3-Day Tastebud Tour of Ho Chi Minh City
So you have 3 days in Vietnam and you want to to experience the best street cuisine. WHERE DO YOU BEGIN? Well here is a good start!
I’ve been to Vietnam 5 times in the last 12 years and with every trip back home, it always dawns on me just how much Ho Chi Minh City is rapidly changing. High-end developments, luxury villas, exclusive shops and restaurants are taking shape all over town. One thing, however, that remains unwavering in a sea of advancement and progress is Vietnamese street food. But as the city evolves, it also flourishes. From sidewalk vendors to storefront restaurants, street food is part of the cultural fabric of Vietnam. It is so sought after that cities all over the western world are replicating the traditional culinary dishes.
Having traveled throughout South East Asia quite frequently over the past few years, I can say that compared to its neighboring countries, you will never have a problem finding a good place to eat in Vietnam at any time of the day. Even at 4am when you’re jet-lagged and your hotel has stopped providing in-room dining service, you can surely find a makeshift pho stand around the block to satisfy that hangry belly. San Francisco, take notes! It’s not that I expect anyone to roll around food stalls in the dead of night on Market street slinging delicious bowls of pho, but having a decent Vietnamese restaurant open past 1am would be nice. That delivers. For free. Is that too much to ask?
Now pull up a plastic chair and let’s dig into the good part!
After a long flight I really wanted something fast, simple, comforting and light. Our first stop was The Lunch Lady. Made popular by Anthony Bourdain, it’s situated on a shady corner of a residential street away from the noisy, bustling main road. Run by Nguyen Thi Thanh, this spot serves up different noodle dishes every day, so there is NO MENU. You won’t know what you’ll get until you get there, which is relieving for indecisive people like myself. Right as we sat down, spring rolls and egg rolls were immediately brought out to us before we could even order our drinks. I’m not opposed to this but because they are so commonly served in Vietnamese restaurants in the states, we had no desire for them. So if you do NOT want this, let them know, it is not complimentary. Luckily for me, I was hoping they would serve bun thai that day and they did! I thought it was really good, kind of on the sweet side but nothing a couple of limes couldn’t fix. I prefer my noodle soups tangy and spicy. Speaking of spice, nothing earns a restaurant more brownie points than having the right condiments and hot chilies and The Lunch Lady DID THAT. Looking around I noticed a lot of people had also ordered plates of large deep-fried shrimp crackers with their bun thai. I have food FOMO so naturally I had to order it. Unfortunately, it was just a lot of hard (unseasoned) batter with one overcooked shrimp in the middle, not something I would recommend getting. It’s meant to be eaten with the bun thai but the dish is great enough as it is. Overall, I really enjoyed the bun thai and the complexity of the dish and appreciated that the meat and shrimp were cooked just right since they are often overdone. On to the next…
Known for their late night eats, Pho Ha ladle out one hell of a bowl of pho. It’s ultra-satisfying without the next morning guilt. Most late-night restaurants in HCMC are open until 1am but very few open beyond those hours. Fortunately for us Pho Ha is open from 4pm to 5am! The staff is friendly, the service was quick and most importantly the quality of the food was great. It certainly met my expectations of a solid pho ga.
Com tam translated in English simply means broken rice. It’s a traditional Vietnamese dish, regularly found in pho restaurants across the States, it’s usually served with a plethora of different toppings so you can have whichever combo that suits your liking. On our first full day in HCMC, we wanted to switch up our noodle soup meals for something more substantial so we decided upon com tam. Highly recommend by a couple of friends, we stopped by Com Tam 74 for breakfast. We all pretty much had the same thing except maybe 1 different add -on. The food took unusually long before arriving, but it was well worth the wait, I mean…LOOK AT THAT EGG. It’s just sitting there looking all yolked with its over-easy self, perfectly crispy on the edges… true egg-cellence in all it’s glory. The highlight of the dish was definitely the pork chop (sorry egg), which was executed perfectly! Pork chop that’s served with com tam is usually thin cut and a lot of times can be on the dry side if not made right. Ours was tender and not to mention, exceedingly large. And the cherry on top? It was cooked on a charcoal grill which makes a world of a difference in terms of flavor. Obviously. So shout out to the man behind the grill!
Behold.…my favorite meal in HCMC. This is probably my favorite because growing up my mom often served up this dish for breakfast. It’s quite a simple dish but I associate certain foods with happy memories so because this dish was significant in my childhood, eating it always makes me feel good. Food nostalgia at its finest. How do you eat it? 1. Pour a couple shakes of soy sauce onto the fried egg 2. Break the yolk. 3. Break the bread. 4. Spread pate onto bread 5. Use the bread to mop up yolk and pieces of egg. 6. Pair with the beefsteak. 7. Enjoy the experience. Seriously, so good. Having the right bread and pate is essential for this dish and this place had it down. The bread was served warm and was incredibly soft on the inside, making it easier to spread the creamy pate. People mistake this place for a steakhouse. It is NOT a steakhouse, do not expect quality steak, this is beefsteak. The cut is different so the meat is a bit tougher. We also ordered 3 of their freshly squeezed orange juices, EACH. It was that good. They call it the Orange Twister. It doesn’t taste the same as the fresh squeezed OJ from the U.S., if someone can tell me why Vietnamese cam ep is so different, I would LOVE to know. Anyway, don’t skip this spot!
Last but not least, we have the unofficial national dish of Vietnam, pho bo. Couldn’t leave for the airport without having one last bowl! What makes Pho Viet Nam different from the rest is clearly how it is served. The noodles are made in-house in an open kitchen where you can watch them make it. The Northern style pho is served in a hot stone bowl with all the major components on the side so that you can cook your noodles and meat to your liking. I love this idea because everybody wants their thinly sliced sirloin to be cooked a different way and now you have the option to prepare it how you like! The broth was clean, clear and aromatic. It had the perfect balance of sweet and salty, definitely a well made stock. Furthermore, the establishment was clean and had a bright ambiance to it. It was the ideal spot for a last meal and to wrap up our last day in HCMC!
These were some of the places that made my short-lived trip in HCMC memorable. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!