All Articles 10 dishes to try in Ho Chi Minh City

10 dishes to try in Ho Chi Minh City

From creamy coconut coffee to the ubiquitous bánh mì.

Dan Q. Dao
By Dan Q. Dao15 Apr 2024 7 minutes read
Woman Eating Vietnamese Pho Soup With Noodles And Beef
Image: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Ho Chi Minh City, known colloquially as Saigon, is in perpetual flux. From motorbikes whipping across town to late-night café culture and sprawling outdoor music bars, most of the action in this city of nearly 9 million is taking place on the streets. This also applies to its food. Though Saigon’s experimental fine-dining scene is growing—earning its first Michelin Guide last year—even the city’s most decorated chefs concede that street food is the true soul of Vietnamese culture.

Growing up in a Vietnamese immigrant community in Houston, I was exposed to the old-school basics of Saigonese cuisine from an early age. Now, living in Saigon full-time, I’ve rediscovered old favorites and also witnessed the dynamic evolution of modern dishes.

Saigon’s eclectic mix of Chinese, Khmer, French, and American influences is apparent in local dishes like the iconic bánh mì, which repurposes French baguettes with Southeast Asian meats and herbs. It also applies to bò né, the Vietnamese answer to steak and eggs, served on a sizzling skillet. Then there’s noodle soup: while you can get a Saigonese version of Vietnam’s Hanoi-born national dish, phở, Saigon locals are more likely to go for hủ tiếu, a Khmer-influenced pork and seafood noodle soup.

Ready to get started? From savory broken rice to smoky, juicy beef wrapped in aromatic betel leaf and a life-changing coconut coffee, here are the 10 best dishes you absolutely cannot miss in Ho Chi Minh City.

Bánh mì

Open faced Banh Mi topped with pickles, cilantro and cucumbers
Ultimate on-the-go delight
Image: bhofack2/Getty Images

The bánh mì involves a toasted French baguette sliced down the middle and filled with either grilled meats or Vietnamese cold cuts, loads of fresh and pickled veggies and herbs, and smears of fresh Vietnamese mayonnaise and savory pâté. A symbol of Vietnamese culinary adaptation in the face of colonialism, the sandwich is believed to have been popularized in Saigon in the 1950s and remains an easy grab-and-go lunch to this day.

Where to get it: Bánh Mì Huynh Hoa

There’s no shortage of excellent Vietnamese sandwiches in Saigon, but Bánh Mì Huynh Hoa is one of most highly regarded among them. Located in the touristy Pham Ngu Lao area of District 1, the tiny restaurant sells sandwiches from two different stands located within the same space. The menu offers nine different types of meats and they’re known for being particularly generous with filling portions. It’s a perfectly hearty but not overwhelming lunch—all for around $2.50.

Tip: There’s not a ton of space to sit, so grab your sandwiches to go—they’ll wrap them in paper and a rubber band—and find a nice bar or coffee shop that allows you to bring in outside food. Or, stroll over to the Nguyen Hue walking street nearby to sit on a park bench.

Cơm tấm

Pork chop on top of rice with fried egg
Smoky and savory grilled pork chop
Image: namanul/Tripadvisor

Cơm tấm, or broken rice, is a humble everyman dish that originated in the French colonial era. As the story goes, during periods of forced famine, Vietnamese people took grains of rice damaged in the milling process and cooked them in pork fat for sustenance. Today, this dish has evolved into a source of pride. A typical serving of cơm tấm features a mound of broken rice, marinated pork chops (sườn nướng), shredded pork skin (bì), and an egg and meat loaf (chả trứng), accompanied by pickled vegetables and a bird's eye chili–laced fish sauce.

Where to get it: Cơm Tấm Nguyễn Văn Cừ

Opened in 1968, Cơm Tấm Nguyễn Văn Cừ in District 1 serves a traditional rendition of cơm tấm with one easily distinguishable feature: a much-larger-than-normal slab of pork chop. While this extra-large meat—especially juicy and moist when pulled right off the grill out front—is the main draw, I’m also a fan of the flavorful rice and the well-balanced sauces, which add bright notes of sweet, salty, and spicy to the meaty flavors.

