We arrive at the no-name shop at 2:45 pm. The place gets packed the minute it opens at 3, our friend Van has told us. So packed that its one item -- banh canh cua, thick round tapioca-starch noodles in a rich meaty broth with crab and pork -- sells out in an hour and a half.
The doors are closed and there's no sign of life within. It's the first workday after a four-day national holiday -- perhaps the shop's proprietors are taking the week off. Van's been here before, she knows the owners, so she slips down the alley running alongside the shop house to the back, where they live. And returns smiling.
"They're open today," she reports. "They're almost ready."
The double doors swing open. Inside, a smiling, freckled middle-aged woman wearing Vietnamese-style matching flowered top and pants beckons us in just as a wheeled cart bearing stacks of red plastic stools comes trundling down the alley. The woman begins placing stools in two rows, one against each wall of the shop house.
"This shop is sooo clean," Van says.
It is. The word "spotless" really doesn't do it justice. You could eat off the floor. You could eat off any of the plastic stools. I dare say you could eat out of the hands of any of the four sisters running the place. Having just come off hours spent preparing their specialty, they're all cool as cucumbers. Not a drop of sweat, not a strand of hair out of place, not a fingernail that's not been scrubbed.
Almost as soon as the first stool is set on the floor customers begin arriving. We all sit down, facing each other across the room, and wait. Each customer has a plastic stool cum table placed in front of him or her, and next to that, a pink plastic basin. There will be no refuse left on the floor here. We're sure of it.
Another cart is rolled down the alley, bearing a red plastic bin (the sisters like red and pink, apparently) filled with banh canh finishings: chopped chilies and scallions, lime wedges, fish sauce, a plastic shaker of white pepper. The sisters neatly lay them out on towels bleached a blinding white, next to a stack of bowls, another of saucers, and still another of shiny stainless steel ladles.
"They have enough bowls for the whole service," Van tells us. "They want to each bowl to be clean, so they wash them all after they're closed."
Saucers of dipping sauce are assembled: fish sauce, chilies, a dash of white pepper. By now the room is full of bodies and suffused with an air of expectation but no one grumbles, no one complains about being pressed for time. No one talks either, unless in hushed tones. The sisters smile and laugh and joke with their regulars but it's all subdued.
They don't hurry. They move deliberately. After finishing with the dipping sauce one of the sisters places the saucers on a stainless steel tray and walks up and down the room, pausing in front of each customer to lay one on his or her plastic stool-table.
The elder sister -- the cook, we're told -- glides down the alley bearing a pan piled with meaty pork hocks stained a rich orange. They've been cooked in the banh canh, which owes its lovely crimson color to annatto seeds.
Finally, at 3:15, another cart appears in the alley. This one supports two massive vats. At the front of the shop portable burners are lighted and the banh canh is heated. A sister passes out glasses of tra da (iced tea). The older one begins assembling orders.
For us it's banh canh with a hock but sans crab because the crustacean isn't shelled and there's nowhere in the shop to wash up. We notice that everyone else in the room orders similarly. Crab claws, we soon find out, are popular with take-out customers, who will carry their banh canh back to home or office where they feel free to make a mess.
As each customer is served there is less and less talking. It's a very, very good banh canh. The soup, having taken on an ever so slight viscosity from the starch in the noodles, has body. It tastes of pork and seafood (the crab claws are cooked in the soup), with enough chili heat to get the nose running. The hock is exceptional; even though its lent flavor to the soup it's still rich and meaty tasting, and tender enough to slide off the bone.
Everyone eats slowly, leaning over occasionally to spit piecea of bone into their pink plastic basin. (More than anything else about this shop it is this that astonishes us -- that not a single customer drops a tissue or spits a bone anywhere but into their little plastic basins.)
Some customers order a second round. A crowd has gathered outside but there's no pushing, no jumping queue. When a customer finishes and gets up to leave one of the sisters moves in to clear their bowl, saucer, and glass and wipe the plastic stool-table with a snowy white towel. Only then does the next customer come in and take a seat.
This little shop is the anti-Saigon. There's order, there's peace, there's a striking amount of courtesy, and there's a wonderful air of comraderie among customers who look at each other with knowing, "we've got a secret" glances.
We've never seen street food vendors anywhere accorded as much respect (not fear, but respect) as these ladies are by the folks who flock to their shop.
By the time we leave at 3:40pm, the banh canh vat is half empty.
No-name banh canh stall/shop, 12C Nguyen Phi Khanh (near corner of Dinh Tien Hoang). 3pm-4:30pm daily. Be there when they open. VND20,000 / bowl without crab claws.