YOUR INSIDER'S STREET FOOD GUIDE
IN Ho Chi Minh City 🇻🇳 Since 2008
SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS STREET FOOD
SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS STREET FOOD FAMILY TRIP IN VIETNAM: SAIGON STREET EATS
Experiencing Saigon street food with the family
It’s an adventure for visitors like us, yet, in Barbara and Vu, we have studious experts in the foods, customs, and etiquette for the newly initiated in the sometimes intimidating world of the ‘foreign’ food of Vietnam. But of course, a trail leading to some of the best ‘phở’ and Vietnamese street foods in Saigon, may just take you, away from District 1. That’s food ‘foreign’ to us!
Without a doubt, the Vietnamese Street Food Tour in Saigon was one of the most exotic and engaging things we did on our “heritage” trip. The Phở Trail tour is a sensory field trip into the alleys, marketplaces, Vietnamese street food stalls, and street-side cafes where authentic Vietnam street food can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, and even, yes, heard! It is an education in the best sense of the word: truly a delightful exploration of all that leads up to a meal in Vietnam.
Living as my family does just one mile from Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, the epicenter of Vietnamese-American culture on the East Coast of the US, whets the appetite for truly authentic ‘Phở’. We are on a mission to find broth even richer with beef marrow and layered in the spice of star anise and garnished with fresh herbs such as cilantro, saw grass and spicy basil.
Our steaming ‘Phở’ is found in District 5, apparently in our Vietnamese Street Food tour creator’s very neighborhood! It’s a family-run shop that has been in operation for more than 30 years. I can’t divulge the name of the place — it’s their secret!
Vu, leading our tour in Barbara’s absence, explains what makes this pho so superior is the excellent quality of the meats and its broths simmered for hours in the beef and chicken bones and marrow.
Indeed, this ‘phở’ is magnificent. It is layered in flavors, fragrances, and tastes. We are taught to make a sauce by mixing the sriracha and hoisin sauces, and adding spicy red chilies, should we desire.
Our traditional Vietnamese breakfast of ‘phở bò’ is thankfully delivered at a regular-size table, instead of the tiny plastic chairs at the street side, which our un-oiled limbs sink into! During our breakfast we’re briefed on the explorations we’re about to undertake along the street eats trail.
There are rice merchants selling every kind of rice imaginable — all varieties, many grades, and even different colors and shades. More than 20 selections are offered. Who knew?
Around another corner, I spy a Chinese medicine shop. Eureka! Now’s my time to inquire about several remedies I would dearly like to try. Vu, our intrepid interpreter, inquires about remedies for my child’s asthma, my arthritic toe, and other naturopathic cures.
Several packages of pills and scented bandages are dispensed as the Chinese herbalist takes a break from filling many, many orders for herbal concoctions. Business is booming in this fascinating shop!
Our Vietnamese Street Food lunch is shared in a pagoda’s beautiful garden. I’m told it is a pagoda of homage to a military general who defended the city from invaders many years ago!
Here we unpack and savor the remarkable Vietnamese street food delicacies – sandwiches, noodles, and meats, along with platters of fruits and sweets to enjoy! It is a lovely way to wrap up our three-week visit, our “homeland” tour with our children, both now so much more connected to their birth country.
In a final touching ceremony, our daughter and son, light incense and bow in thanksgiving to this unfamiliar hero who saved a nation; another individual in a long line of noble people whose blood they share and the legacy they’ve inherited. Afterward, they shake out numbered sticks to divine their fortunes and take away wisdom and light for their journeys.
We return to the USA with a renewed sense that fresh, local, and unprocessed Vietnamese street food is the best way to eat — no matter where one calls home. It’s a day for the memory books. Thanks to our hosts, Barbara and Vu, our family leaves the pho trail with full stomachs and warmed hearts.
SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS STREET FOOD TOP 5 MUST EAT DISHES IN SAIGON
Eating is one of the top things to do in Saigon.
With a glut of tasty dishes to sample, it’s hard to decide what to choose For a short list of the must-try food in the city, you can read below. For more ideas, you can read our review: Top Street Food in HCMC.
