How do we phrase this elegantly? When it comes to eating, Ho Chi Minh City is absolutely bonkers: Choose from its world-famous street food, noodle soup at all hours or exquisite modern Vietnamese cuisine. Don’t forget the cafes in every corner, alley, nook and hidey-hole. This is the most cosmopolitan city in Vietnam and the choices are near endless when it comes to international restaurants. Then there are the bars to round out a memorable evening. Here’s a guide, not gospel for eating Saigon.
Before we dig in, a few tips on eating in Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam.
Sometimes travellers are daunted by street food and cheap local eats because they fear being overcharged. In Ho Chi Minh City, it happens less than you think and it’s not uncommon now for vendors and speciality shops to post the price. It is definitely ok to ask what the price is before you order. The real ripoffs tend to happen when a vendor becomes a celebrity—“Lunch Lady” we’re looking at you.
Street food, noodle soup, banh mi are all slightly more expensive in the city centre District 1, though keep things in perspective, it’s about a dollar more. To give you an idea of District 1 pricing: noodle soup at a bricks and mortar shop will cost up to 40,000 dong while popular places like Pho Hung at 241-243 Nguyen Trai St or Pho Hoa Pasteur at 260C Pasteur St will cost up to 65,000 dong. It’s still possible to find a breakfast banh mi op la (omelette baguette) for 10,000 dong and a regular banh mi for less than 20,000 dong. At the city’s best Banh Mi Huynh Hoa at 26 Le Thi Rieng St, expect to fork out 35,000 dong and a few minutes of your life waiting in line.
When at a local restaurant, any extras placed on the table are usually not free. For example, at a noodle soup joint, the herbs, lime and chilli are part of the meal but any extra plates or drinks that arrive like spring rolls, baguette, fruit, bottled water or deep fried breadsticks you have to pay for if consumed, usually for less than a dollar. Iced green tea is 5,000 dong or less. Same goes for the plate of peanuts at a cheap dinner spot or bar. If you don’t want it, refuse it when it comes or point it out as unconsumed when it’s time for the bill. The individually wrapped wet napkins are usually 2,000-3,000 dong—this is not a scam, simply standard practice in Vietnam. Don’t open it and you shouldn’t be charged. The wet napkins seriously irk us because it’s unnecessary waste and plastic packaging. We carry around our own tissues.
Motorbike parking, managed by an attendant/guard, in front of a restaurant is sometimes free, otherwise no more than 5,000 dong.
Courses are not typical in Vietnamese dining culture. Don’t be surprised if mains and appetisers arrive at the same time or out of sequence. Food comes as soon as it is ready and eaten family style, shared in the middle.
Tipping is not required. If you feel the service deserves it, some tip is always appreciated.
These guidelines do not apply to Saigon’s higher end bars and restaurants, where the mentality is more international. Snacks with your pricey cocktail are free and some small tip, if a service charge is not already added to the bill, is fair. It’s not uncommon for above average establishments to include a 5-10% service charge on the bill.
Vietnamese enjoy their meat and seafood as fresh as possible, served resembling what it was when alive. Prawns with shell and head on, or a fish served whole is the epitome of good eating. Vietnamese cuisine is all about texture and flavour so don’t be surprised if meat comes with the bone in, fat on so you have to get in there and chew off the meat. Nothing goes to waste, it’s nose to tail eating as they say.
Guided food tours in Saigon are extremely popular with travellers, especially the time-crunched travellers, as it can tick off three to six food stops while giving a whirlwind look at the city.
For celiac travellers, our friend Jodi Ettenberg has a detailed gluten-free guide for eating in Vietnam along with gluten-free restaurant cards and her own wrap on Saigon’s food scene—give the latter a read once you’ve eaten all our recommendations!
Enough talking, an an—let’s eat.
One of the narratives to define 20th century Saigon is that of migration. Even today, the city continues to draw people from all over the country seeking higher education and work. This has greatly influenced the food of this metropolis and dining in Saigon is like travelling around the country without hours on a sleeper bus. Here you can get northern style pho, Hanoi bun cha, Central Vietnam’s bun bo Hue or Gia Lai style pho kho. And there is a definite perk to being in a big city: unlike other parts of the country, where noodle soup is mainly considered a breakfast food, here it’s can be slurped up breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As any Hanoian will happily tell you, pho originated in and around Hanoi. It may come as a surprise to learn it’s a relatively modern invention, emerging at the turn of the 20th century as a serendipitous amalgam of the French introducing cow as food (not only as a beast of burden) and Chinese food vendors serving up noodle soup to Chinese workers.
Flash forward to present day and there are basically two styles of pho. The broth of the north is characterised as delicate, well-balanced, aromatic and savoury, full of belly warming spices like black pepper, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, black cardamom and cloves. Wide and flat fresh rice noodles are usually preferred. The bowl is topped with green onions and beef, and you can eat it the way it arrives to the table, without much ceremony or to do.
Somehow along the migration down, pho was adapted to southern tastes. The broth became sweeter and don’t even think about the first bite until herbs are added—Thai basil, sawtooth, mint, chilli and cilantro—as well as preparing sauces for dipping the meat, a dish for sweet, dark brown hoisin, the other with garlic chilli sauce. There’s more variety to the kind of noodle.
Pho bo or beef pho is the gold standard, and to order choose the cut and style of the meat on top. Bo tai is rare beef, a lean cut of meat sliced thin and just cooked by the hot broth. For the opposite, bo chin is well-done. There’s also nam (flank), gau (fatty brisket), sach (tripe) or gan (tendon). Our guilty pleasure is bo vien, those grey squeaky meatballs. They seem to hit the spot the morning after a night of too many La Rue beers. Ask for dac biet to order a bowl with the works.
If beef isn’t your thing, some shops also have or exclusively sell ga (chicken), hai san (seafood) or chay (vegetarian). Local vegetarian restaurants quan chay can do some decent meat-free noodle soups.
Everyone has an opinion on pho. Some of our favourite shops in Saigon are the ones that combine the best of both worlds, a bowl of aromatic northern-style broth served with a basket heaped with herbs to be submerged, southern-style.
A great example is at Pho Hoa Pasteur # , one of the oldest in the city and a favourite with locals, expats and tourists. We can only speculate that the shop’s longevity is due to the wonderfully aromatic northern-style broth and being able to add beansprouts, lime and herbs to one’s hearts content. It’s clean, fast, there’s a clear picture-menu with prices (65,000 dong for a regular bowl, 75,000 dong for a large), air-con seating upstairs and chicken pho is available. Long opening hours satisfy cravings morning, noon or night.
Another must-try is Pho Le # , the original location at 413-415 Nguyen Trai in District 5 near Chinatown, or the second location closer to the centre at 303-305 Vo Van Tan, District 3. This restaurant delivers a sweeter southern-style broth and a mountain of herbs. A regular bowl is 65,000 dong.
Pho Hung # is the pho that launched a thousand copycats. Ok, perhaps not that many but there are clever imitators all around the city using similar signage, colours and logo. Pho Hung has two locations, one of which is close to Pham Ngu Lao. The restaurant is a sanitised experience, a world removed from the grimy back alley shops with floors layered in discarded lime wedges and tissues. Pho Hung reminds us of the pho you’d have at a restaurant in the West, right down to the Sriracha on the table—the table is clean, the meat is without the fat and gristle and the broth is skimmed of impurities. The broth is tasty though the broth-to-noodle ratio is a bit off and at the end we were yearning for more noodles. Overall, Pho Hung is well worth the 900 m walk from Pham Ngu Lao.
