Streetside quan oc shellfish and seafood in Ho Chi Minh City

Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It was the basket of as yet unshucked oysters that caught my attention as we walked along a busy side street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s chaotic southern metropolis. Then I saw a granny perched on a tiny stool at the edge of the pavement, grilling various shellfish. Finally, I noticed the crowd of chattering locals gathered on similar stools at the front of a seemingly unmarked shophouse, spilling out onto the otherwise very Malaysian feeling road – goods at neighbouring stalls were even priced in Ringgit. The seafood joint was full, and there wasn’t a white face in sight or a word of English to be heard – both which are always, in my book, good signs.

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Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Thank goodness we returned a little later, when things had quietened down and a few seats had freed up – for this proved to be one of the best meals I have had in a very long time, and possibly the most humble, joyous celebration of food and eating that I have experienced. The stall was a quan oc eatery – a joint specialising in every type of shellfish imaginable, grilled, steamed or fried and served in a variety of sauces, marinades and dressings, and intended to be precisely the kind of socially convivial beer food that this definitely was.

Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Quan oc stalls are not uncommon – in fact, once you start to look for them you realise that they are on just about every street corner in Vietnam. As this excellent primer on this art of Vietnamese seafood tapas testifies, everyone has their own favourite place for quan oc – but this one, Quan Oc Van – quickly became mine. Though an English-language menu is available, on both our visits – so overjoyed the first time, we ate here two nights running – we simply pointed at the stacks of fresh shellfish, crabs and prawns displayed in plastic baskets just inside the shophouse, and let our seafood granny and her army of helpers work their magic and serve it in whichever way they thought we would enjoy it most. They didn’t disappoint.

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Winkles at Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The stand-out dish was a plate of still-in-their-shell winkles swimming in a chilli-spiked butter sauce. As someone who has grown up loving winkles – a kind of small sea snail, found both in rivers and saltwater rock pools – but only ever known them freshly foraged from beaches in Devon and Cornwall, boiled and served with lashings of vinegar and black pepper, this very different way of serving them was a revelation. As that Vietnam Coracle article explains, part of the reason quan oc works so fantastically as beer food – and is so fun to tuck into – is that there is a little work involved in getting to your prize, namely digging the flesh out of the winkle shell in the first place.

Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The effort required provides plenty of time to chat and drink between bites, making for a far more sociable affair than ferociously digging into, say, a plate of rice without pause for thought. Pleasingly, unlike so-called seafood restaurants in Thailand where you are expected to dig away at your shellfish with a flimsy toothpick that inevitably breaks, Quan Oc Van was well equipped with safety pins, miniature forks and the like to make this an achievable task (though the eye-like protective skins at the opening of the shells were much thicker and more difficult to remove than those in the UK, leading the staff to assume I didn’t know what I was doing and so give me a demonstration on how to extract the meat).

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Winkles at Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Other dishes – each excellent without exception – included clams in a simply orgasmic blend of garlic, spring onions and who knows what else to make it so incredibly delicious; and huge whelk-like creatures, grilled outside of their shells,  sliced into four bite-sized pieces and then reinserted to swim in a blood-coloured sauce. There are obvious similarities to draw between this raw Vietnamese passion for gorging on all manner of shellfish – the stacks of empty plastic plates beneath each table were evidence of the seriousness with which this eating ritual is undertaken – and the love of the former French colonial masters for indulgence in similar seafood, along with land snails.

Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

And while it appears that Vietnam may have had a strong connection to molluscs and other shellfish even before the French arrived on its shores, the heavy use of butter-based sauces and dressings – versus more soup-based dressings elsewhere in Southeast Asia – surely betrays Gallic influence. The ubiquitous presence of beautifully crunchy baguettes (VND 5,000) as the go-to accompaniment to all this meaty seafood and to mop up the buttery mess of juices (there are plenty) – again, hands-down beating bowls of rice, which always feels like a bit of an odd pairing in Thailand and elsewhere – is definitely a most beautiful and welcome relic of colonial times.

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Quan Oc shellfish stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Seafood dishes, which range in price from VND 40,000 up to VND 120,000, come with a set of four dipping sauces that include nuoc mam Vietnamese fish sauce and muoi tieu chanh – a combination of salt, pepper and lime juice – along with the bitter Vietnamese mint leaves that are a popular accompaniment to a raft of Vietnamese meals. You can also expect to finish with a couple of ramekins of a coffee-laced seaweed jelly dessert, whether you’ve ordered them or not. Our two greedy meals, each for two people, came to VND 440,000 and VND 590,000, including a couple of baguettes, desserts, and the odd local Saigon beer and soft drink – and we ate a lot of seafood!

Quan oc joints may be just about everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere in Vietnam, but Quan Oc Van provided the ideal first introduction to this most sociable and thrilling art of eating that might well be reason for a visit to Vietnam in itself. Only limited English is spoken, but it’s enough to be able to get by when combined with a healthy dose of hand gestures. We certainly weren’t the only ones enthused enough to make a return tip – one of our second visit I overheard the Singaporean group at the next table raving about how they would be going back the next day. And who could blame them?

Quan Oc Van, 23 Nguyen An Ninh, Ben Tanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

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