Tip: Since cơm tấm is a lunch staple, Cơm Tấm Nguyễn Văn Cừ gets crowded by noon. For a calmer dining experience, come later in the afternoon. At $8 a serving, this is admittedly one of the pricier cơm tấm spots in town, but it’s worth the experience.

Bánh xèo

Banh Xeo accompanied by all the toppings and side of spring rolls
Banh xeo from Bánh Xèo 46A, far right
Image: Guide807478/Tripadvisor

Named for the sizzling sound it makes as it’s cooked, bánh xèo is a savory, crispy crepe. The batter is typically made with rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric—which lends a vibrant yellow hue when cooked to golden-brown perfection. Fillings include pork belly, fried shrimp, diced onions, and bean sprouts. But what really makes the dish is the use of the fresh herbs, including lettuce and aromatic perilla or Vietnamese shiso, and the dipping sauce made from fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar.

Where to get it: Bánh Xèo 46A

Sitting right on the border of Districts 1 and 3, this crowd-favorite bánh xèo spot cranks out fresh sizzling crepes in full view from an outdoor multi-stove set-up. While the bánh xèo is of course the star of the show, I’m partial to their take on fried eggrolls, or chả giò, and the standout fresh pomelo juice.

Bò né

The exterior of Bo Ne Thanh Tuyen
Sizzling hot plate of Bò né
Bo Ne Thanh Tuyen
Image: Tripadvisor/255richardcc (L), 403TravelBug (R)

Bò né is a Vietnamese steak and eggs dish served almost exclusively as an affordable, under-$2 breakfast. It’s believed to have originated from the American beefsteak dinner—coming with pan-fried beef, onions, and a savory sauce—all on a sizzling skillet. French influence can also be seen in the additions of pâté and phô mai, or cheese (after the French “fromage”). Finally, you can choose to get bò né with typical add-ons like a sunny-side-up egg and slices of baguette for mopping up all the sauce.

Where to get it: Bò Né Thanh Tuyền

Venture out to District 4 to try this beloved establishment that’s been specializing in its namesake dish for nearly three decades. Consistently busy during its narrow opening hours—6 a.m. to 11 a.m.—Bò Né Thanh Tuyền is one of the best places to start the day in Saigon. One secret to the house rendition of sizzling beef? The use of garlic and lemongrass in the marinade, which is slightly sweet in accordance with Saigonese palates.

Tip: Bò né is a pretty local dish, so it’s possible no one will teach you how to eat it. In reality, there’s no right or wrong way. Slice your baguette open and make your own “sandwich” as you work through the skillet, or just tear off pieces of bread with your hand and use them to scoop up sauce with pâté and cheese.

Bò lá lốt

Plated Bò lá lốt
Bò lá lốt
Image: oratai jitsatsue/Getty Images

Bò lá lốt comes from the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. The dish, believed to be Khmer-influenced, features seasoned ground beef (bò) wrapped in betel leaves (lá lốt) before grilling. Though they somewhat resemble the stuffed grape leaves of Middle Eastern cuisine, bò lá lốt has a completely different taste due to the earthy and slight peppery profile of the grilled betel leaf. The dish can be eaten as a snack, topped with crushed peanuts and dipped in a fish sauce-based dipping sauce, or as part of a larger meal wrapped in herbs and rice paper.

Where to get it: Bò Lá Lốt Hoàng Yến

This no-frills, beef-in-a-leaf purveyor in District 1 turns out its namesake dish—topped with crushed peanuts and scallion oil—as well as beef meatballs (bò mỡ chài) and quail egg mini-omelettes. As with most Vietnamese food, these street snacks come with sides of fresh herbs as well as a type of interwoven rice vermicelli noodles that you can use to make rolls.

Hủ tiếu Nam Vang

Close up of Hủ tiếu Nam Vang
This Vietnamese-Cambodian dish combines the best of both worlds
Image: NguyenVietTan/Tripadvisor

Before Saigon was Saigon, it was Khmer land. Traces of Cambodian influence remain, one of which is the noodle soup hủ tiếu, often called hủ tiếu Nam Vang. The hủ tiếu (kuy teav in Khmer) refers to the type of noodle—typically a thinner rice and tapioca flour–based noodle—while Nam Vang is the Vietnamization of the Khmer capital Phnom Penh. The broth is typically clear, made from pork or chicken bones, and topped with a variety of ingredients such as pork slices, shrimp, squid, quail eggs, fresh herbs, and fried shallots.

