I wanted to visit The Lunch Lady in Saigon’s District 1 after reading about Anthony Bourdain’s visit as well as a number of other positive articles on the consistency and quality of the soup served each day.
The Lunch Lady (Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh) has a routine of serving a different noodle soup each day. On Monday she serves Bun Thai, on Tuesday Bun Moc, and so on, with seven different soups served over the course of a week.
I chose a Thursday to visit the The Lunch Lady, as this is the day she serves Bun Mam, a rich soup with a fermented fish sauce base and packed with different seafoods and meats.
I will state from the start of this post that my experience at The Lunch Lady left me disappointed, not so much with the quality of the food, but with the introduction of an unnecessary side serving of cynicism.
Being a somewhat frequent visitor to Vietnam, I’m fully aware that there are minor scams, such as tourists being overcharged, and this is especially so along the tourist trail. So when I was sitting in the taxi heading back to my apartment after visiting The Lunch Lady, I didn’t know whether I was more disappointed in the antics of The Lunch Lady or more disappointed in myself for being disappointed!
Does that make sense?
I’ll try to put the experience in some context as there were a few hiccups on either side of my lunch there, which didn’t help my overall mood.
The day had started with the news that the person I was meeting for lunch had to cancel at the last minute. Not a big deal as such; I eat most meals by myself for this blog, but it happened to be with a local Instagram foodie (if that’s a thing?) who had been giving me some good food tips and whom I’d been looking forward to meeting.
The second minor thing that happened was that the taxi driver couldn’t find The Lunch Lady’s stall. After driving around the general area for a while, I decided to get out of the taxi and walk the back streets until I found it.
Again, not a big deal, but as I was there in the rainy season, it was very hot and humid, and it didn’t take long before my shirt was soaked with sweat.
After rounding a corner, I saw a large outdoor restaurant setup and a big sign for The Lunch Lady.
A young chap was waving his arms, beckoning me over to a table positioned beneath a large tree with a thick canopy of leaves, which turned into a nice little respite from the heat.
As I was sitting down and trying to wedge my backside into the small red plastic chair (not designed for me), and before I could even utter the words Anthony Bourdain’s Food Trail, two young kids appeared out of nowhere and placed three small dishes on the table. Before I had time to look up and explain that I hadn’t actually ordered anything, the kids had disappeared, with no one else offering any eye contact. Cheeky buggers!
Vietnam has its share of these minor scams, especially on the tourist trail, and The Lunch Lady is certainly on that. Even at that point I knew it wasn’t going to be about the money. I was just a bit annoyed at the practised routine, and rather than making a scene, I was going to have to accept the additional food.
For the record, they’d delivered two summer rolls (goi cuon) with a nutty hoisin sauce, three deep fried spring rolls (cha gio) with a plain chili sauce, and two deep fried prawns with the same chili sauce. Given that the soup of the day was a rich concoction, and there was only one of me, these cheeky additions simply meant too much food. I did try a bit of each dish though, and they all tasted fine.
Bun Mam at The Lunch Lady
I wasn’t long before the Bun Mam turned up. In fact, I hadn’t even tried the entrees yet, hence the photo above with all four dishes intact!
The Bun Mam was, of course, the reason I was here, and I enjoyed it immensely.
The dish is made up of a dark coloured broth with a base of fermented fish paste, which isn’t as pungent as you might imagine. Added to the broth is a combination of prawns, squid, pork, and eggplant, with the usual assortment of greens and other herbs. Overall, the soup is far more delicate and refined than it reads (or looks in the photos), and it has a distinct, sweet aftertaste. I enjoyed it even more with a few chillies mixed through.
I wasn’t quite finished with the soup when the rain began. Luckily, as I was seated under the tree with the thick canopy, I was protected for the time being. Other diners in the open, however, were quickly re-seated in the last available undercover spots.
As the rain continued, it began to penetrate the leaves and became too heavy for me to sit there any longer, so I gathered my things and looked around for some help in re-seating myself. I then caught the eye of one of the older chaps, and instead of pointing me to a new table, he just handed me the bill!
At that particular moment I decided to cut my losses, pay the bill ($5), and head off.
The rain started to get even heavier, so I reached into my bag for my umbrella, and yep, you guessed it, I’d forgotten it. I headed for cover under some of the nearby shopfront canopies, hoping to hail a taxi from there. No taxis in sight, and already soaked from the short walk, I trudged along the sidewalk, heading for a large intersection where there was a better chance of finding that elusive taxi, which I did after five more minutes.
Sitting in the back of the taxi, soaked through and dripping all over the back seat, all I could think was, What the heck just happened there?
Of course, the experience could have been completely different if I had been there with a local. I doubt the delivery of unordered food would have occurred, as there were no entrees being delivered in this manner to the tables of the locals.
Would I have cared about it if hadn’t rained and I had been able to finish in my own time? If I’d remembered my umbrella? Who knows.
One thing for sure: I don’t know why The Lunch Lady needs to cynically deliver extra food to hapless tourists like me. The stall was busy that day, and I assume the business is doing well.
I’ll add this to the rich little tapestry of experiences gained while visiting Vietnam.
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