Culinary Saigon & The Art Of Street Eats
Find tips on some of the best street foods to try in this Vietnamese culinary mecca.
Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with her friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge of today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video, they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off the beaten path.
As a travel destination, Vietnam has so much to offer. Its verdant landscapes are a true wonder to explore, as are its compelling historical sites. If you’re anything like me, however, you’ll seek out Vietnam for all of the above, and to eat. If you travel for food, this is a place that cannot be missed!
One of my favorite places in the country (and, quite frankly, the world), is Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. Located in South Vietnam, this place is a crazy, busy, bustling, and colorful whirlwind of life, and the best way to eat amidst its beautiful chaos? On the streets! Saigon is no place to concern yourself with Michelin stars and famous chefs. This is where you want to look for pots bubbling curbside and plastic chairs you’re not confident will hold you up.
Skeptical? Trust me.
In any new place, you look to the locals to see where to eat, right? Well, in Vietnamese cities the locals regularly head to vendors with no defined address. That’s not to say locals don’t spend any time in restaurants, it’s just that so much of the best food—the “people’s food”—is found outside. Smoky grills, steaming pots of broth, and mountains of fresh herbs add just as much character to Saigon’s streets as pedestrians and its famously busy traffic.
Since it can be intimidating at first, here’s a primer on some of the (near-infinite) Saigon street eats to try, which will hopefully whet your appetite for the cuisine as a whole. I’ll also mention a few tips for selecting the right stalls, because I get it. You don’t want your street food experience to be a terrifying gamble. That’s totally fair, and it doesn’t have to be. Let’s begin with a staple dish that brings influences from Vietnam’s French colonial era into play:
These intensely-satisfying and popular sandwiches are easy to find, and built as follows: a short but wide baguette with a shatteringly-crisp crust and soft interior is sliced open, then filled with all manner of contrasting textures and flavors. Those includes different meats in varying combos (homemade pâté, Chinese-style barbecued pork, or grilled minced patties, for example); creamy mayonnaise that’s often homemade; pickled vegetables for acidity; and nearly always a big tangle of fresh green herbs. Banh mi are the ideal pick-me-up at any time of day.
This soup of aromatic broth, rice noodles, and thinly sliced rare beef is known across the globe. The word pho, btw, is thought to have originated from the French word “feu”, and is pronounced “fuh,” rhyming with “duh”. Got that? PHEW. This is another dish that’s believed to have originated with 19th century colonization, and the characteristics of each bowl depend on where it’s being eaten: its simplest (and some would say purest) form is in Hanoi, where it originated. Further south in Saigon they prefer to pile on the garnishes, and the broth is slightly sweeter. I love a good crash of flavors so I’ve always enjoyed this southern style, and highly recommend adding pickled garlic if it’s available.
Here’s some good news: besides pho, there are many other amazing Vietnamese soup options to explore. Bun rieu, for example, is a tasty noodle soup with crab paste, shrimp paste, meat, tomatoes, chilies, and lime. There are also plenty of variations on this dish, and they almost always let you add the extras yourself. Freedom to garnish is a true joy for me.
‘Crispy mini pancakes’ are three words I love on their own, but even more-so when combined. Banh khot are the snack-sized versions of banh xeo, the popular Vietnamese fried pancakes made from coconut milk and rice flour. Each crepe-like banh khot are poured into and fried within a special griddle, and seafood is usually added. Then they’re served up with vegetables and citrus to add vibrancy and crunch; wrap them up with leafy greens, then top with herbs before digging in!
Banh Trang Uong
If you’re interested in what the youth of Saigon are eating, the answer is easy: banh trang uong (aka Vietnamese pizza). Instead of a wheat-based crust that’s baked in an oven, the toppings for banh trang uong go onto a thin, round piece of rice paper, which is then skillfully rotated on a hot grill. (I can only imagine this is difficult, and am confident that if put in charge, my banh trang uong would immediately catch on fire). Onto the more important topic of toppings: while some vendors/shops offer more Western-inspired toppings like shredded cheese and sliced hot dogs, I prefer to leave Oscar Meyer out of it and stick with the more OG choices of quail eggs, shrimp paste, pork floss, chili paste, and green onion.
Now that I’ve got you inspired to head to Vietnam and eat, here are a few tips for finding the best street vendors in Saigon:
-Remember that while there are a near-infinite number of items to try, these local dishes aren’t eaten at any hour of the day. You’re unlikely to find eggs and bacon on a dinner menu in America, right? Well, the same goes for dishes like pho. It’s typically eaten in Vietnam for breakfast, so don’t seek it out around dinner time, lest you end up buying soup that’s been sitting for hours.
-Pay attention to lineups. Don’t let impatience get the best of you—a vendor with a loyal following of locals and visitors alike is an excellent sign. This is also a good way to determine at which times of day people are eating particular dishes.
-Bring your own chopsticks. Why not? That way you know they’re clean!
-Finally, the easiest way to eat great food in HCMC is to take a tour with a local guide. They know the best side streets to wander down, who makes the best banh mi, what to eat when, and much more. It’s always worth it to eat with a local!