Saigon is heaven for foodies. Walk around pretty much any district and you’ll find food stalls lining the streets, selling everything from crispy pancakes to fresh pressed cane juice to grilled sea food. And of course soup – there’s lots of soup. It’s an experience for your senses: Vibrant colors from both the food and the “classic” plastic seating furniture that seems to come in every color of the rainbow. Sizzling sounds from the crepe pans, banging of pots, and amazing smells coming from the herbs that are present everywhere in Vietnamese food, inviting you in to try a bite. Saigon food is simply wonderful.
In Saigon, the food stalls seem to appear in little groups every few street corners. I’ve lovingly named them “food courts”, and we spent the majority of our time in Vietnam there, trying a little bit of everything. Two weeks into the trip, my mom sent me a message asking if we weren’t doing anything but eating, if there were no adventures in Vietnam, nothing to be discovered or experienced. I’d only been sending pictures of food! Maybe I’m obsessed, but Vietnamese food IS the adventure, people. You need to experience it. The flavors will convince you.
Here’s your beginner’s guide to navigating that adventure: The foods and drinks you should try in Saigon, or in Vietnam in general.
8 Saigon Foods & Drinks You Should Try
The ultimate sandwich! A crunchy, light baguette, filled with everything imaginable: The Banh Mi is a true work of art. Have it for breakfast with a fried egg, or any time of the day as an “everything” version, with whatever meats your Banh Mi vendor has on offer that day: Pork meat balls, Fried pork belly, grilled chicken, or even sardines; plus a range of cold meats like ham, head cheese and liver paté. Some vendors will also offer vegetarian options. The meats are layered inside the bread along with fresh coriander (cilantro), pickled carrots and radish, fresh cucumber and soy sauce or Maggi (not joking, the Vietnamese probably eat just as much Maggi as the Germans do). Banh Mis are a perfect snack to go, available on virtually every street corner. They’re definitely one of my favorite foods in Vietnam.
Nuoc Mia (Sugar Cane Juice)
For a morning drink as you walk around exploring the city, try a Nuoc Mia, a fresh pressed sugar cane juice. The vendors will press the sugar cane for you right there and serve it on ice. You’ll have a refreshing, natural energy drink… at least for a short sugar high. Only for people who like it sweet! It’s literally sugar juice. But a nice one.
No list of Vietnamese food is complete without Pho Bo, beef noodle soup. It comes as a basic beef broth with rice noodles and your choice of meats like sliced beef or meat balls, but what really makes it is the add ons you put in yourself. With your soup bowl, you get a platter of fresh herbs (usually including thai basil and cilantro), chilis, bean sprouts, and limes, and there’s always fish sauce and other condiments on the table to season your soup with.
Bun Bo Hué
It absolutely baffles me that Pho is world famous, yet few people seem to have heard of Bun Bo Hué outside of Vietnam. This is my favorite soup of all time (well, maybe right after chicken tortilla soup, depending on my mood of the day). Beef bones and lemongrass are simmered for hours to make a home made broth, then seasoned with shrimp paste, sugar and chili, giving this soup an incredible, layered taste. You usually get big chunks of meat (pig knuckles) in your bowl which have been boiled in the broth for hours and are so tender they fall off the bone. It’s served with lime, chili, raw onions and fresh herbs, including mint. It’s incredibly rich; sweet, salty, sour and spicy at the same time, making it absolutely perfect.
Note: This particular bowl of Bun Bo Hué is actually from Mui Ne, from my favorite soup vendor ever. I have yet to write a blog post about her but if you’re reading this and happen to be in Mui Ne, she’s on the main street going from the resort area towards Mui Ne village next to street number 126 (which as of Feb 2014 was a restaurant called Bo Ke Lucky).
I fell in love with Banh Xeo even before going to Vietnam. They featured prominently on Anthony Bourdain’s show (“No Reservations”, the Saigon episode is worth watching!) and I was dying to try them. Banh Xeo literally means sizzling cake. These crispy crepes are filled with pork, shrimps and bean sprouts, and are served – you’ll be able to guess it by now – with fresh herbs! You actually cut/rip a piece off the crepe and wrap it into a piece of lettuce together with the fresh herbs, which you then dip into Nuoc cham (a dipping sauce made mainly from diluted fish sauce, lime and sugar). Sometimes you’ll also get rice paper to wrap everything in. Be prepared to get hands on training from the vendors on how to wrap and dip these correctly – my travel partner actually got slapped on the hands once for incorrect wrapping!
Banh Xeo is apparently best at Banh Xeo 46A (46 Đinh Công Tráng, Tân Định, 1), unfortunately it was closed for new year when I went. Can’t recommend the place I had to go to instead so I’ll refer you to the internet for that one!
Ah, what would Saigon be without coffee? I’m actually not much of a coffee drinker, but the Vietnamese converted even me. There’s something for everyone, from strong black hot coffee to sweet ice coffee to warm egg coffee – yes, I said egg coffee. One of the most popular options is Ca phe sua da, an iced coffee with sweet milk. If you’re a purist, order Ca phe deng nong, hot black coffee. Vietnamese coffee is best enjoyed slowly, as it will often be served to you the traditional way, with the traditional Vietnamese coffee filter on top of your cup or glass and the coffee dripping through the filter at your table. So take the time to sit down, watch your coffee slowly drip through the filter and engage in some people watching, meet friends or make new friends. People in Saigon are incredibly open and friendly and coffee places are a great place to meet locals.
There are nice little coffee shops everywhere, find one with chairs outside and watch the world go by. Trung Nguyen is a chain of coffee shops and a coffee producer that’s known for good quality coffee. They’re worth a try but on the pricier side. I went there to pick up coffee filters as souvenirs, they were good quality and I like having practical souvenirs from my trips!
Guess what? More soup! Bun Thai itself probably isn’t quintessential Saigon, but The Lunch Lady, the vendor I got this from, is famous. She makes a different soup every day of the week and apparently they’re all hugely popular. We went on a Monday and the dish of the day was Bun Thai, a flavorful bowl packed with a little bit of everything: Shrimp, squid, beef, pork meat balls, noodles, and of course plenty of broth. I wasn’t keen on the idea of squid in soup as it seems 90% of the squid served in restaurants is chewy, but everything in this soup was tender and fresh. I’d definitely go back for more. Vietnam Coracle wrote a full review of her weekly menu and every soup she makes.
The Lunch Lady. Phường Đa Kao, District 1 (Quan 1). Google Maps gives a pretty accurate location for her stand!
Com Tam (Broken Rice)
While I didn’t get a picture of the actual dish, a post of Saigon food has to mention Com Tam: Broken rice grains (they’re cheap, it’s a traditional dish) topped with pork in various forms, vegetables and sometimes a fried egg. It’s a typical lunch dish often served with a small bowl of soup on the side. You’ll find small road side restaurants serving this and various other rice dishes at lunch time to office workers. Follow the crowds and point to whatever looks good on the neighboring table! The restaurant pictured here is on Nguyen Van Trang, I passed it at lunch time two days in a row and it was absolutely packed, the third day I joined the crowds. The full lunch menu pictured below (broken rice with beef) cost a total of 20,000 dong (that’s about 1 US Dollar) including unlimited amounts of iced green tea.
This is only the start… there’s a lot more to discover in Saigon. I’ll have to go back and eat my way through the city.
Have you been to Saigon? What was your favorite dish there?