Saigon is a city teeming with motor bikes, coffee and soup. At least that’s what we found during our two-week exploration of the Ho Chi Minh City food scene.
With a population exceeding 8 million people, rapidly growing Saigon rumbles with activity on every corner like a machine with chainlike lines of never ending scooters that streak through some of the busiest intersections in the world. Though the official name is now Ho Chi Minh City, everybody in the electric city calls it Saigon, so that’s what we call it as well.
The Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City food scene is for real. There’s literally great food on every block from Southern Vietnamese style Pho to what seems to be a million variations on bun or rice noodles. The city loves Banh Mi. You’ll find the Vietnamese submarine sandwiches everywhere. The Banh Mi was invented in Saigon after all. Northern specialties like Banh Cuon are also popular.
If that’s not enough, you can always enjoy a seafood celebration in one of the many seafood halls that seem to be everywhere. We encountered one seafood joint with a ginormous king crab lurking in a tank for all to see. But where should a tourist start? We won’t pretend to be experts after two weeks of eating our way through the city; however, we happily share our favorite ways of eating (and drinking coffee) in this Vietnamese mega-city here.
2foodtrippers Ho Chi Minh City Food Primer
Take a Food Tour
We have an ongoing love hate relationship with food tours. We love the idea of taking food tours to learn about the culinary aspects of a city while bonding with local experts and like-minded travelers. At the same time, we hate dumbed down tours that waste our time and bore our taste buds. We gambled with Saigon Street Eats when we accepted their invitation for their Pho Trail morning food tour. Owned and managed by a food-loving Australian-Vietnamese couple, this tour company falls into the good category of food tours. Co-owner Vu guided us around a non-touristy Saigon neighborhood for pho, market food, sugar cane juice and a temple picnic. Vu shared food and food tips as we wandered with purpose, plus some valuable tips on how to cross the city’s busy streets. We won’t tell you exactly where we went as that would just ruin the fun when you take the tour yourself.
Click here to book a food tour with Saigon Street Eats.
Eat Street Food
Some cities like Paris and Tokyo demand an exploration of their fine dining scenes. Saigon is not one of them. Sure, Saigon is a big city with its fair share fancy restaurants, but the best way to eat in Saigon is by taking it to the street. Each block in the city has multiple casual restaurants plus a myriad of vendors serving homespun food right on the sidewalk. Popular Saigon street foods include Banh Mi sandwiches and Bot Chien (pictured above).
There are tons of internet lists with recommended street food vendors, but we found our favorite Saigon street food vendors by following our eyes and noses. Our preferred technique is to see where and what the local crowds are eating and then plop down on a little plastic chair to join them. The risk is low since prices are so reasonable, but the taste rewards are boundless.
In many ways, Saigon serves as a “best of” for Vietnamese food. If you look hard enough, you can find all of the country’s specialities done with a Saigon twist. Soup is no exception to this rule. Hanoi may be the original home for pho, but Saigon does its own sweeter version. How about Bun Bo Hue? Yep, you can easily find this Central Vietnam favorite in Saigon too. As an extra bonus, most Saigon soup shops provide copious amounts of fresh herbs like Thai Basil, Mint, Culantro (a heartier stemmed relative to cilantro) and Rice Paddy Herb. In Saigon, you can also add pickled garlic and a slew of condiments to the big bowls of soup.
Watch our video to see us eat soup in Saigon.
Graze through a Market
Vietnam is a country with more than its fair share of natural resources, and there’s no better place to check out the bounty than at a local market. Ben Thanh Market is the city’s most famous market, but we found this huge central market to be touristic and expensive. Instead, we preferred the smaller neighborhood markets which can be found all over the city.
Tasting Tip: As fun as it is to shop at the city’s many markets, check out high-end Japanese department store Takashimaya. We shared a big platter of sushi and a tasty custard pastry in Takashimaya’s basement food court for very reasonable prices.
Ben Thanh Market is located at 32-30, 36-34-32-30 Bội Phan Châu, Bến Thành, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.
Takashimaya is located at Saigon Centre, 65 Le Loi Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.
Breakfast is a big deal in Saigon. Many people eat this meal on their way to work, often a big bowl of Pho or a quick Banh Mi sandwich on the go. Though we mostly ate Pho and Banh Cuon (stuffed noodle rolls) for breakfast in Saigon, our favorite Saigon breakfast is Banh Mi Op La at Banh Mi Hoa Ma. Sitting on a tiny plastic chairs with a view of the city traffic and the constant construction noise is the perfect way to enjoy Banh Mi Op La. This restaurant’s sparse menu includes Banh Mi sandwiches and Banh Mi Op La Du Thu. We prefer the latter – platters of fried eggs and assorted meats served with pickled vegetables, paté and crispy baguettes. With the addition of a little hot sauce and two cups of ice coffee, this meal was our favorite Saigon breakfast and maybe even our favorite Saigon meal.
Bánh Mì Hoà Mã is located at 53 Cao Thắng, phường 17, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.
As the biggest city in the world’s second largest coffee bean producing country, Saigon has a lot of coffee shops. And by a lot, we mean thousands if not more. Locals drink coffee at all times of the day, usually iced and with a lot of condensed milk. Some coffee shops, like Aha in the bottom of our Airbnb apartment building, are simple spaces serving coffee and smoothies in a community setting. Literally sprinkled throughout the city, small coffee shops like Aha fuel the city with endless cups of strong, sweet coffee.
Saigon’s growing coffee shop trend, however, is more upscale coffee shops like L’Usine and The Workshop, fitting with the city’s growing artisan food movement. L’Usine’s space includes a design shop and restaurant, adding up to an elegant coffee experience. Located on the third floor of an old industrial building, The Workshop provides a more streamlined space with sophisticated coffee drinks. When we closed our your eyes at these two modern coffee shops, we could have been anywhere in the world. We opened them and were happy to be sipping coffee in Saigon.
Aha is located at 92 Phạm Ngọc Thach, Phượng 6, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam.
L’Usine is located at 70A-70B-68 Lê Lợi, Bến Thành, quân 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The Workshop is located at 3 / F pq 1, 27 Ngô Đức kẻ, Bến Nghe, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
We thank Saigon Street Eats for hosting us on their Pho Trail food tour. It was a great introduction to Ho Chi Minh City food.