Would you believe a sandwich brought us to Saigon?
Well, I may be overstating it a little, but consider this: when the question of our second destination in Asia arose, two words kept reverberating around my brain: banh mi. These two little words were stuck on endless replay in my psyche, filling my head with whispers of crusty bread and pickled carrots until I could think of nothing else. I'd already been fighting a losing battle with banh mi-infatuation for some years, particularly the banh mi thit nuong (with grilled pork) at the Seattle Deli which we ate at least twice a week (often more) during the year we lived there, but the prospect of tasting them at the source seemed to inspire in me a whole new kind of obsession. The only problem was convincing Manuel, who seemed to have his heart set on Hong Kong or Tokyo or someplace with tall skyscrapers and, more importantly, impeccable hygiene.
I couldn't really blame him; our last experience with street food in Asia (on Bali, ten years ago) ended with both of us contracting amoebic dysentery.
But I wasn't about to let a fear of microbes prevent me from my one opportunity to eat my weight in banh mis. So I started a campaign of stealth warfare, inundating his email inbox with pictures of luscious-looking Vietnamese sandwiches around the web, interspersed with testimonials from random travelers about how they ate out of garbage heaps in Vietnam and didn't get even so much as indigestion.
The coup de grace, though, was a plate of the real thing. I trekked all over town to find the fluffiest buns, the freshest cilantro and the hottest chilies, and put together sandwiches that would make even Seattle Deli proud. As he bit in, the pungent, caramelized pork giving way to the cool crunch of cucumber, his eyes glazed over and he chewed as if in a trance. Finally he cleared his throat and asked, "what else are we going to eat in Vietnam?"
Pho Bo Chin Nac and Pho Ga, aka Beef Brisket and Chicken Pho @ Pho Hoa
And so it was decided: we'd go to Saigon, or as it's been known since the end of the war, Ho Chi Minh City. I was so excited, not just about a potential all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of banh mis, but for everything else I would discover. The thing is, I knew embarrassingly little about Vietnamese food - even less than what I knew about most other Asian cuisines, which isn't a lot. I'd had pho a couple of times, of course, and the big rice-flour pancake called banh xeo. And if I thought really hard I could dredge up a vague memory of eating minced shrimp paste on sugarcane skewers in a Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans. The rest, though, was a big, fat mystery. All I knew was that by the time we returned I wanted to be able to nod in recognition at at least a quarter of the strange words on the cheat-sheet of Vietnamese dishes I'd compiled, and if I came home being able to rattle off the requirements for a good pho, debate the relative merits of bun thit nuong vs bun nem nuong, and spot the difference between perilla and rice paddy herb at twenty paces, so much the better.
Banh Xeos on the fire (left); Ca Phe Sua Da, aka iced coffee (right)
Well, I probably don't need to tell you that the few days we had there weren't enough to even scratch the lacquer that covers the surface of a cuisine as intricate and complex as Vietnam's. I didn't come away from Vietnam feeling like I'd cracked any code or joined any experts' club. I didn't gain more than a superficial understanding of regional variations or what kinds of culinary lines separate the north, center and south. I didn't manage to taste the vast majority of dishes on my list and of the ones I did, I certainly didn't taste them enough times to come to any conclusions about definitive versions and preferred preparations.
Banh Uot, aka summer rolls (left); some of the greens on offer at a wet market (right)
What I did do, however, was fell utterly, completely in love. With big bowls of cool rice noodles cradling sweet and salty grilled meats, fresh and pickled vegetables and handfuls of herbs. With hot, crisp fritters and pancakes, folded into lettuce leaves and dipped into sweet-sour-pungent nuoc cham. With fresh, tender summer rolls and crunchy fried spring rolls. With inky coffee mixed with gobs of sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice. With custardy, bready, sweet-tart banana cake. With creamy avocado, mango and soursop milkshakes. With a mountain of lettuces and fresh herbs - more kinds than I knew existed - never out of arm's reach on any table. And even with the city: its wide boulevards and never-ceasing flood of traffic, its millions of people constantly on the move, its swanky shopping centers next door to ramshackle huts, its people cooking anywhere and everywhere, its little child-sized plastic stools that everyone perches on to consume their street-side snacks, the smoke and dust and noise and energy that pick you up and pull you along for the ride like a beach ball caught in the tide.
Banh Beo @ Gia Hoi 2
And of course we ate as many banh mis as we could get our hands on, usually as a between-meal snack (or between-snacks snack). We ate them everywhere we found them: street carts, deli counters, even pricey Western-style sandwich shops that in an attempt to emphasize their hygiene standards used as many disposable plastic items as they could in the construction of each sandwich. But - and this is a big but - despite our wide net, we couldn't find a single banh mi that truly knocked our socks off. There were bad ones, mediocre ones and a couple of pretty good ones, but none, none I mean none, came close to the symphony of flavors, textures and temperatures of our Seattle Deli favorite. Stale, chewy bread seemed to be a theme, and many of them were missing cilantro and chilies, two of the ingredients that give this sandwich its Vietnamese soul. Over-filling was another problem we encountered, with the resulting sandwich being heavy and soggy. Rarely was there enough cucumber, and the meat - even my beloved thit nuong - rarely packed much of a flavor punch. Of the ones we sampled, only one was worth returning for: the banh mi thit nguoi from a young guy that sets up shop on Le Kong Kieu (aka Antique Street) in the afternoons. His well-executed sandwiches boasted light, fresh rolls, a smear of salty-sweet liver pate, a few slices of ham and sausage, cucumber, carrot-daikon pickle, cilantro and a generous dollop of mayonnaise. Apart from that, though, we had to wonder: are some items in the Vietnamese repertoire just made better abroad, or had we mistakenly developed a preference for something completely inauthentic?
