Tap toeing into the sunset

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A woman sells noodle soup from her vending cart on Tran Quoc Thao Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Dang Hanh

Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.

These special sounds have been banished from downtown Ho Chi Minh City by unfounded rumors and hyped up fears of a lack of hygiene, but street food aficionados wistfully say they would have been a landmark on the city's culinary map if they had stayed.

The sound of two bamboo sticks being struck together was once more welcome than the ice-cream vendor's signature tune blaring from a loudspeaker on a hot summer day, not to mention far less annoying.

The tapping sound late into the evening or night meant that a noodle soup cart was around to satisfy cravings for an after dinner snack, or dinner itself.

It's not very clear where or when the night snack first made its presence felt, but many vendors are from the poor central province of Quang Ngai who first came to the city at the start of the Doi moi (Renovation) period in the late eighties.

The migrants could not afford to open their own shops and in order to let people know that their little vending cart was around, the chef needed someone, usually a little boy, to walk around the neighborhood tapping two bamboo sticks. The tapping boy later served as the delivery boy as well.

The soup snack thus came to be known as hủ tiếu gõ (tap noodle soup).

Ho Chi Minh City is famous for many kinds of noodle soups, and if the Nam Vang (Phnom Penh) noodle soup with shrimp and pork is a luxury item found mostly in restaurants, hủ tiếu gõ is perhaps the most common one served for the common man right on the street.

Originally, a bowl of tap noodle soup was not the main meal, as mentioned earlier, it was a supplement, an end-of-the-day comfort after all shops and restaurants had closed.

The migrants from Quang Ngai likely chose hủ tiếu instead of other varieties because the raw material for it, rice glass noodles, was easier to store than those used for pho or vermicelli. The glass noodles were dry and could be kept for many days without getting spoilt and having to be thrown away.

Many writers and food critics list the cheap soup among the most recommended dishes for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City, given its simplicity and bohemian spirit.

Some vendors sell the soup until midnight and beyond, and in some areas, this has not been a safe vocation for the tapping boys or the vendor, having to run the gauntlet of drug addicts and members of criminal gangs who would have to be served for free.

One man, who was a tapping boy more than ten years ago, has since become a hairdresser. He says he left the job after his vendor grandmother, who came from Quang Ngai, died of old age.

A lot of changes have happened to the mostly mobile tap noodles business over the last decade.

Then, for just VND2,000, you would get a bowl of noodles, some slices of beef pie, pork and pig skin, plus some chives and mung bean sprouts.

A bowl now costs six or seven times more, but that is understandable, given inflationary pressures. It still remains a common man's soup, and has moved from the city to the outskirts, mostly around universities and industrial zones in Thu Duc District, serving students and factory workers.

The bamboo taps that announced the availability of a midnight snack, a beloved sound for the hungry, and music to the ears of many poor, migrant people in the city, have gone silent, muted by the inexorable push of the IT revolution.

"One just needs to pick up the phone to order food now," one wistful resident remarked.

But the tapping sound is not the only thing that the popular snack has lost. It has also suffered severe damage to its reputation, and vendors are an aggrieved lot.

A government campaign against food poisoning made this dish a prime target several years ago.

An urban legend which went viral at the time said that a robber, while fleeing, had thrown a gold necklace into a pot of hủ tiếu gõ .

When the police emptied the pot for the necklace, they found lots of tiny worms at the bottom, which were then explained as having been used as a cheap material for cooking the broth.

Many other such legends developed quickly including one saying the vendors used rats for the broth, which is why they had to add chives to conceal the smell.

Such stories made headlines and subsequent investigations showed no dubious ingredients in the soup, but vendors say this official clearing of their name has not undone the damage caused.

In fact, going along with the growing Chinese-toxic association, some people now suspect the vendors are adding toxic Chinese chemicals, said Hai, who has operated a tap noodle vending cart for ten years now at an industrial zone in Tan Binh District.

Hai said he and his wife wake up every day at 3 a.m. to buy cheap pig bones from wholesale markets to make the broth. They get to sleep at 10 a.m. and push their cart around on the streets from 4 p.m. until 11 p.m.

The vendor said he has been around long enough to win regular customers. He sells around 150 bowls a day, with some customers having two or three bowls, and earns around VND250,000, enough for the couple to afford to bring their two children over from their hometown in Quang Ngai and send them to school in the city.

But even Hai's noodle cart does not deploy the tapping that the dish is named after.

"People just call me on my cell phone."

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