No trip to Vietnam is complete without a steaming bowl of pho, the most popular traditional food in Vietnam. Simple yet complex at the same time, pho is served with flat rice noodles in a beef broth that usually takes several hours to prepare.
The broth is usually topped with green and white onions, coriander leaves and bean sprouts. Accompanied with the soup is an array of garnishes that consists of gia (bean sprouts), chanh (lime), rau que (basil), hanh (scallions), tuong ot (chili sauce) and ot (sliced chilies).
Most pho restaurants will have a wide assortment of meats and trimmings to choose from. Basic selections are either tai (sliced of ground beef ), bo vien (beef meatballs) or nam (beef flank). More adventurous eaters have the option of more exotic fare such as gan (beef tendon), sach (thin sliced stomach lining) or ve don (flank with cartilage). If you want a bit of everything in your bowl, order a pho thap cam.
Pho is not the only soup to eat in Vietnam. To truly experience all the soupy goodness that Saigon has to offer check out this blog. Bun Rieu is a great place to start your culinary voyage.
Local insight: Expect to pay around VND 30,000 – 50,000 for a steaming bowl of Vietnam goodness.
Take a walk anywhere in Saigon and you will eventually run into someone selling banh mi. Tasty, filling and most importantly quick to prepare, these sandwiches are perfect for fast paced Saigon life.
It isn’t banh mi unless it’s on a baguette. The type of baguette will range from each region and baguettes that originate in Saigon are generally lighter yet crustier in texture. Fillings consist of butter, soy sauce, pickled daikon sprouts and carrots, cucumber and coriander. Chilies are optional if you want to spice things up.
The meat options are aplenty and a slew of them are listed here: cha ca (fried fish with turmeric and dill), cha lua (steamed pork roll), heo quay (roasted pork belly), pho mai (laughing cow cheese), pa te (pate), xiu mai (meatballs), thit ga (boiled chicken), thit nuong (grilled pork loin), trung op la (fried egg), and xa xiu (chinese barbecued pork).
Local insight: Banh mi is usually sold for about VND 15,000 – 25,000 depending on your choice of filling.
Literally translated as “broken rice”, this hearty dish is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This dish started with humble beginnings with Vietnamese farmers serving this rice at home as the “broken” leftovers were not suitable to sell in the market. Nowadays, it is served in Saigon and isn’t just for farmers anymore.
The dish is usually served with many different meat options such as suon nuong (barbecued pork chop), bi (shredded pork skin), cha trung (steamed pork and egg patty) or trung op la (fried egg). Diced green onion in oil is sprinkled on the meat and a side of pickled vegetables and sliced cucumber finish the plate. Served on the side is a bowl of the ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Local insight: Eating on the street will usually cost you VND 20,000-30,000 but expect to pay a bit more in a restaurant.
Bun Thit Nuong
Brightly coloured and fresh in flavour, this noodle dish is a great alternative to the heavier pho or com dishes served in Saigon. Unlike most Vietnamese dishes, bun thit nuong is served in one bowl and doesn’t come with additional garnishes.
The Saigon version highlights the wealth of fresh vegetables produced in the neighboring Mekong Delta and Dalat regions. Fresh chopped leaf lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled daikon and carrot, basil, chopped peanuts, and mint are served with vermicelli rice noodle and topped with grilled pork shoulder.
You can also get the dish with cha gio (eggrolls) or nem nuong (grilled ground pork meatballs). Nuoc cham is served on the side and should be poured into the bowl. Mix it all up and what you have is a taste sensation in your mouth.
Local insight: A bowl of bun thit nuong will put you back around VND 30,000 but expect to pay more if you want some extras.
SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS STREET FOOD SO… WHAT ELSE BESIDES PHO?
Pho is usually the first thing that comes to mind when Vietnamese cuisine is mentioned.
However, pho is to Vietnam pasta is to Italy, pad thai is to Thailand, and fish and chips are to England. Yes, they are the most widely-exported dishes from their respective countries but certainly not the only ones you can find there.
This article is all about the ones in the shadows, the dishes you may have heard of but haven’t had a chance to try. Or perhaps you’ve tried them all and possibly even rate them higher than pho. Regardless, of your experience level now is the time to dig in and slurp up those noodles with gusto.
