Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, whatever you call it, this place really took me by surprise! Why? Well I think I had baggage...you know, like the kind you have in relationships? That. From my trip to Thailand over 5 years ago. You see, I kind of hated Bangkok. I've realized by now that I need to give it another shot but that first time I was miserable. It was so incredibly hot and humid but we didn't have much money so we tried to walk everywhere. The air was filled with dust and the incessant sound of motorbikes gunning for your life felt like it was boring a hole in my skull. So no, I didn't love Bangkok and for whatever reason I kind of assumed Saigon would be pretty similar. But it's not at all! It's much smaller and quieter and slower with more air to breathe. Still a hectic city, but more like a San Francisco than a New York which suits me just perfectly. So yes, Saigon pleasantly surprised me and started my 1-week whirlwind trip through Vietnam perfectly. The people were fantastic and the food was everything I dreamed it would be and more.
So, about that food...let's get on with my photo culinary journey through Saigon! If you recall, I had a very aggressive foodie itinerary, which you can see here, and while I'm incredibly proud of the damage Katherine and I did there are still lots of local treats on that list that I'll need to check off on my next trip. That being said we did pretty well...sometimes eating upwards of 5 meals in one day! The locals often doubted us as we ordered and we often proved them wrong. Don't let our petite size fool you, Katherine and I are can put it down! Thank God for that because the food in Vietnam is simply incredible...there is no other word for it. Fresh and simple yet complex all at the same time. Some dishes have simply been ruined for me forever back in the States...like banh mi. Oh my, the banh mi was out of this world. But I'm getting ahead of myself, you'll have to read my upcoming Banh Mi post for that!
Let's start our journey here in Saigon...and if this makes you hungry and curious about visiting Vietnam yourself make sure to check out all of my favorite photos from the whole Vietnam trip here as well as my Hanoi post, my An Hoi Cooking Class post and my Banh Mi posts all soon to be published. Happy visual feasting!
This was our very first breakfast and meal in Vietnam. It was at a place locals recommended called Quan An Ngon which is super fun because the owner essentially designed it around bringing all the famous street vendor foods together under one roof. So things you typically can only find in Northern or Central Vietnam you can find here...and for those of you squeamish about eating street food this is a great way to try it all without the risk. So what did our first meal consist of? Clockwise from the top left we have bánh cuốn with Cha Ca dipping sauce, Shredded Pork Skin and Broken Rice & Grilled Pork Breakfast. I wish I knew what that rectangular thing encased in yellow was in that last picture because it was freaking delicious, but try as we might we just couldn't get an answer we could understand. The bánh cuốn was amazing...the rice sheets were so delicate and thin and the vegetarian filling was so flavorful. Then there was the side of pork skin...boiled, not fried yet with such a unique and fabulous texture. We couldn't get enough of this stuff!
We ate A LOT of spring rolls...because they were so incredible we couldn't get enough of them! You're getting a little sneak preview into the cooking class we took in Hoi An where we made some of our own spring rolls, so technically these aren't all from Saigon. The ones on the top left are our finished product from class, not bad, huh?! All of the spring rolls were amazing and while I'm not a huge fried food person the fried ones with the fresh herbs and lettuce to wrap around them were delicious. Much better than the fried spring rolls at most places here, so there's one of those things Vietnam went and ruined for me in the States!
This meal was a treat! Katherine's friend knew a chef in Ho Chi Minh City and introduced us to have him show us around a bit so he and another chef friend took us to this restaurant Dong Pho which is a local favorite. They're known for Huế finger foods and the restaurant is in a historical building, so it's a classy atmosphere which can be a nice respite from the sticky, sweaty heat of HCMC. Most importantly...the food is delicious!
So first, the three spring rolls on the right in the previous photo are all from Dong Pho...Fresh Pork & Shrimp Spring Rolls, Fried Pork Rolls and Pork Belly Spring Rolls. All were amazing...definitely the best spring rolls we had on the trip! Next up from left to right on the top row we had bánh đập which is a delightful crispy and wet cake both topped with beef, herbs and deliciousness. Next we had cơm âm phủ which is a historical dish from the city of Hue beautifully composed of rice, assorted meats, vegetables, egg, herbs and seasoning. You mix it all up and enjoy...lovely to look at and eat. Last on the top row, there is cơm gà...which appears to be a simple chicken and rice dish but this one was so fragrant and flavorful with ginger that it took simple to incredible.
Working our way from right to left on the bottom row now we have bún thịt nướng...which should be familiar to most of us as the quintessential rice noodle bowls topped with grilled meat. This was definitely the best version I've ever had though, and I've eaten this a lot! Next there is the bánh su tôm sò điệp...which are essentially delicious little pesto, shrimp and scallop puffs. So buttery and decadent. Honestly I'm not sure how classically Vietnamese these are but I plan on making them for my next party as an easy, delicious appetizer! Last, but certainly not least is heo quay kho trứng...or a traditional roast pork and egg stew that our host told us is traditionally made on New Year's Day and a real treat. This was so rich, flavorful and aromatic...I could eat this for days! Especially since this classed up version used pork belly, wow.
Oh, the Lunch Lady of Ho Chi Minh City. If you're reading my blog you've likely heard about her before. Anthony Bourdain visited her years ago and it was such an amazing piece and went so viral throughout the food community that I'm sure he almost instantly regretted sharing her with the world. Because this is one of those food legends that you just don't want to mess with! Part ambiance, part history, part food but all in all this is a must-do when in Ho Chi Minh City if you love food experiences as much as I do. It is a bit hard to find...because it's truly just a pop-up tent with little tables and stools on a quiet street corner. Our concierge kind of knew where it was but the address he gave our taxi (23 Hoang Sa St., District 1 | Phuong Da Kao, District 1 (Quan 1), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) had us dropped off around the corner...but I think wandering around aimlessly searching for soup is part of the experience!
