Saigon street food

Saigon street food

Street food saigon

After two winters of stuffing my face around town, I thought I would put together a guide to Saigon street food, gathering some of the places I love in one place. These are not the absolute best of everything, but rather a cross-section of delicious, cheap and authentic foods that are also conveniently located. I tended to head to outer districts more often, on the hunt for that bun mam a friend told me about, or what was billed as “the best Peking duck in town” by my enthused landlady. While fun side trips to outer districts are great, I wanted to put together a post that would be more helpful for short-term trips. The restaurants and street stalls below are fairly central to where most travellers stay, meaning people can frequent them even if in town only briefly. South Vietnam tours

Fasten your seatbelts, people: this post is close to 10,000 words long.

The focus is, of course, food. One specific soup, a sweet-and-sour canh chua (photo in the “street food” section below), was what initially led me to the city. I was lured in by the complicated tastes and unfamiliar sting of the rice paddy herb on my tongue. It might have been one soup that brought me to Saigon, but it was the rest of the food that kept me there, and keeps me coming back. It is not just taste of food that makes Saigon so enthralling, but the act of eating as well, and all of the craziness that eating comprises. The swirling noise, the families all sitting and enjoying a meal on the street, smiling at you fumbling with your condiments. The beauty of food being not just a necessity but also a sight in and of itself: a window into culture, and a source of endless wonder.

Mekong & Phu Quoc island (5 days, 4 nights)

Street food saigon

Countless moments of me smiling as an old lady came over shaking her head at my terrible rice paper folding skills, correcting my technique as we sat at the edge of traffic. Or the bo la lot vendor who discovered my love of starfruit and made sure to have extra on hand when I returned. The beloved grandpa at the pho ga restaurant below, who ran over to my bowl repeatedly to ensure I added pickled garlic, lest I forget. The landladies that adopted me into their homes, feeding me, giving me hugs, teaching me how to cook. HO CHI MINH CITY’S CENTRAL POST OFFICE, VIETNAM

There are hundreds of moments like these baked into the aggregate of my memories in Vietnam. Most of them derive from food. As Luke Nguyen says in The Songs of Sapa: Stories & Recipes from Vietnam,

Street food saigon
Streetside eating.
This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it provides a good start. Yes, I know I could have offered this post as an e-book for sale (thank you to those suggesting this already), but I’d prefer to have it freely available. If you want to support the site, pick up my book about travel and food, or a t-shirt in the shop instead.

Or, for those of you who loved your time in Vietnam and want to commemorate it at home with something a bit more tangible, please see my hand-drawn, one-of-a-kind Vietnamese maps of food. They’re available in t-shirt and poster form.
Hand-drawn typographic food map of Vietnam
I also realize some of you would have preferred diacritical marks in lieu of plain Roman letters, but when typing into Google Maps to find these places, most travellers have indicated they prefer the non-Tieng Viet script. I’m happy to update the post if this is no longer the case.

I should also note that I’ve never gotten sick from eating street food in Saigon, and I’ve eaten at all sorts of places, dodgy or otherwise. The culture of food is so prevalent that fast turnover and fresh ingredients rule the roost. At 4pm when I want soup, there is usually a gaggle of other people also chowing down. I joke that I graze like a cow, eating mini meals every few hours, and Saigon is an ideal place to do so. One can eat through the country as a whole — foods from the North and South, the Central region and the Mekong Delta — all in one city.

Saigon is most definitely a magical place for your tastebuds. The balancing act between warming and cooling ingredients, between heavier meats and lighter rice-based carbs, fresh herbs to round out the taste, never get old. I’m no culinary anthropologist, but in learning through eating, and being corrected by others also passionate about food, I’ve hopefully created a crash course here that will help travellers discover more about the city. For celiacs like me, I have included tips for gluten-free eating. I’ve also added a long basics for navigating Saigon section at the end, in the vein of my other “crash courses“. Here you’ll find information about taxis, visas, foot massages and more.

I’ve tried to include as many photos of these foods as possible, since my descriptions might not do the trick but a photo usually does. These are all my pictures, except for the bun moc (thanks Tom!).

Finally, I plan to put these all onto a Google Map, but haven’t done so yet as I’m tethering to 3G in Greece. I’ll update the post when it is in map form.

Banh Beo
Banh beo from Nam Giao in Saigon
Part of the cuisine from central Vietnam, banh beo (literally “water fern cake”) are small round discs of rice flour, formed to look like lily flower pads found in the estates surrounding the old imperial city of Hue. Topped with crunchy pork rinds and toasted shrimp powder and served with fish sauce, they are a very rewarding dish to share as they usually come in multiples of 8 or 10.

