Eat your life away: The hazards of Saigon's mouth-watering street food

By Chi Nhan, Thanh Nien News

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A woman fries rice flour cakes on her shoulder pole ovens on a sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Diep Duc Minh A woman fries rice flour cakes on her shoulder pole ovens on a sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Diep Duc Minh


It's lunch time and street food vendors begin to lay out plastic tables and stools along a sidewalk near one of the city's biggest universities in District 5. 
A vendor sells grilled pork in baguette for VND10,000, or less than 50 US cents, and with rice noodles for VND15,000.
The pork has an eye-catching red color, but the vendor cannot say for sure why it looks that way. She says she buys ground meat that has been seasoned and colored from a supplier and only has to grill it on charcoal. 
The meat is very cheap, she says, adding that somehow the seller manages to cut the normal market price by half. And that is more than good enough for her. 
“I don’t know where the meat really comes from, but I’ve been selling well, so I just keep buying,” she said.
Street food as an aspect of Ho Chi Minh City's culture has amazed many tourists. It has provided a stable source of income as well as affordable meals to many people in the city.
But to be able to enjoy street food these days, most of the time diners have to ignore glaring health risks that plague the whole process, from how ingredients are farmed and sourced to how meals are cooked and served. 
“You get what you pay for,” said Huong, who offers very cheap lunches with rice for less than $1 on Truong Dinh Street.
She said she has to make the meals really affordable to low-income workers, so the matter of health and hygiene is a luxury that is out of the question.
“I buy anything that’s cheap. But I have tried to make everything tasty.”
A recent investigation by Thanh Nien found many street food vendors also use dubious flavor enhancers to mimic the desirable taste of meat and vegetables. 
Due to the widespread use of these artificial substances, it is very hard to know whether a pho noodle soup vendor has used real ingredients in cooking. 
No official inspections into such enhancers have been conducted, but a new report from the city’s health department said that cheap flavor enhancers and color agents are likely made with industrial chemicals that contain heavy metals like lead, which can cause cancer.
A makeshift restaurant owner who charges VND15,000 for a portion of stir-fried noodles with beef also said she does not know the origins of her ingredients.
She did not think it matters either.
“Customers will buy it when it’s cheap,” she said.
Hiep, a diner at a street restaurant, told Thanh Nien: “You need to stop thinking if it's safe or if it will cause you diarrhea. Then you will be able swallow it.”
“After all, many of us just eat to survive and get by,” he said, sitting near a bag where the restaurant dumped leftovers into and a small dish washing bowl filled with murky water.

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