The Different Types of Noodles
Vietnamese noodles usually come in two forms, tuoi (fresh) and kho (dried). They are also categorised by the ingredients they are made from. Two of the most common noodles in Vietnam are bun, which is made from rice flour, and mi, made from wheat flour.
Other types of noodles you can find include banh canh, which look a lot like Japanese udon and are made from rice or tapioca flour, and mien, which are made from canna starch and are known as cellophane or glass noodles in English.
Now that you have a slightly better understanding of the naming conventions, let’s dive into the rich, savoury goodness of noodle soup dishes.
Hu Tieu Nam Vang
This dish, which comes in both soupy and dry versions, is one of Saigon’s most popular offerings. Originally created by Teochew Chinese migrants in Cambodia, hu tieu nam vang is made up of thin rice noodles served in a broth made of pork stock and topped with minced pork, pork slices and shrimp. You can find this dish anywhere from dedicated restaurants to street vendors all over Saigon.
Bun Bo Hue
Depending on who you ask, this dish is known as the best alternative to pho, with some (like me) preferring this over the former. Bun bo hue is a beef noodle dish that originated in Hue. It is made up of bun, served in a broth made of beef and lemongrass and usually topped up with slices of beef, tendon, crab balls and in some places, congealed pig’s blood.
Known for its red tamarind-based broth and its unique taste, bun rieu is a rice vermicelli soup that’s served with meat, tofu and tomatoes. The three most common variants of this dish are bun rieu cua (crab), bun rieu ca (fish) and bun rieu oc (snail).
If you are living in Saigon, you can find really good versions of this dish at Bun Rieu Nha.
This dish is more of a sub-category rather than a dish on its own. It’s made up of udon-like noodles and there are many variants of this dish featuring different key ingredients. The most common version of this dish you can find in Saigon is banh canh cua, which consists of a thick broth and a generous dose of crab meat.
If Vietnamese food were Pokemon, then banh canh da cua Hai Phong in the below video would probably be Mew, the rarest of them all. Only found in Hai Phong City, the noodles are red in colour, and the dish is a specialty there. So head down to Hai Phong if you really want to “catch em all”.
If you ever find yourself in Nghe An province, you have just walked right into the best place in Vietnam to find dishes made of eel. Mien luon is glass noodles served with fresh or fried eel. The broth is made of eel bones and ginger and this dish has a slightly sweet taste.
As far as ingredients go, there are many different combinations that go into a bowl of bun mam. From shrimp, pork belly to catfish, there isn’t really a clear standard recipe for this dish but what is consistent among all variants, is the broth itself.
Made of fermented fish or shrimp paste, and depending on who you ask, it could fall anywhere on a scale of “I will never go anywhere near this thing again” to “the best umami experience in my life”.
In other words, it’s an acquired taste especially to foreigners but once it’s acquired, there’s no turning back.
Snails are a pretty big deal in Vietnam and you can find many dishes featuring these tasty shelled gastropods.
Bun Oc is a simple tomato-based broth with rice vermicelli featuring chewy chunks of snails and topped with scallions. It’s another common offering across Saigon from restaurants to hole-in-the-wall establishments around the city.
Although not really a soup dish, bo kho is usually commonly found in places that also sell pho. The only difference is that bo kho is essentially a stew and goes really well with either bun or a baguette.
For those who like their noodles dry, these are some of the more popular dishes that you can find around the country.
Mi Vit Tiem
Translated to yellow noodle soup with roasted duck and Chinese broccoli, mi vit tiem can be found in many parts of Saigon and Hanoi. The noodles in this dish are made from wheat flour and eggs, also known as egg noodles. This type of noodle is commonly found in Chinese cuisine across Southeast Asia and Taiwan.
This dish threads the thin line between dry and soup because it depends on where you go. Usually, it’s served dry, although some establishments add a small amount of broth to it.
A signature dish from Quang Nam province, this dish consists of yellow wheat flour noodles served with various meats and herbs and usually contains a very small amount of strong flavoured broth.
