Eating your way out of Pham Ngu Lao

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  Mr. Lam manages to serve slow-cooked instant noodles all night, every night, on the worst corner in town

When they are not working, most of Ho Chi Minh City's young expats keep werewolf hours.

They rise long after the wet markets have dried and head into Pham Ngu Lao with nothing but coffee in their bellies.

They join friends for cheap beer and don't think about food until Baba's Kitchen has closed and the neighborhood reveals itself as a veritable food desert.

As they scrounge for a good place to eat, they face an endless horizon of terrible tourist traps baited with "Texas Ribs," "Fajitas" and other horrors.

Pounded by pitches from preadolescent marijuana touts and the cacophony of a hundred café loudspeakers, many of these same individuals come to hate the whole neighborhood and swear never to return.

They probably shouldn't. But not because it doesn't have plenty of great late night eats.

The mi xao master

At about 10 p.m. every day, just as things have gotten desperate, Mr. Lam shows up for work in the same blousy white shirt and passes into a sort of Zen state amid the stupefying thunder of the Crazy Buffalo. The nightclub's awful din gets compounded by the neighborhood's constant parade of Australian hen parties, sunburned American backpackers, and strung-out Brits.

But Mr. Lam seems to hardly notice any of it; he and his wife raised their son in an apartment up the stairs from the cart, which she mans all afternoon. 

The sticker menu on the front of his tin noodle cart goes on and on. But you need only consider one item: mi xao bo (instant noodles, stir fried with beef).

With his hunched shoulders squared over the single gas burner, he works his magic in slow, deliberate movements"”browning a wad of beef in garlic and onions, then tossing in sweet field greens and crisp Chinese cabbage. His method involves little oil and calls only for a spoonful of MSG, a puff of pepper and a squirt of soy sauce. The plate of chewy noodles possesses a salty richness that defibrillates the taste buds.

Lam must have pulled a thousand Western losers back from the brink of despair. After 14 years he has no plans to stop. Lately, however, he has taken to sleeping at his parents' place in District 3.

The first food cart down from the Crazy Buffalo, on the corner of De Tham and Bui Vien. A bowl goes for VND25,000 and he serves until 4 a.m.

Blood broth

Very little about this 40-year-old pho shop makes sense.

Sacks of rice destined for poor families line the walls along with Buddhist photos, songs and videos. Few would expect such piety to yield something called nuoc tiet (blood broth).

But, in Saigon's grand tradition of contradictions that no one seems to notice, the devout proprietor at Pho Thanh Canh has achieved new highs in meat eating by setting aside a special pot of broth for blanching bo tai (raw beef).

The resulting "blood broth" comes in a little bowl that costs nearly the same as an entire bowl of noodles.

Some like to savor it alone, one spoonful at a time. However, pure, uncut nuoc tiet isn't for everyone.

Imagine a bowl of filet mignon-flavored pudding. If it doesn't appeal to you, then imagine a shot of super-soup that can turn a decent bowl of pho into a transcendent one. Add a poached egg into that mix and you have gotten one step closer to understanding the sound of one hand clapping.

55 Nguyen Cu Trinh. VND30,000 for a bowl of broth. Closes 2-3 a.m. only to reopen at 6 a.m.

Pho Quynh

Somehow, in its myopic, hungover write-up of Saigon's food offerings, the Lonely Planet managed to catch the merits of the bo kho (beef stew) served all night at Pho Quynh.

Perhaps their food writer numbered among the many backpackers who use the open tin tables as a bus stop or one of the revelers from T&R tavern who count on it as a kind of recovery room.

Either way, it must have been late in the evening when he or she stared down into the bowl of stewed beef cubes and carrot and recognized something beautiful.

While Pho Quynh is open all night, it does frequently run out of bread. Without a crisp banh mi, this bird just doesn't fly.

323 Pham Ngu Lao. VND45,000 for a bowl of bo kho banh mi. Never closes.

Pig bones at dawn

The streets have cleared, the tsotchke vendors have stopped vending and everyone has scurried into Go2 Bar for a few more regrettable hours of consciousness.

Your head hurts and the sun is threatening to peak over the buildings any moment, spoiling your mood.

But salvation looms around the corner at Tan Hai Van; just follow Nguyen Trai to one of the city's only 24-hour restaurants.

During most of the night Tung stays packed with working girls and big shots and their mistresses. The sidewalk tables out front make for some of the most amazing displays of cosmetic surgery this Socialist Republic has to offer.

The restaurant's high-volume apparently calls for buckets of pork broth. As a result, they deal in the ultimate cure for a hard night out: xi quach, a bowl of marrowy pork bones still covered in impossibly tender morsels of meat, tendon and fat.

Waiters bring them to you in a small bowl of broth, dressed in chopped scallions.

Find yourself a nice quiet corner to gnaw away all the goodness before the sun comes up and you turn back into a human.

162 Nguyen Trai Street. VND80,000 per bowl. This place never closes.

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