Snackin’ in Saigon

Sit down Hanoi, watch, and learn from your southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon or HCMC). Though we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to dive into Saigon as deeply as we did Hanoi, we can safely say we prefer its street food scene, hands down.

Here’s just a wee taste.

Ben Thanh Market

The best approach here seems to be to wander. Arrive before you’re starving, so you’re able to soak up the atmosphere and take in the breadth of what’s on offer.

Barbecued shrimp paste on sugar cane (Chao Tom) makes another appearance, at left. But the show-stealer here is the Bo La Lot, or seasoned beef in a leaf. The vendor at Xuan Mai told us it was betel leaf, though Vietnamese street food experts might argue with that. Anyhow, this grilled dish became one of our favorite snacks inside Saigon’s Ben Thanh market. The beef was seasoned (some combination of star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon, and fermented fish sauce, perhaps?) and topped with roasted peanuts and a zippy dipping sauce.

Bo La Lot ( Seasoned Beef in Betel Leaf) - Saigon, Vietnam
Bo La Lot ( Seasoned Beef in Betel Leaf) – Saigon, Vietnam

A host of other tasty nibblings are available, including grilled pork meatballs and Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls. During one of our visits, the folks running the stall were packing a giant box full of 100s of fresh shrimp summer rolls, apparently for some pre-Tet celebration. We had summer roll envy.

Saigon Street Food Soup Stand

Just outside our hotel away from the din of Ben Thanh market was our adopted neighborhood soup stall. Tiny tables and chairs and giant metal cauldrons play host to banh canh, a ubiquitous soup made with wide tapioca noodles that have a different consistency than the more common vermicelli. Served with pressed mystery meat sausage and bits of shrimp, the broth was mildly sweet with a hint of pineapple. Stalls like this provide a great place to meet locals, too. We enjoyed a bowl with a brother and sister pair on their way home from work to catch a movie.

Gelatinous Mystery Bits

We were certain we spied prawns in some type of clear rice gelatinous dumpling, but we were deceived and ended up with a constellation of gelatinous bits and pressed meat swimming in a sweet vinegar sauce. No one at the stall spoke English, but they were all friendly and watched closely with curiosity. Beer was warm, required ice, and ultimately proved tasteless. Put a hash mark in the “interesting” column for this experience.

Dumplings - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tasty gelatinous bits, Saigon.

Lucky Star Dim Sum

If you’re hankering for dim sum, check out Lucky Star. Although a bit more expensive than what you might find on the streets, it’s well worth it, particularly if you’re a dim sum enthusiast. The dining room is mildly formal, and per cliché, tables are family-style round and only outdone in size by the gigantist-style dining room.

We treated ourselves to a few varieties off a long menu. While waiting on your dim sum, you can take the edge off with some Asian amuses-bouches in the form of peanuts and sweet and spicy pickled cabbage.

Steamed shanghai buns (like a dumpling and not a doughy pork bun) come stuffed with pork and sided with a notable vinegar soy lemongrass sauce. We also opted for a variety of shrimp dumplings, all loaded with discernable chunks of prawn. Though the steamed black mushroom dumplings were tasty, the shrimp conpoy dumplings (topped with dried scallop) stole the show.

Address: Lucky Plaza, 38 Nguyen Hue District 1, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Seafood Restaurants – Ben Thanh Market at Night

Prawns - Saigon, Vietnam
Pick your Prawn – Ben Thanh Market at Night, Saigon

Order a 350 gram prawn – so large, it’s more like a lobster and sports imposing, meaty claws. Its consumption is greatly aided by our friendly waitress, who segmented it with scissors. Upon her recommendation, we also order grilled blood archa with spring onions and nuts on top. Although it sounds awful (the organization responsible for the blood archa’s branding should be recalled), it proves a tasty and tender mollusk-like bit. Gluttons for the same, we order another round the following evening and added huge grilled oysters and fried soft-shelled crabs to the order. Audrey’s first experience with the the soft, mildly crunchy, and substantial soft-shelled crab proves a winner.
Blood Arcas - Saigon, Vietnam
Blood Arcas – Saigon

Although you are likely to find similar fare in other street-side seafood restaurants, you can find this particular one across the street from the grocery store and a few steps to the left. There are numerous tanks of fresh seafood outside to draw you in.

Any way you slice it, dice it, chop it, or segment it with scissors, Saigon is worth paying a visit to on your culinary tour of Southeast Asia.

Photo Essay: Vietnamese Food and Markets

 

Video of Saigon Markets and Street Food Scenes

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Comments

  1. Chung says

    I love Sài Gòn! Anyways, it seems southern food tends to be more laissez-faire and as such there is a bigger variety in the food. Though I tend to stick to a small number of soups and rolls, I think the best food in Vietnam is to be found in the south, though Hanoi does serve some nice Pho. Thank God for saying Sài Gòn, HCMC just sounds a little weird.

