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.
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.
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
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.
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.