Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam: Great food and people!

by Victoria on March 24, 2014

Flying into Ho Chi Minh City at Dusk

One of my favourite parts of life is to meet and cultivate relationships with new people, no matter where I am. Because I’m constantly traveling and in random places, I often have the opportunity to not only meet locals from cities everywhere, but many amazing people who are often also travel and food-obsessed. Most of the time, my currently awesome friends from back home in Vancouver are the ones who put me in touch with them.

It’s almost like blind dating – I’ll ask friends if they know anyone in a particular place, and they’ll often introduce me to others who welcome me with open arms to wherever they may be living (as a local, an expat, or just a temporary nomad, like me). Some people may find it a bit strange to just meet up with another person who they have never spoken to before except on some online channels (moreso those who don’t travel constantly), but over the last few years, I’ve found people becoming more and more comfortable with it as the world becomes a smaller and smaller place.

Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as the locals still call it), in Vietnam, was no exception.

As I was saying in an earlier post, I’ve been trying to get to Vietnam for several years now as I’ve already covered most of Southeast Asia, but I kept getting caught up in other places for longer than expected. This year, I knew it was absolutely the time when it needed to happen. I put out the word on Facebook and Twitter, and many friends put me in touch with one or multiple people who they figured would show me the ropes. I love how I even posted a picture after I’ve arrived on instagram, and a good friend realized where I was and immediately put me in touch with a couple of his friends.

Jodi and Victoria eating and taking picturesI usually do at least a little bit of research before dropping into a new place, but beyond knowing that I wanted to go on a food tour with Jodi of Legal Nomads, I hadn’t really done any research and mostly just talked to others who had been there before.

And thus began yet another adventure.

By the end of the week, I was playing darts with expats, going to karaoke with a group of family and friends in town for a wedding, and celebrating birthdays during Ladies Night at nightclubs (the latter of which won’t happen again :P). I was also eating at the markets and on street corners, while Vietnamese women fawned over me like second mothers.

As a result, I’ve managed to check out quite a few great places in Ho Chi Minh City (and I’m currently already on to the next city further north, called Da Lat).  Over my short 8 day stint there, thanks to all of the wonderful people who spared their time and knowledge and became friends in the process, I’ve cultivated another travel map to share with you. Hopefully it comes in handy – enjoy!

