When Thomas Southam and his wife Sheena came back to Vietnam for the third time late last year, they had no idea that a “strange” dish would hit them so hard that they would still be talking about it months later.
The dish, called sup cua oc heo trung bac thao in Vietnamese, is a soup cooked with crab and topped with pig brain and century egg.
While many locals enjoy the soup, the gravy dish has been known as one of the challenging tasks to foreigners when it comes to trying local foods because of its toppings.
However, it was not a challenge at all to the couple from New Zealand.
“We still talk about the pork brain in that crab soup,” Sheena wrote in an email response to Tuoi Tre News this week.
“It was spectacular!” she added.
A trip to ‘paradise’ for food lovers
In November last year, Thomas and Sheena rewound their latest trip to Vietnam through a series of four episodes published on their food-review YouTube channel Chasing a Plate.
The series featured all the “best street foods” the couple had tasted in Ho Chi Minh City, where they had spent a week discovering the local food scene.
|In this photo provided to Tuoi Tre News, Sheena Southam is having a bowl of 'pho bo' (beef noodle soup) at a stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.|
The southern metropolis was a stop in the couple’s journey across more than 30 countries over ten years which they dub a “food obsessed travel.”
“We’re all about veering from the well-trodden tourist path to hunt down local food with great stories and histories,” the Southams wrote on their website.
“We eat our way through cities to find the best renditions of a dish,” they added.
The couple did not hesitate to admit that the amount of street food in Ho Chi Minh City was “mind-boggling,” with a higher density and concentration than in any city they had been to.
“We take you on a Vietnamese street food tour in Saigon and share with you some unmissable local eats,” the Kiwi food reviewers introduced the first episode of their series Vietnam Food Videos on YouTube, referring to the former name of Ho Chi Minh City still widely used today.
“Pho bo [beef noodle soup] at a nondescript stall which has been around for over 50 years, a phenomenal grilled pork and noodle dish which easily makes our Top 5 street food experiences of the year, traditional Vietnamese desserts and Saigon’s most famous drink: Vietnamese coffee,” Thomas and Sheena listed the delicacies which they called “food gems” in one of the videos.
The couple did not only review foods that have already made a name for themselves such as pho bo, banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) but also tried out dishes which may be new to tourists like bot chien (pan fried rice flour cake), bo la lot (grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaf), bun rieu (crab noodle soup), che chuoi (banana sweet soup), banh trang cham bo (rice paper dipped in butter sauce), and more.
|In this photo provided to Tuoi Tre News, Thomas Southam is showcasing his dish of 'banh trang cham bo' (rice paper dipped in butter sauce) at a stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.|
They could even easily wash down flavors known to be challenging for foreigners like shrimp paste and crab soup topped with century egg and pig brain.
“It’s probably not everyone’s idea of a tasty meal is it? Brain isn’t Thomas’s favorite offal but he was so into this soup. It was really perfectly cooked. Thanks for watching and commenting mate, hope you enjoyed this video,” Sheena replied to a comment on her YouTube video which said “‘Nice big chunk of brain’…no thanks!”
“We're very open-minded and have quite adventurous palates,” Sheena later told Tuoi Tre News.
“Vietnam's food culture is so distinct and unique,” Thomas added.
“The abundant use of fresh herbs in particular sets it apart from other countries in the region,” he commented.
“The food is so nourishing, clean in its flavors and varied, it's not a cuisine you ever tire of.”
“If we could only choose two favorite dishes, it would have to be bun thit nuong [rice noodle topped with grilled pork and spring rolls] and com tam [broken rice topped with grilled ribs],” Thomas insisted.
|A screenshot from Chasing a Plate's Vietnam Food Videos series displays a bowl of 'bun thit nuong cha gio' (rice noodle topped with grilled pork and spring rolls).|
The atmosphere that matters
Besides the unmissable foods, the atmosphere from local dining spots has also left a deep impression on Thomas and Sheena.
In their Vietnam videos, the eaters from the southwestern Pacific Ocean were not shy to showcase their excitement watching a lady putting together their bowls of bun thit nuong from pork being grilled on a small charcoal oven right next to a crowded street, or having a glass of ca phe sua da next to an auto garage on a Saigon sidewalk.
Another impressive experience was when Thomas and Sheena tried goi du du kho bo (green papaya salad topped with dried beef organs) at a park in District 3.
After making their order at a stall on Hai Ba Trung Street, the couple sat down on the other side of the street under the shade in front of Le Van Tam Park and waited for a waiter who carried a tray full of green papaya salad portions weaving his way through the traffic to serve the food to eaters.
|In this photo provided to Tuoi Tre News, Thomas Southam is posing with his dish of 'goi du du kho bo' (green papaya salad topped with dried beef organs) at a park in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.|
Fans of the couple left a lot of comments after watching the videos on Thomas and Sheena’s channel, admitting their wish to come to Vietnam.
The joy of sitting on the sidewalk and watching life go on around their plates of food is also what makes people remember the most about Saigon, some expressed.
Sheena said she and her husband have visited Vietnam three times over the past ten years.
“Our first trip was a holiday to Hanoi and Hoi An; later we visited Hanoi again and Sa Pa and finally on our most recent trip we only had seven days in Ho Chi Minh City,” she recalled.
“We absolutely adored the city, the people and of course the food,” she added.
“We didn't want to leave, one week was not enough time.”
The couple discussed their Vietnam memories with Tuoi Tre News in a time when global travel has come to a halt owing to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
“We are desperate to return to Vietnam. We would love to film more in Ho Chi Minh City and the southern regions of the country,” the two shared.
“We’ll jump back on the road as soon as it’s safe for us and the people around us to travel again. Hopefully that's not too far away.”
|In this photo provided to Tuoi Tre News, Sheena Southam is posing with the owner of a 'bun thit nuong' stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.|