"Eating my way round Saigon to find the best bowl for you."
I've personally been to Ho Chi Minh over 10 times, and each time I find myself going back to places I crave, and throwing in a few new one's to keep it exciting. This city is sprawling with some unbeatable deals when it comes to eating out. From lowly street stalls to fine-dining, it has it all.
My favourite things to eat in Saigon are Phô, Bahn Mi and Ramen. Due to the large Japanese ex-pat community, you can eat a bowl of Ramen so tasty that if you closed your eyes you'd honestly think you were in Tokyo. That along with epic bowls of Phô keeps me coming back year after year.
In my experience Phô is divided "loosely" into 2 groups: One where the broth is excellent but the meat is tough/chewy, or the broth is average but the beef is amazingly tender. It's very difficult to get the best of both worlds.
Here is a list of all the places I tried to find "The Best Pho in Saigon", from worst to first:
from worst to first
Phô Hoa Pasteur - (F o u r / t e N)
I caught a Grab Moto up to Pasteur, almost smacked straight into a brand new BMW, then had a man literally 1 cm from running into me on the back of the bike until I shouted and he looked up in the last split second, got to the place, noticed it was packed, found a table as discreetly as I could, and ordered.
The noodles were over-cooked. The broth was that insipid, sweet, clear broth that can sometimes pack such a punch, but didn't at all... it didn't even taste that great when I threw in the bean sprouts, basil, culantro, chilli's and a dose of hot sauce. This was an exercise in futility. Nothing could save it.
Side note: In recent news, this place has been the subject of several vandalism attacks due to a member of the extended family owing money to local gangsters, so it might not be around anyway. No loss for the city culinarily speaking, except for the families finances of course.
Phô Phuong 25 - (F i v e / t e n)
Fresh with optimism I delved into the underbelly of HCMC again and rode my Grab all the way to the river in District 1. Fresh faced and hungrier than a hostage I found a spot, pointed at the bowl on the English menu, twiddled my thumbs and allowed my expectations to rise.
I have to admit this was another one of the weaker bowls I have had in Saigon. First off the broth was examined unadulterated, it was off-puttingly sweet. I then tried the noodles and beef, good....ok.....fine. The beef balls had a strange overpowering garlic taste to them which didn't sit right. I applied herbs, lime juice, chilis and sauce and still couldn't rescue it. For once I decided to not be polite for the sake of it, and I paid and left with 3/4 of the bowl remaining. With so few days in Saigon, I don't have the luxury of wasting meals on mediocre food.
Phô Le - (S i x / t e n)
Being able to almost correctly judge food based on it's appearance is a tricky business. Most of the time you get surprised, but quite often you also are bang on. After clambering on the back of a Grab Taxi Scooter and hurtling at 60mph through the insane Ho Chi Minh traffic I arrived at Phô Le. A local favourite. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about since the reviews online were generally flattering and trustworthy.
I'm beginning to see a pattern developing when locals recommend something in Vietnam. They prefer the "weaker, thinner broth" whereas I prefer the bolder, deeper flavours. The Phô ended up squarely in the middle of the pack, the broth was almost tasteless, the noodles on point, the meat a slight improvement on a couple of other spots, and the price was agreeable. However, like in Japan where most locals enjoy really really heavy/fatty Tonkotsu, the Vietnamese seem to prefer the lighter things in life, and that just ain't my bag baby.
Phô 2000 - (S e v e n / t e n)
(In) famous for the fact that then President Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls in rabid succession, this shop opened in 1999 and proudly declares that it serves "Presidential Broth". Ehem.
First of all, what in all honesty would Bill Clinton know about Phô? Sure, it is a relatively tasty bowl of noodle soup, but there are far better in Saigon.
I hadn't entered Phô 2000 since my first visit to Vietnam almost 10 years go. Instinctively on further trips to the city I avoided it with the same fear I shed on places like KFC. For some reason it always looked like a fast-food joint, even tho I remember enjoying it the first time around. Relatively weather-beaten and sea-worn I decided if I was to compile a list that would be taken seriously I would have to try it again.
Honestly, I almost looked over my shoulder walking in. For no reason at all other than it was right next to one of the worst places in Saigon: Ben Thanh Market. A diseased watering hole for all the abject tourist wank you could ever imagine: The death-penalty inducing banana shirts, elephant pants to trigger the most ardent pacifist, dumb t-shirts emblazoned with Phòk That and the squeal of a tourist who thinks they got a good deal after bargaining for 30 minutes to get a 10 cent discount. Oh well.
Curtly: The soup was decent, especially after adding the condiments. The noodles were good and had a slight firmness to them still. The outstanding part here was the beef. Far more tender and "good cut" than most places you eat at on the street. Your 80.000 Dong won't buy you the best Phô in town, but it will get you a respectably decent meal in return.