Thanks to writer Calvin Godfrey for these next three recommendations. His Saigon pho article was published in food magazine Lucky Peach in their summer 2016 issue devoted entirely to pho. Pho-philes, find the articles online, it’s a good read.
We instantly salivate like Pavlov’s Dogs at the thought of Pho Mien Ga Ky Dong # in District 3, north of District 1. Locals pack into this shop located down an alley off Ky Dong St. Don’t call it simple chicken noodle soup to the people labouriously peeling the meat off the chickens which have been poached whole. The meat is hacked up with the skin still on—delicious, and only 40,000 dong. Go for the mien ga (clear rice noodle) and quench your thirst with a glass of nuoc mia, fresh pressed sugar cane juice.
Another District 3 find, Pho Bo Phu Gia # is firmly northern with its stock full of cinnamon, ginger and onion; each slurp feels like a heaven sent tonic. There’s no frills to the shop except for the ginger-poached egg on the side. Order it along with fat-fried beef pho (write down pho tai lan hot ga and show it to them to order). This shop is only open 07:00-09:30 and 18:00-21:00.
For something different, imagine noodles drowning in a rich peanuty, black peppery sate sauce. Intrigued? Quoc Ky # is a bit of a Chinese fusion that definitely works. Get tai bo vien sate beef noodle soup with either egg noodle, hu tiu, or regular flat rice pho noodle, 67,000 dong a bowl.
We had to include Pho Quynh # , a landmark corner shop in backpacker haven Pham Ngu Lao. We came here at the witching hour in 2009 and this shop, along with the Crazy Buffalo neon sign, were the only things we still remember about that night. The oil soaked cardboard covering the floors is gone and the joint has seen some upgrades. It’s still open 24 hours (they know their Pham Ngu Lao target market). Despite being a tourist haunt the noodle soup is satisfying and there’s variety too, so here’s an opportunity to try bo kho, a dark beef stew that draws influence from French and Chinese cuisine. Rich with five spice powder, carrot and onion, it can be eaten with noodles or baguette. Choose from air-con upstairs or the street corner bustle downstairs, a bowl 65,000 dong.
If you’re not tired of pho yet, then head on over to Pho Phuong # , declared the best pho of Saigon by Vietnam Coracle. It’s good, right down to the paper thin slices of onion. We have a feeling that foreigners are being charged more as the price is slightly inflated for the kind of shop it is: a medium bowl is 55,000 dong, a large bowl with any choice of meat is 75,000 dong. The pho duoi “special oxtail noodle soup”, which we did not try, is an eyebrow raising 100,000 dong. Located on the river at 25 Hoang Sa St, it’s a convenient option if you’re in the northeast corner of District 1 and we’d definitely recommend it over Lunch Lady (of Bourdain fame) which is just around the corner.
A friendlier alternative in that part of town is Pho Thanh Binh # at 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St. A smiley family run shop, which is affectionately known by expats as “Prison Pho”, likely for the clinical feel, bars on the window and the grandma guarding the front of the house. The family went out of their way to make us feel welcome and that in itself is worth the budget price of 45,000 dong a bowl. The beefy broth is satisfying. It’s open in the morning and then the evening until 23:00. Thanks to our friend James Clark of Nomadic Notes for pointing it out to us.
Clearly we can never tire of pho but the noodle world of Vietnam is so big and diverse.
Bun or rice vermicelli noodles is similar to skinny spaghetti. It’s the key for a range of soups and cold noodle dishes. Bun bo Hue from Central Vietnam is the classic example. For something more local, bun rieu and bun mam originated from the Mekong Delta. Bun rieu cua is a tomato-based crab noodle soup with a kind of dumpling made of crab and shrimp paste. Bun mam seafood noodle soup has a dark, flavourful broth requiring a stronger palette as that je ne sais quoi is fermented fish/shrimp paste mam tom. Don’t let the initial funky whiff and murkiness put you off, it’s umami rich and tastes a lot better than it smells. Find a very good one at Bun Mam # 22 Phan Boi Chau, across the street from Ben Thanh market.
Bun moc has a simple clear broth of pork and mushrooms. Bun Moc Thanh Mai # , at the corner of 14 Truong Dinh and 52 Nguyen An Ninh, just west of Ben Thanh market, is always bustling with patrons there for a bowlful of porky goodness, 55,000 dong for a small, 60,000 dong for a larger bowl. It’s sweaty, crowded and one of those places where table scraps are simply wiped off the table onto the floor. The broth was very tasty, though we found our meat to be tough.
It’s not all just rice noodles. Banh canh is a fat, slightly chewy noodle with rice and tapioca flour. When cooked, the tapioca naturally imparts a thickness to the broth. Add banh canh cua, crab noodle soup with pork and crab broth, to the long list of Saigon must eats. We had a decent bowl chock full of crab meat at Banh Xeo Ngoc Son # , an eatery in Cholon (Chinatown), District 5 that specialises in banh xeo but has other quintessential Vietnamese dishes.
In the same district is Banh Canh Cua 14 at 223A Tran Binh Trong, recommended to us by a local though we weren’t able to try it. However, we did try Banh Canh Ghe Muoi Ot Xanh # at 484 Nguyen Tri Phuong in District 10. It’s banh canh cua with a twist as the broth is sweetened with coconut milk and comes with the crab whole.
Banh Canh Ghe Muoi Ot Xanh 484 Nguyen Tri Phuong, Ward 9, District 10; Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
Bun Mam 22 Phan Boi Chau, District 1, across the street from Ben Thanh market; .
Bun Moc Thanh Mai 52 Nguyen An Ninh, at corner with 14 Truong Dinh, west of Benh Tanh market; Mo–Su: 06:00–15:00.
Pho Bo Phu Gia 146 Ly Chinh Thang, Ward 7, District 3; Mo–Su: 07:00–09:30 & 18:00–21:00.
Pho Hoa Pasteur 26C Pasteur St, District 1; T: (28) 3829 7943; Mo–Su: 05:00–00:00.
Pho Hung 241-243 Nguyen Trai, District 1; T: (28) 3838 5089; http://phohung.com.vn/ Mo–Su: 08:00–23:30.
Pho Le 303-305 Vo Van Tan, District 3; Mo–Su: 07:00–22:30.
Pho Mien Ga Ky Dong 14/5 Ky Dong, Ward 9, District 3; T: (08) 3843 5630; Mo–Su: 05:00–00:00.
Pho Phuong 25 Hoang Sa St, District 1; .
Pho Quynh 323 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1; Mo–Su: 24 hours.
Pho Thanh Binh 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1; Mo–Su: 06:00–10:00 & 16:00–23:00.
Quoc Ky 24 Ky Co. Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, District 1; Mo–Su: 07:00–20:00.
When it comes to local food in Saigon, generally it’s best to go to a vendor or shop that specialises in one dish only. If the shop is limited to one meal time, say breakfast hours, try to make it there early. Once service nears the end, the experience looses its lustre. You are getting the dregs, the herbs are all wilted, the limes are dried out, the floors are grimy and service is tired. Avoid ordering something that firmly belongs in the canon of street food at a restaurant with a large menu. It will likely pale in comparison to one from the woman who’s been making it everyday for 20 years.
A good example of this is banh xeo, a fried savoury rice flour pancake that’s usually an afterwork/evening snack. It means “sizzling cake”, and you’ll understand why when you hear the batter hit the smoking hot pan. Pork or shrimp, bean sprouts and green onions are added before it’s folded in two. It’s either eaten as is, soaked in the staple nuoc cham fish sauce lime dressing, or as wraps you make with lettuce and herbs.
