Published on Tuesday, 27 March 2018 16:37
Written by Mervin Lee. Photos by Mervin Lee.
A stroll down the start of Soi Samsen 13 was utterly uninteresting at the beginning: it first appeared to be a typical Thai soi (alley) filled with SUVs and shuttered shops on a typical Sunday morning. However, as I ventured deeper inside the bustling hub, a glimmer of hope showed up in the form of a lady in a yellow áo dài.
I approached her and began to recite in my mind the few phrases of broken Thai that I had rehearsed the night before.
– Mee khrai… (Is there anyone?)
– Em tìm người biết Tiếng Việt phải không? (Are you looking for someone who speaks Vietnamese?)
After two and a half seconds, the ice was broken. Chị Dong’s accent is distinctly Central Vietnamese in origin. A short chat revealed her habit of replacing words such as cái ni (this one) and bây giờ (now) with nee and tawn nee; their convenient Thai counterparts. She whipped out her iPad and showed me pictures of her recent holiday in Hue. And why is she wearing an áo dài? I just had to ask. She exclaimed: “Because chi Dong loves Vietnam!”
The chả chiên (fried sausage) she made looked completely legit and fresh. I took a bite and it was apparent that this was, indeed, real Vietnamese food.
“Hey! It tastes like Vietnam,” I said. “Đúng rồi em [you’re right]. It’s Vietnamese food,” Dong replied.
“I felt so curious when I saw the chả,” Anh Hai from Nghe An Province said with a smile. He and his friends work in Bangkok and attend mass at the nearby St. Francis Xavier Church every Sunday morning. “Try this! I make bánh gai too!” Chi Dong cheerfully offered us her homemade sweet treat.
“With mung bean filling?” I asked, slightly skeptical. “Of course em, it’s Vietnamese food.” She informed me that several vendors often set up their stall behind the churche to serve the hungry post-mass crowd. “Look for Pee Pet béo béo, she makes the best bánh cuốn in Baan Yuan.”
“Finish laeow,” Pee Pet said, while making the last batch of bánh cuốn she could offer today. She revealed that her mother, Pee Pin, was Vietnamese. My mission to try everything could not possibly end so prematurely.
Pee Pin and her family have been selling bánh xèo and bánh cuốn for most of their lives.
The taste was certainly reminiscent of bánh cuốn in Vietnam, but the mixed fish sauce lacked the kick I was expecting.
“Bánh canh g… how do you say gai [chicken] in Vietnamese my dear?” Madam Somsri asked.
Madam Somsri’s guay jub yuan has become a fixture for locals looking for a quick Vietnamese food fix. “Guay jub” is a Teochew-Thai word for wide, flat rice noodles, while “yuan” refers to people who originated from central Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty. It was refreshing: a cross between congee and bánh canh, with a thick chicken-based broth that was quite different from the typical bánh canh that one would find on the streets of Saigon.
Francis Vivat was elated when he discovered my passion for all things Vietnamese. His flawless English, thanks to his career with Thai Airways, was a blessing for me too.
He explained: “You see the statue in front of the church? That’s Jesus blessing the blind; it’s in the bible. King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) saw it while touring Europe and loved it so much he brought it back with him. One of the Catholics saw it and said, ‘This is our god! We would like to bring it back to our village!’ That’s how it came here.”
Chị Be, who runs a stall selling an assortment of Vietnamese snacks, passed some groceries to Sister Noon, who spoke Vietnamese with a distinctly southern accent. “I live in Vegas now,” Sister Noon explained. “But I still visit very often.”
Pa Ke Restaurant was the last, and perhaps most crucial stop, of my pilgrimage. Cô Quy proudly declared that it’s been 60 years since they started their stall outside the church. Now, Quy – fourth-generation Vietnamese-Thai – runs the family’s successful eatery. “Pa Ke means Ba Ke… my mother’s name,” Quy explained.
Her restaurant, which also functions as a house, was recently renovated. “We still speak Vietnamese daily,” she proudly shared with me.
Nem neung, a direct transliteration of the Vietnamese nem nướng, is no doubt the most celebrated of all classic Thai-Vietnamese dishes. It resembles a tasty cross between nem lụi and barbecued meatballs. “We used to make bún chả but the Thais [don’t] seem to like mixing vegetables and meat the same way we Vietnamese do,” cô Quy added.
She shared: “So we now serve bì bún. Well, they have no choice but to eat the vegetables now.” The dish is a scrumptious mix of meat, bún, pigskin, vegetables, crushed peanuts and sweetened fish sauce.
And here we have it, the best of both worlds: a refreshing salad with chả lụa and Thai-style dressing. Who could resist a Thai salad with one of the tastiest things in Asia: chả lụa?
The Vietnamese Market happens every Sunday morning at around 6pm to 10am. Head down to Soi Mitrakham between Soi Samsen 11 and 13 early in the day if you want to sample delicious Thai-Vietnamese dishes.