A Taste of Saigon’s Must-Eat Local Specialties

While I have read & heard a lot of raves about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) being a food paradise to cater to the most discerning taste buds, it has never spurred me to try out Vietnamese food at all. In fact, I avoid Vietnamese food whenever possible, because the amount of garnishes like basil, onions etc that they put in every dish just turns me off. 😛 But since I was in Saigon for a short trip, I decided to just try some of the must-eat local delicacies that have won the hearts of so many. As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Given that it was a short 72-hour getaway, I didn’t get to eat a lot as well. Nonetheless, here are the 5 signature Saigon dishes I had a taste of:

1. Phở

My 1st meal in Saigon was Phở at the Pho Ong Hung restaurant nearby the hotel recommended by the Marketing personnel I met. Although there was plenty of garnish like basil & spring onions in the soup, it was quite a tasty broth with smooth rice noodles & beef balls. I especially love the generous portion of crunchy beansprouts by the side (2,000 VND, S$0.13). After slurping this bowl of Phở down, I’d say Vietnamese food can be quite yummy too. 😉

In fact, I went back to Pho Ong Hung with my friend for late dinner after massage on our last night again, because I thought they really do their Phở quite well. Pho Ong Hung has many outlets in the country, it’s somewhat like a casual fast food chain where you pay a little more than what you pay at street hawkers, yet still very affordable compared to proper restaurants. They open from early morning around 7am till late at 11pm too. Furthermore, food is served to your table, without service charge, I like. 😉

Pho Ong Hung menu

Pho Ong Hung menu

My late-night dinner spread

My late-night dinner spread

This 2nd visit, I tried the Hủ Tiếu Bò Kho, i.e. beef stew (71,000 VND, S$4.50) which was not bad too, but the flavour was a bit too heavy for me after a while. We also ordered 2 appetizers – Gỏi cuốn (i.e. Vietnamese spring roll stuffed with pork & shrimps, top right in above collage) and Bánh Cuốn Nhân Thịt (i.e. rice paper rolls stuffed with pork & mushrooms, bottom left in above collage), at 42,000 VND (S$2.65) each. Love the yummy appetizers, which finally had basil separated from the main dish! 😛

2. Bánh mì

banh-mi

Before the trip, Bánh mì was the only local food I thought I wouldn’t have problems eating, because it is essentially baguette stuffed with a variety of ingredients like meat, pickled vegetables & chilli. I thought I wouldn’t have difficulty finding a cheap & good Bánh mì for breakfast since the old French colonial city has been eating this bread for a long time.

Alas, I was wrong. The Bánh mì I tasted above was neither cheap nor wonderful. I had it as my lunch on my solo city tour day, when I was already famished & tired from the walk & search for good food under the hot sun. So, I stepped into Black Cat Restaurant in a corner of District 1, as online search claimed that it was featured on CNN.com as 1 of the top 10 must eat experiences in the world (& I was nearby).

I ordered The Saigon Bánh mì (baguette stuffed with roast five spice pork, Vietnamese pork cake & homemade cognac duck liver pate with picked vegetables and chilli) that costs 109,000+ VND (S$6.90+). Although I was so hungry I thought I could eat a cow, I didn’t really finish the bread in the end, as the pork was a little too dry for my liking & serving was rather huge. The restaurant was furnished like a bar & that afternoon, it was pretty empty with just a handful of customers & listless-looking waitress. 😦 So sad I didn’t get to taste a delicious Bánh mì…

3. Chinese-style dry noodles in Vietnamese style

At Tan Dinh Market, there were several cooked food stalls selling local hawker food, & we spotted a few Chinese-style noodle stalls. It was nice to be able to savour a familiar taste with a touch of local flavour in a completely foreign land. The best part was, the hawker uncle could converse in Cantonese, so finally we could tell him what we want, instead of behaving like a mute. 😛 This bowl of dry mee pok came with generous slices of cha siu & lettuce, at only 40,000 VND (S$2.50). The special chilli sauce was spicy with a ‘kick’, & uncle gave me some fish paste to enhance the flavour of the dish. The fish paste certainly gave it an authentic Vietnam flavour. While it may be a food stall in the market, the environment was quite clean, & sitting on the old-school stools made me feel I was finally in the “real Saigon”…. 😉

4. Cơm tấm

com-tam-deli

Cơm tấm is a Vietnamese dish made from rice with fractured rice grains, so it can be called “broken rice” as well. Frankly, I had never heard of broken rice before, so I was curious about how it would taste like. Originally after visiting Tan Dinh area, we had wanted to check out interesting cafes in the growing expat neighbourhood in District 7, but somehow we lost our bearings & ended up at Trung Tâm Thương Mại SC VivoCity.

Yes, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, there is a VivoCity in Saigon, & it belongs to MapleTree as well. Anyway, I had my 1st & only Cơm tấm meal at a casual dining restaurant known as Cơm Tấm Cali. Just like Pho Ong Hung, it has many outlets in the city. I had the Cơm sườn non nướng (BBQ pork ribs with broken rice) set for 77,000 VND (S$4.90), which included some surcharge for a plate of herbs I didn’t touch. -_- Luckily it’s still affordable so I shall not dispute over this. The broken rice tasted like 锅巴, i.e.  rice that sticks to the bottom of your cooking pot, something we’re familiar with in the claypot rice dish. The inside of the rice grains felt soft. I kind of enjoyed this dish with the flavourful BBQ pork ribs. 🙂

5. Bánh Cuốn

This has got to be my favourite local dish out of all that I’ve tried. I was brought to Nam Giao Restaurant near Ben Thanh Market. My friend’s Vietnamese colleague brought her to Nam Giao for lunch & she likes it very much, so she brought me there too when we were in the area. It is located in a quiet alley along Le Thanh Ton Street, where we had to pass through 2 lines of cheap nail roadside stalls.

The steamed rice rolls stuffed with pork was really soft & smooth. Eating this felt like eating chee cheong fun. The pork stuffing didn’t smell overpowering too. A great snack to eat in between meals!

Outside Tan Dinh Church, we also saw a few roadside stalls & one of them was selling a Bánh Cuốn lookalike too. I didn’t try as I was still full from my dry noodles breakfast in item #3 above. But it looked really cheap & good too!

Roadside stall selling Bánh Cuốn

Roadside stall selling Bánh Cuốn

As you can see, I didn’t really get to taste a wide variety of local food, given my time constraints. My little regret was I didn’t have a chance to try local street food sitting on low stools by the roadside. That would be quite an experience I guess! Hope I get to do it if I visit Vietnam again next time! 😉

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