Eating Like a Local in Saigon, Vietnam

Eating Like a Local in Saigon, Vietnam

Food has always played a major part of our travels. We have an unofficial motto that the food of the destination makes or breaks our trip in that particular city/country. With Vietnam, it was definitely the food that will keep us coming back. Landing in Saigon was the first Asian city of our RTW trip and our bellies were crying out for some Asian flavor and spice considering it had been deprived of it for over 5 months! We were ready to embark on some major pigging out on Vietnamese food.

 

Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals still refer to it, Saigon, attracts Vietnamese people from all parts of the country. Being the central economic hub of the country, it also brings together all the flavors of Vietnamese cuisine into one city and the food definitely does not disappoint.  We were able to taste dishes from North, Central, and Southern cuisine all within a span of 10 miles – these are just a few of the many dishes we enjoyed:

 

 

Cơm Tấm

Com Tam Cali Restaurant: 32, Nguyen Trai, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, {{Province, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

I’ll start with one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, Cơm Tấm. Literally translates to broken rice, the dish consists of a hodge podge of Vietnamese grilled meats assembled together on a bed of broken rice with fish sauce poured throughout. The meats can be anything really, but the base has to have the broken rice.

We ate at Com Tam Cali and our dish consisted of a porkchop, shredded pork, steamed pork and egg, fried shrimp paste and 2 quail eggs. We actually went on a hunt looking for this dish at a local stall, but kept getting referred to try Com Tam Cali. We later found out it’s an Americanized dish that was brought back to Saigon by someone from California (hence the name Cali).

 

Bò Lá Lốt

Quán Ăn Cô Liêng: 321 Võ Văn Tần, 5, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Bò Lá Lốt and Nem nướng was also one of the tasty dishes we tried when in Saigon. We found this place through watching some of Mark Wien’s videos on Youtube when he visited the city, which led us to this establishment Cô Liên Bò Lá Lốt outside of district one in a none descript road. Bo La Lot are essentially Vietnamese beef sausages wrapped in betel leaves and grilled over charcoal. I also got an order of nem nuong which were pork sausages to see how they tasted compared to back at home. The Bo La Lot here was definitely the star of our lunch and to eat them, you wrap them with some herbs, rice noodle, lettuce, and picked carrots and radish. They also had a special dipping sauce to dip them in, which really brought an additional kick of flavor to it.

 

Posted on the restaurants wall shows how Mark Wiens featured their restaurant on his top 25 list when he visited Vietnam.

 

Bánh Cuốn

Bánh Cuốn Hải Nam: 11A Cao Thắng, phường 2, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Banh Cuon which literally means rolled cake, consists of a thin sheet of freshly steamed rice batter rolled inside with ground pork, mushroom, shallots, and with a side of Chả lụa (Vietnamese pork meat load). We found a place that made them fresh and immediately ordered some to taste. The Banh Cuon was soft and tender and the crispy texture of the wood ear mushroom and flavorful ground pork really brought the dish together. The Cha Lua on the side was a good compliment to the dish as it provided some added protein to the dish but I could have just eaten the Banh Cuon on its own and be extremely satisfied.

 

 

Our dish also came with a side of bean sprouts and chopped up lettuce and herbs which gave it a very fresh taste to cut out any of the grease of the ground pork.

 

Bánh Bèo

Món Huế Restaurant: Various locations around Ho Chi Minh City

One of the most notable dishes in Central Vietnam from the ancient capital city of Huế is Bánh Bèo which literally translates to  “water fern cake”.  These tiny little steamed cakes are savory with chopped up shrimp, scallions, mung bean, fried shallots, and fish sauce to flavor.

We ate our Banh Beo at a popular eatery named Mon Hue that has multiple locations around the city. Mon Hue specializes in Hue cuisine which is more focused on traditional ways of cooking which uses steaming as its primary method.

 

 

Bún Bò Huế

Bún bò Minh Nguyệt: 102/15 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Bún Bò Huế, the forgotten noodle dish of Vietnam overshadowed by it’s more popular brother dish, Phở, is highly underrated in Vietnamese cuisine. We found a place nearby Bitexco Tower and were immediately drawn by the aroma of beef and pork simmering with lemongrass stalks in an over sized cauldron right in front of the store.

