Editor’s note: Garrett MacLean gives a detailed guideline to the food scene in Ho Chi Minh City, where a wide range of options are available from early morning to late at night. His piece has been titled and edited by Tuoi Tre News.
When people think of the best cities in the world to eat food, names like Tokyo, Paris, Bangkok, or Rome often come to mind first. But, for some reasons, Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t, or at least not until later.
Granted, Tokyo and Paris are home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants. Bangkok does offer delicious and sometimes mysterious street food both on and off its infamous Khao Son Road. And when in Rome, the Italian culinary experience always serves up an endless supply of opportunities to “do as the Romans do.”
That said, Ho Chi Minh City is unique in the fact that it can provide all this. Not only that, it’s easier than you think.
|Bowls of Hawaiian poke salad are served at a poke shop in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
At any moment, anywhere in this seemingly sleepless city, one can find something tasty to eat.
Thanks to the availability of competing food services, from local street vendors to fine dining restaurants to different delivery apps, Ho Chi Minh City deserves to be mentioned in the conversation regarding one of the best cities in the world to eat food.
Here’s how you can make the most of it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beyond.
Let’s start with the most important meal of the day: breakfast.
In the interest of simplicity, you can’t go wrong with the classics - pho, bun bo hue (spicy beef noodles), xoi (sticky rice), bun cha gio (noodles topped with fried spring rolls), or banh cuon (steamed rice rolls).
But, before we forget, we have the all-time staple Vietnamese breakfast: banh mi. On almost every single street corner, you can find a street vendor serving banh mi sandwiches and the best part is it will cost you less than $1!
When I used to live in Phu Nhuan District awhile back, there was a banh mi stall on the corner of Nguyen Thuong Hien Street that I would walk over to from my apartment at least a couple days a week.
I remember how light and fresh it felt eating first thing in the morning and how well it paired with a cup of strong coffee to start the day.
There are many ways one can choose to fill a banh mi. Pickled and or fresh vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and chilis, various sauces such as soy, fish, or chili, and then the main fillings include cold cut slices, eggs, tofu, fish patties, or pork (grilled, shredded, steamed, or minced).
I would often opt for the banh mi op la, a traditional Vietnamese breakfast baguette with pate and sunny side up eggs, for two reasons: one, it simply tastes good and two, while the egg would begin to sizzle in the pan for a minute or two, I would make the most of that minute to pause for a moment and take in the nuanced scenery of a busy street corner in the neighborhood I lived in.
Perhaps, you’re more of a brunch person instead. In that case, there are many options. There’s the French-styled Cafe Marcel where you can try out their brand new Eggslut sandwich which has scrambled eggs, bacon, cheddar, and spicy mayo nestled in between their homemade burger buns all for VND140,000 (US$1 = VND23,242)
There’s also the Instagram-friendly Godmother’s Bake and Brunch which offers a contemporary Australian brunch experience featuring pastry dishes on ceramic dishes like the Salted Caramel Chiffon for VND180,000.
Beyond that, there’s nothing wrong with playing it safe and going with the classic brunch choice: Eggs Benedict for VND220,000.
Finally, if you’re looking for a little refuge from the bustling city, stop by The Old Compass Cafe on Pasteur Street.
There you can treat yourself to banh mi op la for VND120,000 before returning to the hustle and bustle that makes up District 1.
Yet, if you’re like me and often don’t eat breakfast, having a cup of Vietnamese coffee to start your day will do more than suffice. My recommendation? Order a cafe sua da (VND25,000) at Quán Văn Cafe in Binh Thanh. It’s dedicated to and filled with memorabilia commemorating Trinh Cong Son, the Vietnamese musician, songwriter, painter, and poet.
Whether it’s cheap but tasty sandwiches, boozy brunches, or hidden cafes, breakfast in Ho Chi Minh City is a delightful time of the day wherever you go.
|Food is served at a Thai restaurant in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
Moving onward to lunch - Ho Chi Minh City's lunch options never cease to showcase the range of choices for food lovers.