Drive-by papaya sale
Squid (left); Rambutans (right)
But in the end it didn't really matter, since there was so much other good food. In fact, there were numerous things that are threatening to replace banh mis as my obsession du jour. The coffee, for one thing; what is it that makes it taste so good? I drank five or six a day, and would have fit in more if I wasn't so busy trying all the equally-delicious fruit juices and shakes. Then there was anything fried and wrapped with herbs and lettuce, in particular those little shrimp-topped, rice-flour and coconut-milk pancakes called banh khot which are light years ahead of banh xeo (which, try as I might, I still find rather unspectacular). And bun dishes, I finally saw the light with these! Instead of a mass of cold, unseasoned rice noodles with a few toppings (which is how I'd always been served them before), I now know their beauty lies in balance: between the cold noodles and hot grilled meat, between the salty peanuts and sweet pickles, between the pungent sauce and refreshing herbs. It's the soul of Southeast Asian cuisine - hot, sour, salty, sweet - in one glorious bowl.
Mangosteens, my new favorite fruit
And the best part of all? Not only did we not get sick - unless you count our chronically overstuffed bellies - but Manuel's last words as our plane lifted off the runway in Saigon were, "next time we have to spend a lot longer here."
Amen to that. Though next time maybe we should skip the banh mis.
What to eat:
If you're going to Saigon of course you have to try the standards: pho in its many forms, bun noodle dishes such as bun thit nuong (with grilled pork) and bun nem nuong (with pork patties), banh xeo (crispy rice flour pancake with shrimp and pork), banh uot (fresh summer rolls) and cha gio (fried spring rolls), sinh to bo (sweet avocado shake) and of course caphe sua da (sweet-milky iced coffee). Also try bo la lot (seasoned beef grilled in betel leaves), banh chuoi (banana cake), banh beo (small discs of rice flour cakes topped with shredded shrimp & scallions), banh khot (those smaller, round-bottomed cousins to banh xeo), ca kho to (caramelized catfish cooked in a claypot), thit kho (pork belly and hardboiled eggs braised in coconut water), goi du du (green papaya salad, sometimes topped with dried beef, shrimp or pork), and cha ca (fried snakehead fish with dill and turmeric). And that's not even mentioning the banh mis: banh mi thit nguoi (deli meats), banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork), banh mi xiu mai (braised meatballs), banh mi ga nuong (grilled chicken), banh mi trung (scrambled egg), banh mi bi (shredded pork skin), banh mi ca moi (sardine)...
Banh Mi cart on Le Kong Kieu
Banh Mis packaged and ready to go @ Nhu Lan
Where to eat:
Cha Ca La Vong, 3 Ho Xuan Huong Street, District 3
The original Hanoi branch of this venerable restaurant made it into Patricia Schultz's book "1000 Places To See Before You Die". According to Graham of Noodlepie, however, the Saigon location is not only classier, it does the signature dish of cha ca - snakehead fish fried with fresh dill fronds and turmeric, and served with bun noodles, greenery, peanuts, and pungent nam tom fermented shrimp sauce - even better than the original. Can't say if that's true, but we thought it was dynamite.
Hoa Tuc, 74/7 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
This was the most upscale meal we treated ourselves to in Saigon, and it didn't disappoint. Creative and traditional Vietnamese food is served in this chic, expat-dominated restaurant housed in an old villa. The fried calamari with sweet-smoky tamarind sauce was to die for. The restaurant also hosts daily cooking classes and market tours.
Pho Hoa, 260C Duong Pasteur, District 3
Many people consider this sprawling, 3-story restaurant the best bet for pho in Saigon. It's nearly always packed full of locals (and businessmen at lunchtime) who come for the steaming bowls of beef (raw, brisket or tripe) or chicken pho. The broth is deeply meaty, and the wide array of condiments and foliage mean you can tweak a bowl just to your liking.
Com Nieu, 6C Tu Xuong, District 3
This is supposedly Anthony Bourdain's favorite restaurant in Saigon. For the food, I'd agree - we had absolutely amazing ca kho to (caramelized catfish) and thit ko (pork belly and eggs braised in coconut water). The restaurant's gimmick, however - a loud spectacle that involves waiters smashing clay pots of the namesake com nieu rice and theatrically tossing it across the room to each other to shake off all the ceramic shards - I could have done without.