Where: Nam Giao
136 Le Thanh Ton Street, in an alleyway behind Ben Thanh market. District 1
+84 (8) 3825 0261

Banh Da Xuc Hen

Banh Da Xuc Hen in all its delicious glory.
I have a list of foods that sound like other foods in the local language. For example, the word for water in Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Malaysia is “air” — and obviously air in English is not food. In Vietnamese, the word for baby clams is “hen” — quite confusing at first, since I ordered it expecting a rice and chicken bowl, not even thinking that obviously hen would not be an actual hen. My brain did not compute.

Banh da xuc hen is a lovely and satisfying snack. A large rice paper crisp with hints of sesame and coconut arrives on a plate. It looks bare, but then you lift up the rice cracker and peek underneath, finding a pile of teeny tiny clams fried in lemongrass, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), chilli, onion and garlic. It is a simple dish in terms of ingredients but the taste is profoundly different than anything else I have tried. If you want a heavier version of this plate, opt for the com hen, rice topped with the same type of clams and served with a small bowl of clam broth on the side.

Negotiating Hoi An’s street food stalls

What we say: 4 stars
Vietnam is a fast-food nation based around slow-cooked food. Breakfast and lunch is taken on the hoof — it’s pho to go and rice on the run until you sit down for dinner with the family at the end of the working day. Street food is king, with mobile snacking a close second. Here’s our rundown on what you’ll find in Hoi An while on the go. Centre Vietnam tours
Permanent shops
In Hoi An, to have a permanent structure on a permanent pitch is a rarity unless you are working from the front room/motorbike garage of your roadside home. You’ll find very few who have ‘made it’ to the top of the rung, however stumble across one of these and you will be rewarded with some of the best examples of street food to be had. Phuong Bahn Mi on Hoang Dieu Street backing on to the central market is for very good reason a must-try.

Danang – Hue – Hoian 4 days

Permanent mobile stalls
A permanent mobile stall is one which rucks up each morning to set up on its own pavement pitch for the day. More often than not these stalls trade in bahn mi or nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) with the occasional barbecue firing up in the late afternoon. When Hoi An shook hands with UNESCO, all these traders in the old town were relocated to the central food market in town, one of the best spots to sample a good cao lau or mi quang, and to a covered area to the far left of An Hoi, in an effort to keep the streets clean. Step out of the pedestrianised streets however and you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Negotiating Hoi An’s street food stalls

Trailer food
These mobile vendors often seen walking their carts up the road in their pyjamas are the owners of semi-permanent pitches, perhaps at a market or streetside location shared by several vendors. A great Hoi An example is the massive banyan tree on Tran Cao Van Street, where the 07:00 slot is held by an old Ba selling the sweet bean soup of che (one of the most popular in town). She hangs up her ladle at 11:00 to be replaced by the fruit juice lady, who later joins rank with the pork noodle-bun thit nuong family at around 14:00 each day.
Motorbike vendors
With no fixed trading abode you’ll find motorbike food vendors cruising the streets touting their wares on bikes laden with pots and pans, occasionally sporting a smoking barbecue strapped tightly to the petrol tank. The food you buy from these traders in Hoi An is not often found in restaurants — it’s a whole new menu of 5,000 to 10,000 VND treats waiting to be flagged down and sampled.

And the must-tries? Listen out for “banh chung day, cha day” — “I sell sausages”, delicious pork stuffed in banana leaf. And you can’t leave Hoi An without trying a banh beo, a yummy steamed bun packed with a quail egg and pork.
Bicycle vendors
Easier to flag down than their motorbike riding friends, the menagerie of conical hat-wearing vendors sell a variety of cheap eats. The corn ladies who patrol the streets, shouting what may sound like “assss hooole” from February till October are well worth risking 2,000 VND over, selling what seems like 101 different corn dishes with a side order of sweet milk.
Basket ladies
It’s the photo we all go home with, the two-baskets-on-a-pole wielding ladies selling everything from fruit to full-blown meals. In Hoi An the best way to find them is to head to the market on riverside Bach Dang Street, where you’ll find a whole array of snacks from Hoi An’s famed white rose – plump shrimp filled rice dumplings — through to tiny sea snails. A great thing to try here is the betelnut. Just 1,000 VND will get you a lesson in rolling and chewing the nut from an old Ba, and maybe some of the best photo opportunities to be had.