People travel for many reasons. Some do it for the sights and experience while some do it for some soul-searching. And then there are people like us who do it for the food.
If you’re like me who considers this a top priority every time you jet off to somewhere new, then Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Vietnam is a definite pit stop you will enjoy. While a lot of us are familiar with the country’s culinary contributions like Banh mi and Pho, it’s another level of experience to try them straight from their source. Below, nine of the best food to try in Saigon and where you can get them.
1. Stir-fried Noodles and Spicy Grilled Squid at Quan 138 Phu Vu Cac Mon An Hai San Gia Binh Dan
Location: 138 Vo Van Tan, Phuong 6, Quan 3, TP. Ho Chi Minh
You can’t call yourself a risk taker unless you’re seated at a restaurant, pointing at plates from a menu that you can’t understand. That’s exactly the case for Quan 138, a small restaurant tucked in one of the quieter alleys of Saigon. With a menu written mostly in Vietnamese, you’ll have to settle pointing at photos for your orders. That’s what we ended up doing, and we couldn’t have been happier after. I mean, how good can stir-fry noodles be? Al dente and perfectly tossed and seasoned, each plate of noodles is filled with fresh vegetables as well as generous chunks of seafood.
The spicy grilled squid is quite the dish to remember, too—we had no idea how hot it would be! Rubbed with spices and with Vietnamese Green Hot Chile Sauce on the side, it’s one of those nose-burning dishes you won’t be able to stop munching on. Wash everything down with a chilled bottle of Tiger Crystal for that ultimate local experience.
2. Traditional Banh Mi
Location: Corner of 219 Pham Ngu Lao Street, Quan 1
If there’s one tip you should take from the locals when it comes to food, it’s that the ones you find on the streets are better than those you can order from sit-down restaurants. Banh Mi is pretty much synonymous with Vietnam—you almost see everyone eating it on the street any time of the day. There are different types of banh mi like egg and beef, but the classic one is our favorite, filled with pork, pâté, egg, cold cuts, and veggies. Our favorite stall can be found on the corner of 219 Pham Ngu Lao street, manned by this nice lady (see photo) who will make it fresh right in front of you. Unlike some of the banh mi you can find here in the country, this one has fresh ingredients and bread that’s not too tough to bite on. They’re incredibly inexpensive too, costing only 20,000 VND or around P45. Note: small stalls like these are usually opened during limited times of the day so don’t expect to see them there if you pass by the area around late afternoon or evening.
3. Pho bo (Beef Noodles) at Phuong Hoang Cafe
Address: 130 Bui Vien, Quan 1
Another local food that has propelled Vietnam to culinary fame is the humble pho, noodles usually done in beef or chicken broth. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the shops in Saigon offering the fare, but we found the best one tucked on the usually busy Backpackers Street. The beef noodles at Phuong Hoang Café is the definition of rich, fresh, and flavorful. Even with the beef stock and the plentiful melt-in-your-mouth chunks of beef on it, the soup is far from heavy, especially if you squeeze lime on it. Add a bit of chili if you prefer it hotter.
4. Fresh Spring Rolls at Banh Uot Ban Me
Location: 86/23 Vũ Huy Tấn, M5 Đường số 14, P.3, Bình Thạnh, Hồ Chí Minh 700000
If you really want to try what’s good, you have to ask the locals where they eat. We’re familiar with fresh and fried spring rolls here in our country, but have you ever tried a DIY one? That’s what you can do at Banh Uot Ban Me where you’re served with a spread of fillings (made up of vegetables, cold cuts, and a variety of sauces) and plates of wet spring roll wrapper sprinkled with greens. Besides the fresh ingredients that make an explosion in your mouth, what makes it special is the experience of customizing your every bite. Prepare to be left with heaps of plates at the end of it—the restaurant gives you a plate with a single wrapper so you can count how many you’ve demolished after!
5. Iced Coffee (Ca phe sua da)
Location: Corner of 220 Đề Thám Street
Another notorious (in a good way!) treat you’ll find in Vietnam is their iced coffee or ca phe sua da. Made with black coffee and splashed with condensed milk, it’s an ingenious discovery that came about when the French introduced milk to the country. Since fresh milk was expensive, the locals made do with their own version by using its cheaper and sweeter counterpart. You’ll see locals sipping it in the morning in plastic cups, with the best ones found on the side streets. Our favorite was the iced coffee found on the small stall found in the corner of Đề Thám Street.
6. Duck Noodle Soup at Kim Luong
Location: Cho Ben Tanh
The Vietnamese are masters when it comes to noodle soups so you have to try as much as you can during your visit. While beef pho might be the most popular variety in the country, you have to take a taste of other varieties as well, like this one with flavorful duck slices. We found this on one of the stalls of Ben Thanh market which is divided into a food, souvenir and goods, and condiments area. You’ll find a cluster of small shops peddling every imaginable Vietnamese cuisine, but Kim Luong is one of the best (it has the most customers even at 2PM in the afternoon) especially with their noodles! The soup is not so salty and seasoned right and the strips of duck are tender and light on the palate. You’ll get a heap of vegetables on the side, too!
7. Bo La Lat
Location: Cho Ben Tanh
I first discovered bo la lat after watching a documentary on Netflix that tagged it as the food with the “flavors of Vietnam”. While I found it hard to find one in the general vicinity of Saigon—even my Vietnamese friends said this—I was lucky enough to spot it on the same stall where I tried the duck soup in Ben Thanh Market. What is bo la lat, you might ask? It’s seasoned ground beef wrapped in betel leaf that’s grilled to perfection. It has a distinct smoky taste that is reminiscent of kebab, but with lighter flavors especially when dipped in the light dipping fish sauce (nuoc cham) it usually comes with.
8. Vietnamese Silken Tofu at Tau Hu Xe Lam
Location: Street of Le Loi, Ben Nghe, Quan 1
The Vietnamese may not be particularly popular for their desserts, but they do great with what they have like the silken tofu. We didn’t even realize how famous this snack is until our local friends recommended it to us, and boy, were we glad. We loved the ones offered at Tau Hu Xe Lam, a small stall found in one of the small alleys of the Le Loi area. Silken tofu is a refreshing iced dessert that’s like the love child of our beloved taho and Korea’s bingsu—except this one is served with actual chunks of ice instead of shaved ones. You can try different types of silken tofu. Some varieties are served with flavored sweet beans and jellies while some are simply topped with fresh fruit.
9. Vietnamese Pizza (Bánh Tráng Nướng)
Location: Corner of Saigon Square Center (81 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh)
Vietnamese Pizza may seem worlds apart from the pizza we know and love, but it’s the perfect snack to try if you want to get something light on the stomach. Instead of using dough as a base, this treat switches it up with rice paper which is filled with toppings like quail, shrimp paste, pork floss, and shallots. The rice paper will then be folded in half and lightly grilled until it gets a crunchy consistency that will make you want to bite on it over and over again. You can find this offered in a lot of night markets in the country, though we tried the one found just beside the entrance of Saigon Square Center which you can also visit for some cheap shopping.