Bun Bo Hue is another specialty originally from the ancient capital of Hue in Central Vietnam. The soup is simmered for hours in a broth of beef shank, bones, fermented shrimp paste, and chili oil, it is packed full of flavor in comparison to Pho. Our bowl was topped with some been tendon, tripe, brisket, that just melted in your mouth.

 

We also got an order of Bánh bèo and Bánh lọc which are also popular Hue dishes, but the Bun Bo Hue was definitely the star of the night for that meal.

 

Bánh Bột Chiên

We walked around District 1 to explore the city and I recognized a dish my parents made me when I was younger. Fried rice cakes with eggs. The man was making them fresh so I ordered a plate from him and he directed us inside to have a seat. The location of the shop is south of District 1 and definitely a local’s place as there was just a single sign out front advertising Bột Chiên. No English whatsoever.

Banh Bot Chien is a simple dish, just rice cake fried crispy with scrambled egg and scallions added on top to bring it all together. To garnish, some peanuts, radish and chili sauced is added to balance out and cut the grease from the dish. A soy sauce dipping sauce is mixed together for you to drizzle on top.

 

Bánh Mì

Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa: 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich consisting of a French baguette with Vietnamese meat load stuffed inside with pate, mayo, soy sauce, pickled carrots, radish, cilantro, egg and a lot of other goodies depending on what you order. From reading on TripAdvisor and various blogger sites, time and time again we were directed to go to Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, dubbed the “Best Banh Mi in Ho Chi Minh City”. It was about a couple of blocks away from our hotel and we decided to make the trek there. Walking a couple of blocks in District 1 Ho Chi Minh City felt much more of a journey because the traffic in District 1 is horrendous and crossing the streets is not for the faint of heart!

 

We got to Huynh Hoa and ordered the special in Vietnamese called Dac Biet which has everything inside. All types of meat load, sausage slices, pate, carrots, radish, cucumber, cilantro, mayo, soy sauce, and we made sure to let them no we didn’t want any chili. (Beware of those chilis!) We took our Banh Mi to-go and walked to a nearby park to enjoy them. The Banh Mi was definitely delicious and hearty with all the various meat inside and the baguette tasted just perfect and gave it a nice crisp. Freshly pickled carrots, radish and cucumber are added.  The Banh Mi was indeed worth the trek and we had a delicious little picnic in the park.

 

 

You don’t have to make a trip out to a specific shop, as Banh Mi shops line the streets in the city.  Most are open in the morning and close around noon and are meant to be more of a breakfast food for the local people. Walking around one day, we were able to get a glimpse of a Banh Mi baking shop and saw a family making them fresh. An interesting fact about Vietnamese Banh Mi is that the baguette is not 100% the same recipe as the French baguette – wheat flour is actually mixed with rice flour which is a local ingredient. No wonder the bread’s texture is much lighter and crispier.

 

You’ll find Banh Mi carts throughout the city. They have a clear glass so the customers can look and see what type of meats the vendor has for sale with their sandwiches. Every vendor has a slight twist on the type of meat they have with their sandwich. This one is advertising a roasted pork Banh Mi for about 17,000 VND just under $1 USD. A slick deal for a delicious sandwich made in front of your eyes.

 

Eating like a local can be tough, as there is a language barrier that can occur. We were fortunate because I was still able to roughly communicate with the locals even though it was a bit embarrassing, as I could see them laughing inside at my attempt to speak it, it was well worth the delicious food we ate during our time in Saigon.

 

 

 

 

 


If you don’t have the courage to visit these local establishments alone, there is a solution! We took a tour of Saigon with Saigon Free Walking Tours that had an option for a food tour. These tours are 100% free and our guides were University students who volunteer to take tourists around to show them their city. We were only expected to pay for their food when we took them around a give them some tip money for their gas for their motorbikes. Even though it’s advertised as a walking tour, it’s actually a motorbike tour where the students drive you around the city visiting local eateries and just having conversations with them so they can improve their English.  Tours like these are a favorite of ours, as we get to explore the city from a local’s perspective, and go to places we would have never known to go on our own.