If you’re in District 2, take your pick of what type of food you want. There are not only various great Vietnamese restaurants but there are also other places that serve Mexican (District Federal), Spanish (Ole), Italian (Pendalosco), French (La Villa), American (Eddie’s Diner), Indian (Biryani House), and Japanese (Kazama). The list goes on and on.
If you’re not in District 2, known as the expat’s hub in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s no need to worry because there are tons of lunch options scattered across the city - many of which are right next to historical sites for you to check out either before or after you decide to eat.
My recommendation is to search for The Secret Garden Restaurant also on Pasteur Street. It offers the best of both worlds: it’s close to the city’s top tourist attractions and provides a tranquil, outdoor rooftop experience with beautiful views of downtown.
That said, whether you are working in the city or just traveling through, you may not have a huge window of time for a lunch break. In such cases, I recommend stopping by a quán for cơm tấm (broken rice), also regarded as the “secret superhero of ‘real’ fast food in Ho Chi Minh City.”
As Ray Kushert said in his article, “the small business known as a quán is the very heart and soul of culinary culture.”
|A dish of 'com tam' (broken rice topped with grilled ribs and shredded pork skin) is served at a local 'quán' (food stall) in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
After lunch, one may choose to later stop to witness one of Ho Chi Minh’s City's amazing sunsets, and following that dinner will most likely be the first thought on many people’s minds.
Pizza 4P’s is a go-to dinner spot thanks to its house-made cheese pizzas, farm-to-table salads, and its extensive natural wine collection.
|The signature fruit salad with house-made burrata is served at a Pizza 4P's restaurant in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
However, when dinner time comes around and you’re more in the mood for some Vietnamese food there are a handful of choices to choose from.
Sure, banh xeo (Vietnamese sizzling crepes), mi Quang (a specialty originated from Quang Nam province), com ga (chicken rice), or even so diep (grilled scallops with spring onions and peanuts) will never fail you.
Yet, my recommendation is to try some vegetarian dishes at Dharma Garden Vegetarian Restaurant in Binh Thanh. To be more specific, order yourself the bong bi nhoi (deep-fried tempura pumpkin flower). It is a must-try!
On the other hand, if you’re more of a homebody and prefer enjoying your dinner in the comfort of your own home, take your pick from different food delivery apps such as Grab Food, Shopee Food, or Baemin to name a few. Simply enter your location and explore what dishes are available in your surrounding area.
The good news is for those living in Ho Chi Minh City, there is no change in the quality of food for either those who went to dress up and go out on the town or for those who want to stay in their pajamas and eat peacefully in their living room.
|Only in Vietnam: a man delivers bowls of congee by motorbike on the street of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
Now, beyond your standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Ho Chi Minh City continues to serve up delicious eats both early in the morning and late into the night.
|A 'hu tieu' noodle stall opens by midnight in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
If you’re an early bird and need something to eat before starting a long day, it’s best once again to stick with the classics and find yourself a warm bowl of pho or bun bo Hue (which will also be around $1-2!).
Or, if you’re a night owl and want something to eat before ending a long night, stop by a local convenience store like Circle K, Mini Stop, or Family Mart and order up some late-night instant noodles before heading home.
And while there, don’t be surprised to be accompanied by an array of young couples huddled together under the store’s fluorescent lights enjoying both the store’s free Wifi as well as ready-made, banana leaf wrapped banh gio (pyramidal rice dumpling).
There’s something romantic about seeing potentially awkward dates taking place in these least likely of places.
On the whole, Vietnam continues to gain more recognition as being one of the top countries in the world for people to visit. Along with that, as time goes on rest assured Ho Chi Minh City will only continue to rise in the ranks of being one of the best cities in the world to eat food.
|A woman sells Phan Rang-styled 'banh xeo' (Vietnamese savory sizzling crepes) and 'banh can' (savory mini pancakes) in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|