Ho Chi Minh can sometimes feel like being dropped into a pit of rattlesnakes. Scooters hissing with venomous manouevers, cars weaving in an out of the inch left between the curb and another car, pedestrians walking slowly into oncoming traffic trusting that the scooters and cars will move around them (they generally do), and the look of a petrified tourist walking 3 inches then running back causing the whole gliding serpent to buckle and correct.
Amongst the complete insanity of the city, lies a food-lovers paradise. Hidden in different enclaves along the river are numerous Pho joints, Banh Mi Stalls, Isaan Thai restaurants, Syrian meze, Japanese fast food places, Ramen stalls and even pizza that will truly take your breath away. Below is a comprehensive list of places I have been to various times over the past years. If you are only interested in the perfect bowl of Pho, I found that too.
I booked a hotel near Saigon Hot Wings, which was a staple go-to bar in Ho Chi Minh frequented by some locals and a few ex-pats who loved getting tipsy and ordering wings at midnight (who can blame them). The days set about me, as I carefully made my plan of attack. Here in no particular order are the places that hit the mark for me, and would gladly return to.
Places to eat
Phô Phu Vuong ($)
If you're travelling to Saigon for the first time, one of your first stops should be a bowl of Pho! Pho Phu Vuong is the flag atop broth mountain! This is seriously stunning Pho. Amazing broth, great noodles, decent meat, good condiments and the price fits any backpackers budget. For people who have already been to Saigon and tried "Hung and Quynh" try this place next.
Remember to add the fresh yellow/orange-ish chilli sauce in the small plastic jug, its amazing!
Banh Mi 37
Synonymous with so much of Vietnamese folklore is the simple Banh Mi. A glorified bastard relative of the baguette from times past and forgotten, filled with slightly more local and less "French" toppings, it's still virtually unbeatable for a cheap, quick lunch.
Open after 4.30pm every day, this tiny stall is located just off Nguyen Trai street, down the alley called Hem 39. From the get-go, this pork-patty draws a long line of waiting punters. Hot, perfectly seasoned patties are coal-grilled and packed into crispy bread, topped with cucumber, coriander, sauce and chillis. All this delicious goodness for the price of 25k (1 US Dollar). Plan on making it around opening time because this wildly popular place sells out every day.
Bep Me In ($$)
If you just got off a plane and are a little concerned about tackling the world of street food on your first night out, you could go far worse than head here. Located down a small alleyway near Ben Thanh, half the fun is sitting on the outside tables and watching the tourists walk down and try figure out where it is. Schadenfreude aside, Bep Me In serves up delicious Vietnamese "countryside" cuisine from all corners of the land.
Pho Quynh ($)
Location isn't everything, despite what you've heard. In the case of Quynh, their location had always been the reason why I never went in. Smack bang in the middle of exhausting back-packer hell, Bui Vien, this Pho shop always screamed "Tourist Trap". That was until my Airbnb host, a lovely 70 year old woman, highly recommended it.
From that day onwards I have been multiple times. The tourists sit downstairs, the locals upstairs, but pedantics aside this place serves up one of the best bowls of Pho you will ever taste in your life. My recommendation is to go for the brisket one!
Den Long ($$)
This was the second time I visited, the first time having been too anxiety ridden to sit in the crowded dining room feeling everyones eyes boring into my glass-thin frailty, I had opted for take-away. This time courage had returned and I fought off the fears of human interaction and sat at a table with a friend. We ordered far too much food and sipped our Saigon Specials while the dinning room thinned due to the odd hours we ate at.
This place was "touristy", but the food was excellent. Highly recommended are the Mango Salad with shrimp and mackrel, the Caramelized Pork with the house sauce and the Garlic Fried Rice. Everything else was top notch but those 3 were exceptional.
Oh, and a small tip: Ask for a tiny bowl of the spicy green dipping sauce to smother on everything!