There are two styles: the bite-sized version of Central/North Vietnam and the comically oversized flying saucers of the South—try the big ones at Banh Xeo Ngoc Son # at 103 Ngo Quyen St, District 5 in Cholon. Back of the Bike Tours brought us to a great one on Su Van Hanh St, 004 Lo H apartment block, at the corner near Hoa Hao St in District 10. Banh Xeo 46A # is one of the most famous in the city and has been around since the 1970’s; we found it to be mediocre though it is conveniently located in District 1.
Bun thit nuong is an opus of flavours and textures in a bowl: cold rice vermicelli topped with crunchy shredded vegetables, salad, herbs, peanuts, shallots, fried spring rolls and grilled pork, all brought together with a sweet-sour-garlicky fish sauce dressing. The noodle salad is the perfect meal for sweltering Saigon weather. Find a cheap and cheerful one at Thai Binh Market #, on the corner where Pham Ngu Lao St meets Cong Quynh St—thanks again to Nomadic Notes for this tip. Stall #220 in the market, which is across the street from the shop at 171 Cong Quynh, does bun thit nuong, nem nuong (grilled pork and noodles you make into lettuce wraps) and bo la lot, beef rolled in la lot leaves and grilled. The stall finishes by 13:00.
We find that the bun thit nuong street vendors sometimes go overboard with garlic and MSG. Propaganda Restaurant # does a delicious if slightly-tamed version that is easy on the palette and the stomach for 115,000 dong. A local also recommended Chi Tuyen (formerly Chi Thong) at 195 Co Giang, District 1 (we didn’t try it).
To get to the best in Saigon though, it is quite the hike from the city centre. If you find yourself in Cholon (Chinatown), District 5 between 09:30-17:00, consider going just a bit further to find Ms Phuong # on the footpath in front of 359 Tung Thien Vuong, across the street from 298 Tung Thien Vuong, Ward 13, District 8. A local friend brought us all the way here and this pop-up vendor, with nothing more than a charcoal grill, a few plastic stools and umbrella, delivers the city’s best bun thit nuong. This is Vietnam street food at its finest.
We admit, we’re skeptical of any restaurant in the heart of the backpacker haven Pham Ngu Lao. Bun Cha 145 Bui Vien # taught us not to judge a restaurant by its location as it serves a great bun cha, a dish that originates from Hanoi (yes, it’s the meal that Obama had when he visited in 2016). In simplified terms, it’s like a deconstructed bun thit nuong, the noodles, grilled pork and vegetables arriving as is and the dressing is slightly different. It’s eaten by dipping ingredients into the dressing. It’s a budget friendly 40,000 dong a dish, and this cute eatery also does a few grilled and fried bites for 15,000-25,000 dong to fill out the belly. To boot, the restaurant employs deaf service staff.
Papaya salad is the ubiquitous dish of Southeast Asia. It’s found in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam but every country does it differently. The Lao version is fiery and fishy, while Vietnam’s is sweeter and less spicy. The city’s most famous—and perhaps one of the city’s most unique street food experiences—is the papaya salad lady # with her cart in front of 259A Hai Ba Trung St, just north of Dien Bien Phu. She’s been making it for over 28 years. Her cart is in District 3 while her dining area (plastic stools) is in the park across the busy road in District 1. Part of the joy is watching your order of goi du du bo make its way through traffic. Finely shredded crunchy green papaya sits in a sweet dressing, the lady’s secret recipe. It’s topped with a crisp prawn cracker, peanuts, herbs and dried beef liver, a texture and taste like jerky. Chef and TV host Luke Nguyen wrote about her in his cookbook The Food of Vietnam. Find her cart from 15:00 onwards, only 20,000 dong a plate.
Don’t call banh mi a sandwich. It’s a masterpiece of east-meets-west, of French-meets-Vietnam, of pork-meets-pickles—you get the idea. How good can “just a sandwich” be? Ask Saigonese, expats and tourists and Banh Mi Huynh Hoa # repeatedly comes up. Colloquially known as “Lesbian Banh Mi”—speculation on the owners’ relationship—the shop is open from 14:30-22:00.
Do get there by 16:30 or be prepared to wait, even with two makers churning out banh mi at lightning speed with an army of helpers. One local commented to us it was all about their pate. Another commented on the mix of meats. For us it was those tangy daikon pickles and crusty yet soft baguette. In any case, it lived up to the hype and for 35,000 dong, it’s a full meal. Find the back of the queue at 26 Le Thi Rieng, 400m from Pham Ngu Lao.
Another sensational banh mi can be found just around the corner in the alley at 37 Nguyen Trai #. This cart makes its mark with juicy, smokey grilled pork medallions, the sweet, spicy glaze soaking into the baguette with every bite. This 18,000 dong banh mi is more snack size than Huynh Hoa’s. Get one (or two, or five) between the narrow window of 16:00-18:30.
Turtle Lake #, a concrete pond at the roundabout of Vo Van Tan and Pham Ngo Thach St, has a concentration of street snack vendors from 16:00 onwards. Students, office pals gather here in the evening to socialise and nibble on banh trang tron: rice paper cut into strips and made into a flavourful “salad” of shredded mango, peanuts, dried shrimp, herbs, lime juice, fried shallots, chilli and sometimes hard boiled quail eggs and dried beef liver. For reasons that no one could explain to us, rice paper salad is considered a girly snack, one that only young women eat (something about the sour, sweet, spicy flavour not being manly…whatever, it’s tasty). Also graze on bap xao, corn stir-fried with green onions and dried shrimp and goi xoai, shredded mango salad.
In Vietnamese culture, in the traditional sense it’s not considered a meal unless there’s rice. Com tam is definitely a meal then, a cheap one at that. Meaning “broken rice”, fragmented rice grains are topped with grilled pork and served with nuoc mam dressing, pickles and a clear soup. Honestly, we’ve never had a bad com tam anywhere in the country. You’ll find it all over Saigon, just gravitate towards the vendors with the grill going so the meat is hot and fresh.
It sounds ridiculous to drink hot soup in tropical weather; sup cua is worth the sweat. Literally “soup crab”, it’s a clear egg drop soup thickened with tapioca starch, chunks of crab meat and chicken, served with a few hardboiled quail eggs, a dash of pepper, cilantro, green onions, deep fried garlic and deep fried dough sticks for dunking. Phew! We had an absolutely smashing one from a street vendor in Cholon around 11:00 in the morning—find her if you’re in the area, at the southeast corner of Nguyen An and Nguyen Trai, District 5, mere 50 m west of Thien Hau Pagoda. A hearty cup is 10,000 dong.
Those braver with their meats can go for sup cua oc heo, crab soup with pig brain. Our Saigon Free Walking Tour guide brought us to popular evening street vendor Phong Sup Cua # on the footpath in front of 133 Phung Hung St in Cholon, District 5. A steady stream of locals arrive by motorbike for a takeaway, and many opt to add the century egg, another funky treat for the brave. In our opinion we thought the one near Thien Hau Pagoda was more delicious. If you don’t feel like venturing far from the city centre, you’ll find sup cua at any street food hot spot. Expect to pay around 20,000 dong in District 1.
Since we’re on a bravery streak, the following are for food adventurers.