Where to get it: Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang Thành Đạt

One of the most popular destinations for hủ tiếu in town, Thành Đạt offers the signature dish as both the regular noodle soup and in a dry, stir-fry style, in which the noodles are sauce-tossed in a wok and served with a small bowl of broth. Both preparations feature the requisite toppings of pork, shrimp, and fried garlic, while possible add-ons include liver, squid, and fish balls.

Bánh canh cua

Streetside vendor preparing Bánh canh cua
Bowl of Bánh canh cua topped with seafood
Image: 36huyc/Tripadvisor

It’s not entirely certain where bánh canh cua was invented—but this dish’s mysterious origins are particularly interesting, as it uses a type of super-thick rice noodle that is not as common in Vietnam. Perhaps influenced by Japanese udon, these thick rice noodles take on a Vietnamese flavor in rich and savory crab broth (sometimes simmered with pork bones) topped with crab, shrimp, and quail eggs.

Where to get it: Bánh Canh Cua 14

Do as the locals do and get your bowl of bánh canh at Bánh Canh Cua 14 ️in District 5, home to Saigon’s Chinatown neighborhood. There’s an English menu if you don’t speak Vietnamese, but there’s only really one order.

Bò kho

Bowl of stewed beef (Bò kho) with bread on the side
Image: xuanhuongho/Tripadvisor

Bò kho, or Vietnamese beef stew, is another example of the French colonial influence on Vietnamese cuisine. Introduced during the French colonial period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this hearty, flavorful dish combines Vietnamese ingredients with French cooking techniques. Bò kho typically features tender chunks of beef simmered in a rich and aromatic broth flavored with lemongrass, star anise, cinnamon, and ginger. The versatile dish is served with French baguettes, rice, or rice noodles.

Where to get it: Bo Kho Vo Van Tan

Tucked in a small alley, this independent restaurant offers the beef stew with a selection of different carbs including toasted French baguette, hu tieu noodles, or egg noodles.

Chè

Table with bowls of Chè
Bowls of chè
Image: Mikhail Liubchenko/Tripadvisor

Chè refers to a broad category of hot or cold Vietnamese dessert “soups” that typically (though not always) incorporate a base of coconut milk with toppings like tropical fruits, beans, and jellies. Common varieties, named after their fillings, include chè đậu xanh (mung bean) and chè sen củ năng (lotus seed)—but there are dozens upon dozens of different kinds, so don’t expect to master it all in one go.

Where to get it: Chè Hiển Khánh

This local mainstay in District 3 offers a dozen or so varieties of primarily fruit, bean, and jelly-based chè alongside other desserts like flan and drinks like the herbal sâm bổ lượng. Accessible, entry-level chè include the chè thạch nhân (lychee jelly) and the cooling chè khúc bạc—combining panna cotta-like almond jelly with shaved almond, various fruits, and ice.

Cà phê cốt dừa

Ice blended coconut coffee and americano black coffee in the cafe
Image: Panuwat Dangsungnoen/Getty Images

Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee and home to a fantastic café culture. The traditional preparation of Vietnamese coffee includes dark roast coffee brewed through a single-serve phin filter and sweetened with condensed milk. But each region of Vietnam touts its own specialty coffee drinks too. In the south, where coconut is plentiful, Vietnamese coffee is often blended with creamy coconut milk or coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk or sugar, and ice.

Where to get it: Cong Caphe

Coconut coffee can be found at various coffee shops in Saigon, but for the most consistent, high-quality experience, seek out any of the dozens of locations of the homegrown chain Cong Caphe. The secret to their coconut coffee is the use of full-fat coconut cream.

Tip: Looking for similar coconut goodness without a caffeine buzz? Order the cốt dừa cốm xanh—a frappuccino-style icy blend of coconut cream except with young green sticky rice grains instead of coffee.

Dan Q. Dao
Dan Q. Dao is a culture writer, editor, and the founder of District One, a creative consultancy focused on food & drink brands. Prior to this, he served as assistant food & drink editor at Time Out and deputy digital editor at Saveur. His work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Vice, and Paper. Learn more at danqdao.com.