Ho Chi Min City Tasting Guide
Ho Chi Min city, also fondly referred to as Saigon, is a vibrant city with elegant French architecture, high-rises that spill billboards and tinkling lights at night, vendors in floral ao bà ba pulling food carts, fruit sellers on bicycles and hordes of perfectly coordinated motorcycles. The city known as the Paris of the Orient is a mix of old-world charm and new world development, and the food as they rightfully say, is sublime.
No visitor should miss a visit to Ben Thanh Market. While it is geared towards tourists, both Asian and foreign, it is centrally located and a good opportunity to visit a large variety of stalls selling everything from fabrics and clothing, hardware, kitchenware and food both fresh and cooked. For all except cooked food, you are encouraged to bargain. In fact, the vendors expect this and are great sports, just be reasonable. The market is covered but very hot so it is a good idea to buy a cold coconut or glass of che to cool down while you browse. Many locals also eat at this market. The market moves outside after 6 pm, where the atmosphere becomes festive as the lights go down. The square across the street provides a break from the bustle and people-watching opportunities are plentiful.
The Binh Tay Market on the edge of district 6, otherwise known as Chinatown is where locals shop for dry goods including clothes and shoes (many are fake designer goods), hardware and dry foods. The market occupies two stories and around the market there are vendors selling Chinese-style Vietnamese snacks.
Every neighbourhood has its own produce market. Mine, the Thi Nghe Market on the edge of district 1 was foreigner-free at the time, except for us. I extended my stay in Saigon by two weeks just to purchase the amazing produce from here and cook in my own apartment. As little English is spoken we shopped by pointing and using google-translate on our phones for specific ingredients. Vendors get to know you and soon you’ll be cracking smiles and even laughs.
Must try/buy: mangosteens, litchis in season, dragon fruit (more bark than bite), durian (but don’t if you’re taking a cab after- it does stink to high heaven), thien ly blossoms, white aubergine, lotus root, crab sac and shrimp paste, rice flour, sticky rice from huge selection, palm sugar, freshly pulled rice noodles, all the herbs you see.
Vietnam and street food culture are synonymous. The first thing most guidebooks and doctors will do is warn you against eating off the street, eating cut fruit and consuming the water in any form, except bottled or well sterlised. This is technically wise, but uninformed. To miss the street food is a great travesty and I, with a sensitive constitution (but adventurous appetite) ate food from the vendors every single day for more than a month with no side effects apart from general glow and well-being.
Food Safety: The rules are simple and will serve you well:
- Observe the general hygiene of the vendor’s trade but accept that serviettes and such accumulate at your feet during peek hours, but are cleaned up regularly.
- Using communal chopsticks will not kill you, wipe them down with a serviette as locals do and carry on. Knives are never provided. Use your fingers if you must.
- A busy trade indicates a stamp of approval from the locals, look out for places with queues or a quick turn around.
- Food made in front of you e.g grilled meat, deep-fried spring rolls, pancakes, sandwiches should be your first bet. Soups are usually well heated so to me the same principal applies
- Accept that tap water is used to cook the food and clean the dishes. Boiling kills the bacteria you aren’t accustomed to. Stick to bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth.
- It’s okay for a vendor to cut fruit for you, though the knives often look like they’ve seen better days. Wipe the skins of mangoes and avoid cut fruit that’s been standing around.
- You’re going to have to sit low on those seats, do your stretches.
- Point to your chosen dish and indicate with your fingers how many portions you’d like.
- Drinks with meals are not always served, or you may be given a glass of very pale iced tea in a quan – it’s on the house.
- Keep a well-stocked medical kit with you, for emergencies. Clinics for foreigners are expensive but top rate.
Foods to try
Everyone has a favourite and I will spend years trying to sample everything. These are some the street foods I really enjoyed:
- bánh xèo: Crispy but oily turmeric rice flour pancakes with prawn, pork and bean sprouts. Enjoy here: 1 Bac Hai Street (corner of Cach Mang Thang Tam and Bac Hai streets), District 10. Shop has no name.