Our guides, Chrysler and Ryan, picking us up from our hotel on their motorbikes.

Our guides Chrysler and Ryan are both University students majoring in Tourism or Travel and were friendly and knowledgable guides that took us to some good eats around the city.

 

Bánh Canh Cua

Bánh Canh Cua literally translates to cake soup crab. A thick seafood rich broth packed with seafood flavor is combined with freshly made noodles which are hand sliced from a thin sheet of rice cake to make this popular dish. Banh Canh can have anything inside but in our case it’s packed with bits and pieces of fresh crab so it’s named Banh Canh Cua. It’s also topped with pieces of prawn and a big slice of steamed shrimp cake garnished with scallions and pepper.

 

Our first bite of the soup was packed with seafood flavor. You can tell the broth has been simmering in crab and shrimp all day and the hearty pieces of shrimp, shrimp cake made a good addition. What I like most about this soup is that there’s bits of crab meat with every spoonful of soup.

 

 

Chrysler and Ryan then took us behind the Saigon Opera House to get some milk tea. We could tell this place was definitely a local’s spot because the vendor didn’t even have a shop! It was just a few people lining up their drinks on the side of a building and making them on the spot. According to Chrysler this place has the best milk tea so we ordered some and walked around the Opera house to check it out.

Drinks being sold along the alley of a parking lot. Can’t get any more local than this.

 

Bánh Tráng Nướng (Vietnamese Pizza)

Our next stop was to try Bánh tráng nướng. They called it Vietnamese pizza because of the resemblance to a pizza. The dish is definitely not a classic Vietnamese one and was invented recently and is especially popular with the younger crowd. Banh Trang Nuong originated from a city of Đà Lạt in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It’s a flat round rice cracker that’s topped with numerous ingredients of chopped dried shrimp, scallions, meat, and scrambled up quail egg.

 

This was something new to me because we don’t have this back in the States. It’s exclusively a Vietnamese street food – and became one of Tiff’s favorite snacks. Ours had a lot of different toppings which I can’t really recall, but it was definitely tasty. The vendor put the rice cracker on the grill, added the ingredients and toppings and cooked it up for us, roasting it right on the spot.

 

 

Cà Rem (Ice Cream)

Cà Rem: 191 Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, Phường 4, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

The final stop of our food tour was at an ice cream shop that’s known for its coconut ice cream and was also popular with the college crowd. Tons of motorbikes lined the front of the shop and the place was packed with students in their late teens and early twenties.

 

The concept is really cool because you’re eating coconut ice cream with a coconut shell as a bowl. The coconut ice cream is made fresh daily and super creamy and rich. The toppings include fried coconut shavings, thin strips of mango, sweet glutinous rice, and a sprinkle of peanuts.

It was a good ending to all the delicious food we had during our tour and a refreshing ending to a long day of eating. Thank you Chrysler and Ryan for showing us around and giving us a locals’ experience!

 

 

 

 

 


It is said that there are hundreds of different types of Vietnamese dishes in Vietnamese cuisine. I don’t doubt it after our visit to Saigon. There’s just something about the cuisine that makes it so balanced when eating. In addition, the diversity of the cuisine throughout the country with different regional specialties makes it tough to decide what you should try next.

 

You don’t have to go looking for great food in Vietnam. Great food finds you. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, cafes, little storefronts, in the streets; carried in makeshift portable kitchens on yokes borne by women vendors. Your cyclo-driver will invite you to his home; your guide will want to bring you to his favorite place. Strangers will rush up and offer you a taste of something they’re proud of and think you should know about. It’s a country filled with proud cooks – and passionate eaters. – Anthony Bourdain

This quote has really resonated with me since my visit to Vietnam. I emigrated from Vietnam when I was only 2 years old and don’t have any recollection of the country. I do, however, recall all of the dishes my parents made for me when growing up and tying all of their dishes with the food that I tasted on this trip has made it all a very nostalgic experience. This being the first time being back and getting to experience Vietnam through the cuisine has made me have a greater appreciation for my ethnic background that I’m proud to be a part of. You can expect many more food posts of our travels throughout Vietnam!

 

 

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