We’re heading into the peak travel season to Vietnam – the winter time when the heat subsides a little in the south, it gets cold in the north, and dreary damp in the central region. This may seem weird but for those of us not used to extreme humidity or heat, winter is the best time to go to Vietnam. Many people are gearing up for their trips abroad and I have recently been receiving more inquiries about where to go and what to eat in Vietnam – one of the major travel destinations these days. I don’t know why I’ve not done this before but I’m going to run a short series of postings based around the major tourist and travel hubs: Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City), Hue, and Hanoi.
Things change rapidly in Vietnam – it’s like a wild frontier land – so feel free to add your tips and insights below. It’s hard to keep up with the latest and greatest, but we can together build a nice repository of information to share with one another.
Where and What to Eat in Saigon
You can eat through all of Vietnam in Saigon, but be sure to sample southern Vietnamese specialties, such as:
- banh xeo – sizzling rice crepes
- hu tieu – a flavorful surf-and-turf noodle soup with pork, shrimp, crab, garlic chives, Chinese celery and lots more goodies that shows off the agricultural wealth of southern Vietnam
- mam – a funky but oh-so-good fermented fish pastes and sauces that are rendered into hot pots (lau mam), rice noodle soups (bun mam), and dipping sauces (mam nem); pineapple cuts the funk but you may need to brush your teeth afterwards
- banh khot – crisp rice and coconut cakes cooked in abelskiver like pans
- canh chua – tart tamarind soup with fish (e.g., snakehead fish) with taro stem and rice paddy herb
- ca kho to – fish simmered in caramel sauce cooked down to an intense savoriness in a claypot
To get started, sample regional foods without hassling baby plastic chairs on sidewalks here:
Quan An Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1. A great place to sample or get a primer on Vietnamese street food. Prices are fair, dishes are prepared well, and there is table service. Cooks line the perimeter of the restaurant so checkout the offerings before loading up on some of Viet favorites such as banh hoi chao tom (grilled shrimp on sugar cane with fine rice noodles), goi du du bo kho (green papaya and beef jerky salad), and oc nhoi (steamed stuffed snails with lemongrass). Beer on ice, fresh papaya juice, and cool soursop smoothies are among the choices for quenching thirst in the stifling heat. Right across from the Reunification Palace. Go in early or mid-afternoon to avoid waiting. After trying out the food here, you’re ready to eat on the street.
Go to a quán bình dân (a regular person’s joint), where customers compose reasonably-priced meals from a daily array of dishes that’s presented cafeteria style. I’ve eaten as such spots in wet markets and actual restaurants. Just step inside and see what’s being offered. One reliable spot is
100 Ton That Tung Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1
When I went for dinner, it was rowdy with Vietnam’s youth culture (more than half of the country’s population was born after 1975). The boisterous customers and uniformed waiters, mostly under 30, enlivened their stark surroundings defined by the usual tile, florescent lighting, folding metal tables, and plastic stools. Like everyone else, we perched upon our stools, quaffed cold beers and dug into sour fish soup, spicy pickled green papaya, fish simmered in caramel sauce, and rice. Look at the food then tell the waiter what you want. There are two locations.
Eat Saigon specialties, such as banh xeo (literally sizzling crepes) – a wondrous crisp chewy crepe filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. Break off a piece, wrap it in lettuce with herbs and dunk in the nuoc cham dipping sauce. Two good spots are:
Banh Xeo 46A Ding Cong Trang
46A Ding Cong Trang, District 1. This family-run institution has been making sizzling rice crepes since 1945 over charcoal. Don’t mistake it for the imposter across the way! After all these years, it’s still good. I’ve seen one of the lady cooks there for years.
Bánh xèo Ngọc Sơn
103 Ngô Quyền, District 5. Banh Xeo 46A uses large skillets to make their crepes but at Ngoc Son, the young women out front fry the crepes in woks. The result is not as chewy crisp but amazing tasting, nevertheless. The outdoor garden eating area is fun in the evening.
Have pho not just for breakfast, but lunch and dinner too! It’s all around you and here’s an oldie but a goody:
260C Pasteur, District 3. Established in the 1950s, this is one of the oldest pho shops in Saigon and continues to serve terrific beef noodle soup. The very large bowls come with puff pastry rounds and banana leaf items. Eat one and they’ll charge you extra. It is not related to the international chain of Pho Hoa restaurants.
