While Taipei doesn’t have a little Saigon as such (which is surprising given the number of immigrants from Vietnam), the closest is a cluster of inexpensive hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurants along Lane 167, Alley 30, Yongji Road (just off Zhongxiao East Road Section 5, the busy street with a Crown Fancy bakery is on the corner).
Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but many young Vietnamese were once housed a block or so away in a complex that has now been converted into a kindergarten. In the late 1970s, as thousands of Vietnamese fled on rickety boats out into the unknown, Taiwan welcomed many boat people with open arms — in part to demonstrate its strong ‘anti-Communist’ stance. Vietnamese orphans were housed in beehive-shaped buildings in the compound, with one full-time nanny appointed to look after around eight orphans in each building. Many of the Vietnamese orphans went to the same primary school as Mr Taiwanxifu, where because of missed schooling and language differences, they were generally a few years older (and much taller) than their Taiwanese classmates. Mr Taiwanxifu once told me how much he envied the Vietnamese orphans: from his perspective growing up in a small cramped apartment, they seemed to enjoy a comparatively fortunate life.
Mr Taiwanxifu was musing the other day about where these Vietnamese orphans have gone. Perhaps, having now acquired good Mandarin skills and an education, they have assimilated into the community, adopting Chinese names and being generally indistinguishable from most Taiwanese. Maybe they returned to Vietnam to pursue business opportunities. Or perhaps they set up restaurants nearby to cater for Vietnamese and Taiwanese patrons.
Whatever the reason, there are several Vietnamese restaurants along this bustling thoroughfare in between Zhongxiao East Road Section 5 and Yongji Road. But there are, in particular, three which all share the same name in Chinese (武鼎越豐越南麵食館), with two of them displaying the English name ‘Quan Pho Viet Nam’ in a bright-blue sign out the front. (The third is harder to find, hidden in a laneway near a park and does not have any English signage. Originally run by a relative, it now has separate owners although some of the menu options are similar.) As Taipei was weathering a 38 degree celsius heat wave the day we were in search of Vietnamese food, we opted for the larger of the three restaurants on account of its air conditioning.
Having been told to eat lots of green papaya to help encourage the baby to come early, ordering a serve of green papaya salad (越式涼拌木瓜絲, NT$70) was a must. I find green papaya salad prepared in Taiwan is often a bit so-so; usually it is just plain sour shreds of hard papaya. But this dish was fresh and inspiring, with the long, slender shards of fresh papaya drenched with a tantalizingly hot and sour dressing. The salad was topped with two prawns and sprinkled with ground peanuts and basil.
For my main dish, I ordered a Vietnamese-style chicken rice vermicelli salad (越式乾拌米粉/雞, NT$120). The large bowl of rice vermicelli noodles came topped with freshly cooked and shredded chicken breast and plenty of fresh herbs and salad vegetables. It was served with a sour dipping sauce, but having just eaten the potent green papaya salad I opted to keep the flavours as natural as possible. The noodles were slightly too wet, which indicated perhaps that the dish had been prepared quickly. But the fresh vegetable and chicken combination was satisfying on such a sweltering hot day.
A tall glass of Vietnamese lemonade (越式冰檸檬水, NT$60) also helped to take the edge off the summers’ heat. This was freshly made and filled with lemon/lime slices. My only complaint was that being so fresh it was not yet cold enough; I would have liked more ice.
Mr Taiwanxifu meanwhile chose his staple Vietnamese restaurant favourite — pork chop. The grilled pork chop plate (越式烤豬排飯, NT$120) came with the usual accompaniments such as a slice of egg roll and salad. He is somewhat particular about the standard of Vietnamese pork chops, but this one made the grade.
Quan Pho Viet Nam is at No 2, lane 167, Alley 30, Yongji Road (diagonally opposite Bellavita). While we did not order Vietnamese style beef soup (pho) on this occasion on account of the hot weather, their NT$130 version is also pretty good. While you must order via a Chinese language form (no English), there are pictures of popular dishes displayed over the counter and a menu with photos is available on request.