Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is truly a unique place that still carries with it a lot of tradition, but you can feel the burgeoning pulse of a new Asian metropolitan city. Commonly referred to as Saigon, it’s these two sides of the spectrum that make exploring this city so rich and full of flavor. All it took was two days for my wife and I to fall in love with Saigon. A stroll through the city––its countless motorbikes zipping around, street food invading your senses on every corner, and life happening around you at a rapid pace––is magical.
It may seem intimidating at first, but Saigon will slowly embrace you with warm arms; one day strolling its alleys soaking in the sights of a wet market, and the next admiring the remnants of French colonial architecture. It is a place where you can experience firsthand the modernization of a culture. While the majority of locals still enjoy eating streetside on little red stools (a practice that can be mastered by visitors in no time), a gradual shift to more modern trappings is apparent. That’s why there’s no better time to go than right now, a chance to get a taste of the old with a little bit of the new.
With so many alleys, addresses can sometimes be hard to find, and often you may think you’re at the right spot only to realize it’s just a little further down. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to visit a place only to find it was closed unexpectedly. It’s best to check online for the most up-to-date opening hours. We had our own motorbike, but taxis are readily available and very affordable. Stick to the reputable brands, like Vinasun and Mai Linh. We brought a notebook to show taxi drivers addresses, and they generally had no problem getting us to the right spot. There’s so much the city has to offer and so many passionate opinions about where to go, but without further ado, the following are some personal favorites from Ho Chi Minh City.
Breakfast is the most important meal in any country in the world. I don’t often eat breakfast back home, but when abroad (and especially when jet lagged), there’s more inspiration to wake up early and not squander an opportunity for an extra meal.
Phở is probably one of the best known Vietnamese dish exports. In Vietnam, it’s often eaten as a morning option, and we always attempt to adhere to the adage, do as the locals do. Like burgers in the United States, everyone has their favorite phở joint. Phở Lệ was the clear winner for us. The flavorful, oily broth was always piping hot with noodles cooked just right. An order of the bowl with all available meat offerings includes their not-to-be-missed brisket, or gầu (so good I often ordered an extra plate of it), and their beef meatballs (bò viên).
You can even get a raw egg in broth as a side!
413–415 Nguyễn Trãi, P. 7, District 5
Bánh Cuốn Hải Nam
As a dish I had never had before, this one wowed me the moment I had my first bite. Bánh cuốn is a rice noodle sheet filled with pork and mushrooms. Be sure to stop and watch as they steam fresh rice noodle sheets and assemble these beauties outside, and don’t forget to order a side of chả (pork sausage) to eat along with it. Then, just drizzle with lots of fish sauce and enjoy.
11A Cao Thắng, P. 2, District 3
We have a rule with every city we visit––we must explore coffee culture. This city was undoubtedly one of the most fun places to do just that. Saigon has everything ranging from sidewalk cafés to new specialty coffee shops that house roast only Vietnamese beans. They were plentiful, and we were able to stop by a new place every day.
The Morning Café
Part of the fun of the café scene in Ho Chi Minh City is actually in trying to find some of the shops. Often they’re down an alley, or up a random flight of stairs. This shop falls into that category. Quaint and cozy and decorated with vintage touches like tape decks and photos, the Sua Dua (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) is delicious here, and goes wonderfully with a beautiful view of the street below. Most cafés will also accompany coffee with some free iced tea––so drink up!
36 Lê Lợi, 2nd Floor, District 1
With specialty coffee such a big part of our daily life, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it exists in Saigon. The Workshop sources high quality local beans and roasts in-house. Customers have their choice of brew style (Aeropress, Chemex), and the gorgeously designed interior is a reminder that craft culture can be found anywhere in the world.
27 Ngô Đức Kế, 2nd Floor, District 1
Cơm Sườn Mê Kông
Freshly grilled marinated pork chops and rice? Enough said. Order a fried dill fish cake on the side and throw in an extra pork chop while you’re at it. It can get quite busy during peak lunch time; be prepared to stand next to a packed table and jump at the next open seat!
136 Sương Nguyệt Ánh, District 1
Lunch Lady has been covered extensively, and given the hype, we approached with tempered expectations. But, boy does the Lunch Lady deliver. Her noodle soups are the closest to perfection in a bowl as one can find. While the broth is delicious, the toppings and varied pork sausages are the stars of the show. Spring rolls are brought to each table upon seating; kindly decline if you aren’t interested, though, or there will be a charge for them.
Also, don’t miss the Đậu Hũ (Sweet Tofu) food cart that is stopped beside the Lunch Lady. It was a clear dessert favorite for us, particularly when topped with mochi, sweet syrup and coconut cream.
23 Hoang Sa, District 1
Hunger strikes often when exploring a new city; we think it’s best to give in and enjoy a few bites. Here are some snack options that will help keep your spirits afloat throughout the day.
It shouldn’t be hard to find someone selling bánh mì in Saigon. Look down any street, and you’re bound to see a street food vendor filling freshly delivered bread with various toppings––from fried eggs to grilled pork meatballs. Take one bite of any bánh mì in Vietnam and discover what’s been missing from your entire life––the bread takes center stage, perfectly crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside.
Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa is considered the best sandwich in town. The bread is toasted in an oven, then packed with a plethora of cured meats and a generous heaping of house páté. Since they’re only open from late afternoon on, it’s a perfect snack as you ponder where to go for dinner.
26 Lê Thị Riêng, District 1
The heat can easily overwhelm in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s important to stay hydrated, but sometimes water just won’t do. Soda Chanh, or fresh lime soda, was a go-to for us. Fresh limes squeezed into a glass with sweet syrup and club soda––simple, yet delicious. With two gorgeously designed cafés, L’Usine is an ideal stop when you need a break for drinks, snacks and some Wi-Fi to share photos of your adventure.
151/1 Dong Khoi, District 1
Bánh Tráng Nướng
When not exactly sure what to eat, our instinct is to always follow the crowds. We first came upon Bánh Tráng Nướng at a Cần Thơ (Mekong), a night market, during a time when throngs of kids on motorbikes were ordering non-stop. In Saigon we found many street vendors in parks and sidewalks hawking what I like to call a Vietnamese quesadilla. Rice paper topped with ingredients like quail egg and fried onions, drizzled with sweet and creamy sauces and finally crisped over a charcoal fire, folded and served. Following that first loud, crunchy and savory bite, it’s nearly impossible not to go back and order another right away. This was a popular nighttime spot and a great opportunity to experience sidewalk eating in Saigon.
61 Cao Thắng, District 3
At first glance, a meal of sea snails might sound a little scary for the less adventurous, but this is really more a seafood restaurant than anything else. Seemingly endless options range from different types of snails, clams, mussels and oysters. Outside, fresh seafood is in full view, all of it cooked in varying styles and flavors––from purely buttered to grilled, and even topped with cheese. This is a can’t-miss food experience in Vietnam, and one of my all-time favorite meals.
189 Tô Hiến Thành, District 10
And for dessert…
The Bean Store
Finally, in case there wasn’t a chance to have Đậu Hũ while visiting to the Lunch Lady, this hip spot has Singaporean-style sweet tofu and an unimaginable amounts of soy desserts, including soy shakes.
399 Võ Văn Tần, District 5