Sunday 7 September 2014

A Beginner’s Guide To Saigon’s Street Food 'Pt.1' – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

When visiting a city for the first time I typically spend many hours researching what and where to eat. Planning my eating itinerary in Ho Chi Minh, I quickly came to the realisation that my usual attention to detail would not be necessary.

Aside from a few suggestions from the Eating Saigon blog and the excellent Eat Saigon by Elly Thuy Nguyen, my plan was simple… avoid the usual touristy recommendations in the published guides and stick to places that specialise in one or two dishes and seem popular with the local crowd. This strategy served me well.

In ‘Part 1’ of this, my ‘Beginner's guide to Saigon’s Street Food’, I focus on the usual crowd pleasing favourites of bánh mì, phở and gỏi cuốn (summer rolls); plus a few other dishes that should not be missed when visiting Vietnam.

In ‘Part 2’ (see here), I cover “less safe” options, those which may not suit all Western palates – we’re talking offal and specialities such as duck foetus, goat udder and dog meat.

Where possible, I have included the Vietnamese words for dishes and ingredients – in some cases, I found printing off information about places with pictures and words (and pointing) made ordering a stress free experience.

First, let’s talk phở. For those that don’t know, phở is a Vietnamese dish of noodles in bone rich broth made from (chicken) or (beef). Phở 24 and Phở 2000 are two of the better known and commonly recommended places (largely because of their central locations and English menus) but for phở bò, I liked the long established Phở Lệ and Phở Hòa. These places are used to tourists but are also very popular with the locals.

Phở Lệ was by far the more generous of the two when it came to the amount of beef in the broth but I preferred the flavour and ambience of Phở Hòa. I visited Phở Hòa a total of three occasions and tried their phở tái (with raw minced beef), phở nạm vè giòn (with ‘crunchy’ beef flank) and phở đặc biệt tự thứ (mixed beef, including tripe – which I’ll write about in Part 2).

Phở bò @ Phở Lệ (415 Nguyễn Trãi,
 Quận 5)
 As well as the most generous serving of meat I encountered, Phở Lệ also served a plentiful array of the usual herbs and garnishes: giá (been sprouts) hành (spring onions) bắp chuối (banana blossom) ớt (chillies) tương ớt (chilli sauce / Sriracha) tương ăn phở (a hoi sin type sauce) chanh (lime wedges) rau quế (basil) ngò (coriander) and ngò gai (sawtooth or Mexican / long coriander).

Phở Tái @ Phở Hòa (260C Pasteur, Quận 3)
How and what you add to “pimp your phở” is entirely down to personal preference – I experimented and came to the conclusion that I like: a handful of giá, hành and rau quế, with a quick squirt of tương ớt and tương ăn phở, a few ớt and lots of chanh for sour notes and plenty of the ngò gai for a strong coriander like flavour... in other words, a little bit of each with lots of lime and sawtooth herb. 

Phở Nạm Vè Giòn @ Phở Hòa
Another good thing about Phở Hòa is the ready availability of various sides – I particularly liked the fried dough sticks of Chinese origin called quẩy. Also look out for the dinky coconut leaf boxes, containing the gelatinous bánh xu xê / phu thê (husband & wife cake / wedding cake) – the sticky tapioca starch outer supposedly signifies the sticking together of the marriage vows, whilst the golden mung bean ‘heart’ represents loyalty and faithfulness.    

Phở gà @ Phở Hương Bình (148 Võ Thị Sá, Quận 3)
If beef isn’t your thing, also look out for phở gà. Most, pho places usually specialise in either bò or gà, as a lot of time and effort goes into making the large vat of stock. Phở Hương Bình (just around the corner from Phở Hòa) is one of the few places that serve both types. Theirs was the best chicken pho I tasted.

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Phở gà @ Cát Tường (61 Thủ Khoa Huân, Quận 1)
Cát Tường is another popular place for phở gà. It’s main plus point is it’s location, a short walk the central location of Bến Thành Market.

The other biggie when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine is the ubiquitous Bánh mì – a throwback from the French colonial period. Made with a varying mix of rice and wheat flours, the Vietnamese baguettes are lighter than their crusty colonial counterparts but still maintain a crispness. My three favourite places were as follows:

Bánh mì @ Huỳnh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng, Quận 1)
With a central location, Huỳnh Hoa is a popular place. At 25000 VND (about 70p), it was also the most “expensive” of the Bánh mì I ate – but for that extra 10p, the fillings were abundantly apportioned. The meats included: chả lụa (pork roll) thịt nguội (a fatty pork) giò thú (head cheese) xa xíu (a Chinese style barbequed pork) and, of course, paté. Also, plenty of đồ chua - which translates as “pickled stuff” but usually means pickled daikon and carrot. One downside being, is does not open until mid afternoon.

Bánh mì @ Như Lan (64 Hàm Nghi, Quận 1)
Open from early and selling their bánh mì for 20000 VND (less than 60p), Như Lan is actually a bakery so they make their own breads. As it was just around the corner from our hotel, we ended up with several from here; thy also specialise in ‘bánh trung thu’ (Mid Autumn  / Mooncakes) which are worth trying if you are there during the right season.

