For nearly five years, from 2009 to 2013, we lived in Vietnam – a year in Haiphong in the north, and 3 1/2 years in Ho Chi Minh City. All the time we lived there, visitors told us how much they loved Vietnamese food. For us, it didn’t get close to Thai food. We just loved Thai food so much that we found it hard to compare.
Obviously, in those nearly five years, we did eat a lot of Vietnamese food in Saigon and Haiphong. Both in the North, and the South, and in the Central region when we were travelling, we tried a lot of the different Vietnamese dishes.
Since we moved back to Bangkok, we’ve been to Vietnam twice, both to Ho Chi Minh City. Somehow, going back, and going back from Thailand, we have started to really appreciate Vietnamese food.
Here is what to eat in Saigon, whether you are living there or visiting while backpacking in Vietnam. If you would prefer to experience this as a tour, The Back of Bike tours is an excellent way to do it, as described in this blog on non-touristy things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
What to eat in Saigon
The ubiquitous Vietnamese dish in Saigon and elsewhere that everyone seems to know, Phở (pronounced more like ‘fur’ than ‘fow’) is a noodle soup, usually with beef Phở Bò or chicken Phở Gà. Rice noodles are added to a clear broth with the meat. It is accompanied by a variety of garnishes including beansprouts, chilli and various herbs. It also often comes with condiments to add – a squeeze of lime, fish sauce, chilli sauce……
Whenever we mention Vietnamese food to someone, they go on and on about Pho and how amazing it is. I’m going to be honest here, I (Kate) am not a big fan. Kris does like it however, so we never got ejected from Vietnam for not being Phở fans.
Surprisingly, even though it’s so popular, it is thought to only go back to the early 20th century. There are theories that it either originates from a French dish, or a Chinese one.
Check out the ‘Pho All’ from Pho 24, which seems to be every part of a cow in one soup.
Expect to eat a lot of pho bo if you are planning to do a motorbike tour in Vietnam.
Cafe sua da/ cà phê sữa đá
Along with the Pho in the above photo is another aspect of Vietnamese cuisine that’s everywhere, and owes it’s creation to the French is the coffee. Cafe sữa đá is Vietnamese iced coffee. The coffee is very strong and served over ice, with condensed milk. Strong and sweet, just what you need to wake you up in the morning.
The traditional way to serve Cafe sữa đá is to allow it to drip through a small metal coffee filter sat over a glass of ice. Once you have sat and watched it slowly drip through, you add the condensed milk and stir. And stir.
If you watch Vietnamese men outside coffee shops (it’s usually men) they sit and stir their coffee slowly for a long time, while deep in conversation. A coffee is not meant to be a quick gulp and go activity, but a slow, leisurely pastime.
Read more about Vietnamese Coffee culture and other useful tips on travel there in this post.
Bún bò Huế
Another popular noodle soup in Vietnam is Bún bò Huế. Originating as you might imagine, in Hue (pronounced something like ‘Hoo-A’), the old Royal capital in the central region, it’s spicier than pho and the broth has a much richer flavour. The ‘bun’ rice noodles are rounder than ‘pho’ noodles and it also has onion, coriander, beef and sometimes pork and congealed blood.
Along with pho, people talking about Vietnamese food go on and on about their spring rolls. People love the fresh ones. Rice paper wrapped around thin rice noodles, fatty pork, prawns and a spring onion, they are dipped in a sauce. We are not big fans. I mean, look at them. They look like cocoons or something…..see the insects about to hatch out????
We are much bigger fans of the unhealthier fried kind – Nem or Chả giò. The outer casing is much thinner than the Thai type, and they are filled with thin rice noodles, chopped wood ear mushrooms, strips of carrot and mince.
