To the first-time visitor, a wander around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City can seem like being plunged into one huge marketplace.
As much as the distinctive blend of French architecture and Asian aesthetics, the city is defined by the near ubiquitous presence of street vendors and it is difficult to walk for more than a block without being tempted by the warm wafts of food or vehement cajoling of its proprietors. For the last year of my life, it has been my very great privilege to call this place my home and it remains a daily joy to explore the city’s culinary landscape, forever thankful that I live somewhere that offers truly world class food at obscenely inexpensive prices.
Below is a list of some of the highlights of Vietnamese cuisine and the best places to find them.
Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine must surely be familiar with Pho, a herb-rich noodle soup consisting of rice noodles, bone-based broth and a meat, usually chicken (gà) or beef (bò). While the dish traces its origins back to the north of the country, many southerners are insistent that Vietnam’s second city has actually improved on the recipe, adding a more complex layer of spices and fragrances. Located in the Tan Binh District of the city, Pho Phu Vuong claims to provide the best Pho in the city and after countless visits there, I am certainly inclined to agree. A generous bowl can be bought for less than $3 and offers not only a superb introduction to the culinary traditions of the country but also a hearty breakfast or lunch. The atmosphere at Pho Phu Vuong is continually busy, clean and quintessentially Vietnamese and guarantees to be not only a gastronomic delight but a cultural eye-opening.
Pho Phu Vuong
339 Le Van Sy
Tan Binh District
Hai san (Seafood):
For anyone of the seafood-loving persuasion, a trip to Ho Chi Minh City is nothing short of life changing. The selection throughout the city is simply astonishing, not only in quality but also in regard to quantity and cost, with some of the world’s best fish available for less than the price of a Big Mac. Regardless of what time, day or night, Vinh Khanh Street is assured to be pulsating with people and on this already lively stretch, Oc Oanh is a restaurant which has proved particularly popular. While the snails and crab are nothing short of superb, a particular favourite of mine is the scallops (diep nuong mo hanh) which I can assure you is so good, you will require a second helping. Largely frequented by locals, a visit to Oc Oanh is an authentically Vietnamese experience and don’t be surprised if you are invited to join a table of regulars for a Saigon beer (or three).
534 Vinh Khanh,
A residue of the French colonialization of Vietnam, banh mi has proven itself a staple of the Vietnamese diet ever since. Comprised of a thick baguettes and an assortment of fillings, banh mi is ostensibly the country’s very own version of the sandwich, a cheap and easy meal for those on-the-go. But whilst the dish does act as a great lunchtime snack, the mastery in the preparation of banh mi is nothing short of an art form, an art form the good folks at Banh ma 37 in the Ben Thanh District have taken to new heights.
Their recipe has become something of an institution amongst the citizens of Ho Chi Minh and attracts customers from every corner of the city, an amazing feat when you consider the business is comprised solely of a small portable push-cart. Banh mi 37’s trademark are their thick cuts of cucumber which give the banh mi its distinctive crunch, while the sauce is sweeter than you will typically find elsewhere. A perfect way to refuel for visitors on a busy day of sightseeing and all for less than a dollar.
Banh Mi 37
37 Nguyen Trai,
Ben Thanh District
Bun bo Hue:
You will only need to spend a few hours in Vietnam to realise that soup forms some of the country’s most popular dishes and whilst Pho will forever remain the country’s most celebrated variation, it is Bun bo Hue which conjures up my own favourite culinary memories of Ho Chi Minh.
Coming from the central city of Hue, the recipe is comprised of beef and rice vermicelli, with a more-than-liberal sprinkling of chilli and lemongrass giving the dish its characteristic kick. Indeed, at many establishments, a foreigner ordering Bun bo Hue can be greeted with raised eyebrows and protestations due to the widely held belief that the fieriness is simply too much for the non-Vietnamese palate. Thankfully for those who prefer their dishes a little milder, Bun bo Hue Dong Ba allow customers to add their own spice with prices always below the $2 mark. The setting is unassuming but allows for the perfect vantage point to watch the endless carousel of people that wander by, ideal for customers who prefer to linger over their broth.
Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba
110 A Nguyen Du
Ben Thanh District
While the prospect of ice-cream mixed with sticky rice may not sound like the post appealing entry on this list, after a long day exploring the rich variety of Ho Chi Minh City’s gastronomic pleasures, I always liked to round the day of with a visit with a deliciously cold serving of kem xoi. With only a small collection of tables and chairs, Thanh Hang Kem Xoi is a cosy affair and you are almost assured of receiving a few “hellos” from younger clientele. And given the wealth of flavours available as well as the very reasonable price-tag (most things on the menu fall below 50 cents) it is not difficult to see why Thanh Hang Kem Xoi is a regular stop-off for the sweet-toothed locals. The rice adds a very interesting layer of texture to the ice-cream while the shredded coconut and flavourful sauce really set the desert alight. Without doubt, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most underrated of eateries.
Thanh Hang Kem Xoi
638 To Ky,
Tan Chanh Hiep