Hot vit lon, commonly known by it’s Philippino name balut, is a boiled duck embryo. Inside there’s a fairly well developed chick with head, legs and bones. The idea can make people squirm but in its defence, this delicacy is the kind of food where workers, after a long, labourious shift, can sit and enjoy a protein snack with a beer for very cheap. Vietnamese food is about texture and flavour: hot vit lon is served with salt, pepper, lime or calamansi, chilli and Vietnamese mint. Combine into a dressing, then take a spoon and hit the top of the egg, cracking the shell and peeling a small hole in the top so you can drink the liquid. Now crack it open further to spoon out the contents. Find carts on the street or in markets. There’s usually a woman from 16:00-04:00 in front of Anan Saigon restaurant in Cho Cu, a historic market in the heart of District 1. It’s also easy to find in Ben Thanh market and Turtle Lake.
Another nose-to-tail local street eat to look for is pha lau, a pig organ stew. If you’d rather not know what’s in it before you try, then (spoiler alert!): it’s intestine, stomach, heart, lung and other inner bits and bobs. Any chef or foodie can tell you how labour intensive it is to prepare and properly cook offal—it must be carefully washed and boiled for a long time. In the end, you actually don’t taste the meat, it serves as a texture in a sophisticated stew sweetened with coconut water, to be sopped up with fresh, crusty baguette. We found an excellent one in Cho Cu # close to 125 Ton That Dam from 15:00-18:00, just a pot and a few plastic stools. Cho Cu is slated for redevelopment at some point so visit it while you can!
There’s something deeply satisfying about eating an entire bird by yourself (clearly we’re not vegetarian). Of course, a whole quail or two is easy for one person to handle, especially when it’s deep fried in butter and eaten with warm, freshly baked, crusty baguette. Head to Co Nam Restaurant (Quan Co Nam) at 54 Dong Nai, District 10. The chim cut chien bo eatery is chock full of local Vietnamese eatery charm: hot, crowded, fluorescent lighting, low plastic tables and stools and plastic plates. Peel the crisp, juicy meat from the bones, maybe make a little sandwich with Vietnamese mint and cucumber, or simply dunk the meat into the slurry of salt, pepper and calamansi juice. Cheap, cheerful, chomp, chomp.
Saigonese love oc or sea snails as a feast-with-friends kind of meal, meant to be eaten with copious amounts of beer. They can be served grilled, roasted or sauteed, usually with a decadent amount of garlic, chilli and herbs. There are snail restaurants quan oc all over the city, as well as a large concentration of them on Vinh Khanh, the seafood street in District 4 (a district once known for its mob kingpins and world of organised crime, now better known for its seafood). Seafood lovers should definitely hit up Vinh Khanh St. It’s lined with casual, inexpensive joints sporting every kind of sea creature made to order.
Can you squeeze in dessert? In the evening head to the corner shop at 254 Le Thanh Ton, District 1. By day it is “Hu Tiu Nam Vang” noodle shop # , from 18:00-22:00 they sell tau hu da, ice with silky tofu and sweet coconut milk. Our favourite, Tau hu nuoc duong is a simple yet divine dessert of warm tofu and sweet ginger syrup, a bowl for as little as 4,000 dong, no more than 10,000 dong. Sold by roaming vendors with unmarked carts or by yoke over the shoulder, it’s tricky to find and always elusive when a craving strikes. After 16:00 look for women with a big pot of tofu, a container of caramel coloured syrup and bowls. Good luck.
It won’t be hard to find che, the Vietnamese go-to post-dinner sweet of ice loaded with a rainbow fruit, nuts, beans, syrups, coconut milk, condensed milk, sago pearls and/or jellies. It is also possible to ask for just a heaping cup/plate of tropical fruit or bananas topped with shredded coconut.
Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai: District 1; Mo–Su: 16:00–18:30.
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa 26 Le Thi Reng, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1; Mo–Su: 14:30–22:00.
Banh Xeo 46A 46 Dinh Cong Trang, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1; T: (28) 3824 1110; Mo–Su: 10:00–14:00 & 16:00–21:00.
Banh Xeo Ngoc Son 103 Ngo Quyen, Ward 11, District 5; .
Bun Cha 145 Bui Vien 145 Bui Vien (Pham Ngu Lao area), District 1; T: (28) 3837 3474; Mo–Su: 11:00–16:00, reduced hours during low season.
Cho Cu 125 Ton That Dam; Mo–Su: 15:00–18:00.
Co Nam 54 Dong Nai, Ward 15, District 10; T: (090) 997 5726; Mo–Su: 14:00–22:00.
Hu Tiu Nam Vang 254 Le Thanh Ton, District 1; .
Ms Phuong 359 Tung Thien Vuong District 5; .
Papaya salad lady Cart in front of 259A Hai Ba Trung, District 3; .
Phong Sup Cua Street vendor in front of 133 Phung Hung St, Ward 13, District 5; Mo–Su: after 17:00.
Thai Binh Market .
Turtle Lake At the roundabout of Vo Van Tan and Pham Ngo Thach St; .
Saigon has a glut of excellent restaurants and those in the city for only a few days will have some tough dining decisions to make.
Let Secret Garden Restaurant # be an introduction to a common Saigon experience: climb up a set of dingy stairs in a ramshackle apartment block, mutter when your calves start to burn and finally emerge victorious on a quaint rooftop terrace with a terrific prospect of the past and future Saigon: low rise residences in the shadow of Vincom Center mall. Tuck into one of the comfortable wooden tables and order away.
We can recommend the lemongrass clams and 115,000 dong saucy fried back ribs which are sweet, sticky, tender, fatty perfection—you’ll definitely need to use those 2,000 dong wet napkins. The menu features a range of Vietnamese dishes like mango salad with dry beef and braised claypot dishes to be eaten with steamed rice, starting at 75,000 dong. There’s plenty of vegetarian options too, clearly marked on the menu.
Try going outside of peak meal time hours. The service will be sleepy but we found the food was well prepared unlike the time we went during a lunch rush and found the dishes hurried and lacking some love. A retractable roof means dining is possible rain or shine.
Mountain Retreat # is often compared to Secret Garden as it has also has that hard to find alley access, climb up an old building, rooftop terrace and traditional Vietnamese fare. Mountain Retreat currently boasts a bird’s eye view of the epic metro construction on Le Loi which will stroke some people’s curiosity itch. Mountain Retreat was looking a tad tired when we visited in 2017 and we have to give Secret Garden the edge as the dining area is more elegant and spacious, and those lemongrass clams and saucy ribs… Mountain Retreat is still a decent option if you happen to be in the area.
Whether you’re a herbivore or not, the food at Hum Vegetarian # will make you sing. The menu is a thick picture book of mainly Vietnamese dishes with a smattering of Thai and Chinese. The greatest challenge is keeping track of what your heart desires while reading through it. Our veggies braised with red bean curd hummed with earthy spices. Try “crispy veggies nest”, a flaky deep-fried taro, vegetable and mushroom quenelle. Soups are 65,000 dong, mains like curry, claypot, noodles, fried rice for 90,000 dong. Our appetiser and main arrived at the same time, but that’s not uncommon in Vietnamese restaurants. There’s indoor and outdoor seating and two locations, one in District 1. From the elegant setting to the polite, prompt service, it’s a fine dining experience on a budget. It’s popular, reservations recommended.