The noodles are made with turmeric, giving it its yellowish hue and are usually served with peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers.
With all these excellent alternatives to pho, now you can walk into a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere in the world with confidence. It’s time to take the less-trodden path by indulging in any of these dishes which are still largely unknown outside the country, but passionately devoured by Vietnamese and foreigners alike in Vietnam.
SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS STREET FOOD 10 BEST STREET DISHES IN SAIGON
Ho Chi Minh City‘s street food scene can be daunting for first-time visitors.
There are food vendors everywhere … but what are they selling? All the signs are in Vietnamese and the displays can be a bit confusing. Sticking to the places with English menus and/or staff who speak English means you miss out on some of the tastiest and healthiest food in the world: cheap and cheerful Vietnamese street food.
Here's a quick guide to the 10 most popular street food dishes in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam’s unofficial national dish originated in Hanoi, but the dish evolved as it traveled throughout the country. In Ho Chi Minh City, pho is served with an abundance of fresh herbs and a range of condiments so each diner can create something that pleases their palate. The most common type of pho is pho bo, or beef pho, followed by pho ga, or chicken pho. It’s possible to find vegetarian, seafood, and even pork pho.
Pho is a dish that’s usually eaten out because it takes many hours to prepare and has many ingredients, many of which are considered medicinal. Star anise and cinnamon are believed to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral qualities, which can be boosted with the addition of pickled garlic, bean sprouts and a generous handful of herbs.
This pork and rice noodle dish can be served “wet” as a soup or “dry” as a plate of noodles with a small bowl of broth on the side. Believed to have been created a few hundred years ago by Chinese people living in Southeast Asia, versions of hu tieu can be found in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.
In Ho Chi Minh City, two types of hu tieu are served: hu tieu My Tho from the Mekong Delta town of the same name, and hu tieu Nam Vang from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh (Nam Vang is the Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh).
While there is no hard-and-fast recipe for these two versions, generally hu tieu Nam Vang contains slices of offal, such as pork liver and heart, and hu tieu My Tho has prawns, quail eggs, ground pork, pork ribs, and sometimes slices of squid.
The dish is usually served with a platter of herbs, including edible chrysanthemum, chives, lettuce leaves, as well as bean sprouts, sliced chilli, and lime wedges.
In Southern Vietnam, these sizzling savoury pancakes are giant bright yellow affairs, stuffed with pork, prawn and bean sprouts. The pancakes are served with platters of leaves, which are used as wrappers. To eat, tear off a chunk of the crispy pancake and place it in the centre of a mustard or a lettuce leaf, add a selection of basil, balm, and perilla leaves and roll up into a giant green cigar. Dip the end in the nuoc cham dipping sauce and enjoy!
Banh xeo is named for the sizzling sound the pancake batter makes when it hits the hot wok: xeo. Banh means cake, so the literal translation of this dish is “sizzling cake”.
One of the more filling Vietnamese noodle soup dishes, banh canh starts with a pork broth, which is sometimes thickened with a little cornstarch. The noodles, made from tapioca, are fatter and chewier than plain rice noodles. Popular with penny-conscious students, banh canh is a simple soup served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Common varieties of banh canh include
banh canh gio heo: served with pork knuckle and sliced pork
banh canh cua: with crab meat
banh canh cha ca: with fish sausage
banh canh ca loc: with snake head fish from the Mekong Delta
Some street vendors in Ho Chi Minh City serve banh canh with long, skinny fried Chinese doughnuts to add more bulk to the dish. The doughnuts should be torn into bite-sized chunks and added to the soup.
These light fluffy baguettes are one of the most noticeable relics of French colonial rule. Vietnamese bakers improved on the French baguette by making the bread lighter and crispier, while street food vendors enhanced things further by making the fillings more balanced.
The most common type of banh mi in Ho Chi Minh City is served with a thin layer of pate, mayonnaise, various cuts of deli meats, slices of cucumber and chili, pickled daikon, and carrot, and a selection of fresh herbs. This version is known as banh mi, which translates literally as meat baguette.
