Food & Recipes - September 10, 2022 | 05:30 am PT

Next to a flower market, a rare street-food hub blooms

An alleyway next to HCMC’s biggest flower market has become an unusual street food hub that can satisfy cravings for more than Vietnamese street delicacies.

In recent years, the alleyway has been attracting increasing numbers of food enthusiasts who zigzag their way through densely populated neighborhoods to get there.

For most people, Ho Thi Ky Street in District 10, a 15-minute drive from the downtown area, is home to a flower market that is more than a hundred years old. Many are drawn to see it at its bustling best between midnight and 2 a.m. when retailers rush back and forth with fresh produce.

People crowd into Ho Thi Ky street food hub in District 10, HCMC, June 2022. Photo by Hoang Phong

In recent years, the area has added one more feather to its cap – that of a haven for Saigon foodies. This has prompted local vendors to open food stalls in front of their houses, offering a wide variety of choices, from traditional Vietnamese dishes to Thai street food and South Korean-style treats.

Grilled skewers are served inside Ho Thi Ky street food hub. Photo by Hoang Phong

While the street food hub has existed for half a century, it did not carry the current variety. Locals used to call it the Cambodian market as the area is mainly inhabited by the Vietnamese-Cambodian community – people who have lived in Vietnam after fleeing the conflict there in the 70s.

The street food alley had its profile and popularity boosted in recent years after travel bloggers and Tiktokers shared videos of their experiences here, attracting even foreigners living in or visiting the city.

The offerings

At the right entrance leading to the alley, a stall serves banh trang nuong – a pizza of sorts with a thin rice cracker grilled over charcoal serving as the base, with toppings like eggs, dried shrimp mayonnaise and shallots.

Usually, the thin rice cracker is grilled with butter, scallions and egg before minced pork, sausage and dried shrimp are added on the top.

The dish costs VND15,000-20,000 ($0.64-0.86) a serving.

"On weekends I can sell over 200 grilled rice papers. Due to limited space, I cannot arrange tables and chairs. I can only serve takeaways," said vendor Huong as she grilled a rice paper on a charcoal fire.

The ga nuong com lam (grilled chicken with bamboo tube-rice), beef offal, grilled octopus, chen trung nuong (grilled and fried quail eggs in porcelain plates) or grilled oyster with egg and cheese are other dishes served here for just VND10,000-50,000 ($0.42-2.12).

Bowls of quail eggs added with toppings are grilled on a burning charcoal stove at a stall inside Ho Thi Ky street food hub in HCMC's District 10. Photo by Huynh Nhi

Hung, who runs a stall selling snails, said he used to work as a mason but work was not regular and income insufficient to raise his two kids. So he thought of opening a snail stall in this alley.

"Last year, as HCMC suffered its most challenging pandemic outbreak, closing business and tourism activities, my family returned home to the Mekong Delta and completely lost a source of income," he said.

"In the morning I work as a GrabBike driver and then help my wife to run the business from afternoon to midnight. On peak days during weekends we can earn around VND300,000-500,000 a day," he added.

Oc buou nhoi thit (apple snail stuffed with minced pork and wood-ear mushroom), which is steamed with lemongrass, green pepper and spicy chili, is the best-selling dish in his stall.

A plate costs VND70,000 and is served with green vegetables and a dip of ginger fish sauce.

The Ho Thi Ky food hub is unusual in that it can also satisfy cravings for Thai street food.

Goi du du (green papaya salad), chan ga ngam sa tac (chicken feet pickled with lemongrass and kumquat), Thai-style milk tea, Pad Thai and squid skewers are popular Thai street food that can be easily found here.

Since the alley is also home to the Vietnamese-Cambodian community, Cambodian specialties with a Vietnamese twist are a special offering. Dried fish, dried carabeef, num banh chok (Cambodian rice noodle soup), baked bananas and Cambodian sweet soup are popular dishes.

Huynh Thi Huoi, 74, came to Ho Chi Minh City with her family in the 1970s.

Her place stands out with truly Cambodian varieties like che thot not (jaggery sweet soup), che hot me (tamarind seed sweet soup), che bi do chung (pumpkin sweet soup), che trung (egg sweet soup), and che thap cam (mixed sweet soup).

"I love running my stall every day to serve guests with Cambodian signature dishes as a way to preserve this cultural identity," Huoi said.

Hooking foreigners

Adriana and Dylan from Sweden and Wales, founders of "2Passports 1Dream", a YouTube Channel with 746,000 subscribers, visited Vietnam last April after the country reopened its borders.

The couple enjoyed Vietnam’s street food at the Ho Thi Ky flower market for just $5 and shared a video of their experience that attracted over 132,000 views and 5,000 likes, promoting this alley among global audiences.

"Vietnam is known for its amazing foods, but how much food can we get at a street food market in the biggest city in Vietnam for only $5? We head to the lovely Ho Thi Ky flower market, which, at night, turns into a bustling street food market that has everything from hot freshly cooked dishes, to sweet desserts, and everything in-between," the couple shared.

Some tour operators based in HCMC have launched street food tours for foreign tourists. The Ho Thi Ky flower market is a main destination.

A foreign tourist strolls around Ho Thi Ky street food alley in HCMC, June 2022. Photo by Hoang Phong

It is advisable to park vehicles at the Ho Thi Ky primary school for VND5,000 to VND10,000 and walk a few steps into the market.

Unfortunately, some stalls have no tables and chairs for customers and only offer take-aways.

Things can get quite cramped in the alley as motorbikes jostle for space with street-food diners.

However, good food and the unusual setting does not deter visitors from having a good time.

Charles from the U.K. told VnExpress International: "I had a wonderful evening with my friends at the Ho Thi Ky flower market. Great! Street food in Vietnam is really cheap and amazing."

Story by Hoang Phong