Bánh mì @ Đỗ Quỳnh (93 Nguyễn Thái Học, Quận 1)
At 17000 VND (just under 50p) the bánh mì from Đỗ Quỳnh was amongst the cheapest I encountered; it may not have been the most liberally filled but it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

Salad or summer rolls, aka Gỏi Cuốn, complete the trio of Vietnamese foods that are most popular in the UK. As well as bún (rice vermicelli) and vegetables, they traditionally contain both prawns and pork. I must admit, I didn’t go out of the way to seek out “the best” but ordered some on the side when I saw that they were available. Here’s the pics of those I had:

Gỏi cuốn @ Phở Hòa (260C Pasteur, Quận 5)

Gỏi cuốn @ Quán Bánh Xèo 46A (46 Đinh Công Tráng, Quận 1)

Gỏi cuốn @ Cútchiêneo (In front of 368 Cách mạng tháng 8, Quận 3)

War Remnants Museum

Gỏi Đu Đủ (papaya salad) @ entrance to Lê Văn Tám park (corner of Võ Thị Sáu & Hai Bà Trưng, Quận 3)
One of my most enduring eating experiences of this trip with undoubtedly prove to be eating gỏi đu đu at the entrance to Lê Văn Tám Park. Having spent the morning walking around the War Remnants Museum and across the river to the Bình Thạnh District, by the time I had strolled back through Lê Văn Tám Park I was in dire need of a drink and a sit down.

The sight of two ladies selling a cool, crunchy, sweet, sour and spicy papaya salad topped with bánh giòn giòn (crispy crackers), đậu phộng (peanuts) and khô bò (a kind of beef jerky) was just what the doctor ordered. Joining the locals, I took a ‘seat’ on raised concrete bed at the base of a tree and enjoyed.

Prior to travelling to Vietnam, a couple of Vietnamese friends told me that if I wanted to truly eat like a local, I had to try Bánh Xèo – crispy pancakes that are a favourite amongst the Saigonese locals.

Bánh Xèo @ Quán Bánh Xèo 46A (46 Đinh Công Tráng, Quận 1)
With a name that translates as ‘sizzling cake’ bánh xèo (pronounced bahn say-oh) are made in skillets set over flames. The crêpes are made with rice flour with coconut milk and turmeric and filled with pork, prawns and beansprouts. The pancakes at Bánh Xèo 46A were larger and lighter than those at Bánh Xèo Bắc Hải.

Bánh Xèo @ Bánh Xèo Bắc Hải (1 Bắc Hải, Quận 10 - on the corner of Cách mạng tháng 8)
Bánh Xèo Bắc Hải’s also came with bánh tráng (rice paper wrappers) as well as a variety of herbs, including: lá cải (mustard leaf), húng quế (Thai basil), tía tô Việt (Vietnamese perilla / shiso), lá lốt (betal leaf) and rau chua (French sorrel). To eat, a piece of pancake is wrapped in herbs and rice paper before being dipped in a chilli laden nước chấm.

Bánh Bao @ Ba Chúc (near 64 Hàm Nghi, Quận 1)
A little smaller than the Cantonese ‘baozi’ from which they originate, the Vietnamese streamed buns, Bánh Bao, most commonly contain pork, mushrooms and a boiled quail’s egg. They are cheap and filling.

Bún thịt nướng (pork & rice noodles) @ I.D. Café (34D Thủ Khoa Huân, Quận 1)
I.D. Café (behind Bến Thành Market) is a cool, comfortable, modern café that has Wi-Fi, good coffee and refined versions of Vietnamese favourites. Their bún thịt nướng was good but didn’t come close to the example I had at Chị Thông

Bún thịt nướng @ Chị Thông (195 Cô Giang, Quận 1)
The bún thịt nướng at Chị Thông was one of my favourite dishes on my trip. A seemingly perfect synergy of ingredients: a bowl of shredded fresh greenery, including dua leo (cucumber), tiá tô (shiso), rau thơm (mint) and lemon scented kinh giới (Vietnamese balm) topped with cool vermicelli noodles (bún), beautifully moist and charred, sticky BBQ pork (thịt nướng), hot chả giò (crispy fried Vietnamese egg rolls) and a garnish of đậu phộng (peanuts), mở hành (spring onions made with oil) and fiery tương ớt (chilli chutney).

Cơm Tâm translates and “broken rice” – in poorer times, after sending their good stuff (the whole grains) to market, all the rice farmers could afford to eat themselves was the rice damaged by harvesting or processing. Nowadays, everyone loves to eat Cơm Tâm.

Cơm Tâm Gà Nường (broken rice with chicken) @ Cơm Tâm 390 (390 Cách mạng tháng 8, Quận 3)
Cơm Tâm is typically served with grilled / barbequed pork (thịt nường) but some places, such as Cơm Tâm 390, also sell Cơm Tâm Gà Nường. Whether you order pork or chicken your plate is also likely to include chả trứng; which is a steamed ‘meatloaf’ made with pork, eggs, mushroom and crab. Chả trứng is great stuff, so ask for some if your cơm tâm doesn't come with a slice.

