Sunday, 18/02/2024 08:00

Sampling Sa Đéc: My local dish of the year

By Alex Reeves – @afreeves23

Like many others at this time of year, I have a hometown to visit, family to attend to, and memories to share and be made. The main difference is that my home is 12,800km away from Hà Nội and while I might stop and think for a moment, there’s so much delicious food to be written about. 

Contemplating the end of this Lunar New Year, reflecting on the culinary delights I’ve had the pleasure of indulging in, I consider which dish I enjoyed most that I didn’t share with our readers.

It doesn’t take me long to settle on a clear winner. The standout meal of the year that I’m yet to cover was found in Hồ Chí Minh City. Having just visited the much celebrated and Michelin-starred monolith ‘AnAn’ only the previous evening, I needed something different, unusual and vibrant to contend with last night’s most welcome assault on the taste buds. Step forward ‘Dì Năm Sa Đéc’.

Double trouble: Hủ tiếu Sa Đéc. It’s almost impossible to choose between these two classics. — VNS Photo Alex Reeves

Sa Đéc is the provincial capital of Đồng Tháp in the Mekong Delta that hasn’t quite made the must-visit section of The Lonely Planet guide. It would be fair to say that most of our non-national readers aren’t familiar with it, and even our local readers are somewhat unlikely to have visited. However, as the well-travelled know, that by no means diminishes its potential as a rare jewel in Việt Nam’s humble yet glittering cultural crown. 

I am reliably informed it’s a culturally rich city with an almost nostalgic, agricultural feel. A renowned flower village, an accompanying annual festival and many surrounding areas of great natural beauty while also serving as the setting of 1992’s The Lover and the true story which inspired the film. Yet, it’s the food that has spread furthest, with restaurants across the south adorned with the city’s name as a badge of pride.

Opened in 1988, Dì Năm Sa Đéc is a testament to the culinary heritage of Sa Đéc. For over three decades, this family-owned gem has been serving up the city’s distinctive flavours, offering a taste of the Mekong Delta in the heart of southern Việt Nam. The aesthetic is simple yet endearing, with a wood-heavy interior, some uneven table legs and faded photos of a bygone era left to instil further the feeling of nostalgia and the food as a priority. Style over substance is not a concern here and the food is left to do the talking. 

Sweet, spicy, and herbal bánh tằm bì – these are the flavour combinations not so often found in and around Hà Nội, — VNS Photo Alex Reeves

The menu centres around two main dishes, both strong favourites of their city of origin and regularly mentioned within the names of fellow eateries across the city, all keen to showcase the comfort foods of Sa Đéc.

The first is hủ tiếu Sa Đéc, a local dish served dry with broth on the side or as a classic noodle soup. The bowl, dry or otherwise, sets itself aside from more common Vietnamese takes with egg noodles at its heart. They sit alongside succulent shrimp, tender pork slices and a careful balance of herbs that need minimal additional seasoning. It’s simple but out of the ordinary, textured and light, the menu offers various toppings to satisfy all cravings and curiosities.  

The second dish, the focus of my curiosity when I first sought out this spot and dragged my confused friends along was my newfound Vietnamese dish of the year, bánh tằm bì. Again, the noodles are a main player here, thick, soft rice noodles are entirely different to anything I’m used to anywhere else in my travels across the country. The literal translation of 'tằm' is silkworm, but there are none in sight, and this refers only to the aforementioned noodles. 

is the crunchy pork skin that, along with crushed peanuts and bean sprouts, both contrasts and complements the softness of the noodles. Mint and basil offer a burst of herbal freshness which feels like the essence of the Mekong. The best, however, is yet to come. Generously ladled upon this assortment is the presence of thick and creamy coconut milk and chilli paste alongside. Sweet, spicy, herbal. These are the flavour combinations not so often found in and around Hà Nội, I’m truly happy as I toss the noodles and dive into another bite. Meatballs are often on hand to provide a protein punch to the already-balanced dish. 

Family favourite: The restaurant is often busy with families and friends sharing dishes. — VNS Photo Alex Reeves

As I retraced my steps to find Dì Năm Sa Đéc during that memorable afternoon in Hồ Chí Minh City, I felt as I do today. Reflective on the pride we take in the food of our hometowns and the joy we find in sharing them with others.

I hope the people of Sa Đéc who have migrated to HCM City and brought their food with them know the happiness it brings to others, and I sincerely hope bánh tằm bì eventually migrates north so I can enjoy it more frequently. One thing is for sure, I will be seeing Sa Đéc in this new year.  VNS


Dì Năm Sa Đéc

Tel: +84 902 664 448

Address: 166 Bùi Thị Xuân Road, Phạm Ngũ Lão Ward, District 1, HCM City

Price: Bánh tằm bì VNĐ49,000, Hủ tiếu đặc biệt VNĐ55,000 (US$2-2.50)

Dining companions: Those looking for something new in their Vietnamese food odyssey.

Top tip: Take a friend to enjoy both signature dishes, or turn up with an appetite!

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