A great on-the-go breakfast is banh mi op la: a toasted baguette filled with a fried egg, cucumber slices, a sprinkle of pepper, and a slug of soy sauce. Banh mi heo quay is a hefty serving of roast pork belly, cucumber, and a tangy barbecue sauce. Banh mi heo quay vendors can be identified by the slabs of roast pork hanging from hooks on the front of their carts.
A rarer type of baguette is banh mi xiu mai, which some Americans call a Vietnamese meatball sub sandwich. Xiu mai is a pork meatball cooked in a homemade tomato sauce. The filling of this banh mi usually depends on the individual vendor, with the most common additions pickled carrot and daikon, sprigs of coriander, and slices of cucumber and chili.
If you notice small yellow cans on display on a banh mi cart, this means the vendor also served sardine baguettes, known in Vietnamese as banh mi ca hop (literally canned fish baguette).
This dish originated in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi but is very popular in Ho Chi Minh City as breakfast or a light meal. Banh cuon is usually translated as a steamed crepe. The crepe, made from a rice flour batter, is stuffed with a mixture of shredded wood ear mushroom, pork mince, jicama (sometimes called Mexican turnip), baby prawns, and bean sprouts.
The unwieldy and lumpy wrap is sliced into bite-sized pieces and sprinkled with fried shallots. The dish is usually served with a range of side dishes, including thick slices of Vietnamese sausage called cha lua, a tangle of shredded greens, and nuoc cham, the fish sauce-based Vietnamese dipping sauce. For the best taste sensation, dump the nuoc cham sauce over everything on the plate and dig in.
Bun thit nuong
A Southern Vietnamese specialty, bun thit nuong is a light and fresh rice-noodle salad topped with barbecued pork. The dish is visually appealing, with the pork, crushed peanuts, pickled carrot, and daikon sitting on top of the bun noodles. Hiding underneath these carefully arranged toppings are shredded herbs, finely sliced cucumber, and bean sprouts.
Bun thit nuong is usually served with a side of nuoc cham, which should be poured over the noodles as a dressing. Some street food vendors add slices of fried spring rolls (cha gio) and/or prawn paste (chao tom) to their bun thit nuong.
Literally “broken rice”, the name of this type of street food stall refers to the most inexpensive grade of rice: the broken grains that were damaged during harvesting. Com tam joints are popular with working people who want cheap and cheerful home cooking, served fast so they can get on their way.
The beauty of these places is that all the food is on display, which makes ordering easy if you don’t speak Vietnamese. Generally, a com tam meal will include rice, a serving of whatever dish is ordered, a side of vegetables, and a small bowl of the soup of the day.
The signature dishes of most com tam places are barbecued pork and cha trung, a bright yellow egg pie that falls somewhere between quiche and meatloaf. You’ll also find a selection of pork, fish, prawn, and tofu dishes.
Bo la lot
Long thin beef patties are wrapped in la lot leaves, which are related to betel leaves but not as bitter. The rolls are barbecued on a charcoal brazier, creating a fragrant smoke that adds to the street food dining experience. When cooked, bo la lot looks like a platter of beat-up cigars.
The beef rolls are served with fresh herbs, a mound of fresh bun rice noodles, thin slices of green banana and sour starfruit, and a small dish of fermented fish dipping sauce. To eat, wrap a beef roll in a lettuce leaf with a selection of noodles and herbs, and dip it in the dipping sauce.
The Vietnamese version of rice noodle porridge is related to the famous Chinese congee … but better. The rice isn’t cooked until it’s mushy, only until it’s soft, creating a portion of flavourful savory comfort food that’s easy to digest.
Various types of chao are available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, including fish, which usually contain slices of snakehead fish from the Mekong Delta. The most popular type of chao in Southern Vietnam is chao long, pork offal rice porridge, which isn’t to everyone’s taste. Chao is usually served with lime wedges, a dish of cracked pepper, and fish sauce.
Street food in Ho Chi Minh City is not limited to these 10 most popular dishes. Another one of my favourite for instance is the Mi Quang from Central Vietnam. What about yours? Please share with us your recommended street eats in Vietnam by leaving a comment below!