Bánh Xèo is another thing to eat in Saigon. It literally means ‘sizzling cake’ in Vietnamese. It’s also known as a Vietnamese pancake. The rice batter is fried and prawns, pork and beansprouts are cooked with it. The yellow colour comes from turmeric. It’s usually served folded over with a selection of green herbs and leafy vegetables, which you use to wrap up pieces of the pancake before dipping it in a sweet chilli sauce.
A great place to eat Bánh Xèo in Ho Chi Minh City is Banh Xeo 64A, north of Pham Ngu Lao in District 1.
Similar to Bánh Xèo, Bánh Khọt are small rice flour pancakes with a variety of toppings, including prawns, fish cakes and mince. They apparently come from Vung Tau, a beach resort in the South near Ho Chi Minh City. A popular place to eat them is Co Ba Vung Tau restaurant, which has a wide selection as well as lots of other Vietnamese dishes.
Again, they are served with a pile of leafy vegetables and herbs, which you use to wrap up the pancakes before dipping them in the sweet chilli sauce.
Another thing the French brought to its colonies is bread. Crusty loaves are sold all over the country and used to make the Vietnamese sandwich – Bánh mì. There is a wide variety of fillings, including breakfast staple Bánh Mì Ốp La (omelette or fried egg, usually with soy and chilli sauce and cucumber), Banh Mi Thit (pronounced ‘tit’ – stop laughing) which is basically with ‘meat’ – usually pork, strips of spring onion and carrot, cucumber and coriander, and Banh Mi Pate.
You can find stalls selling Bánh Mì all over the cities. To order, just point to what you want. I could often be found madly waving my arms around to indicate that I wanted omelette, not fried egg.
If you are heading to Hanoi, you can find the best places to eat Banh Mi in Hanoi.
Bún thịt nướng
Looking like a noodle soup that someone forgot to add the liquid to, Bún thịt nướng is a dish of thin rice noodles topped with grilled pork, strips of pickled carrot, spring onion and cucumber, green leafy vegetables and herbs. Fish sauce is added and then you can mix it all up. Sometimes it comes with chopped spring rolls. It’s usually topped with peanuts, but since I’m allergic, I don’t have those.
I didn’t eat much of this when we lived in Vietnam, which is a pity now, because since we’ve been going back I remember how delicious it is. This one is from The Royal on Bui Vien.
A similar dish (I’m not clear how they differ really), is bún chả, which is popular in Hanoi.
Broken rice, or Cơm tấm, is rice grains that have been damaged by milling. It tastes the same as normal rice, but is smaller and has a slightly different texture. It’s often served with grilled pork, shredded pork and a kind of meatloaf made with egg.
The excellent Vietnam Coracle blog has suggestions on the best places in Saigon to eat Cơm tấm.
Lẩu – Hot Pot
Whenever we went out for dinner with students, hot pot was always a major part of the meal. A burner is brought to the table and a pan of some kind of stock put on it to boil. They then bring you a selection of vegetables, noodles and meat. You put it all in the pot to boil up, and then each person is served some into a small bowl.
It’s all very social, which is the point I suppose. It can be a bit of a voyage of discovery, especially with the communication barrier with lower level students. Sometimes what you pick out of the hotpot can be ‘interesting’ so you are sat with it in your bowl, wondering a) what is is and b) how you can get away with not eating it.
Some ‘items’ we have had in hotpot:
Students: “It’s like beef, but it comes from inside” (tripe)
“It’s goat breast” (not like chicken breast at all. Think about it. Yes, it’s goat boob)
“Do you like brains?” (in students, yes. In my soup, not so much)
A tip for hotpot is that if you clear your plate in Vietnam, it means you are still hungry and want more. The first time I realised this was after I ate bowl after bowl after bowl, and was totally full. But it kept coming. Every time I politely ate everything I was given, more arrived in my bowl. It was only on looking around at other peoples’ bowls that I understood. In British culture, it’s polite to clear your plate. In Vietnamese culture, that means you want more.
If you want to try goat hotpot, there are lots of places in District 3 around Ngô Thời Nhiệm Street.
