Ho Chi Minh City will challenge your perception of proper sidewalk usage: A simple stroll down the street requires dodging parked and moving motorbikes while also tripping over food carts and customers seated in plastic chairs. But the fragrant aromas of grilled meats and simmering soup just might tempt you to abandon any restaurant plans and join them.
The owners of Saigon Street Eats, Barbara, an Australian, and her Vietnamese husband, Vu, specialize in shepherding hungry tourists through their city’s overwhelming selection of street food. Their strategy for choosing might seem counterintuitive. “Paradoxically, if a place looks a bit run-down, it's usually a sign the vendor has been in business a long time and is therefore very good,” Barbara explains. She also recommends seeking places busy with locals. “You should also look for a lot of rubbish on the floor,” she adds “This is a sign of a popular street food place.” The language barrier will ultimately present another challenge, so adventurous eaters should just point at a dish that looks good and go for it.
Eating at busy street food stalls is also safer from a health standpoint. As most stalls don’t have refrigeration, sticking to freshly cooked or steaming-hot food is a good precaution. But keep in mind that it's common to get an upset stomach when your diet changes dramatically. “People often think they have food poisoning when their bodies are reacting to a change in their eating habits, often including a lot of cheap beer,” explains Barbara.
What to Eat
Bánh mì: This baguette sandwich filled with pickled vegetables, cilantro, hot peppers, and meat is now popular all over the world, but don’t count on being able to order lemongrass chicken in Ho Chi Minh City. Sandwich stands typically stock a kaleidoscope of mystery meats such as slices of Vietnamese boiled sausage (chả lụa), ham, shredded pork skin, and pâté. Bánh mì thit, made with grilled pork, is also available, but not as easy to find.
Soups: Of course, you can’t leave Vietnam without trying pho, the legendary rice-noodle soup made with beef or clear broth. Vu and Barbara also recommend hu tieu, a pork and seafood noodle soup with Cambodian roots, and bún riêu, a crab soup with red broth.
Seafood: Piles of raw seafood are usually displayed at stalls for customers to see. Choose from crab, mussels, cockles, scallops still in their shells, conch, and plenty of options that are utterly unfamiliar to Western visitors. Vendors will grill or stir-fry it to order.
Bo la lot: Visitors might be confused to see what look like dolmas cooking on open grills in Vietnam, but they’re actually fragrant and spicy ground beef rolls wrapped in slightly bitter-tasting betel leaves.
Banh kep: Looking for something sweet to finish your meal? Ladies all over town sell crunchy waffle cookies made with coconut milk. The batter is poured into a waffle iron and heated over a charcoal fire right on the sidewalk.
Where to Eat
Nguyen Thuong Hien Street: Also known as “Snail Street,” this strip is famous for stalls selling fresh seafood cooked to order. You don’t have to eat sea snails to enjoy a meal here—there’s also crab, oysters, mussels, and scallops. Not in the mood for seafood? Then try some duck tongue or fertilized duck egg smothered in tamarind sauce and peanuts.
Le Van Tam Park: This park is only a short walk from most of the tourist sites, but it still feels off the beaten path. Several vendors camp out across the street in front of the shops. They do a brisk business selling banh mi or green papaya salad to hungry motorbike drivers pulling up for a quick bite.
Corner of Duong Pasteur and Duong Nguyen Du (near the Notre Dame Cathedral) at lunchtime: Most of these vendors only appear for the lunch hour between noon and 1 pm on weekdays. Get there around 11:45 am to observe office workers lining up for their favorite daily dish, or avoid the crowds entirely by arriving right at 1. You’ll find vendors selling favorites such as spring rolls, bun rieu with quail eggs, and rice porridge with congealed blood, liver, and offal. Grab a bag of freshly sliced pomelo for dessert.