You may also want to check one of our other blog articles: 3 Vietnamese Soups You Must Try
And although I love Saigonese street food, sometimes I am in pursuit of pizza! Check out our article about the best pizza in Ho Chi Minh City!
SAIGON INSPIRATION RESTAURANTS STREET FOOD BEST STREET FOOD IN THAO DIEN
Thao Dien street food treasure trove
• Grilled pork chop with broken rice
• Steamed rice noodle rolls with pork and wood ear mushroom
• Grilled beef in betel leaf
I grew up in Sydney Australia within the Vietnamese community of Cabramatta. My parents owned a busy Vietnamese restaurant where my siblings and I worked from a very young age. I loved the sense of family and belonging our restaurant brought to the Vietnamese community. Most of the dishes that we served were dishes that reminded not only our parents of the food they grew up with, but they reminded our customers of their deep-rooted origins too.
Our regular visitors would always come and shout out their orders to the kitchen, and as my siblings and I ran tables they would shout out their coffee orders in the same informal way you would with your family.
I had my very first street food experience fifteen years ago when I first returned to Vietnam. I was ushered to a small red plastic table with red plastic chairs by the owner’s young son who took my order. The son shouted my Pho order to his mother, yelled my coffee order to his sister, and went off to grab my fresh herbs. I was instantly transported back to our family restaurant and embraced the sense of family and belonging. I realized that our interactions with our customers very much mirrored that of Vietnamese street food vendors.
As I devoured my Pho other customers would arrive, yell out their orders to no one in particular, and seat themselves. I clearly had a long way to go before I ordered like a local.
There was something initially so familiar about the small red plastic table and chairs, it took me a while but when it came to me my emotions started to suddenly play up. My Grandmother, who lived with us in Sydney, always sat on a small red table and chair, this is where she spent most of her time.
I always thought it was a little strange that she would sit there for hours plucking herbs or marinading her meats. When she ate by herself she would often choose to sit at the small plastic table and not our dining table. I now know it was her way of keeping her memory of Vietnam alive. My Grandmother has passed now and every time I am in Vietnam and eat street food at a small plastic table, I well up a little thinking about my Ba Ngoai.
When I started traveling to Vietnam, I often found myself in District 1, this was where all the restaurants and bars were and where most of the street food vendors congregated. I was a lot younger then so I loved the hustle and bustle and fast pace of D1. These days I enjoy a slower lifestyle. Now when I visit Vietnam I always stay in Thao Dien.
Thao Dien in District 2 has really grown in the past few years, there is a fast-growing F&B scene full of cool bars, restaurants, and an abundance of street food vendors. It’s also not as busy as D1 so you can easily take a leisurely stroll down the streets, well, as leisurely as you can in Ho Chi Minh City.
I make sure to visit as many of these street vendors as I can whenever I am here. I’m almost a local now, ordering out loud as I walk in and seat myself. I went to my favorite Pho vendor last week and she informed me that she hadn’t seen my parents in a while. I only visit once or twice a year so I was surprised that she remembered me and knew who my parents were.
What I love the most about street food is that, because it is totally devoid of the bells and whistles of a restaurant, the food shines through and is the hero of the experience. For me, street food conjures fond memories of our family restaurant, our customers, and my lovely Grandmother.
Grilled pork chop with broken rice - Com Tam Suon
In our family restaurant (I’m talking way back during my childhood years) Com Tam Suon was one of our best sellers. The pork chops are marinated overnight with lemongrass, spring onions, fish sauce, and honey. Once grilled, they are placed over broken rice and served with a homemade sweet fish sauce. Every family will have its own sweet fish sauce recipe and its own way of marinating the pork.
My parents like to add oyster sauce, honey, fresh chili, and generous amounts of lemongrass to the marinade. The beauty of this dish is that you can add extra ingredients to make the dish even more awesome. I usually have Com Tam Bi Suon Cha Trung (Grilled pork chop, shredded pork, pork and egg terrine, and a fried egg, all over broken rice)
Com Tam 40A
40a Quoc Huong. Thao Dien, Thu Duc City, Vietnam / Facebook
Opening Hours: 6:00 am – 2:00 pm. Then 4:00 pm until late.