Propaganda # likely has the most photographed restaurant wall in Asia. The bold Vietnamese propaganda-inspired mural provides an eye-catching backdrop to a menu that will please all comrades. The favourites are featured such as fresh spring rolls, banh mi (both 95,000 dong), bun thit nuong and bun bo Hue. Good news for non-pork eaters, the traditional pork in com tam can be substituted for chicken or prawns. Salads and mains range from 110,000-165,000 dong, while a fresh fruit juice is 65,000. Propaganda is a block from Notre Dame Cathedral, a well situated meal or refreshment spot on your day covering District 1 sights.
Opened in 2017, Anan Saigon # introduces “cuisine moi” or new Vietnamese cuisine where traditional techniques and local ingredients are given a fresh, modern take. Located in the heart of Cho Cu, one of the oldest markets in District 1, the multi-storey restaurant has a ground floor dining room and a second floor balcony with a perfect view to the happenings of the market. The casual rooftop terrace is an amazing spot for a sunset drink. The 360 view includes Saigon’s current tallest building, the imposing steel-and-glass Bitexco Financial Tower, and dilapidated apartments, a striking tableau of District 1’s past and future (sadly, the market is slated for demolition and redevelopment at some point).
Our favourites are the banh xeo tacos, fried crispy elephant fish and the out of this world “Viet nuggets”, bites of crispy chicken thigh in lime caramel sauce and sesame. Appetisers are 95,000 dong while larger plates start at 250,000 dong. Cocktails are also a treat. The Spiced Phojito captures the flavours of pho in cocktail form and The Anan Saigon Sunset, a concoction of raw sugar cane juice, calamansi juice and rum, also goes down a little too easily. Overall, expect western pricing and quality over quantity.
Just 300 m from Pham Ngu Lao, Den Long # is a delight. Featuring home style Vietnamese dishes in beautifully presented individual portions. Yes there’s spring rolls, and much more. We recommend the refreshing pomelo salad with shrimp (85,000 dong), before devouring the grilled ribs with lemongrass (115,000 dong) or caramelised pork braised in a clay pot (75,000 dong). Eat it with steamed rice to soak up all that lovely sauce. There’s also enough non-meat dishes to please vegetarians. Best of all, the service is cheerful and caring.
Anan Saigon 89 Ton That Dam, District 1, in Cho Cu market; T: (090) 479 2920; Mo–Sa: 17:00–00:00.
Den Long 130 Nguyen Trai, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1. 300 m from Pham Ngu Lao; T: (093) 318 0316; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Hum Vegetarian 2 Thi Sach, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; T: (28) 3823 8920; http://humvietnam.com/ Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Mountain Retreat Rooftop at 36 Le Loi St, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; T: (090) 719 4557; https://www.facebook.com/mountainretreatvn/ Mo–Su: 10:00–21:30.
Propaganda 21 Han Thuyen, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1 (near Notre Dame Cathedral); T: (28) 3822 9048; http://www.propagandabistros.com/ Mo–Su: 07:30–23:00.
Secret Garden Restaurant & Teahouse Alley at 158 Pasteur, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, entrance on lefthand side; T: (090) 990 4621; Mo–Su: 11:00–22:00.
As a big cosmopolitan city in Asia, Saigon is the place in Vietnam to fill up on exceptional international food.
One of those must dine places is Pizza 4P’s # , a Japanese pizzeria that has taken Saigon by storm. What’s so special about this pizza? Everything. The Japanese-owned restaurant combines Japanese precision and obsession with quality with the Italian art of wood-fire pizza. Every pie is meticulously made and inspected before being served, while the restaurant’s farm-to-table approach ensures quality, freshness and consistency—even the simple green salad tastes beautiful. They grow their own organic vegetables and make their own cheeses, including mozzarella and their star ingredient burrata, the ball of creamy meltingly soft cheese on the rocket and tomato salad (175,000 dong) and pizzas like the burrata parma ham (420,000 dong). Or shake things up with the range of Japanese inspired pizzas like teriyaki chicken (recommended!), salmon sashimi, tandoori chicken curry and soy garlic beef. A basic margarita is 150,000 dong. Be sure to make reservations at any of their four locations, including one across from Ben Thanh market, or face a torturous wait watching other happy, happy diners.
If you’ve ever wanted to try dining in the dark, Noir # is the ticket. For those unfamiliar with the concept, diners will eat in pitch darkness served by blind or visually impaired staff. The experience reveals how much we rely on sight. Within the span of a dinner, the four other senses become heightened and diners are really able to appreciate the flavours, textures and sensations. It’s also fun guessing the ingredients. Choose between an East (560,000 dong) or West (650,000 dong) three course set menu, each course with multiple dishes. You definitely won’t leave hungry (extra helpings are free and you can lick the plate without anyone watching). For those with hesitations, rest assured it’s a professional operation and from start to finish, the experience is thought out and expertly guided. The blind have a 94% unemployment rate in Vietnam. Noir is making a difference in the lives of 19 blind/visually impaired staff, and a few others who are deaf/mute.
It was tricky deciding whether L’Usine # should be categorised under cafe or restaurant as this Euro-chic cafe-bistro has something for everyone under one roof: every sort of European breakfast item you can think of, lunch dishes like pasta, gnocchi, salads, sandwiches and tapas, attractive desserts like red velvet cake, cheese cake and apple tart tatin. There’s also wine, beer and ciders. A hot coffee will set patrons back a cool 70,000 dong while most menu items range from 100,000-170,000 dong.
Keep the wallet handy as their boutique has an Urban Outfitters vibe selling hipster gizmos and gadgets, clothes and their own coffee beans. There’s three locations, one on Le Loi near Saigon Square. No word yet on what will happen to their popular Dong Khoi location, close to the Opera House, as the building was recently marked for redevelopment.
Saigon’s international food scene is largely a reflection of the city’s expat community. We have Saigon’s large population of Japanese expats to thank for “Little Tokyo” or Japanese town, the alleys on and around Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton St, sprouting with izakaya and noodle shops, Japanese food at Vietnam prices. Occupying a corner down Thai Van Lung is izakaya Torisho # where grilled meat and seafood skewers, fried bites and small cold plates like edamame and seaweed salad are each only 20,000-40,000 each. It all goes down very well with a cold draught Sapporo beer. Just across the alley in the other corner is tiny ramen shop Tomidaya # , 100,000-150,000 dong a bowl. With only a few chairs at L-shaped bar and big hype, expect a queue and go before it sells out. Thanks to writer Connla Stokes for tweeting us those two great recommendations.
With the savoury comes the unsavoury and the neighbourhood does have many karaoke, massage parlours and other seedy joints. Men walking down the street will be called after. Rest assured there’s no chance of accidentally stumbling into one of these types of establishments. It’s obvious at a glance, if not by the bevy of women standing in front, then by the secretive closed door.
District 2 is where the majority of Saigon’s expats live and where most international schools are located. There’s a big happening cafe, restaurant, bar scene and if you want any Western food at western prices, head across the bridge to that bubble. Expect a taxi from Ben Thanh market area to cost around 150,000 dong one way, 30,000-50,000 dong by motorbike taxi. Get a French fine dining fix at La Villa # , a traditional restaurant serving classic dishes. The decor is too old world, something easily overlooked for the crisp white tablecloths and tip top service. Starters like foie gras, lobster or scallops are 490,000 dong and up, main course of lamb, duck, beef tenderloin hovers around 800,000 dong. If this is out of your range, at 810,000 dong the daily lunch set menu offers reasonable value.
A budget friendly District 2 find is Simple Place # serving up burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and simply good simple tacos. Crispy or soft, loaded with meat, veg and some cheese, each 30,000-35,000 dong. Boom.
