Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant, colourful, chaotic, wonderful place. The city can be overwhelming at first, teeming with people. On my first day I wondered how I was going to cross the road. But within hours, I was crossing the road like a pro, shuffling along, not making any sudden movements, allowing the motorbikes to weave around me. A lot has changed since my first visit nearly three years ago but my favourite thing still exists – the food.
I didn’t know much about Vietnamese food before coming to Saigon but it’s easily the best thing about Vietnam. I love the freshness, the chili and the herbs.
Must-try foods in Vietnam include banh xeo, a savoury fried rice flour pancake filled with pork, prawns, beanspouts and greens. You eat it by wrapping portions in a lettuce or green leaf and dipping it in the sauce that accompanies it. It’s messy and delicious. Take tissues.
In its simplest term, banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich. But so much better. It can be filled with anything, but common ingredients are meat, paté, salad, egg, herbs and chili sauce, all stuffed in a baguette. Yum.
The national dish has to be pho, the king of noodle soups. Flat rice noodles are served in a delicious broth with herbs and, most commonly, thin slices of rare beef. The beef cooks in the broth. More herbs, lime and fresh chilies are served on the side, allowing you to make it as hot as you like.
The dish varies from region to region but my preference is for the clear, spicy broths of the south. My favourite pho place is still there, in the heart of the backpacker area of District 1. It’s no longer the tiny street side stall with a few tables of my first visit so it’s easier to find. It has become a lot busier, has a name (Pho Quynh on Pham Ngu Lao, District 1) and the staff wear matching t-shirts. They still serve up the best pho in town.
Bun cha (top picture) is originally a northern dish but it’s readily available in Saigon. A basket of green herbs and leaves and a plate of cold rice noodles are served up with a sauce and small patties of pork meat and strips of bacon. You put some noodles in a bowl, break up some of the greens into it, add a few spoons of sauce and some meat, and eat with some chopsticks.
My favourite way to get my vegetable intake in Saigon is with morning glory. Water spinach is sautéed with loads of garlic and oil. If you’re not a vegetarian you can get your morning glory sautéed with thin slices of beef.
Streetside ‘cafés’ still exist, although they are slowly being replaced by more upmarket establishments within actual buildings with walls. But should you find a portable kitchen surrounded by small plastic chairs and tables, pull up a seat and point at things that look delicious.
For a less intimidating introduction to Vietnamese street food, you could try Quan An Ngon, a restaurant serving up all sorts of street food style dishes.
I also recommend checking out www.eatingsaigon.com for what’s new on the food scene.
When in Saigon we can recommend staying at Villa Song Saigon a member of Secret Retreats. Once the residence of a wealthy banker, this beautiful riverside hotel has exceptional staff and service, a wonderful spa, and a gorgeous setting.