Prices: VND 35,000 for Com Suon Trung – pork chop and a fried egg over broken rice.
As I enter the stall, marinated pork grilling by the entrance makes me salivate and lures me to savor its charred deliciousness. Next to the BBQ is a food trolley full of homemade goodness, shelves of caramelised fish, fried eggs, caramelised pork, grilled pork, pork and egg terrine, and a huge bowl of Mo Han (spring onion oil) greets you. Mo hanh, oh how I’ve missed you! A key ingredient of Com Tam Suon, Mo hanh is made by cooking spring onion in oil on low heat, it adds a slightly slippery texture to the rice, and an overall nutty flavor to the dish.
The vendor piles my plate with broken rice, chooses my piece of grilled pork straight from the grill, adorns the meat with the fried egg, and slathers the dish with Mo hanh. I add a spoonful of their homemade minced chili to the small bowl of sweet fish sauce provided and pour all of it onto my plate.
My first spoonful of pork and rice instantly transports me to my childhood. The char of the juicy pork, the fragrance of the lemongrass, the richness of the egg, and the kick off that spicy fish sauce are all absorbed by the broken rice, and the addictive burst of flavors attacks my tastebuds. Every colorful ingredient perfectly complements the other.
As I eat, customers stop by on motorbikes and yell out their orders, one customer wants Com Thit Kho (Caramelised pork with boiled egg) with no cucumbers, and another asks for bitter melon soup, but is sadly disappointed when he is told the soup is sold out.
Steamed rice noodle rolls with pork and wood ear mushroom - Banh Cuon
Banh cuon is a difficult dish to make, the steamed rice noodles need to be perfectly thin and handled with utmost care to avoid tearing, and the filling of minced pork and wood ear mushroom needs to be well-balanced and plentiful.
We didn’t serve this in our family restaurant, it was way too complicated and fiddly to make. My Aunty 5 however, my Mother’s Sister in law, makes the best banh cuon so we would all pack ourselves into the car and make our way to Aunty 5’s house to satisfy our banh cuon cravings.
Hoang and Hoa
On July 22nd, 2022, we could not confirm if this joint still is running or not, if you pass by, please let us know. Thanks
33 Hem 33. Thao Dien. (Corner of Quoc Huong and Duong Hem 33)
Opening hours: 5:30 am until sold out. Price: VND 35,000
I arrive at Hoang and Hoa’s banh cuon stall with my sister-in-law who is a seasoned regular. The duo greets us warmly and Hoang pulls up a few chairs and a table from out of thin air for us. Hoa sits against the wall nursing a steaming pot topped tightly with a muslin cloth.
She expertly pours a layer of thin rice flour batter onto the muslin cloth, covers the pot with a lid, and waits a few seconds before lifting the lid to a steaming layer of freshly cooked rice noodles. With a quick flick of the wrist, her thin wooden spatula and a perfect thin circle of noodle sheets are peeled from the muslin cloth and laid out onto a plate.
A generous spoonful of minced pork and wood ear mushroom mixture is placed onto the noodle and everything is promptly wrapped into a neat parcel. Hoa plates up our dishes without us even ordering.
The banh cuon is served with two types of Vietnamese ham (there are usually three types, but Hoa has run out of the fried version, so my advice is to get in early!), steamed bean sprouts, cucumber, fried onions, and Asian basil.
The sight is glorious and my eyes tell my stomach to brace itself. I pour a generous amount of Hoa’s sweet fish sauce and devour the plate, I think I take a breath only once before finishing my meal. The banh cuon has a uniform thickness throughout, the filling is well-balanced, and the dish as a whole is freaking delicious.
At many restaurants, I tend to often leave some of the noodles, in parts where it is too thick and gelatinous, but not today, not at Hoa and Hoang’s. The rice noodle is perfectly paper thin and delicate. I can see why my sister-in-law keeps coming back. We came at 9:45 am and were the last customers.
Grilled beef in betel leaf - Bo La Lot
When I was little, my father and my uncle would always be in charge of tending to the Bo La Lot at our big family barbecues. The La Lot (betel leaf) is a vibrant green leaf and once grilled releases a slightly herbaceous fragrance and peppery flavor that is absorbed by the minced beef within.