Our final District 2 mention, several expats recommended The Deck # for a riverside sundowner. It’s a drink at a western price for a wonderful sunset view. There are other western and local restaurants nearby boasting a riverside location so take your pick.
A solid choice for dim sum is Crystal Jade Palace Restaurant # at the Lotte Hotel. Of course, it can’t be compared to Hong Kong but it does satiate the craving with decent dumplings, steamed buns, xiu mai and chicken feet, 57,000-120,000 dong per item. There are a few minor quibbles with the service and the restaurant doesn’t open until 11:30, a very late start for dim sum. Though we didn’t try it, we also heard that Ocean Palace is another safe dim sum spot.
Tired of rice and rice noodles? Say hello to pasta at Ciao Bella # . The food here is satisfying though nothing spectacular. Expect the menu of the usual suspects, courses of antipasti, insalate, pasta (225,00 dong and up), secondi meat and seafood dishes (400,000-600,000 dong). There’s daily specials and pizza, and the complimentary glass of Prosecco is a genial touch, all in a cozily setting.
Ciao Bella 11 Dong Du St, District 1; T: (28) 3822 3329; http://www.ciaobellavietnam.com/ .
Crystal Jade Palace Restaurant Lotte Hotel, 2A-4A Ton Duc Thang; .
La Villa 14 Ngo Quang Huy St, Thao Dien Ward, District 2; T: (28) 3898 2082; http://lavilla-restaurant.com.vn/ Mo–Sa: 11:45–13:30 & 18:30–21:30.
L’Usine Cafe 70B Le Loi, District 1, other locations at 151/5 Dong Khoi, District 1 & 19 Le Thanh Ton, District 1; T: (28) 3521 0703; http://lusinespace.com/ Mo–Su: 07:30–22:30.
Noir Lane 178-180D Hai Ba Trung, Da Kao Ward, District 1; T: (28) 6263 2525; http://www.noirdininginthedark.com/ Mo–Su: 11:30–14:30 & 17:30–23:00.
Pizza 4P’s 8 Thu Khoa Huan (Across from Ben Thanh market) District 1 + 3 other locations; T: (28) 3622 0500; http://pizza4ps.com/ Mo–Sa: 10:00–02:00 & Su: 10:00–23:00.
Simple Place 84 Quoc Huong, Thao Dien Ward, District 2; T: (090) 656 4653; Mo–Sa 11:00–22:00.
The Deck 38 Nguyen U Di St, Thao Dien Ward, District 2; T: (28) 3744 6632; http://www.thedecksaigon.com/ Mo–Su: 08:00–23:00.
Tomidaya 8A/1C1 Thai Van Lung, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; Mo–We & Fr–Sa 11:30–14:00 & 18:00–24:00 Su: 11:30–14:00 & 18:00–22:00.
Torisho 8A11B1 Thai Van Lung, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; Mo–Su: 17:00–23:00.
The French left a cafe culture legacy in Saigon, but if you expect pokey Parisian cafes and Vietnamese drip coffee on street corners, think again. Every week it seems there’s a new hip, flash, modern, fresh or funky memorable space putting bland chains like Starbucks to shame.
Focusing on the coffee, first up is The Workshop # , near the southeast end of Nguyen Hue walking street. True to its name, it’s the kind of place where digital nomads flock to work on the next great American novel (or watch cat videos) since the cafe is loaded with spacious tables, powerpoints, speedy WiFi and high quality coffee brewed any way you like: syphon, aeropress, French press, pour over, cold brew or just your plain ol’ flat white; 65,000 dong for a basic espresso, 135,000 dong for the fancy stuff. There’s also tea, juices, an extensive egg menu (including eggs benedict) and bistro fare: salads, pastas, sandwiches, burgers and sweets. In a similar vein, Vietcetera # has a complete brew bar, along with salad, pastas and sandwiches. The clean aesthetic and minimalist space is work and co-work friendly.
Two blocks north of Benh Tanh market, i.d Cafe’s # large menu of Vietnamese, vegetarian and Western dishes all hover around 75,000 dong. The loungey upstairs is a comfortable place to take an air-con break post-market shopping.
A hideaway found down a narrow alley and up three floors is The Old Compass Cafe and Bar # . By day its a casual, relaxing cafe serving a lunch set of delicious homestyle Vietnamese fare (150,000 dong) or banh mi (90,000 dong). Things get lively at night, where conversation, wine by the glass or bottle, draught craft beer and music mix and mingle. Bridging the gap is a daily happy hour. Check their Facebook page for frequent live music nights and special guest speakers. Extra kudos to this joint for eschewing plastic water bottles and using cardboard straws. The cafe is owned by friends of ours who are also the folks behind Rusty Compass, another good resource on travelling Vietnam.
Maison Marou # sounds fancy, and it is. This chocolaterie takes single origin Vietnam cacao and turns it into to die for chocolates, hot chocolates, pastries and posh desserts. Buy their dark chocolate bars as souvenirs, though there’s little chance they make it home without bite marks. Chocolate drinks start at 90,000 dong, desserts require deeper pockets, 70,000-150,000 dong. The entertainment is free: watch through the glass as each sweet is artfully made by hand.
Mockingbird Cafe # and other nooks in the decrepit apartment building at 14 Ton That Dam St take the award for most memorable find. Through an alley and up a stairwell suitable for filming a post-apocalyptic movie, those who make the sweaty climb to the 4th floor are rewarded with shabby, charming Mockingbird Cafe.
Filled with battered furniture, the casual place is like lounging in your friend’s basement, a good place to hole up on a hot or rainy day. The menu is simple: Vietnamese coffee, tea, Italian sodas and cocktails (35,000-70,000 dong) to an eclectic old school playlist, anything from The Beatles to a country crooner twanging “won’t you be my lucky star.” Things Cafe is another interesting spot. On the 1st floor, turn left and walk through the eerily empty hall that smells of cat pee to find this fan-only hangout.
Egg coffee has shot up to fame and now it’s firmly a Hanoi attraction. Get a taste of it right in the middle of the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker hub on Bui Vien St—that is, if you can find this cute hidey-hole. The other challenge is having to squeeeeze down the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it alley at 165 Bui Vien. On the right hand side is Goc Ha Noi # , a multi-storey cafe with just four tables. The top room is a perfect little bird’s nest of fans and a window to the world of Bui Vien to enjoy the concoction of egg whipped with sugar and hot coffee. It tastes like coffee meringue, coffee ice cream, coffee custard, coffee creme brulee and coffee marshmallow all in one. Addictive? Highly, and only 40,000 dong.
Good news for those with a milk intolerance/allergy, the lovely owner explained to us that while versions in Hanoi uses condensed milk, she doesn’t—it’s all in her technique. Thanks to writer David Fox, who is writing a book on Bui Vien, for showing us this place (and giving us permission to share with the world!).
Also on Bu Vien, Cong Ca Phe # is a Vietnamese coffee chain by way of Hanoi famed for its coffee coconut smoothie and it’s retro communist decor which includes a floor to ceiling wall of books. There’s currently three locations, including on the second level of the 22 Ly Tu Trong building across from Vincom Center. The building is formerly 22 Gia Long St and if that still doesn’t ring a bell, it was the apartment building in the iconic photograph capturing the rooftop evacuation of Americans by helicopter before the fall of Saigon.