- bun Thai – this spicy Thai-based soup with rice noodles, shrimp balls, prawns and sometimes okra is one of my favourites. Visit Nguyen Thi Thanh, Anthony Bourdain’s ‘lunch lady’ (she brands herself as such) at 23 Hoang Sa Street, District 1. She makes a different dish each day of the week. Having stayed close to her, we visited often and where never disappointed.
- Mrs Thanh’s sister makes some of the best gỏi cuốn (fresh springrolls) with thin rice noodles, herbs, star fruit, shrimp and pork.
- Bánh mì thịt: the ubiquitous grilled meat on a roll that echo’s the French influence of baking in the country. Includes some vegetables, pickles and often other meats and even viennas. I prefer just the meat in the roll.
- Thịt nướng: flattened grilled pork, basted in sugar or honey, fish sauce and lemongrass, served on cold rice noodles with roasted peanuts, chilli and served with garlicky nước mắm (fish sauce). The best we had, observing locals pulling up in fancy cars for orders and hawkers themselves eating here: on Nguyễn Trung Trực, just before it intersects with Lưu Văn Lang
- Xoi ga: varieties of naturally flavoured and coloured sticky rice with coconut and sugar, sold by vendors, heaped high on their carts, along with sweet taro and mung beans. There are a few vendors around Ben Tahn market, I prefer the surly lady standing opposite Pho 2000, the pho shop punted as ‘Clinton’s choice’, after he visited the spot a number of years ago.
- Bột chiên: taro, stir fried with egg, in this case. Consistently good one on road opposite Ben Than market, closest towards town.
- Bánh tráng trứng nướng: Vietnamese ‘pizza’ – grilled rice paper, pork mince, spring onions and shrimp. Best ones are to be found on the streets of the Backpacker’s district.
These are informal restaurants, usually a step up from eating on the streets, but some have taken the rustic concept to smart French style houses too.
- My top bet, and the one we kept returning to was Dong Hoa Xuan (49 No Trang Long, Binh Thanh District) for excellent caramel fish in claypot, tripe in a special sauce, bitter melon with pork, soups of the day and grilled meat with sticky rice. Frequented only by locals.
- Cuc Gach Quan (10 Dang Tat, Tân Định, Quận 1), in a gorgeous setting, housed on both sides of the road, was made famous by the Pitt-Jolies who visited. The menu is enormous, but we got the hang of it after the first visit. All the salads are really good. Fresh passion fruit juice is recommended if you like tart and refreshing.
- Good Vietnamese coffee can be enjoyed around the country at small cafes and bigger coffee shop establishments, depending on your tastes. Blends are a mix of Arabica and Robusta, yield deep coloured, thick brews and taste chocolaty. A cold caphe sua da, a drip coffee served with condensed milk over ice is a welcome summer refresher. Ice-cold fresh coconut water is my best ‘keep me cool’ tip for the Saigon sun and humidity. The beers are good too, but lighter if you’re used to European brews.
- Splurge on ridiculously expensive drinks at the Caravelle Hotel’s 9th floor bar, the Hotel Majestic or at the Chill Sky Bar on the 52th floor of the Bitexco Financial building. Alternatively, try all three, like I did in the name of research. A word to the wise: leave the cotton slacks and flip-flops at home and make an effort to dress up a bit.
- Enjoy a beer in the heaving, squirming mass of activity that is the Backpacker’s district. Café Zoom will not disappoint, and serves very good Western style food late at night. Try to avoid the pleasant naivety of underdressed youth as you hail a cab back home, and they get ready to stumble into the clubs and pubs.
Learn to cook local dishes
Making it at home keeps the holiday alive. There are several cooking classes in HCMC. One with a difference, includes a 60 km ride out of the city to an organic farm and a crazy-cool chef who will teach you how to cook some dishes over banter in his out-door school. Ho Chi Min Cooking Class: http://hochiminhcookingclass.com/
Depending on your customs regulations, bring back fish sauce, coffee, ornate fabrics, nifty spring onion shredders – cost a dollar, so bring back a bagful.