40 years in business. Albeit the intensifying crackdown on street food vendors in Ho Chi Minh City, this goi kho bo cart continues to flourish among locals and is now being visited by locals thanks to the world wide web.
Goi Kho Bo, also known as Goi Du Du, is a spicy green papaya salad topped with beef jerky. This snack has been enjoyed for generations, especially when ordered from this specific location. Similar to som tam in Thailand, Vietnamese papaya salad starts off with a smattering of shredded unripe papaya. It is then layered with roasted peanuts, strips of beef jerky, fried dough crackers, and chopped up Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander. The pièce de résistance of the meal are the two dressings: one a zesty chili sauce and the other, a salty condiment whose base flavor is unknown. Gourmands over the years have argued whether it’s soy sauce or fish sauce but the vendor remains tightlipped about the recipe. Remarkably enough, even after the sauces are mixed together, the distinct flavors of sweet, spicy, and sour stay distinguishable.
There are other ingredients worthy of mentioning too. First, let’s talk about the beef jerky. By western standards, beef jerky is traditionally dried lean meat. However, the brownish-black jerky topping for goi kho bo is actually made from cow organs, specifically the lung and the liver. If offals freak you out, not to worry; the highly flavored marinade will win you over upon first bite. Another standout facet of this dish is the cracker topping. Shrimp crackers are used in the traditional recipe but in the Hai Ba Trung dish, they are replaced by chunks of fried dough. The dough crackers withstand saturation much better than the shrimp crackers, which get soggy almost instantly after being soaked in dressing. The crackers also further complicate this already complex dish, texturally speaking of course.
At the conjunction of Hai Ba Trung and Vo Thi Sau Street, on a sidewalk overlooking Le Van Tam Park, you’ll find the famous trolley. Early in the morning, the transparent cart is filled to the brim with julienned young papaya, which is quickly depleted during peak service hours. Manned by two sisters for four decades now, its popularity should come as no surprise. From fast service to a prime location on Hai Ba Trung, motorists come swerving in for a to-go snack. Customers from every walk of life, no matter the age, converge at this one spot to sample the famous goi kho bo.
At first glance, this street stall looks anything but complicated. But upon closer inspection, you’ll find that the street stall caters to diners across the street, as well as a takeaway only crowd. The reason for the separation is purely legal. Technically, street side vendors are not allowed to set up shop within park parameters so the owner devised a plan of action involving a team of runners. Armed with a couple of vinyl placemats to drape over the pavement and sauce bottles with the special dressings, the runners can create a makeshift dining area that can easily be dismantled when the police come.
If you want to eat at the park, just place your order with one of the runners, who then shouts the order across the street and then retrieves a plate and delivers it to you, all at the stunningly low cost of 20,000 VND per plate. In a culture where street food dining is synonymous to fast food (i.e. get in, get out,) it’s sometimes a challenge to know gauge which foods are snacks versus meals. Long informed me that portion-size is the biggest tell. Upon delivery of my goi kho bo dished out on an aluminum plate, I immediately got the message.
In a culture where street food dining is synonymous to fast food (i.e. get in, get out,) it’s sometimes a challenge to know gauge which foods are snacks versus meals.
While the stall opens at 11 a.m., the snack is normally an afternoon treat. The stall gets slammed around 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and wraps up by 8 p.m., which by that time, all food is sold out. As we sat in silence in the park eating our goi kho bo, I asked Long why he chose this dish out of all dishes to introduce to me. “This is a little something that has contributed in building up Saigon’s so-called street food culture. You can’t find it anywhere else like this,” he remarked and we returned to the joyful silence imparted by good food.
This is a perfect gateway dish for those a bit hesitant to sample Vietnamese street food. Come around 3 p.m. and take a stroll in Le Van Tam Park, a go-to exercise spot in the city. Work up your hunger and join the locals for some afternoon feasting. Don’t be intimidated by whom to order from. You’ll easily spot the runners as they’ll be the ones barking orders and outfitted in a pajama pantsuit wearing conical hats. If you want to dine at the park, make sure that you’re wearing something appropriate, as chances are you’ll be sitting on the ground in some capacity.
Name of dish: Goi Kho Bo
Price: ~20.000 VND/ dish
Opening hours: From 1.00 pm. to 8 p.m.
Address: opposite to Le Van Tam Park on Hai Ba Trung Street
Let us know if you manage to try Goi Kho Bo while in Vietnam. Do you like it more than Som Tam in Thailand? We do!