  2. says

    Chung: We enjoyed Saigon – for food, our interactions with people, etc. In our experience, Saigon seemed to offer a wider variety of dishes than did Hanoi. Maybe that’s because it’s a bit more cosmopolitan and its cuisine is more internationally influenced. That said, we enjoyed eating in both cities.

  3. pras says

    Hi Daniel,
    Love your website/lifestyle. I’m a fan of your facebook page too.

    I have a quick favour right now though. I’m traveling to Vietnam (Saigon & Hoi An) next week with my gf and a friend. We are going there to get a feel of the promised land (for me, at least.. been yearning to go there forever) and specifically for the FOOD. We’re going to learn more about the cuisine to hopefully incorporate in a small restaurant that I’m planning to open back home. It’s been a lifelong dream – and its finally happening.

    So I was wondering if you guys could point me to someone/people you have met there (especially in HCMC) who is reliable and can guide us in the right direction with respect to cooking lessons and generally navigating the city’s chaos.

    Any references would be of great help.
    Thanks.

    Pras

  4. says

    @pras: At this point, I can’t recommend specific people to contact in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I can highly recommend to do what we did when we were in HCMC / Saigon:
    1) Go to Quan An Ngon. We write about the Hanoi outpost (which, surprisingly, we found to be better than the Saigon one) here:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/01/taste-of-hanoi/
    If you could get your hands on a copy of their menu, that would help. A nice tidy intro to Vietnamese cuisine.
    2) Spend a lot of time at Ben Thanh market, both for lunch and dinner. I could have spent years in that place. It will afford an education in Vietnamese food dishes as well as the ingredients that go into them.
    3) Visit a few of the street soup stalls in the vicinity of Ben Thanh. Soups are absolutely essential to understanding Vietnamese cuisine. The area is also a great place to get your Vietnamese coffee fix…right across the street from the hotel below.
    4) If you need a place to stay, we stayed at Nymph. And as far as budget places go, it was great:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/02/saigon-first-impressions/
    I’m assuming you’ve read our other post about food in Hoi An:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/02/hoi-an-eats/
    We refer to the cooking lessons at Red Bridge school in Hoi An (but beware: the classes were not particularly interactive, at least when we took them). There’s a link to them here:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/02/hoi-an-first-impressions/

  5. pras says

    Thanks for taking the time out, Daniel. All useful tips. Will write back to you when we get back from Vietnam.
    Cheers!
    Pras

  6. says

    I am glad that you enjoy Vietnamese cuisines. However, if you think district 1 has it good, wait till you venture outside a little further. It only gets better. Tourist district only has copies of the original ;)

  7. kehn says

    hello everybody,
    i’m vietnamese.I’m glad to see you love vietnam(VN).
    Ben Thanh market is one of biggest market in VN, it have many tasty food there, but the price is higher than others and .
    we have variety tasty dishes in each area in VN, each dish has many way to cook so the taste is also different, “banh canh” in HCMC is so diffirent from in HN, Da Nang…ect.
    being VNese, i suggest you to enjoy ” My quang(mỳ quảng)”, ” cao lau (cao lầu)”, Com Ga( Rice with Chicken)… in Hoi An. You also find these dishes in HCMC…
    In HCMC you can find almost of tasty dishes in VN. There are many dishes you should taste when you are in HCMC: “Bánh xèo”( VIETNAM CREPES) at Bánh xèo Mười Xiềm 190 Nam Kỳ Khởi NghÄ©a district 3, “phở” at phở 24 , phở Hòa pasteur at 260c Pasteur district 3, “Bánh canh ghẹ” at 505 SÆ° Vạn Hạnh distrit 10, “CÆ¡m Hến” at Nam Giao 136/15 Lê Thánh Tôn behind Ben Thanh Market, some kind of ” Nem”(pork hash wrapped in leaf), variety of hot-pot such as: goat hot-pot at 45 Ngô Thời Nhiệm district 3, fish hot-pot at DÆ°Æ¡ng Tá»­ Giang street district 5 ….and many other delicious dishes there.
    for street food, don’t forget to enjoy “Bún riêu”, “Bánh Mì”,” phá lấu”, especially scale and snails…

    sorry for my bad english ^!^.
    if you come to HCMC VN, send me an email to : emxinh2022000@gmail.com , i am willing to help you discover our cuisines and culture.

  8. says

    @LT: I know. Absolutely true. We visited some friends in the outer districts. And as always, the further from the center you go, the more authentic Vietnamese cuisine you get. Thanks for the reminder of a great tip!

    @kehn: Thank you for so many terrific Vietnamese food suggestions in HCMC and elsewhere. This is a terrific “Best of” Vietnamese food list.

    When we return to Vietnam, we’ll be sure to send you an email and maybe we can visit some of these places together.

    Thanks again!

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