Phô 24 - (S e v e n / t e N)
With 24 ingredients going into the secret broth, this mega-chain is spreading it's gospel of Phô to all corners of Vietnam. Despite multiple visits to the country, this was my first foray into the establishment. Fear took hold, but I shook it off. Reasonably priced, rather decent broth for being a conglomerate, tender beef, decent noodles and the usual condiments and accompaniments.
If you're stuck for lunch and happen to walk past one of these, there are far worse places to appease your famishment than here.
Phô 1954 - ( Se v e n / t en )
First thing I do when a bowl of Pho arrives at the table is not to reach for the condiments, or herbs, or sauces, or anything, but just dip my spoon in and taste the broth. After-all herbs are pretty much the same all over, beef is beef (in varying qualities), hot sauces are usually bog-standard, chillis are incalculably similar in such establishments, and the noodles are usually either the thin ones or the thick ones, but it's rice noodles so there is very little to distinguish apart from the cooking.
The secret of a good Pho is 90% in the broth.
Some broths hit you with flavour and then decimate your palate after 6 sips, some are so thin and tasteless that the longer you try to find anything worth writing home about, the less you find.... and then there are the bowls that at first you think "Hmm, not amazing but ok"... and the longer you dive down, adding some lime juice and chillis, or herbs after the first few sips, then you find yourself enjoying what tasted bland before (I don't know whether this is to the credit of the chef, or customer for making a so-so bowl taste good with his/her own additions).
1954 was definitely in the upper tier, after a vast foray into the top rated (and some lesser rated) places in Ho Chi Minh.
Phô Ha - ( S e v en / t e n)
The owner spoke no English, which is sometimes a good thing if you're not conversation-prone... but not really when he brings you the wrong dish. I went here because of the famous Bun Bo Hue, but ended up with yet another bowl of Phô. The only silver lining was that it was actually pretty decent, and the place didn't have a tourist in sight. 35k also, not exactly a massive dent in the ol' pocketbook.
Phô Hung - (E i g h t / T e n)
After multiple visits to Ho Chi Minh, the eternal search for the cities best Pho was almost complete.
Until recently that crown was placed firmly on this places head. Hung has a fantastic broth, great noodles, decent meat, amazing condiments and the price is bang on right. For visitors to Saigon who have been to "Hung" and not liked it, beware, there are many imposters who stole the logo and sign and serve under-par Pho. This place is the real deal. You can find better Pho at a couple other places in HCMC, but this is top shelf Phô and you will not be disappointed.
Phô Quynh - (N I N E / T E N)
Until today I thought I had finally found the best Phô ever in Saigon!....
Ironically it's at the end of a crappy backpacker street, but don't let that dissuade you. Packed to the brim with locals and tourists, this 3 story behemoth stands on a corner with a few tables outside for you to enjoy your soup with the added aroma of exhaust.
Huge bowls of perfectly simmered broth, deep and satisfying, good noodles and tender Brisket makes this place a sure-fire runner up.
(it's open 24 hours so sometimes the broth is a bit inconsistent, the only reason it wasn't Nr 1)
Phô Phu Vuong - (N I N E / T E N)
Today got off to a disastrous start. My Grab app showed me to the wrong branch of this Phô spot which meant driving 5 Kilometers in the wrong direction, finding that branch closed, having to get another Grab to go to the original one which was a 15 minute walk from my hotel. The Grab driver pissed around for 15 minutes trying to find me driving in the opposite direction, turning, parking, calling, texting, so I had to cancel, furiously walking down the road swearing at the air, found another one who drove me to the correct one. I was still simmering when I arrived.
I was dropped off at the corner, immediately the smell of broth hit me. It smelled amazing. I headed in, ordered the Phô Tai (rare beef) and waited, honestly wondering if anything could beat Quynh. Putting the first spoon to my lips I had a moment just like on strictly dumplings youtube video when he had been to Quynh, had a religious experience, only to find it surpassed when he tasted the one at Vuong. This is talk of micro-measurements of goodness. The Phô at both Hung + Quynh are some of the best bowls you will probably find on earth, the difference is just the broth at Vuong has that tiny added oomph. One of the best things about it also is the chilli sauce:
This sauce just took the broth to new dimensions of spicy, meaty, rich goodness. Be careful! It's bloody hot.
Beef was on point, noodles were the smaller variety but held their shape, the herbs and sauces were all the usual suspects, but the broth.... the broth just tipped the scales and made this the winner by a literal millimeter. Taking all things into consideration the beef at Quynh is better, but for me the most important thing is the shimmering, rich, trickling ravishment of liquid love.
All Hail Phô! But honestly, I don't think i'm going to have a bowl for quite a while after this......
Watch Mike Chen of Strictly Dumpling eat at both Pho Quynh and Vuong !
These recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Tastes are subjective, so take everything with a pinch of salty tears"
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