The secret is to char grill the betel leaf-wrapped beef parcels. Some restaurants take the easy way out and shallow fry the bo la lot, the flavor still comes across, but the intensity is nowhere near the intensity you get when the betel leaf is char-grilled.
I have so many memories of wrapping hundreds of these a day in our family restaurant. Our customers loved this dish, they could choose to have it in a bowl with vermicelli, Vietnamese herbs and sweet fish sauce, or they could wrap them with fresh lettuce leaves.
Xuan Thuy Road
64 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, Thu Duc City, Vietnam
Opening hours: 3:00 pm – 9:00 pm. Price: VND 50,000
At the start of Xuan Thuy road, my brother and I pass a corner stall that has plenty of uniformly rolled bo la lot and grilled fish in its trolley display. Besides the trolley is a smoking hot bbq waiting for orders. We’re the first customers for the evening and not quite sure why but we felt that the vendor wasn’t too happy to be serving customers so early. The word abrasive comes to mind. We decide to let the food do the talking and overlook this slight customer service blip.
As we seat ourselves on the small red plastic chairs, the vendor sets our table with vermicelli, lettuce, Vietnamese herbs, starfruit, cucumber, and rice paper. The final condiment and definitely the highlight is the mam nem, a fermented anchovy, pineapple, and garlic dipping sauce.
We watch as the vendor expertly char grills our bo la lot over smoking hot coals. Once done she drizzles them with mo han (Spring onion oil), sprinkles them with crushed roasted peanuts, and then leaves us to wrap our own rice paper rolls.
I inhale the wafts of charred betel leaf, quickly wrap all the ingredients into the rice paper, dip my roll into the dipping sauce and take my first bite. My mouth waters, the deep earthy flavor of the mam nem dipping sauce, perfectly compliments the juicy betel leaf parcels, and just like that they’re all gone.
Balut - Hot Vit Lon
When I was little my parents, uncles, and aunties would always get together a few times a week and nhau (drink, eat snacks, and catch up). Our parents would supply the snacks, a mixture of nuts and finger foods like pickled onions and dry shrimp, and as kids, we always looked forward to those evenings but also dreaded them.
We loved watching our relatives laugh and have fun, but we would dread being left to clean up the aftermath of their hours of drinking and eating. On occasions, the adults would have Balut, a boiled fertilized duck egg. Of all the family gatherings, the ones that involved Balut invoke my fondest memories. It is a simple yet delicious dish which I know is not for everyone.
104 Xuan Thuy. Thao Dien, Thu Duc City, Vietnam
Opening hours: 3:00 pm – 11:00 pm. Price: VND 10,000 per egg
Kim Thao is a stop in Saigon that I always make sure to visit. The super popular foodie destination is always filled with customers of all ages, sitting on small plastic chairs or queuing up for takeaway balut. Be warned, on this occasion my brother and I regretting choose to sit right in front of the sugar cane juice machine, which constantly sprays us with cane juice and pokes him in the back on a number of occasions. Choose your seat wisely.
We order four eggs each and in a matter of seconds, we have our eggs, accompanied by egg holders, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), salt and pepper, pickled chili, and lime. I’m used to having my balut with just salt and pepper so I give my brother the lime and pickled chili.
The eggs are excruciatingly hot and when held up for examination I can see the precious liquid broth through the slightly transparent shell. I quickly crack the top of the egg, I usually choose the larger part of the egg and make that the top. I sprinkle a bit of the salt and pepper onto the egg and sip the liquid.
It makes for such a great broth. Once all the broth is gone I sprinkle some more salt and pepper and then eat the rich yolk and delicate duck meat. My brother loves eating egg white as well but it’s a little too hard for me so I usually leave that behind.
The four eggs don’t last very long at all and we find ourselves ordering a couple more each and just as our parents, uncles, and aunties did back in the day, wash them down with plenty of Vietnamese beer.
Balut is a delicacy that is definitely not for everyone, but for those of us who love it, Kim Thao is the place to go.