Once you find it, it's impossible to miss. I'm thinking it's a bit more branded than it likely used to be! But it's still charming and you see lots of locals mixed in with a few tourists. I'm honestly not sure if they have anything else on the menu besides soup because as soon as we sat down a man came over and just started bringing us stuff. Luckily I was able to catch him to make sure he only brought us one soup instead of two (we had to hit a phở place and a market right after this!) but otherwise we just let him do his thing and watched the locals to see what we were supposed to be doing! I will say I think most of the locals pass on the two different types of spring rolls you see above and just go for the soup, so that may be a tourist money-making special but they were pretty delicious so we weren't complaining.
You can see the Lunch Lady, Ms Nguyen Thi Thanh, above serving one of her world famous soups and her assistant working the noodles that had a bright pink-orange hue. She rotates her menu daily serving a different soup each day and I do believe today (Monday) we've stumbled upon Bún Thái, which as it sounds is a Vietnamese take on a Thai soup. I was a bit disappointed since I was really hoping for Bún bò Huế as I saw on Bourdain's show but that disappointment didn't last more than a minute as I started to examine the gorgeous bowl of soup set before me.
The Bún Thái is filled to the brim with shrimp, beef, squid, fish balls, and the ever-present mixture of fragrant accompaniments...shallot, lemongrass, chili and thai basil just to name a few. We dress it with lime, bean sprouts and chunks of bread as we see other do and dig in. And then don't talk until the very last spoonful is devoured. This is a damn good soup...a beautiful complex broth that doesn't overpower with sweetness or salt and incredibly fresh, flavorful ingredients that seem to be never ending. Exactly what I expected from the Lunch Lady...and for $2 quite the bargain! Trust me on this, don't miss The Lunch Lady...even if it's 90 degrees out and humid and the last thing you want is to sit outside without air conditioning and eat hot soup!
As I said, next up, phở...the one in the bottom right and top two right photos to be exact! It was at Phở Le (393 Vo Van Tan in Ho Chi Minh City), which was recommended to us by a local friend. It was pretty amazing. First the broth is so fragrant....they use much more ginger than we do here which I love. Then, the broth is filled with quality fresh ingredients and more herbs and mung beans than you'll ever know what to do with! Honestly, the herbs in this country might be what blows me away the most in every dish. The leaves are much smaller than ours but they are so much more flavorful and just add so much to each dish in the way that they use them. My only complaint about the phở...and not even this one specifically but all that I tried...is that I do miss the richer meatiness of the broth we use here in the States. Blasphemous, I know! Now, don't get me wrong...I'm not saying I like our broth better but in my ideal world I would combine the fragrant complexity of their broth with the richer beef flavor of our broth. Now that, would be perfect!
I am going to be blasphemous now though. The phở on the bottom left in the collage above? That, was the best phở I had in Vietnam. And it was in the Saigon airport on my way home. And no, it's not just because you put an egg in it (which I do love!) or because I was hungover (which yes, I was). But the broth almost got to that perfect balance I was looking for and the meat and tripe was amazing...higher quality and incredibly tender. Not a bad last meal on my way home!
Next we're going to the Bến Thành Market and also exploring some street food! This market has it all...meats, fish and seafood, produce, fully prepared foods, flowers, textiles, home goods and trinkets. And I have to say, one thing I've noticed is that the Vietnamese seem to be some of the hardest working people I've seen in all of my travels. The lines between work and home and social time seem to blur significantly and everyone is doing it all at once whenever they can, which means they're pretty much always working in one way shape or form. You can see in that bottom right picture above a woman in a slow aisle of the market squeezing in a quick nap beneath her produce stand. You see this all over Vietnam...squeezing in a nap, a bite to eat, a phone call or even a massage from a friend.
Then there's the street food. Which, I have to say, there was a lot less of than I expected! Even in areas that were known for street food we sometimes had a hard time really finding any. So unfortunately I didn't eat nearly as much street food as I had hoped but what we did try was pretty delicious. Snails, Bánh gối and Bột Chiên just to name a few. I'll be more on the hunt for street food when I return!
This was dinner our very last night in Saigon. It was at Saigon's Lookout where one of our friends that took us out to lunch earlier in the week is executive chef. It's a chic supper club with a gorgeous French Colonial inspired design. The food is unique and fusion in style but all with a distinctly Vietnamese backbone. So first up going clockwise from top left, Chicken Thigh stuffed with Woodear Mushrooms and Herbs over Homemade Noodles in a Lemongrass, Chili and Coconut Cream Sauce. Next there is the Duck Breast with Mashed Taro and Red Cabbage served over Homemade Fettuccine infused with Fermented Tofu and Duck Satay Sauce. Then we had a fun trio of burgers...Squid, Pork and Chicken to be exact. And last, but honestly my favorite of my night was our amuse bouche...salmon and wasabi flowers with distinct instructions to eat the wasabi flowers first until they get too hot and then eat the salmon to cool us off. So delicious...my new favorite flowers are wasabi flowers!
So that wraps up our feasting in Saigon. Not bad for only 2 days, huh? Oh...did I not mention that? Yeah, we ate all of this in the span of 2 full days. You gotta do what you gotta do when you're eating your way through Saigon! How did we do? What did we miss? As always I'd love to hear from you if you have tips, comments or questions. Next up...SavoryGirl Eating Her Way Through Hanoi!