 Food & Drinks

Ben Thanh market Nuoc MiaAlthough this bustling market (indoors during the day, and outdoors in the evenings) sells everything from fresh produce, to local goods, coffee, and has restaurants, I spent my time here perusing the local foods available on my first day in town. I found the most amazing sugar cane juice (Nuoc Mia) and Banh Beo Hue (small steamed rice cakes with pork) in one corner.
Quán Phở Lệ 2 Thanks to Jodi (legalnomads.com), I was able to check out this local pho restaurant to enjoy some passion fruit juice and meat ball noodle soup.
The Bean Store The Bean Dessert CafeAfter eating pho at Pho Le, I noticed that this dessert cafe was just down the street. I enjoyed a great Japanese matcha and red bean (fish shaped cake) and kumquat smoothie (which came highly recommended by staff). They make soy bean desserts and shakes and other dishes, and it’s a great atmosphere to relax in after a day of walking around.
Cục Gạch Quán This restaurant has a great atmosphere, with 2 levels surrounded by an outside garden. The staff are very friendly, and I had the opportunity to sit down with one of them (as I was told that it was “so sad you are so alone”) while he recommended what dishes to try and then gave me other local recommendations, along with advice for my upcoming adventure in Nha Trang. Try the fresh juices (guava was good, and they serve the sugar syrup on the side so you can sweeten it to taste), the spicy garlic squid, and one of their latest additions, the pork bacon with noodles and fresh veggies in the traditional sweet Vietnamese fish sauce dip.
Quán Bánh Xèo 46A This street side restaurant gets very busy in the evenings, and we had to wait to get a table. From what I understand, it’s known for it’s Banh Xeo (or savoury fried rice pancake, filled with onions, shrimp, green onions, and bean sprouts, served with a plate of fresh vegetables). We also tried some of the Cha Gio (deep fried spring rolls) while there. An inexpensive local food
Quán Bò Tùng Xẻo Lương Sơn Tofu with Lemongrass and ChiliA Vietnamese BBQ restaurant that’s been around since 1995, this place serves up all types of meat that you can BBQ up to yourhearts content. There’s also the option to have it cooked for you, if you don’t feel like doing all the work. Try the spicy prawn skewers, the ostrich meat, or several other unique options available. Great with beer or a lemon soda.
Quan Ba Teo Hanoi Noodle SoupA restaurant serving food from Hanoi, I wandered in off the street when I saw many locals at lunch time enjoying some soup that friendly staff were serving up. After walking in and being passed the menu, which was all in Vietnamese, I walked with the server to the front where another friendly woman was stirring pots of soup and cutting up veggies and meat. After a lot of pointing and just hoping they would give me something I’d like, I got a soup called Bun Rieu Suon, with rice vermicelli, tomato, tofu puffs, pork spare ribs, and fresh veggies. They were all very sweet and helpful, and the soup was delicious – I was happy to have stumbled in after a double take on the street!
Quan An Hai San Nhi 2 So I’m not sure if that’s actually the full name of the restaurant, but I’ve got a picture of the front of a menu and an address. To find this, you’ll see tables lined up along the street that are filled with people and seafood. Have the Rau Luoc Kho Quet, an inexpensive dish of caramelized fish sauce with rendered pork fat, baby shrimp, chilis, sugar and garlic, which was commonly eaten during difficult times of poverty in Vietnam. It’s now become a more trendy dish again, and I think it’s delicious! It has a strong flavour, and is used as a dipping sauce with a variety of boiled vegetables. Also make sure to get the flower crabs or swimming crabs (depending on how you translate it), the dish itself being called Cang Ghe Rang Muoi. Also a great spot to watch the busy traffic and people wandering by.
Sui Cao Dai Nuong DumplingsIn Saigon’s Chinatown, you’ll find this little restaurant serving up some great dumplings (Sui Cao He Luoc – according to theorder menu, at least)  and fried scallion cakes (Banh Hanh). Mix up a bowlful of crushed garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar, and you’ve got yourself a great afternoon snack. And if you’re ambitious, do like we did, and bring a bottle of wine to enjoy it with – no corkage fees here! 😛
Quán Phở Hùng Serving pho inside an air conditioned space that’s open late nights until 3 am (in case you’re hungry after drinks in the nearby Bui Ven backpacker neighbourhood), the beef noodle soup here is quite tasty. They serve a huge plate of veggies flush with my favourite addition to the soup besides basil – the name of which cannot for the life of me remember!
L’Usine Le Loi L'UsineA trendy cafe and restaurant with a patio overlooking the main stretch of Le Loi Street in the city. There is a store with unique gifts on the main level, while the eatery is located upstairs, and has everything from shakes and coffee, to a variety of desserts and sandwiches. Settle in with a laptop to do some work, or just people watch everyone else in the area.
Game on Sports Pub Appears to be a mostly expat sports pub, with drink specials and a weekly darts league that meets up (which is how I found myself there).  Probably not a great place for food, but I didn’t try anything myself and couldn’t tell you for sure.
Lush Nightclub What I know about Lush nightclub is that it’s ladies night on Tuesdays, and on that night you’ll find the place FILLED with men. The place is packed, has two rooms with DJs, and you can get table service with bottles, as you can in most clubs. If you’re looking for a fun night out for dancing and you’re a lady (or a man for that matter), you may want to pick another night of the week instead.
Skewers Restaurant Skewers an air conditioned Mediterranean restaurant where you can find a decent wine list and a great room. Try out the lamb shank as a Main, their take on the Saganaki as an appetizer, and make sure to order a bottle of wine to go with it all.
Ice Blue Bar Looking for a small and unpretentious bar where you can have a few beers and relax? Head over to Ice Blue and take in a game of darts if you’re in the mood.
Vinyl Bar Looking for another chill bar with great staff? Check out Vinyl Bar in the financial district, and listen to some rock and roll. Say hello to bar owner Lee and enjoy darts and bar games while drinking some beers…or shots.
Xu Lounge If you’re looking for a trendy spot for some decent cocktails and wine, head on over to Xu. People watch the who’s who, and settle in for some DJs on weekend nights. There’s also a restaurant upstairs, should you choose to need some eats thrown in the mix.
Blanchy’s Tash Another trendy hotspot in the middle of Saigon, head on over for an evening out.
Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel Feel like a glass of champagne? Start off the evening with a drink in the lounge at this hotel.
The Refinery Restaurant In more of an expat area of the city, this restaurant is generally busy with people having cocktails during an evening out. I didn’t actually try the food, but was recommended to this place…so feel free to check it out. Located across the street from Beirut Lounge, which looks like it could be a fun and random next stop of the evening.
Beirut Restaurant Co. Ltd. While I only saw this place from the outside, and could also hear the pounding music after 9 pm from across the alley at The Refinery, it seemed like an interesting place for a shisha pipe, belly and latin dancing shows nightly, and unique DJs.
Juicy A great spot to people watch from the street level while having a smoothie, or work from your laptop upstairs while sitting on floor pillows with low tables. Try the avocado shake.

Accommodations

Huong Trinh Hotel A great little 12 room locally owned and inexpensive hotel. Excessively clean, very friendly staff who always go above and beyond, fast wifi, and a good location for walking around the city. Also tucked down a small alley, so it’s very quiet. Trinh was an amazing host, and it was also great getting breakfast each morning brought to the room, so I didn’t have to leave before starting my work each morning!

Sites and More

Jasmine Spa Looking for a good place to get treated to a manicure or pedicure, or a fantastic massage? Jasmine Spa also offers salon options. The staff are great and it’s a nice space to spend a few hours (and fall asleep on the massage table during a deep tissue…ahem).
Professional Foot Massage Another great option to check out if you’re looking for an inexpensive chair foot massage is this place. Get the 70 minute option for 200,000 VND (around $10 USD), and you’ll also get a neck, head and shoulder massage as part of the mix. Located right next to Phatty’s.
TNK Travel While I didn’t actually go to this travel agent myself, I had friends in town who booked a few things there and highly recommended them, based on their experience with staff. Very friendly, knowledgeable and welcoming.
Ho Chi Minh City Hall Saigon City HallA great building with beautiful gardens out front. Located near the Saigon Opera House, it’s nice to wander by during the daytime, but also see it lit up at night.
Saigon Opera House Saigon Opera HouseA beautiful building that shows off some of the French colonial architecture of Vietnam, and houses a variety of shows in it’stheatre.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any other recommendations for Ho Chi Minh City, as I always like to add new Enjoying Dumplings and Onion Fried Pancakes in Saigon's Chinatownplaces to my list, and based on how much I enjoyed my time there, I’ll likely be back soon!And if you ever want to see what I’m up to on a more daily basis, check out my Instagram feed, filled with many more food pictures, random pics and videos of adventures, and even a recent shot of me singing karaoke (or at least lip synching to it).

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