Eat tropical fruit till you drop. Buy durian 24/7 on Nguyễn Tri Phương street where multiple vendors set up shop on the sidewalk. Ask the taxi to take you. You can sell the durian as you approach. If you’re not into creamy but stinky durian, stick with the creamy mangos, custard apple, and bananas from the wet markets.
For up-market Viet fare, try:
Hoang Yen Restaurant
148 Hai Ba Trung, Dist. 1 and other locations. Lots of well-heeled locals go here for good service and well-crafted fare. It’s a tablecloth business and consistently good.
Phu Xuan Restaurant
128 Dinh Tien Hoang St., Da Kao Ward, D.1. Excellent Hue food in exceptionally tiny restaurant. They obtain ingredients from small producers and farms. Antiques, polite service, high-quality food.
34 Nguyen Thi Dieu St., District 3. The restaurant owned and operated by the Vietnamese Julia Child/Wolfgang Puck – Mrs. Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van. It’s located down a quiet street and offers refined Vietnamese fare. Inquire about cooking classes with Dzoan, who is one of the foremost authorities on Vietnamese cooking.
Get takeaway from a bakery/deli like this one:
64-68 Ham Nghi St., District 1. A huge deli/bakery/prepared-foods business located on a busy corner. You can get banh mi, Chinese roasted meats, steamed cassava and bao, rice plates, all kinds of Viet takeaway. Their baguette facilities are on site. There are many Nhu Lan bakeries abroad and their model is this one.
What to Do in Saigon
I'm not a War Remnants museum visitor or Cu Chi Tunnels kind of gal. Aside from eating, you can people watch, learn some history, buy books, shop for oddball food souvenirs and get some art under your belt at these spots:
Saigon Botanical Garden and Zoo
2B Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1. Escape from fast-paced Saigon by strolling through the lovely grounds and exploring the tropical flora. I love seeing all the romantic couples during the weekends.
135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1. One of the city’s most fascinating sights for those interested in history, politics, architecture and art. It’s the history 1966 building that the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into on April 30, 1975. Mid-century architecture and interior design. Check out the basement kitchen.
Fine Arts Museum
97A Pho Ðuc Chinh, District 1. The collection is so-so but the colonial building is great to linger in. Nice little galleries in that area to wander through and purchase from.
Binh Tay Market-Cholon
Đường Tháp Mười, District 6. Much better than Ben Thanh Market in District 1. Don’t miss a chance to wander this maze of dry goods and fresh food. This is the central market in the Cholon Chinese district and is mainly wholesale. However, you can purchase hard-to-find ingredients such as reddish-black peppercorns from Phu Quoc Island. If you go to Ben Thanh Market, you’ll find it to be touristy and sterile. Head across the street to the Old Market (Cho Cu) north of Ham Nghi between Ton That Dam and Ho Tung Mau. You’ll see the permanent stalls on the street. Nice little market.
185 Dong Khoi and 40 Nguyen Hue. Best bookstore for English, French and Vietnamese books. It is government run but that’s fine. They control the content anyway, no? I go to every one of the stores to rummage through the cookbook collection, which is mostly in Vietnamese. Great for maps and dictionaries too!
Where to Stay
Options abound but don’t expect rock bottom prices in Saigon as hotel rooms can be low supply during peak travel times. The food is inexpensive! Also, beware of ++ (plus plus) where there are extra taxes added on to the room rate. Here are a couple spots to consider:
Bong Sen Hotel
117-123 Dong Khoi, District 1. www.hotelbongsen.com
Moderately priced accommodations in main shopping and entertainment district. Comfortable, budget rooms are available at Bong Sen Hotel Annex (61 – 63 Hai Ba Trung Street). I usually stay at the annex when money is tight.
Sommerset Chancellor Court
No 21-23 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1. www2.somerset.com/
Moderately-priced executive service apartments conveniently located near the tourist hub but not in the busy, noisy heart of it. The marginal looking pho joint (says Pho Bac) a few doors down is actually quite good. Don’t mind the young people watching TV.
Side Trips from Saigon
Go into the Mekong Delta and if you can, visit Can Tho if you want to stick to the city. Trek out to Chau Doc for a crazy border town scene or fly to Phu Quoc island to sample the finest fish sauce in Vietnam! Flights from Saigon are inexpensive and easy to book.
Additional helpful information:
Previous posts and discussion regarding travel to Vietnam include:
- Tips for getting a Vietnam travel visa
- How to eat safely and stay healthy while traveling in Vietnam
- Food souvenirs worth bringing back from Vietnam
Preview travel and eating in Vietnam through these Vietnam travel series by these culinary experts: