Saigon is crazy and alive, a chaos of motorbikes, skinny buildings looming over skinnier alleyways, tangled power lines, shouting people. The blinking lights, the whizzing traffic, the sudden rain storms, mesmerize. I was instantly in love. Saigon—the locals almost universally using the old name for Ho Chi Minh City—is as much a state of mind, and emotion, as it is a place. It buzzes along your senses; good, bad, alive. I took time to visit the museums and cultural and historical sites, but more rewarding was finding far flung eateries recommended by The Internet, locating a moto driver, and after a bit of haggling, zooming across the city through tangled, improbable traffic to obscure soup stands, sandwich shops, and live music venues.
To honor that chaos, here, in no particular order, are some highlights of my time in Saigon.
I’m gonna be frank, a large portion of my inspiration to visit Vietnam was for the food, specifically pho noodle soup and banh mi, which I like to think I had fairly good samples of at home in Los Angeles, but I needed to try the real thing, so my priority was finding the very best:
Banh Mi Huyen
26 Le Thi Rieng
I ate banh mi every chance I got, actually, at one point having to acknowledge that eating three baguettes a day was probably not healthy, but the street carts with their 12000 dong versions are ubiquitous, and not bad at all, but Banh Mi Huyen, recommended by Eating Saigon, was truly exceptional. I took mine to a little open air bar on the corner, ordered a Bia Saigon, and watched the traffic whizz around the roundabout while I ate.
Corner of Pham Ngu Lau and Do Quang Dau
This pho place was just around the corner from my hotel, and was recommended by the ladies there, and it was excellent. Their special pho bo includes beef slices, meatballs, and some other beef product I felt best not to ask about, but ate every bit.
Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao
On Bui Vien, between Do Quang Dau and Cong Quynh
Ate it too fast to take a photo, sorry. Fantastic.
Bun Rieu Cua lady next to Ben Thanh Market
I heard about this soup from LegalNomads, and decided I had to try it, and I was not disappointed. A Google search brought me to this Asia Life article, and so on a very hot day and without much confidence that I’d find this woman, I passed through the market stalls, and crossed the street, and lo, there she was, soup in one basket, fixings in the other, and in no time I was sitting on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk next to a crowd of locals, sweat dripping off my elbows, in heaven in this crab noodle soup. The sauces offered included a sour tamarind one, a spicy chili one, and shrimp paste, and I alternated combinations of them with every bite (and breaking one of the most important travel eating rules—“if you can’t peel it or cook it, don’t eat it”—I threw all those greens in, too. I hoped that maybe the soup was hot enough to cook away anything, and mostly I’ve abided by another rule: do as the locals do. They know what’s good, and what’s not. It’s worked so far). Also, that purple-brown lump in there is congealed pig’s blood, which is not as terrible tasting as it sounds.
Banh Canh Cua
Eating Saigon also turned me on to this delicious crab soup, with thick luscious noodles, chunks of crab, crab cake, shrimp, congealed pig’s blood and a wee quail egg. I mean, just look at it, it’s perfect!
I also made a visit to the lunch lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, but was a little let down. It’s not that the food was bad—not at all—but I’d so been looking forward to trying her famous soup, and showed up on a day when she was making a cold noodle salad instead.
Vendors roam the streets of Saigon with baskets, pushcarts, and cleverly modified bicycles and motos selling eats of various kinds. Bui Vien in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area is a good street to pull up a wee plastic chair, order a cheap beer, and wave them down as they go by. A few standouts include:
The lady with stuff on sticks; what is it? I don’t know, it’s food on a stick: give it to me!
Delicious rotisserie quail, cooked with quail eggs in their butts.
Coconut and sweet rice ice cream, served in a coconut shell, with a fresh coconut water chaser.
Vietnamese coffee is thick, strong, and not fucking around. I tried versions from Vietnam’s biggest coffee chain, Trung Nugyen, as well as from countless other vendors, having it hot or iced, black or with sweetened condensed milk, even the weasel poop kind, and it was fantastic every time. A nice spot to have some is the ABC bakery on Pham Ngu Lau, which also offers a mind boggling selection of western, eastern, and everything in-between pastries. My person favorite: the coconut bun.
I was getting a little lonely, and really wanted to try the seafood on Saigon’s Snail Street, but was feeling a little intimidated, so I signed up for a Saigon Street Eats tour, figuring they could be my foodie friends for the evening, and I was not disappointed. Barbara picked me up on her motorbike and we zoomed off to one of their favorite spots on snail street, chatting and having an iced Bia LaRue before Vu arrived with the rest of the evening’s group, three generations of an Aussie family, some of which seemed perplexed as to why they were going to be eating seafood, and grandpa, who seemed perplexed that he would have to eat anything other than beer. And yet Barbara and Vu persisted, and took our unlikely group through a fabulous array of snails big and small, mussels and shrimp, crab hotpot, and, after generous portions of Bia LaRue, a boiled fertilized duck egg. I’d wanted to sample the infamous balut when in Philippines, but never got around to it (read: not drunk enough), and presented the chance to try the Vietnamese version, well, why not. I cheated a little, and had it prepared in a tamarind sauce, and served hidden gracefully under a pile of herbs and crushed peanuts, and the flavor was really quite tasty—but the texture was odd as hell, chewy, almost crunchy, but not obviously feathery or anything, and a portion that looked like an innocuous egg white, and yet had the consistency of a wet macadamia nut. Did I mention that it was actually good? I figured I should repeat that bit.
With that delicacy under my belt, I was more than willing, following another bia or two, to try the Saigon Street Eats wasabi oyster challenge. Basically what you think it is, I probably should have quit while I was ahead:
Saigon has a mad plethora of bars, and an active live music scene—although I quickly discovered that most bands are cover bands, with little to no original music being played. A visit to Acoustic afforded me the chance to see an old man with a Ho Chi Minh beard rock out to “I Hate Myself for Loving You” on a melodica, so it’s not all bad. Yoko had some good nights as well, in particular Tofu To, who performed some great original songs. In the end, however, my mainstay became the Cheeky Monkey Bar, just a quick step from my hotel on Do Quang Dau, but instantly welcoming—the owner, Ken, gestured to me when I first walked in that I should come over and join him at the bar, and preceded to introduce me to several regulars, new visitors, and the wonderful gang of musicians, mostly from the Philippines, who play covers and requests all night, every night. A bit like gaining an instant family, Cheeky Monkey is a must visit, if only so you can say hi for me.
Saigon, I miss you.