Rau muống xào tỏi
Another of the Vietnamese dishes in Saigon and the rest of the country is rau muống. Rau muống is basically morning glory (stop laughing. I’ve already warned you), which is a semi-aquatic plant, stir fried with large amounts of garlic. It’s a typical side dish.
Khoai tây chiên
Yes, they are just chips. We were quite surprised when we first moved to Haiphong, to find out that chips were a common side dish. Not just for western food, but in local Vietnamese places. Small places selling local beer would serve Khoai tây chiên as an accompaniment, usually with a small bowl of soy sauce to dip them in (try it, it’s good!). ‘Khaoi’ is potato in Vietnamese, and ‘Tay‘ is foreigner, so Khaoi Tay is basically ‘foreign potato’.
Bò Bít Tết
Speaking of chips, another popular Vietnamese dish in Saigon is Bo Bittet – beef steak served on a skillet with chips and fried egg. You often get a Vietnamese baguette with it too. Beefsteak Nam Son eatery on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia (2 branches) is a great local place to eat this.
How many countries have some kind of stew for a main dish? All these Brits going abroad and saying “I don’t eat foreign food“ when actually, a lot of it is very similar to what you eat at home.
Bò Kho is basically beef stew. It even comes with big chunks of carrot and onion, and some bread to dip in it. The Pho place on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao is a good place to eat this.
While this is a blog about food, we shouldn’t’ really sign off without mentioned bia hoi, probably the cheapest beer in the world. Much more common in the north than the south, bia hoi is a fresh draft light beer with quite a low alcohol content. You find it for sale by the side of the road all over and it can cost 3,000 dong a glass, which at the time of writing was less than 15c, or 10p. Just look for the brightly coloured plastic tables and chairs, like something out of playschool, with a small barrel and pile of glasses.
The places selling it usually have some snacks to go with it, like peanuts or dried cuttlefish, and sometimes cooked food like noodles and Khoai tây chiên (beer and chips is the perfect combination in any culture).
When we lived in Haiphong, people would go to the brewery (which was near our flat) and buy barrels of beer. They would then either take it to sell at their eatery, or set up a stall on the street with some small plastic chairs and tables to sell it.
A popular place to drink it in Hanoi is known as Bia Hoi Corner because it is a junction with bia hoi joints on each side. None of them have toilets, you have to pay a couple of thousand dong to use one of the local’s squat toilets. Hold your breath.
Speaking of toilets, we’ve had some dodgy experiences in bia hoi bogs.
In Haiphong we used to go to one that was set up in the street between our school and the hotel we first lived in. The toilet was a big blue barrel with a screen around it. You just sat on the barrel and did your business. You could even look over the screen and continue your conversation. At the end of the night they just emptied the barrel into the street when they packed away. Consequently, the way to work in the morning constantly smelled of wee.
Drinking outside another one, that was actually in a building, we had to leave quite quickly after Kris found out that the only toilet was a urinal. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage that.
The bia hoi brewery in Haiphong also had a place served bia hoi by the pint. On one of our first visits, I asked one of the servers where the toilet was. She handed me a key and pointed to the back. Following my nose, I found the mens’ urinal. Next to it there was a door. I unlocked the door to reveal an empty tiled room with two bricks in the middle and a sink with the outflow pipe cut off.
Confused, I looked outside again. No sign of another toilet.
Then I realised. That was the ladies. I had to stand on the two bricks, wee, then wash away the wee using the sink water.
We didn’t ever stay long enough to need a number 2.
Have I put you off your food yet? Hope not.
There is a massive range of Vietnamese food, with specialties from different regions. This blog is just a few dishes to get you started. Hopefully you’ll find some good ones. If you are heading to Vietnam, this blog on How to Apply for a Vietnam visa is very useful. Happy eating!
What’s your favourite Vietnamese dish?
Apologies if I’ve got the spelling of any of these dishes wrong.
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