So you’ve just arrived in Saigon and are dying to try all those street eats you’ve heard so much about: the crunchy-soft banh mi, the fragrant pho noodles, the fresh spring rolls.
Good stuff. Maybe great stuff. Yet for some, it’s not enough.
For food lovers looking to do more than just scratch the surface of this vast culinary landscape, the 8 experiences below are your shortcut to Saigon’s most satisfying gastronomic delights. Grab your maps, prepare your small change, and don’t worry: you won’t leave disappointed.
|Vietnamese wonton noodle soup
Tamarind Crab – Fans of Ba Chi tamarind crab usually struggle finding words to describe how tasty this dish is. Instead, their eyes bulge and they repeat the words, ‘It’s amazing’, over and over. The crabs are chosen fresh, and cooked in a wok over extremely high heat with pork belly bits, lots of garlic, pepper and tamarind. The syrupy sauce is scooped up with crusty bread as you wait for the crabs to cool down enough to tackled with your bare hands.
Ba Chi Restaurant, 13 Pho Co Dieu, District 5
Lunch Lady – Made (more) famous by Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, No Reservations, the Lunch Lady of Hoang Sa is a favourite among locals working in offices along the canal that separates District 1 and Binh Thanh. Her heavenly noodles and complex broths are rotated from day to day, but whatever she serves is quickly devoured by legions of loyal diners, so show up early.
Near 23 Hoang Sa, District 1
Banh Xeo – Banh Xeo takes its name from the sizzling sound the batter makes as it hits the pan. Saigon’s version of these crispy yellow pancakes is made from turmeric, rice flour and coconut milk, and is much larger than those served in Hanoi. Stuffed inside are more textural treats: beansprouts, mushrooms, slices of pork, mung beans, and a few shrimps. Take a bit of the banh xeo with its filling, wrap it with some mint and basil in a fresh lettuce leaf, dunk in mild fish sauce, and you have one of Vietnam’s most vibrant snacks.
No Name, 1 Bac Hai St., District 10
Cuc Gach Quan – Also known as the architect’s house, this restaurant occupies a beautifully preserved Vietnamese villa, and serves flavourful country delicacies and family-style shared dishes in an relaxed, atmospheric setting. The menu is long, consistently outstanding; and its humble presentation only adds to the appeal. Cuc Gach Quan’s just-squeezed fruit juices are especially good, as is the grilled pork with pickled cabbage, the tofu with lemongrass and the stir-fried pumpkin flowers with garlic.
10 Dang Tat, District 1
Cha Ca – You don’t have to go to Hanoi to sample this 100-year-old secret recipe: the capital’s famous Cha Ca La Vong institution has a southern counterpart nestled in Saigon’s central district. Be warned: it’s all too easy to become addicted to this dish. Here’s what we know: fatty catfish are marinated in turmeric, pepper and galangal and grilled before being pan-fried with butter, shallots and heaps of fresh dill and green onions. Cooked over an open flame at your table, a squeeze of lemon and a few slices of chilli enhance the dish as it comes together. (It’s all right to send back the fermented mam tom and request the lighter nuoc mam instead.) In your bowl, combine the cold ingredients--fresh herbs, vermicelli noodles, crunchy peanuts—and top it all with the grilled fish and wilted dill from the pan. Magic!
Cha Ca La Vong, 36 Ton That Thiep, District 1
Vietnamese High Tea – A traditional pastime with a Vietnamese twist, the Lobby Lounge at the Caravelle Hotel is one of the few places in Saigon where you can sit back with a view of historic Lam Son Square, and sample sweet and savoury nibbles from all around the country. Every afternoon the hotel offers a Vietnamese Tea loaded with local goodies and your choice of coffee or tea. On the savoury side there are fish cakes, shrimp mousse on lemongrass skewers, banana blossom salad and grilled beef in la lot leaves. From the sweet selection: steamed pandan rice cakes with ginger syrup and sweet lotus seed soup.
Caravelle Hotel, 19 Lam Son Square, District 1
Lau Hot Pot – Saigon’s hotpot offerings are no less enticing, varied and delicious than the more well-known versions served in the cooler cities up north. A bright sweet and sour seafood hotpot and a light red snapper and vegetable hotpot are the two types you’ll find most often on the tables of locals in the restaurants that open in the evenings just outside Binh Thanh market. The fun is in the preparation: dunking your chosen morsels and leaves into the bubbling broth, waiting for everything to get blanched or cooked through, and then slurping up the fruits of your labours with bites of soft bun noodles.
Restaurants near Ben Thanh Market, or try Papaya, 68 Pham Viet Chanh, Binh Thanh District