No luxurious furniture. No soft music or subtle lighting. No nothing. Just the simple, no-frills hu tieu go stand on the corner of the street. Just the tac tac sound of kids roaming the streets, spoons tapping on a piece of bamboo, searching for customers. And then the delivery of that steaming bowl of Chinese noodle soup with pork, right to your door.
That is hu tieu go, once an iconic, everyday feature of Saigon. But when was the last time you spotted a hu tieu stand around town? And when was the last time you heard that tapping sound?
From Banh Mi to Hu Tieu
Hu tieu stands featured heavily in my childhood: the sound, the taste, the stand-to-door delivery. I miss those nights staying up late with my mum, slurping away at the steamy noodles while saving the best slices of meat until last.
Yet the origin of hu tieu go (go = tapping) remains a mystery. One story is that it came to Saigon with the Khmer Chinese when they fled Cambodia in the late 1970s. This form of hu tieu is called hu tieu nam vang. But no-one’s quite sure; the hu tieu nam vang in Phnom Penh tastes completely different to its version in Vietnam. Another oddity is that most stand owners come from Quang Ngai in Central Vietnam. Yet go to Quang Ngai and hu tieu is just not on the menu.
What I do remember was that if banh mi thit ruled Saigon street food during the day, then at night it was the hu tieu stands. A typical stand would carry a simple coal stove, a big pot of boiling broth, dried noodles, slices of meat and other additional ingredients. There are other signature street dishes that remind me of Old Saigon, but hu tieu go was always at the top of the list with its reasonable price, rich nutrition value and tempting taste. With this dish also come stories, the kind of stories shared between people in the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of late night Saigon.
With my memories firmly in place, I decided to search out what hu tieu stands remain in this city. I was also determined to find out more about a recent bout of bad press that may have accelerated the disappearance of this dish.
The first time the media noted the demise of hu tieu go was in 2013, when unknown online sources accused stand owners of cooking the broth from rats and worms. The reports caused outrage, and even though the authorities came out in public to defend the stand owners, the rumours remained. Business was already suffering a downturn, but this only made it worse.
As one stand owner on Le Hong Phong told me, “It is not expensive to cook broth from vegetables and pork ribs. So, why do we have to waste time trapping the rats? It does not make sense at all.”
On my journey around the city I ignored Districts 1 and 3 — where the stands are all but non-existent — and instead went to the city’s more suburban areas like Districts 2, 11 and Tan Phu.
I hit gold in a number of places, but when I asked around to find the oldest and the largest group of hu tieu stand owners on Ba Thang Hai in District 10, I left empty-handed — they had moved on several months ago, finishing up their business with the hu tieu stands after years of earning a livelihood on the streets.
So I went over to District 2.
The Last Stand?
“How badly did the rat scandal injure your business?” I asked one stand owner on Nguyen Tuyen. “Did you lose many customers?”
“Lose customers?” she replied. “No, it didn’t cause me any trouble. My place is still as crowded as before. This business has been around for 28 years and everyone knows the quality of my food. Do I look like somebody who traps rats and digs up worms?”
We both burst out laughing.
Her smile warmed up the atmosphere of my mainly fruitless evening. This lady is one of only a few people left in Saigon who has a hopeful vision for the future of the humble hu tieu stand.
“Can I have hu tieu dac biet?” I asked. “But please don’t put pi…”
She cut my line as I was ordering. No gio heo.
“Pig leg, you want no pig leg, but extra quail eggs. Got it!”
The last time I feasted at this spot was months ago. It had been so long that I couldn’t even remember the taste. Yet the stand owner remembered me. And she even remembered my order.
Hu Tieu on the Street
To dine like a king on the Saigon sidewalk, check out these streets:
Nguyen Tuyen, Q2
VND15,000 to VND30,000 a bowl
Le Hong Phong, Q10
VND15,000 to VND30,000 a bowl
Vinh Vien, Q11
VND16,000 and VND20,000 a bowl