Saigon's Special Drinks
A man is not a camel, so it's lucky that Saigon is one city where an oasis is easily found
For the most part, Vietnam is a hot, humid and very tropical country. You’ll sweat a lot when you’re here and this is why it’s absolutely essential to keep your body hydrated. Water will do the trick just nicely - it’s the most perfect drink for us and you’ll find it for sale almost everywhere beside a selection of Coke, Fanta and other familiar fizzy stuff.
Perhaps you’d fancy a fresh coconut instead? Or a glass of world famous ice tea or coffee? While these would also do the job, other more unique and arguably tastier thirst quenchers aren’t exactly hard to come by here. Firstly, before you pop open that bottle of 7up, I’d love to introduce you to a few of the local and extra special brews, always cool and cheap: priced between 5 - 10,000VND a glass/bottle. (USD $0.20-$0.45)
Found at the entry to every second alley, or so it seems, it’s the best all natural energy drink that you’ll find. Keep an eye out for the small alloy cart with a large, iconic and galleon-like wheel that hangs off the side. Once the wheel starts spinning, the attendant will carefully feed the rollers with short lengths of cut and pre-peeled sugar cane. After crushing every last drop of juice out of the sugar cane stick, only dry pulp is left at the end. The seller may then add lime, extra sugar, salt or anything else he or she believes to be a good match for the juice on that particular day. Served in a glass heaped with ice, it’s super revitalizing as well as being deliciously cheap and readily available - particularly in the southern cities.
“Nha đam” –
What can’t Aloe Vera do? It’s used in makeup, wet-tissues, moisturizers and soaps, shaving cream, hair products and countless other goods in our consumer world. For a long time it’s also been widely used in traditional medicine and as a natural remedy for sunburn and other skin diseases or irritations. In some parts of the world it’s even eaten, or drank, and a cool bottle of Vietnamese “Nha dam” (Aloe vera drink) shouldn’t be missed. Being a much healthier alternative to other sugary drinks it has an added bonus of being super tasty too! Clear in color, it’s taste is subtly sweet, while the chewy cubes of floating aloe help make it a firm favorite of travellers to Vietnam.
“Sâm lạnh” –
One of the more special drinks you’ll come across in Vietnam, there are several varieties but the most common types sold on the streets are “Bong Cuc”, which is prepared from daisy flowers. Other varieties include “Linh Chi” which is made from mushrooms and “Nuoc Dang” which translates to ‘bitter drink’. They all belong to the “Sam Lanh” family and while they can look a little like dirty tap water, they can have some of the sweetest, smokiest, and most bitter flavors you'll taste creating a very unique drop! Generally known to be good for your health, it’s usually served in a bottle from the icy depths of a sidewalk seller’s chiller box though at some busy roadside stalls, it’ll be served to you in a glass filled with ice.
This tasty number comes with the help from one of man’s best natural resources. Coconuts! Always served fresh to order in a glass heaped with ice, as is the norm in these parts, “Dua Tac” is a firm favorite among locals. Not as easily found as the other drinks mentioned, places that sell this are usually quite busy and doing very good trade. Coconut water, shavings of fresh coconut, sugar and lime are combined to create a sweet, sour and very filling drink. Many foreigners who come to Vietnam love coconut water but the thought of drinking an entire fresh one is a bit too much - “Dua Tac” is precisely what you need to look for and the best place is just outside alley 256 on Pasteur St, District 3. (Click here for a map)
For any of you that have ruled out vegetable juice in the past – wait! Don’t deny the super healthy drink until you’ve had a glass of “Rau Ma”. The name directly translates to ‘mother’s vegetable’ but in English would refer to it as “Pennywort Juice”. Commonly mixed with either sweet green bean paste or coconut water, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (no pun intended) but it’s worth a try - it’ll surely open up your taste buds to a new kind of flavor.
This drink happens to be a little bit more pricy than the previous drinks listed, but it’s worth the extra few dong! ‘Pomelo Juice’ is not exactly a rarity here but it’s always hard to find when you want it! Made from the biggest fruit in the citrus family, it can be beautifully bitter though a little sugar can be added for a sweeter taste. Keep an eye out for the large red chiller in local markets or stacked outside the occasional roadside shop front. For the record and to progress your Vietnamese language, the word “ép” means juice.
A footnote for all of the cautious travellers out there: Ice in Vietnam is safe to drink. Ignore what your doctor says back home - in regards to this anyhow. In several years I’ve yet to know anyone, be it local or foreign, who have experienced any kind of health problems due to either drinking or eating the ice here. So… do as the locals do and drink your drinks with as much cold ice as you can fit in the glass!