Secret Garden ($$)
It's a well known fact that this place ain't no secret. Throngs of tourists climb to the 4th floor in a dodgy looking building to find this charming restaurant on the roof. I have to come clean. I know i'm a tourist, but it brought literal shivers of demonic fear when I walked out onto the rooftop and saw a congregation of pale skinned pleasure seekers stuffing their faces in unison. I heard loud American girls talking from 20 meters away. I saw tables of camera toting loafers downing cocktails. I almost left.
Sometimes you get so caught up in avoiding other tourists you forget you are one yourself. I had to give myself a pep-talk and quell the panic from rising enough to sit down and order.
Despite my fears, the food here is worth tracking down. Like an amusement park, there's tons of other people there but you enjoyed the ride didn't you? The food is tailored for tourist palates, but the flavours are still pleasing. Whatever you end up ordering as a main course, be sure to try the Xoi Chien (pork on deep fried sticky rice "taco", pictured above) which pack a fantastic burst of flavour.
4P's Pizza ($$)
4P's is run by a Japanese immigrant who has a fascination with making authentic Neopolitan style pizza's. His restaurants have grown over the years and now there are various branches all over the country. I have tried the one's in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh and can guarantee they deliver an awesome distraction from the countless Banh Mi's or bowls of Phô you have undoubtably been gorging on.
Torisoba Mutahiro ($$)
Evening came running with it's promises and lies. Pho-deep, I decided to try another Ramen spot that had shot through the roof on local Vietnamese review pages, and their international counterparts. I found the tiny shop down an alleyway, off another alleyway and ordered the special shoyu. This was rich, deep, fatty (but not greasy) heaven. The noodles were actually buckwheat (Soba), so different to regular Ramen noodles, but tasted fantastic despite their slightly softer texture. There was a slice each of pork and chicken, something I had not encountered before. The chicken was some of the moistest, flavoursome chicken I'd ever eaten in a bowl. This must be sous vide? Not to be outdone, the pork shone through with it's delectable thicker cut tenderness and mountains of flavour. I slurped myself into a frenzy without paying any heed to the other people around me in this 12 seat shop. Dizzy with bliss I paid my bill, bowed and thanked all the chefs, and went on my merry way pinching myself to make sure this wasn't a dream.
Somtum Der ($$)
Hankerings for Thai food creep up on me regularly. It doesn't matter if i'm in a culinary goldmine of a country, I will still crave Thai food as often as Indian. Reading online I found out that Somtun Der (a reputable Thai "chain") had opened a branch in HCMC. My friend and I couldn't resist giving it a go and seeing if any of the flavours were actually legit or not. The fact that The Alley cocktail bar was directly opposite, didn't sway our decision in any way, shape or form.
Ordered way too much, but everything was on point. They even made it spicy for us when we asked. The highlight was the Larb Moo (minced pork salad) with sticky rice, and, as would be expected the Som Tam packed a gentle punch.
Al Sham ($$)
With a few thousand mint leaves, pork pieces, rice noodles and fish sauce remnants under my belt, I literally couldn't look at another Vietnamese dish for the time being. I was recommended a good Middle Eastern place around the corner from my hotel and lumbered down the filthy streets awash with rat droppings and poverty. A hearty welcome from a stout Syrian man set my mood at ease. The food was authentic, delicious, healthy and left me grinning from ear to ear. This isn't the cheapest place in town, but i'm sure it isn't super easy to source the ingredients and I read he grows a lot of them himself, so kudos for that!
Baba's Kitchen ($$)
From Syrian food, due east as the crow flies to Mother India. Baba's kitchen, a small hub of ex-pat pleasure is nestled towards the far end of Bui Vien street, away from the blasting-horn bars and tosser-centralé. Solid Indian food, decent prices and exemplary service all go hand in hand to make this a worthy fuel stop on your Vietnamese nosh highway.
Ramen Danbo ($$)
And here we were, back in another taxi heading to the enclave for another bowl of ramen to see if it could match up to Mutahiro. Hopes were low, but the fire burned within. The decision was made to first have a whisky at Blue Bar, which ended up being a dark, cosy Japanese Bar but with that subtle sense of hostility you often find at unnofficially "Japanese-only" places. The smiles that don't quite reach the cheeks, the courteous bow that is mean't almost more as a parody than politeness, the stiffening fear when you order a drink.
