Like many cities in Southeast Asia, Saigon is known around the world for its amazing street-food. One cannot truly experience Vietnam without sampling many of the wonderful and unique foods that can be found on its streets. Although Vietnam is unified as a single country, the food is actually quite regional. Having visited both North and South Vietnam, I am now fully convinced that South Vietnam (Saigon in particular) offers the most delicious Vietnamese dishes in the country. Now that’s not to say that North Vietnamese food isn’t delicious. After all, no trip to Hanoi would be complete without a delicious plate of bun cha (grilled pork with noodles). However, the variety, spice and flavor just seem to come alive with the street foods down in Saigon and I think that many other travelers would agree. When I first arrived in Saigon, I had just flown in from another street food hub, Bangkok, so needless to say my expectations were a little high. The following is just some of the Vietnamese street food that you have to try in Saigon on your next trip.
The locals immediately recommended that I try the old Vietnamese favorite, Phở. Phở is quite simply a kind of noodle soup, although there are dozens of variations.
Phở is also the quintessential street-food of Vietnam. Asking around, people told me about an amazing pho street shop called Phở Le. This restaurant is well known for its beef noodle (phở bò) and in my experience it was the best bowl of pho that I had in the whole of Vietnam. The broth was just the right flavor and the noodles were plenty. However, what made the soup so delectable and unique was the tenderness of the beef and the dipping sauces that came with it. I was given two kinds of chili sauce that when mixed together, made the perfect dipping sauce for the slices of beef.
You may also want to try another Vietnamese favorite, Bún Bò Huế, which is a vermicelli noodle soup served with slices of beef (sometimes pork) and is originally from Huế. Certainly a better option if you are looking for something a little bit more “carb friendly”.
Having read a bit about the food in Saigon, I then decided it was time to try my first banh mi sandwich. Bánh mì is a general term given to a Vietnamese kind of sandwich that incorporates a French baguette and tops it off with some truly local ingredients. Walking along the street, I saw a women selling banh mi and I knew I had to try one. They simply looked delicious and were certainly something I had never tried even though I had heard so much about them. Although bánhmì comes in many forms, she was selling bánhmìthịt, which usually involves sliced pork, pork sausage, vegetables and pickles to top it off. You can also usually throw on a bit of Laughing Cow cheese to add a little extra flavor.
Not surprisingly, the sandwich was simply amazing. As a result, I pretty much found myself eating one at least once a day for the rest of my trip. While walking around Saigon, you will probably see these food stalls with the baguettes sitting in the glass cabinets. You just walk up to the cart and point at what you want on your sandwich. You won’t be disappointed.
No trip to Saigon would be complete without a stroll up one of their busy streets at night. The night markets are a great place to find dinner or just casually sample a variety of different finger foods. My first full evening in Saigon I found a local night market. This was the perfect place to end my long and hot day meandering around the various sights in central Saigon. Walking through the market, I found a food that I had heard so much about but had never tried. It’s called bánhxèo, which is a rice flower pancake with turmeric powder cooked golden brown and normally stuffed with some kind of meat or vegetable.
These tasty snacks can be found on almost every street in Saigon and half the fun is watching the cook make the paper thin pancake fresh right in front of your eyes. In my opinion, this is perhaps one of the most unique street-foods in all of Southeast Asia and one that you must try before leaving Vietnam.
Still hungry, I found a lady on the corner selling something similar to the famous cơm tấm I was so used to eating in Bangkok. This salad dish is known as gỏi đu đủ, which is a kind of green papaya salad.
Although not as spicy as its Thai cousin, the Vietnamese gỏi đu đủ I tried was quite delicious and certainly different than any Vietnamese food I had sampled before. The variety that I tried had dried beef served with it which made the flavor and texture all the more strong and unique. Additionally, this is a must have food if you are looking for something both delicious and low in calories. This is something I should have thought about before coming to Vietnam, as I left the country quite a few pounds heavier than when I arrived.
On my last day in Saigon before heading off to Dalat, I asked the reception in my hotel if there was any other food they would recommend for me before I left. The lovely staff told me that I should try bánh tráng trộn and gỏi ngó sen tôm thịt, both of which are a kind of Vietnamese salad. Bánh tráng trộn is a unique salad made of rice paper, dried beef and kumquat. Gỏi ngó sen tôm thịt is Vietnamese lotus root salad normally served with pork and shrimp. My taste buds full of anticipation and too lazy to walk, I hopped in a cab and handed the driver a piece of paper with the name of a local street restaurant that sold these foods. Although I am normally not a particular fan of lotus root, I truly enjoyed the gỏi ngó sen tôm thịt since the texture and flavor was just right.
However, I was more taken aback by the bánh tráng trộn. Never before had I eaten a salad made from rice paper and I have to say, it was absolutely tangy and delicious and in my opinion very satisfying.
Although people travel for many reasons, perhaps my favorite reason is the local food. Saigon in particular is a city that can best be experienced through its street-food and if possible through a motorbike street-food tour. It certainly left me with a memorable impression and I have to admit that the variety and diversity of the food in Saigon had shocked me a little, especially since my previous visit to North Vietnam. Although it may take a little bit of courage and an adventurous spirit, getting to know a city through its food culture is a rewarding experience by itself and you never know what kind of amazing tastes and smells you will encounter.