The Saigonese go ga-ga for Phuc Long # and its milk tea. We’re not fans of large scale chains or milk tea, however, Phuc Long does have a knack for snagging prime locations on major roundabouts and you can get a terrific view of the manic swirling traffic ballet from big windows on the upper floor, like at the roundabout just 400 m north of Pham Ngu Lao St, where Ly Tu Trong, Nguyen Trai, Le Thi Rieng and Nguyen Thi Nghia all converge.
Finally, it’s still possible to find pop-up coffee vendors on footpaths, parks, markets in District 1, they are growing rarer as people head for the flashy cafe comforts. It’s amazing how someone can make a living from a simple operation—a stove, kettle and coffee filters. Keep your peepers peeled for them, these are the vestiges of street coffee culture in a city consumed by thoughts of the future.
Cong Caphe 26 Ly Tu Trong, District 1. Second location at 127-129 Bui Vien St, District 1; http://congcaphe.com/ Mo–Su: 07:30–22:30.
Goc Ha Noi 165/3 Bui Vien, District 1; T: (090) 452 2339; Mo–Sa: 09:00–23:00.
i.d Cafe 34D Thu Khoa Huan St, District 1; T: (28) 3822 2910; http://www.idcafe.net/ Mo–Su: 07:00-23:30.
Maison Marou 167-169 Calmette St, District 1, 300 m south of Ben Thanh market; T: (28) 7300 5010; http://www.maisonmarou.com/ Mo–Su: 09:00–23:00.
Mockingbird Cafe 4th floor, 14 Ton That Dam, District 1; T: (090) 926 2161; https://www.ghiencaphe.com/cafe/mockingbird-cafe/ Mo–Su: 09:00–23:00.
Phuc Long Coffee & Tea Express 325 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1. Many other locations; Mo–Su: 07:00–22:30.
The Old Compass Cafe and Bar Alley at 63 Pasteur St, Apt 11, 3rd floor (same lane as The Alley Bar, across the street from Pasteur Street Brewing Company Tap Room); T: (090) 390 0841; https://www.facebook.com/oldcompasscafe/ Su–Th: 10:30–22:00 & Fr–Sa: 10:30–23:00.
The Workshop Coffee 27 Ngo Duc Ke, District 1, off southeast end of Nguyen Hue walking street; T: (28) 3824 6801; https://www.facebook.com/the.workshop.coffee/ Mo–Su: 08:00–21:00.
Vietcetera Cafe 290 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3; T: (126) 411 4084; Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.
With time-crunched backpackers simply using Saigon as a layover, many will only leave with foggy memories of a night in Pham Ngu Lao as a souvenir. But similar to Khao San Road, Pham Ngu Lao has undergone gentrification in recent years with dive guesthouses slowly phased out for flashpacker hostels and Starbucks now staring straight into Crazy Buffalo’s infamous neon sign. One positive development is that it’s no longer considered “the Foreigner’s Street” and Saigonese youth head here Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to eat and socialise, adding diversity to the scene.
Here’s another positive step in the right direction: As of July 2017, Bui Vien (the main street through the neighbourhood) is a walking street on Saturday and Sunday from 19:00-02:00 and the irregular footpaths are being renovated. This makes getting around a lot easier and safer too. Bag, jewellery and phone snatchings by motorbike are rife in this area. Beware of the usual dangers of backpacker hubs. Don’t take valuables with you, watch out for pickpockets, never leave your glass unattended, friends watch out for each other and don’t do bar tabs, pay as you go. Men: buy that flirtatious pretty woman drink after drink and you can get stuck with an enormous bill, both woman and bar cashing in.
Crazy Buffalo Bar # at the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham St is a landmark. The upstairs was walled up for a while (rumour has it there was a grizzly murder in a room at a time when it also had accommodation). The second floor terrace was recently reopened. Head here for a drink to watch the night street scene unfold below to the soundtrack of obnoxious, bad dance music. Stick to beer, 50,000 dong for a large Saigon. On the corner across the street, Go 2 Bar offers a similar beer + loud music + people watching experience on ground level.
In stark contrast to the neon lights and throbbing beats of these bars, the tiny family run shop at 102 Bui Vien has been selling bia hoi, locally brewed fresh draught beer, since the early 90s. Not much has changed since then, even the old Fuji Film sign remains (they no longer rent videos). It’s a few plastic stools and the beer is still cheap as chips. These mom and pop shops are what give the neighbourhood character. They are gradually being bought out, with bigger fish keen to buy up multiple slots in a row to create wide shopfront for their bars.
For a vertical escape from the crowds, head to the rooftop of Duc Vuong Hotel # at 195 Bui Vien. While being nine storeys up is nowhere near the heights of Bitexco’s 52nd floor bar, the hotel’s multi-floor rooftop terrace has an enjoyable (at some times terrifying) open air vantage. We appreciate that it’s low enough so it’s possible to see the details of the surrounding neighbourhood. Beer is 30,000 dong, juice 65,000 dong. Go for the view, not the service or cocktails.
Outside of the Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao backpacker bubble, Ho Chi Minh City has terrific watering holes. Forget the big brown bottles of Saigon beer, craft beer is all the rage in this city and it should be as the stuff people are making is darn good.
There’s too many craft beer pubs to mention all. Generally, expect the pub to have signature beers available all the time and some limited time specials. Choose one or do a sampler, many small glasses of each to taste. Pace yourself, craft beers tend to have a higher alcohol than your regular brewski.
Of course we have to mention Pasteur Street Brewing Company # , one of the first to put Saigon craft beer on the map. It’s on tap in quite a few cafes and bars around the city, or make pilgrimage to their bar to choose from the familiar (Vienna Lager) or the more exotic (Pomelo IPA), 135,000 dong for 500 ml. They also do comforting bar snacks like fried chicken sandwiches and cheese boards. Find them at 144 Pasteur St, across the road from The Old Compass Cafe which also carries them on tap.
Here’s your opportunity to enter the Heart of Darkness # —the craft brewery that is. The name is a bit gimmicky but hey, Kurtz’s Insane IPA is very good, as are their other flagship offerings golden ale, pilsner, wheat and pale ale, 110,000 dong for a pint. Staff are happy to chat with patrons about the beer and the styles. Sit in the industrial chic air-con bar or outdoors in their front of house patio, a rare feature in Saigon. Another rarity: we’re happy to report the bar stools are comfortable and won’t make you fall off before you’ve even had the first sip. Go hungry as they have Pizza 4P’s pizza on the menu, the same one we already waxed poetic about.
For a one stop shop as they say, BiaCraft # has an extensive selection of their own artisan ales as well as from other breweries. There’s a location in District 3 and District 2. We’ve also heard good things about Winking Seal # and its rooftop bar, southwest of Ben Thanh market and around the corner from Maison Marou. Go forth and conquer!
Cocktail lovers are spoiled for choice and there’s no shortage of choice at Layla Eatery & Bar # . “Is this the right place?” is part of the speakeasy experience as you search for 63 Dong Da. Once found, go through the phalanx of women offering massages and creep up the derelict stairway to arrive at the surprisingly spacious bar that’s usually packed on weekends. There’s bar seating, high tables or lounge, so find a comfortable spot if you can as it’ll take an enjoyable 10 minutes to read through every cocktail with infusion of this and playful dash of that, most cocktails hovering at 160,000 dong. The lychee chilli martini hums with tingling heat, while the Smokey Red Hook is something you have to order to believe. If mixology isn’t your bag baby, the classics are also done to perfection and there’s a selection of wine by the glass. It can be overwhelmingly busy at times; hope for some breathing room but expect a crowd.