Quan An Ngon, 160 Duong Pasteur, District 1
The original idea behind this restaurant was to collect some of the best street-food vendors in Saigon and assemble them in one place, creating a kind of one-stop shop for visitors to allow them to experience a wide variety of local delights. Although the place has taken a bashing in recent years for inflated prices and falling quality, we liked it. It's a convenient, stress-free way to try a lot of different foods, and what we had there was very good - in particular their banh tom ho tay (sweet potato and shrimp fritters) and goi kho bo (green papaya with shredded dried beef) - albeit a little pricier than you'd find it elsewhere. While I would never advise anyone to eat here exclusively (as some apparently do), I think it's definitely worth a stop.
Banh Xeo 46A, 46A Dinh Cong Trang, District 1
This popular spot occupying most of a small alleyway supposedly makes some of the best banh xeo pancakes in town. To my taste they were pretty good, very crisp and loaded with shrimp (still in the shell - a bit weird if you're not accustomed to this), but unfortunately a bit bland. The cha gio (pork and crab spring rolls) and bo la lot (grilled beef in betel leaves) are also well worth finding space for.
Gia Hoi 2, 2 Nguyen Huy Tu Street, District 1
Cathy of Gastronomy recommended this place for an authentic taste of central-Vietnamese Hue food, and it was a great find. Though they don't have an English menu, everything they make is displayed in photos on the wall. Excellent banh beo and hen xao (sauteed baby clams with toasted rice crackers).
Nhu Lan , 50 Ham Nghi, District 1
This deli-cum-restaurant is a great place to come for a cheap meal (their English menu is over 50 items long) or takeaway for a picnic. The banh mi thit nuong station (with their amusing doner-kebab setup - see photo at top) does a brisk business with two guys making sandwiches nonstop for a neverending line of customers. None of the sandwiches here blew me away, and they were a little pricier than those bought on the street, but this is a convenient and hygenic (they proudly display their health certificates on the wall) place to get a fix.
Banh Mi Cart on Le Kong Kieu, D1 (aka Antique Street)
Our favorite sandwich in Saigon: sliced deli meats, spiced liver pate, mayo, carrot-daikon pickle, cilantro and chiles in a big, crusty roll for 10,000VND. We had good luck finding him in late afternoon, around 4-5pm.
Fanny, 29-31 Duong Ton That Thiep, District 1
The French-style ice creams at this swanky cafe make a nice break from noodles and rice. Dense, creamy and delicious, their tropical fruit flavors are the best.
Pho, not just enjoyed by tourists!
This is a topic of stress and confusion for many people planning a trip, so I'll give my take on it here. The standard advice for developing countries, including Vietnam, is to avoid any fresh vegetables or room-temperature food, fruit you didn't peel yourself, ice cubes in drinks, and dairy products. If you did this in Vietnam, you'd have almost nothing left to eat. In particular you'd miss the variety of fresh herbs and the wonderfully healthy custom of wrapping morsels of food in greens. I may not be the best person to give advice seeing as I usually value the experience of local food above my short-term health (and I have paid the price on numerous occasions), but I stick by my methods. If you're up-to-date on your travel vaccinations there is little you could contract through eating that can't be cured with a round of antibiotics, so I say dig in and don't worry. And though I can't speak for the rest of Vietnam, hygiene standards seemed to be quite high in Saigon - like I said above, we ate and drank everything in sight and didn't suffer from anything more serious than distended stomachs.
Banh Xeo @ Banh Xeo 46A
Books on Vietnamese food:
Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham
A superb introduction to the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine. Mai expertly balances comprehensiveness, authenticity and user-friendliness in this great collection of recipes.
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
Part personal memoir and part eye-poppingly gorgeous collection of recipes, Andrea covers all the basics, from history and customs, to technique and presentation.
Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline and Luke Nguyen
A gorgeous, gorgeous book full of bittersweet stories of family turbulence and incredible recipes by the owners of the Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney.
Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
A classic - and one of the most beautiful books on my shelf. Although it covers more than just Vietnam, it explains how Vietnamese cuisine fits in with others in SE Asia, and draws out the parallels between them.
How many family members can fit on a single scooter?
Blogs on Saigon and/or Vietnamese food:
White on Rice Couple
Diane and Todd certainly need no introduction from me, but in case you're not familiar with their gorgeous blog head on over to find, among other tempting things, a collection of drool-worthy Vietnamese recipes.
Cathy spent much of this blog's life living in Saigon, and has fantastic tips for dining in the city (even the UK's Rick Stein hired her as a local expert during the filming of his Far Eastern Odyssey). Don't miss her Saigon top 10.
If, like me, you're looking to delve more deeply into Vietnamese cooking, Wandering Chopsticks has just about the most comprehensive collection of recipes on the net. Her list of 100 Vietnamese foods to try is a great starting point for newbies to the cuisine.
Another site with great recipes and beautiful photos from Hong and Kim, a Vietnamese-American couple sustaining a long-distance relationship with their love of food.
Robyn and Dave also used to live in Saigon, and return regularly to root out the latest must-try morsels.
UK journalist Graham Holliday was based in Saigon for many years and blogged about good eats in all corners of the city. It's been a few years since he lived there, but his archives still contain some great info.
Had a great meal in Saigon? Have a favorite dish no one should miss when they go? Please share!