Cơm Tâm Thịt Nường @ Cơm Tâm 390
Not open until mid to late afternoon, Cơm Tâm 390 is a great place. Although they have a roadside stand, their main kitchen and tarpaulin covered seating area is hidden up the ‘hem’ (alley) behind. The main road of Cách mạng tháng Tám (8) is a wonderfully vibrant and non-touristy place to walk of an evening; taking in the culture and trying the full range of street foods.

Cơm Tâm Thịt Nường @ Cơm Tâm Nguyễn Văn Cừ (167 Nguyễn Văn Cừ, Quận 5)
Another good place I found for cơm tâm was Cơm Tâm Nguyễn Văn Cừ - walking past, I caught sight of the curbside oil drum barbeque having its embers wafted by an electric fan. Inside I was served some of the excellent pork with fried eggs (ốp la), shredded pork (), chả trứng and bowls of prepared nước chấm containing đồ chua (pickled stuff). 

Bánh Canh Cua (crab soup with thick noodles) @ Quán 48 (48 Ngô Đức Kế, Quận 1)
Taking an early morning stroll, Quán 48 is another place I discovered by chance; a stone’s throw from the impressive Bitexco Financial Tower. In Vietnam, is seems you can always tell how good a place is by how many motorbikes are stopped outside; with all the roadside seats taken, I found a seat inside and without ordering was promptly served a steaming bowl of Bánh Canh Cua.

Bánh canh cua comprises of a hearty broth and thick udon like noodles made from rice and tapioca flours. Generously tipped with crab meat (cua), chả cua (crab loaf), tôm (prawn) and huyết heo (a cube of congealed pork blood). Sadly this was on our last day otherwise I would have returned.  

Mì Vịt Tiềm (duck noodle soup) @ Mì Vịt Tiềm (3 Hoàng Diệu, District 4)
A beautiful tasting broth – loaded with a big meaty duck leg that just fell from the bone and topped with wilted rau muống (water spinach). My wife had hers as it was served, which was delicious. I made use of the tương ớt and ớt sa te chilli dipping sauces.

Huế was once the Imperial Capital of Vietnam and home to the Nguyễn lords. Huế cuisine if is regarded as Vietnam’s most gastronomic – one of the signature dishes of the ancient capital is Bún Bò Huế.

Bún Bò Huế (rice vermicelli with beef) @ Đông Ba (110A Nguyễn Du, Quận 1)
I only got around to trying two versions of bún bò huế - although it had less meat, the one from Đông Ba was my favourite. The nước leo (broth) had a striking scent of sả (lemongrass) and deep fermented flavours of mắm ruốc húe (fish paste).

Bún Bò Huế @ O Xuân (18-20 Nguyễn Hữu Cầu, Quận 1)
At O Xuân there was a choice to have “bún bò đầy đủ có giò”, which as far as I’m aware translated as something that essentially meant “the works” – meats included: thịt đùi (pork), chả lụa (Vietnamese sausage), huyết (congealed pig’s blood), chả cua (crab loaf) bắp bò (beef shank), and gân bò (beef tendon). I also had a side of Nem Chua Nướng – a charred fermented pork sausage, which is sweet and sticky with sour notes and spice from embedded bird’s eye chillies… great stuff, I wish I had more.

To conclude ‘Part 1’ of my ‘Beginners guide to Saigon’s Street Food’, we have Quán 94 – a place that specialises in crabs. We liked the food here so much we returned on our final night and ordered the same again. 

Súp cua (crab soup) @ Quán 94
A peppery crab broth – so simple, so delicious.

Cua lột chiên bột (soft shell crab) @ Quán 94 (94 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Quận 1)
The soft shell crabs (cua lột) here are kept alive until cooking; the result is ridiculously sweet, snow white crabmeat – inside a crisp batter.

Miến xào cua (crab vermicelli) @ Quán 94
A dish of glass noodles, stir fried a little spring onion, fish sauce with a bounteous supply of mud crabmeat (cua). Perfect.  

Chả giò cua biển (deep fried crab spring rolls) @ Quán 94
Wonderful crisp crab filled spring rolls; eaten wrapped in herbs and dipped in a chilli infused nước chấm sauce.

If you are off to Hoi Chi Minh soon, I hope this post will “stand you in good stead” – if you still want more, check put ‘Part 2’ – ‘The Next Steps’.


  1. Great article! You almost listed all hidden gems of Ho Chi Minh cuisine!
    Since you're interested in this topic, I want to share with you my list of traditional restaurants I found out in HCMC, where you can have a vietnamese traditional standard meal:
    Share your thought with me!

  2. Oh, your post is really a good guide for those who wanna explore local cuisine in Saigon particularly. Thanks for the great post and keep yup with your good work!


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