For a quiet, intimate affair, The Alley # is a cool bar where the staff know your face and favourite drink by the second visit. Cosy brick, wood and checkered cloth invite patrons to linger over an Old Fashioned or two. Here they focus on the classics and the bar is well-stocked (seriously, how has the shelves not collapsed?). We weren’t crazy about the sappy pop song playlist on one of our visits—hopefully it was just a glitch in the matrix. Find it in the same alley as Old Compass Cafe.
There are a few bars devoted to a specific spirit and gin-philes should make pilgrimage to The Gin House # . Be dazzled by a true mixology experience in an elegant, sleek bar. The menu is divided by desired flavour, “herbal and spicy” for example, and every drink sounded so impressive we wanted to try them all. Alas, we settled for one called The Rose (gin infused rose and hibiscus, cranberry fruit, rose syrup, fresh pineapple and thyme). It was delightfully balanced and the presentation was a showstopper. On that note, each cocktail does take time to craft and as expected, gin dominates but there are a couple of non-gin based cocktails. It’s 180,000 dong each, the daily happy hour does make it easier on the pocketbook.
Find rum and Caribbean flair at Cuba Casa de la Mojito # . Portraits of Che and Uncle Ho sit side by side and the long wooden bar is reminiscent of old Havana. There’s daiquiri, Cuba Libre, Ti-Punch, sangria and draft beer to go with the tapas like empanaditas and calamares fritos, 75,000-290,000 dong. Unsurprisingly, the mojito is darn good. Surprisingly, this bar is something of a French expat hangout. Note: smoking is allowed and many take advantage of this. Check their Facebook for live music and dancing nights, as well as latin dance classes.
Indika # is part of an ever growing scene of funky tucked away bars. This one has a grunge rock edge and both an indoor lounge space and outdoor garden terrace to chill out. Though it’s in District 1, it is quite a way from the tourist centre so venture out here if searching for a social vibe, eclectic live music, a cinema room and events, there’s usually something going on every night. To find it, head down the alley at 43 Nguyen Van Giai past the barbecue restaurant.
As new buildings continue to sprout in Saigon like weeds, rooftop bars are everywhere, the latest trying to surpass the last. Many of them do think loud music and things that glow are a requisite. There’s just so many rooftop bars. The following may not be the highest, the flashiest or the trendiest but we like them!
Located at the rooftop of Hotel Des Arts MGallery, the Social Club Rooftop Bar # is a refined yet relaxed and inviting space with the infinity pool as the focal point (pool open to hotel guests only). The outlook is heart stopping, much to do with the low glass panels that act as a near invisible barrier. If that gives you nervous flutters, wait until you see the glass bridge connecting it to the adjacent Centec Tower, home to another worthy rooftop bar Shri Restaurant and Lounge. Prices at Social Club are what you would expect of a upscale hotel. A glass of wine starts at 190,000 dong, beer 130,000 dong and a specialty cocktail 270,000 dong. Their daily happy hour is followed by live DJ.
It’s all about the river view at M Bar # , and not about the underwhelming atmosphere of the bar itself which is located on the ninth floor of the historic Hotel Majestic. The open terrace affords a panoramic view of the river and river road in exchange for pricey drinks, 125,000 dong draught beer or a 195,000 dong cocktail. There’s usually live music in the evening.
The Japanese town around Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung St in District 1 has plenty of late night places for food and drink but an alternate Japanese borough has emerged on Pham Viet Chanh in Binh Thanh District. Interspersed between local shops are Japanese snacky places and interesting watering holes like Birdy # , a bar nook with excellent classic cocktails and liquors. Nibbles like takoyaki (fried squid balls) can be ordered from the adjacent cart. It’s perfect for a casual, low key after work drink.
Diagonally across the way is Khoai # and its substantial beer list that spans the globe. Whether you have a craving for a Vietnamese craft brew, Angkor or Schmucker Schwarzbier, sip it in a shabby chic garden setting.
And don’t forget Anan, which we covered above. Their rooftop bar looks onto Cho Cu market and Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s tallest building until Vincom Landmark 81 is completed.
Speaking of Bitexco, the glass-enclosed observation deck on the 49th floor is a popular tourist attraction. An alternate to the 200,000 dong elevator ride is to grab a drink at Eon Heli bar # on the 52nd floor, also with floor to ceiling windows. View and photos will cost as little as the inflated price of a small draught beer, 100,000 dong. To get there, enter the mall and take the escalator up. There’s usually a staff to prescreen —“drinks and to see the view?”—before allowing access to the elevator to the restaurant EON51.
BiaCraft Artisan Ales 1 Le Ngo Cat, Ward 7, District 3; T: (28) 3933 0903; http://biacraft.com/ Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
Birdy 80 Pham Viet Chanh, Ward 19, Binh Thanh District; T: (093) 371 9911; https://www.facebook.com/birdy80PVC/ Mo–Su: 15:00–03:00.
Crazy Buffalo Bar Corner of Bui Vien and De Tham St; .
Cuba Casa de la Mojito 91 Pasteur St, District 1; T: (28) 3822 7099; https://www.facebook.com/cubanvn/ Mo–Sa: 15:00–02:00.
Eon Heli at Bitexco Tower Floor 52, Bitexco Financial Tower, 2 Hai Trieu St, District 1; T: (28) 6291 8752; http://eon51.com/eon-heli-bar/ Mo–Su: 10:30–00:00.
Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery 31D Ly Tu Trong, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; T: (090) 301 7596; Mo–Su: 11:00–00:00.
Indika Saigon 43 Nguyen Van Giai, Dakao Ward, District 1; T: (016) 5658 1648; https://www.facebook.com/IndikaSaigon Mo–Su: 09:00–00:00.
Khoai 89 Pham Viet Chanh, Ward 19, Binh Thanh District; T: (090) 253 0633; https://www.facebook.com/nongtraikhoai Mo–Th: 16:00–11:00, Fr–Sa: 16:00–00:00 & Su: 16:00–23:00.
Layla Eatery & Bar Floor 2, 63 Dong Du, District 1, across from Sheraton Hotel;; T: (083) 827 2279; https://www.facebook.com/LaylaEateryandBarHCM/ Mo–Sa: 16:00–02:00 & Su: 13:00–02:00.
M Bar at Hotel Majestic Saigon 9th floor, 1 Dong Khoi St, District 1; T: (28) 3829 5517; http://majesticsaigon.com/ Mo–Su: 07:00–01:00.
Pasteur Street Brewing Company 144 Pasteur St, District 1; T: (28) 3823 9562; https://pasteurstreet.com Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
Social Club Rooftop Bar at Hotel Des Arts M Gallery 76-78 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St, District 3; T: (28) 3989 8888; http://www.hoteldesartssaigon.com/ Mo–Su: 09:00–01:00.
The Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen 63/1 Pasteur St, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; T: (09) 3565 3969; https://www.facebook.com/thealleysaigon/ Mo–We: 17:00–00:00 & Th–Sa: 17:00–01:00.
The Gin House 28/3A Ton That Tung St, District 1; T: (090) 889 3660; http://www.theginhousesaigon.com/ Mo–Su: 17:00–02:00.
The View Rooftop Bar at the Duc Vuong Hotel 9th floor, 195 Bui Vien, District 1.; T: (28) 3920 6992; http://ducvuonghotel.com/the-view-rooftop-bar/ .
Winking Seal Beer Co 50 Dang Thi Nhu, District 1; T: (096) 601 6446; https://www.facebook.com/winkingseal/ Mo–Su: 11:00–00:00.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.