter, pick your favourite snacks, pay and find yourself a corner. If you don’t want to stay, just carry the snacks with you and keep wandering and exploring the city. The owners and staff do not cling to your arms and annoy you with their insistence. They respect your space. You can find yourself slurping away at noodles at a bun rieu cart, ordering some spring rolls and serving yourself some fruit or che for dessert from the nearby stands. Most of the alley dishes are original and familiar Vietnamese snacks designed to be easy on the digestion.
Besides, only alley snacking can show you how open and generous Saigonese are. In the rushed times when customers keep coming and going, the owners of the stand will just hand you your order and state without any hesitation: “It’s okay. You can pay on your way out.”
Alleys Don’t Care
Alley snackers tend to be middle or lower-middle class, but this does not mean there is any discrimination taking place. I am friendly with many people from rich families who know these alleys like the backs of their hands. They embrace the snacks and the alleys as a part of their childhood that has not faded away.
Perhaps it is the small size of the alleys that makes for an egalitarian atmosphere — alley snacking has never cared about the thickness of anyone’s wallet. Or perhaps it is the inexpensive furniture that induces people to share the space, or the lack of music that leaves nothing but everyone’s laughter. Or maybe it is because alley snacking requires no trendy gear, but casual and comfortable clothes to make it easier to squeeze yourself through the lines of other snackers.
A budget of VND50,000 is not much, and you need just that to alley-snack and fill your belly. The first VND20,000 can go on a serving of banh duc (plain rice flan), another VND15,000 for a handful pack of xoi ga (sticky rice with chicken) and an additional VND8,000 for a black Vietnamese-style coffee. Voila, you are as professional as a native Saigonese who knows much more about food in Saigon than just pho.
Here are some good alleys to go a-snacking:
Alley 76, Hai Ba Trung, Q1
Stalls sell from 2pm to 6pm, this alley is famous for xoi ga and fried sweet potato. Prices range from VND15,000 to VND20,000.
Alley 177, Ly Tu Trong, Q1
From 4pm to 11pm, famous for pha lau and mixed fruit salad. Prices go from VND15,000 to VND50,000.
Alley 51, Cao Thang, Q3
Runs from 3pm to 11pm and is famous for steamed dumplings and chao long. Prices cost between VND8,000 and VND40,000.