A few months ago, a friend introduced us to a cavernous vegan cafeteria with a modest brick exterior tucked into a coil of power lines: Com Chay Thuyen Vien. Located at 11-13 Nguyen Van Dau in Binh Thanh District and immortalized by Andrew X. Pham in his noteworthy Catfish and Mandala, it quickly became a regular neighborhood spot for an expeditious and inexpensive feed.
Their wide selection of vegan-ized traditional foods is astounding, plus the tiny, attached shop has tons of strange meat alternatives and fresh pastries to have a look at.
Lunchtime there is packed with a healthy cross-section of Saigonese residents and is the best time to go as most of the dishes are prepared early. (Vietnamese productivity is usually centered around the cool morning as the remainder of the day is better left to frivolity, chatter, and naps.) After getting a cold, uninspiring, and stale dinner there a few weeks ago, we decided to keep it as a strictly daytime spot.
We generally peruse the overflowing counter tops to see if any of the daily specials fit our fancy and then supplement our picks with some items from the menu. The menus can be obtained from any of the helpful, yet unseasonably pale and undernourished waitresses (leave a tip!). On our most recent visit (and the one we photographed) we stuck to the pre-made, counter-top specials.
The "pork" and "chicken" products below look a little bit too real for my queasy stomach. Notice the protruding plant stalks moonlighting as bones.
A creature of habit, I went for my usual slice of tofu marinated in lemon grass and ginger, along with a side of vegetables and rice. The crispy spring rolls (cha gio) are also a necessity if they are relatively fresh.
Gavin went for a simple fried noodle with veggies and imitation barbecue pork, but then decided to be intrepid and adventurous and came back to our rickety metal table with some sort of mystery dish. But we thought, hey, if it's vegan, it can't be vomit-inducing, right? Wrong! It was an incredibly true imitation of some hard, stinky, dark organ. This offal was awful! Slimy, gritty texture with the gamy taste of the barnyard thrown in for good measure.
Dipping all of our assortments in tasty nuoc mam, we laughed off the mistake and enjoyed our meal. There is better vegetarian meals to be had in this city, but if you awake in the mid-morning with a hankering for rice and veggies and are somewhere in the vicinity I recommend it. It's also good for mid-sized groups as there is more room to spread out here then in your typical com chay.
Afterwards, go check out some unassuming, yet ornate pagodas! We found two just a stones' throw away (continuing up Nguyen Van Dau). Hai Quang Pagoda has a bright, inviting, latticed facade with a massive jack-fruit tree in its front courtyard. Glorious!
The other, Linh Chau, was tiny and typically ensnared in power lines, but embellished nicely - fearsome golden warriors and stone lions straddling the entrance, Chinese characters emblazoned across the front, and colorful flags and lanterns everywhere.