It was hot. Hot and humid just like day before and the day before that. I was traipsing around the touristy part of Saigon (also known as District 1) with my mom and with my sister Diana who had flown in from Beijing for the weekend. We were spending the day playing tourists.
After walking all morning in the heat visiting Reunification Palace (it was closed), the War Remnants Museum (depressing on so many levles), and Ben Thanh market (hot), we were sweaty and tired – it was time to find an air-conditioned tea or coffee shop to rest our feet and cool down.
As we neared the Notre Dame Cathedral we spotted a Coffee Bean. Ice Latte! San Pellegrino! Air Conditioning! Maybe even free Wi-Fi! Chairs! Here we come!
We were one block away from a much needed rest when suddenly our attention was drawn to a man, crouched on the street corner, lighting coals over a small well-used tin bucket, and fanning them with a bright green fan.
Alongside him, wearing the traditional conical hat (I’ve been dying to write that phrase – conical hat – yay!) and covered from neck to toe in a black and white horizontal stripey outfit, was a lady perched on a stool with clear plastic boxes of neatly arranged ingredients atop a red plastic tub. And quail eggs. And rice paper wrappers.
We were soo00o close to air-conditioned space (you can just make out the Coffee Bean in the top left corner of the photo above) but we were willing to release a few more buckets of sweat to find out what this couple was selling. And why is that man not hot and sweaty wearing jeans and along-sleeve shirt???
Since Diana and I speak no Vietnamese (other than “thank you” and even that I’m not sure I pronounce properly), we asked our mom to chat up the couple about what they were selling so that the two of us could prolong our picture taking.
Mom translated that they were selling some sort of grilled rice paper roll. She had me at grilled. Still, it was important to find out how much it would cost in case they jack the price up or something.
20,000 VND, Mom translated.
I quickly did the math in my head (scary if you know me nowadays as Excel has killed my math skills). It went something like this: Let’s seeeeeee: 20,000 VND equals US$1 …so… 20,000VND equals – HOLY MOLY – 50 cents!?!*
We’ll take two!
Actually, the lady made us buy two claiming that they had just set up shop and it wasn’t economical for them to burn the coals for just one item – what the heck – we weren’t going to argue over 50 cents.
The man with the tin bucket came closer and I watched the lady spread a mixture of minced pork, dried shrimp, and chopped scallions over a sheet of bánh tráng (aka rice paper wrapper). The bánh tráng she used resembled the ones we use at home in the States and in Dubai (not the thin pancake-like ones in this post).
I wonder if I could make my own bánh tráng taco at home (one day, when I own a grill…).
Next, she cracked a quail egg on top and swirled the egg around with a spoon to break up the egg and mix it all up with the rest of the ingredients.
I think the egg adds taste value as well as helps the ingredients stick to the rice paper and possibly to wet the bánh tráng a little bit so that it will cook properly on the grill.
She placed the bánh tráng on a grate on top of the tin bucket while the man strategically fanned away at the grill. Soon, the steam and heat began to crisp up the rice paper wrapper.
I was so fascinated by this that in addition to taking photos of the whole process, I pulled out my iPhone and began shooting a video as well. Multitasking at its best. (Actually, no, multitasking at its best would be photographing, filming, AND eating what I was filming. Next time, next time…)
Lastly, hot sauce in a squeezy bottle was squirted on top and a heap of butter was added.
At the ideal moment when the bánh tráng was pliable enough to fold in half and not break apart, she folded the crisped up rice paper wrapper in half and placed it in a folded-up magazine page which served as the take-out wrapper.
Voilà – rice paper taco!
I Googled this later and found out that these “tacos” are called Bánh Tráng Nuong**.
As I sit in my Dubai apartment writing this post and thinking back on the taste of these rice paper tacos, I cannot bring any taste memory to mind except crackly. Good crackly, though.
However, in my iPhone’s food notes, which I’m glad I started, I had written down “Spicy salty crispy. Not a fan of too much butter.” Other than the excessive use of butter I remember really liking these “tacos.”
Here is the video I took of the whole process:
That night, when we were back at Auntie’s house, Diana and I excitedly showed her our photos and told her about our bánh tráng taco experience. She gave us an amused smile and told us that bánh tráng nuong was actually a popular snack food for the students that lived and studied around the area. Lucky them!
So as we unknowingly munched on student sustenance, we got back on track to our original mission: ice cold drinks, A/C, chairs, Wi-Fi!
*20,000VND actually equals US$1, as one of my commenters pointed out, not 50 cents. I struggled with the conversion througout my trip as simple as it seemed.
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Banh Trang Nuong: Han Thuyen Street, Saigon, District 1.
Here is a Google Map of where we encountered the street vendor by Notre Dame Cathedral:
View Bánh Tráng Nuong – Rice Paper “Tacos” in a larger map