No visit to Saigon is complete without a wander around the peculiar part of town known as "Japan Town". Home to more brothels disguised as "massage parlours" than anything else, you have to dig deep to find the gold hidden under all the layers of cheap lycra and bootleg perfume. The area is like a rabbit's warren of 2 meter wide alleys spinning out in all directions as if spun by a spider on DMT. Spend a little bit of time here and you'll soon find your bearings since it's sandwiched between the main roads of Le Than Thon and Hai Ba Trung.
Apart from the plethora of Ramen shops poking out between semi-concealed breasts and asses, there are also a few bars worth popping into for a refreshing sip. You can read about them here.
The following four Ramen shops are all worthy of your time and effort to track down, and allow yourself to be transported back to your last instance of gratification at the hands of a pair of chopsticks and spoon.
Tears came flooding to my eyes at the first sight of this beautiful dark bowl of viscous love being placed ever so gently before me. The waitress made sure the logo pointed north, shuffled away to allow me to take hold of the creation, to ponder at it's hue, to transfix on the oil clouds seperating and reforming. The ballet was in full swing.
It almost felt criminal to dip a spoon in and disturb the dance. Summoning all my strength to not burst into song, I slid the spoon beneath the surface, gave it a little stir, filled it and raised it to my mouth. Instant gratification. This was a broth that people had gone mad inventing. This was a broth where time and repetition had carved a temple worthy of praise. You don't eat this ramen whilst listening to techno and chewing gum.
Everything was perfection. Delicate soba noodles, perfect egg, incredibly moist chicken, thick but blissful pork, the entire bowl was a cohesive pull on the heartstrings. Rarely do I finish ramen bowls with such utter anguish, but this was one of those times. I almost dipped my finger in to remove all traces of broth from the vessel but there were people sitting next to me, and I don't do that.... ever....
I wouldn't take it as an insult if people said I was a fanatic. Today was probably borderline. Reading feverously once again I stumbled across this place out in the bloody boonies (compared to where I stay) which had intriguing commentaries, reviews and write-ups. It was in an area called OISHI TOWN, about a 30 minute drive. I panicked when I saw they close at 9pm. It was 8.10pm and I was still near Bui Vien. I hurried down to the reception, ordered a Grab, guesstimated I would arrive there just before closing but didn't want to be that toolbox coming in 1 minute before and asking for service. Of course the driver I was dealt was an aging tortoise and kicked his laboured beast into action with three kicks and a cough (not mentioning the motorbike). We "roared" away on perilous roads and the next 30 minutes of my life buffered by gazing at skyscrapers, white knuckle-riding on a spluttering scooter being overtaken by faster objects.
By some miraculous manner he reached at 8.38pm and I ran in and politely asked if they were still serving. There was a table of exceedingly loud American's (shouting I MAAKE THE BEEEST BUUUURGAAAARS DUUUUDE) and me. I sat down, ordered immediately so as not to pose any further nuisance, in a panic of "forgetting i'm in Vietnam but it's a Japanese restaurant" threw the napkin into the basket under the table (as one does in Pho restaurants with the stems of herbs), sweatingly remembered that's where people put their purses or bags, scooped them out only to notice the waiter giggling under his floppy hair. I smiled and did the "i'm an idiot" shrug. We were instant friends. It was at that moment I perused the wall, noticing a shiny new poster saying " New branch opened Dec 7th". Today was December 10th. The new branch was 10 minutes from my hotel and open until 2 am.....
The bowl came out with a string quartet playing imaginary tunes of reverence. Silky Tonkotsu broth lay punishingly bullied by the weight of a perfectly cooked amber teardrop egg. Hard noodles (I asked for them) curled up like obedient snakes under a deep lake above. Pork this tender almost shouldn't be touched, lest it disintegrates into a seasoning flake that took far too long to prepare.
Another sure fire hit in the endless cannonball run of great food.
P.s. Google where the new one is because this took a long time to get to.
Often voted "The best ramen in HCMC", and regarded as one of the main reasons many people flock to this little cheeky enclave, Tomidaya was actually the first place I ate ramen in Saigon. A couple of friends and I managed to get there before they close for the afternoon to regain strength for the drunken onslaught of night. Their speciality is the Shoyu (or soy sauce) broth, very different to the heavy, pork bone gravy of Tonkotsu.
What really sets Tomidaya apart is the depth of flavour they manage to extract from a seemingly regular looking soup. Layered and punchy and wildly exciting, this soup bowl gives and gives with every elbow movement. Mentioned by almost every review is their Chashu. Mind-disfiguringly tender. Like literally what it must be like to bite into a block of warm butter, minus the taste of butter. On point noodles, small acidic peppery notes with the spring onions, crunchy menma: a manifestation of control and restraint.
Memories of Okinawa come flooding back whenever I take the steps up to Ramen Danbo in Saigon. It was the first place I tried their magic elixir on a solo night off, when I wandered the streets in the rain and noticed an extremely long line of punters standing outside a lone ramen stall. On further inspection the name Danbo was emblazoned across the front. I took it as a fortuitous message from the noodle Gods, and joined the line subserviently. As by miracle I was ushered to the front because I was alone, and therefore only needed seating at the counter. What followed was a profound noodle experience. Sitting alone. Having time to concentrate and question, and inspect and sip. Not being distracted by someone else hasteningly giving an opinion that might alter your train of thought. It is a special relationship, man and bowl, one that deserves loyalty and trust.
Happily, the standards at Danbo in Saigon have not suffered from geographical absurdities, porcine variants or the levels of flouride in the water. They still serve up a sensational bowl of Fukuoka Style Tonkotsu ready to quell any aching heart, soothe a future hangover or prepare yourself for a night on the tiles. Broth like this deserves an Oscar. The pig that died for this pork should have it's own Hollywood star. The flavoured bean sprouts served as a garnish are good enough to eat as a main course. Ramen Danbo is yet another shop where you don't stop spooning until you are physically restrained.
With so many absurdly epic places to eat within a few hundred meters (specially after finding out Ittou moved nearby) there are no excuses: book a dirty weekend in Little Japan Town and eat to your hearts content.
What you do after hours is between you and the ramen Gods.
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