Vietnamese food can either be a mystery or a delectable gift. Just look at the strange words and new ingredients, and smell the fragrant aroma wafting from kitchens everywhere in this country. You may have tried spring rolls and pho from your neighborhood deli, but these time-honored items are just the tiny tip of a deep, delicious iceberg. Vietnamese cuisine is, in fact, a careful blending of the five fundamental tastes of spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet – a cooking philosophy that has resulted in some of this planet’s finest street eats.
There’s no better place to sample this country’s food than the concrete jungles of Ho Chi Minh City.
To slowly ease into Vietnamese cooking, head on down to Saigon’s best-known market, Ben Thanh (intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Aves and Le Lai St) a cavernous hive of locals wheeling, dealing and haggling amid a sea of merchandise. Try to avoid being drawn into the maze of 5,000-plus shops and stalls – you can do that after you’ve eaten – and instead make a beeline for the cluster of food hawkers occupying the northern half of the building.
Here’s where you can find a good intro to southern Vietnamese fare, from simple com chien fried-rice dishes to the standard pho noodles and goi cuon spring rolls. From the nearest food stall, order a serving of banh beo – tender rice-flour cakes smothered in tangy nuoc cham sauce, and sprinkled with chopped dried shrimp and scallions. The basic banh beo is tasty enough with its delicate flavor and gelatin-like texture, but try the dac biet (special) version, which has banh bot loc shrimp dumplings and thick slices of cha sausage. Wash it down with syrupy-sweet ca phe sua coffee and your food adventure is off to a fine start.
You can spend your time between meals roaming the streets of District 1. This is Saigon’s most storied neighborhood, and it hosts such grand French colonial-era jewels as the Romanesque Notre Dame Basilica, and the century-old People’s Committee Hall with its Soviet-style statue of Ho Chi Minh. If you come across a vendor grilling rice papers by the roadside, do stop for a bite: chances are he’s selling banh trang nuong (also known as Vietnamese tacos), a snack made by slathering an egg on a sheet of wafer-thin rice paper. Ground meat, spring onions, chilli sauce and pork floss are then added before this messy patty is grilled over hot coals. The whole process takes only seconds, but the taste will linger a whole lot longer. Try not to eat too much, though, because your next meal is soon to arrive.
Despite lunchtime normally being simple and quick (the Saigonese are always on the go), be ready for something a little bit heavier. This being Asia, there’s always rice on the menu – and here in the South, it’s likely to come in the form of com tam, or “broken rice”. It’s a version of the classic rice combo plate that came about when local farmers started using damaged rice grains for their meals.
Sometimes boiled with chicken stock, this fluffy alternative to steamed rice is paired with different meats and vegetables at com binh dan (it means “commoners’ rice”) stalls throughout the city. You simply point at the dishes you like and have it arranged on your table like a personal buffet. If you’re unsure which ingredients to get, simply order the com tam suon trung – that’s broken rice with sweet, lemongrass-infused pork chops and a fried egg – for a classic but hard-to-beat combination.
But there are noodles as well. For that, there’s an eating house, streetside stall or hole-in-the-wall on practically every corner of Saigon. If pho is the king of all Vietnamese noodle bowls, the queen is most likely hu tieu – a tasty pork broth-based soup that boasts a variety of toppings not commonly seen in the former. For starters, hu tieu can have anything from thin tapioca glass noodles to flat white rice noodles, or the even transparent “cellophane” noodles. It’s also topped with pieces of Mekong shrimp, pork liver, dried squid, chopped onions and many other ingredients. The result is a steaming, savory-sweet concoction that offers plenty to munch, slurp and chew on. Dai Phat Restaurant (275 Le Thanh Ton) is a good spot to get acquainted with the noodle queen.
Another popular lunchtime noodle is the yellow wheat-flour variety called mi. These thin and curly tummy fillers resemble instant noodles, but their preparation methods – not to mention their taste – are worlds apart. You won’t have to look hard to find mi, because they’re usually kept in baskets right behind a hawker’s glass counter. Don’t hesitate to order up a mi xao bo – that’s stir-fried yellow noodles topped with mushrooms, kailan, broccoli and narrow cuts of tender beef. This delectable recipe bursts with umami, although it does tend to pack more than its fair share of cooking oil. An alternative is the part-salad, part-soup delicacy known as mi quang, which matches the noodles with rich chicken broth and meat; also included is a dash of chilli paste, some vegetables, shrimps and a sprinkling of roasted peanuts. Rice crackers add a welcome crunch to this mix, giving you a noodle bowl that’s brimming with taste. Mi Quang My Son (38B Dinh Tien Hoang) is a local favorite, and it’s also near a cluster of eateries specializing in that perennial tourist must-eat, the fried cha gio pork spring rolls.
Any of these hearty lunches should keep you powered for the next few hours – at least until it’s time for the next Saigonese snack. Just a few blocks north of the Pham Ngu Lao backpackers’ haven is a joint that specializes in a duo of tasty southern Vietnamese snacks. Muoi Xiem (204 Nguyen Trai St) pays tribute to the humble turmeric crêpe – the banh xeo – with its countless renditions, ranging from the traditional shrimp-and-beansprouts filling to the more modern mushrooms and seared chicken. With its crackly, wok-fried skin, the banh xeo is best eaten by hand alongside a platter of fresh vegetables. The same goes for this restaurant’s other forte – the banh khot – which uses a similar batter, but is shaped like a little cup. You dip it in a lime-based sauce, bite into the crispy exterior and feel the custard-like texture explode in your mouth: simply delicious.
The folks in HCMC put a lot of effort into their working day, so it isn’t surprising that dinnertime heralds a different level of feasting. Proof of this can be found at sundown, when the city sidewalks start to overflow with diners on plastic tables and knee-high chairs. Stop by for an appetizer at the neighborhood barbecue stall (Ton Duc Thang St has lots of them) – a few sticks of bo la lot, or beef chunks wrapped in betel leaves, should get you warmed up – and then it’s off to the eating house for some serious (what else?) eating.
We suggest rustling up a group of like-minded foodies, and making a beeline for Hoang Ty (1 Nguyen Huu Cau) and its signature meal, the thit luoc cuon banh trang. This is a roll-your-own affair of thinly sliced pork knuckles, lettuce, cucumbers, basil and shiso leaves inside sheets of rice paper. Pair this meal with a few Saigon Beers, and you’ve got a dinner party in full swing. Simply put, it’s hard to go wrong with ingredients like these – and besides, it’s fun to hand-make your food together when eating as a group.
You can also opt for another course that’s just as engaging: the lau steamboat, available at Lau 404 (7 Phan Van Truong). This is the Vietnamese version of the hotpot, a cook-it-yourself cauldron of bubbling, boiling broth filled with seafood, beef or chicken. Toss in mushrooms and greens, and then noodles to complete this hearty hotpot. Afterwards, a glass of iced da me tamarind juice will end this gourmet day on a sweet note; rest assured, you’ll be happily burping on the way back to your hotel. Rest assured, too, that tomorrow you’d want to do this food tour all over again!
Also read: Ho Chi Minh city guide
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Smile magazine.