Leaving the hostility-lite behind we marched into Ramen Danbo..
The bowl arrived steaming hot. Everything was perfect. It tasted identical to the one in Japan. This time I was with friends, but the enjoyment was still true. The noodles were firm, the broth deep, unctuous and rich, the pork thin and succulent, the egg cooked to perfection.
This list will grow and grow the more times I visit HCMC so check back every once in a while.....
Places to Drink
So this is one of those spots where you have to find the right building, get into an elevator, then climb up one more flight of red-lit stairs until you reach the top and there presented before you is a cosy little rooftop and a hate to use the word groovy bar. The Japanese owner sits either supremely stoned, or shyly with his baseball cap pulled far down his brow listening to world music. Definitely check this place out before or after you hit up the amazing ramen spots within 50 meters of the bar.
Saigon Hot Wings ($$)
The place I end up at most nights i'm in Saigon because I don't like dancing, loud music, loud people (people) or girlie bars. John the owner runs a mellow operation here, with a pool table, some TV screens to watch sports on, cheap beers, decent prices and a kitchen that closes at 01am and serves Saigon's best spicy chicken wings.
P.s. Ask for the Saigon Kiss Extra Spicy!
Kim Hideaway Bar
It was a choice whether to put this in or not, mostly for the fact that I hope it never changes and always stays the same. On the way to get a bowl of monstrously good Danbo Ramen in the perverted Japanese enclave, I usually went to J Bar or Blues Bar for a pre-drink. However, J has moved, and Blue has become one of those Japanese bars that makes it painfully obvious they only want "their own kind" there, so new pastures were sought after. Turning a tiny alley past Blues, we happened upon Kim Hideaway. Inside was like an oasis after the frenetic and supremely annoying sex-workers who almost manhandle you into their "massage parlours". Away from the filth and remnants of a million secret spillages, we ordered a beer, the bartender turned the laptop towards us and said "play anything you want". RING A DING DING.
This is not a bar to go to for partying, this is not a pick-up bar, this is not a party bar. This is a place where people who are generally sick of all those things go to reminisce and sit with amazingly kind bartenders and listen to music that quells their demons. This is a place of refuge. This is home.
The Alley Cocktail Bar
Every city needs a good place to get a solid classic cocktail, allow the bartender to put his imagination to work, or grab a bar stool and order a nice single malt. The Alley is your place in Saigon. After numerous visits, I haven't had a bad drink. The owner is really friendly and appreciative. Service is quick and unobtrusive and the music is of the background type. A mixed clientele of largely upper-class Vietnamese and some businessmen in suits, but you don't get that feeling that you are a asswipe for turning up in shorts and flip flops.
I have to add a "craft beer" place since so many of my friends faun over this ridiculous concept. Give me a cold lager any day of the year. Regardless, this is where you can go to witness the hip crowd of Saigon in all their converse shoes and terrible tattoos. The beers are decent, they have a rooftop, the crowd is snobby and reeks of pretention which a lot of people enjoy, so go knock yourself out!
Saigon again had treated me well, fed me well and offered me new discoveries. Another reason why I travel multiple times to places, and don't consider myself knowing anything after being somewhere for a weekend. Furthermore, the city can become too claustrophobic and overwhelming, but if you peel the layers you will be rewarded!
All of a sudden I was sat again in the back of a cab, hurtling through the traffic I had come to adopt as my Saigon Soundtrack, past all the places that filled my stomach and heart, off to the freeway and up to the airport and then through the "best" part of travelling: Security... belt off, shoes off, coins out, cards out, laptops out, phone on tray, sunglasses not on head, and the slight panic you feel going through the x-ray maching tho you never once thought of smuggling anything through, the walk to the gate, the lone stance against a wall waiting to be the last person on the tube of certain death, seatbelt fastened, smile at the cabin crew to disguise any alcohol suspicions, try not to talk to your fellow passenger, failed miserably because she was a gorgeous Russian model, read magazine, listen to music, land back home at Suvarnabhumi...
Good Evening Vietnam!
All 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