Saigon Street Foods
1.VAN KIEP STREET:
Border of Phu Nhuan & Binh Thanh districts
Even in the light drizzle of a cool rainy season evening Van Kiep Street is a thrilling exhibition of Vietnamese street food. Showcasing dozens of different dishes all in the space of a couple hundred metres, Vạn Kiếp Street straddles the border of two of Saigon’s most vibrant districts, Phu Nhuan and Binh Thanh. Neon signs prick the night, illuminating the slanting rain as they announce the specialities of each food and drink outlet: phở, bánh canh cua, bánh mì, bánh xèo, bún mắm, bún bò Huế, bún chả, nem nướng, chè – there must be at least fifty different dishes available on this street, and over a hundred eateries to choose from. The street is packed with young Vietnamese – I rarely see any customers over the age of 30 – all clustered around small plastic tables, hunched over on small plastic stools, talking, eating, gesticulating, laughing.
Grilling pork patties on the sidewalk, Van Kiep Street
Quán 104 (230 Van Kiep) is a small, trendy place specializing in grilled octopus (bạch tuộc nướng), which is very popular with Saigon youth at the moment. The spicy, marinated octopus is grilled over a coal barbecue on the sidewalk; the scented smoke wafts into the street, enticing all who pass to stop and eat, like a vaporous Siren. Van Kiep has more than its fair share of bánh canh cua outlets – a stodgy, slippery, fishy, noodley southern classic: try it at 63 Van Kiep. Near the intersection with Phan Xich Long Street there are a couple of good bún mắm stalls. This is a potent seafood noodle soup which is crammed full of wholesome ingredients.
One of many bánh canh cua outlets on Van Kiep Street
2. SU VAN HANH STREET:
Sư Vạn Hạnh is a long, lively street in general, but the section between Ngô Gia Tự and Nguyễn Chí Thanh streets is partiuclarly frenetic and jam-packed with excellent street food. When I lived just up the road from here, my housemates and I referred to it as ‘The Ghetto’, because the area is dominated by several run-down, Soviet-style apartment blocks. Because there are so many people living so closely together in this neighbourhood (and because conditions are so cramped inside that people would rather spend their time outside), the area’s street-life is exceptionally vibrant. Food stalls, vendors, casual eateries, cafes and bars line the street, all in the shadow of the dilapidated apartment complex. Young and old, families and couples take their seats on plastic stools at metallic tables and tuck into the various street treats on offer. The contrast between the energy and colour of the street food scene and the grey, grim, concrete bleakness of the apartment buildings (some of which are now in a state of demolition) is extreme and compelling.
Su Van Hanh Street specializes in mini bánh xèo, crispy rice flour pancakes
This street’s speciality is bánh xèo (savoury crepes filled with pork and bean sprouts). Dozens of places serve small bánh xèo cooked on circular trays over flaming, coal-fired barbecues. My favourite is at 004 Lô H (literally ‘Block H’), where the family have been in the bánh xèo business on the same spot for 14 years. At the corner with Hòa Hảo Street there’s a good Chinese-style noodle outlet calledTai Phát. Try the mì vịt tiềm (egg noodles with duck in a deeply aromatic broth). The noodles are sold from a classic xe mì (noodle trolley) decorated with painted dragons and scenes from Chinese mythology. Right at the southern end of Block H (Lô H) there’s an outstanding Vietnamese dessert stall on the corner. This place is rammed with young Vietnamese who gather around the tiny tables in groups to enjoy any of the sixteen different kinds of dessert sold here. All of them are gooey, sweet, colourful and involve sticky rice, green bean or coconut milk in some form or another. The textures and flavours might be unfamiliar to most foreign palates but the sheer variety and youthful energy of this stall make it my favourite place on this street .
Vietnamese dessert (chè) in all its gooey glory and endless variety
3. VINH KHANH STREET:
Apparently one of the favourite haunts of the notorious Vietnamese gangster Năm Cam (executed in 2004), today Vĩnh Khánh Street is one of the most popular places for street food in Saigon, especially seafood. Every night young people throng the sidewalks sporting trendy hairdos, tattoos, and the latest fashions from South Korea – you rarely see anyone over the age of 25 here. The atmosphere is electric: hundreds of small and large groups of friends hunker down at tiny red and blue plastic tables, splitting shells, cracking crab legs, clinking beer glasses and having a really good time. As if the thundering cacophony of laughter, traffic, and orders being shouted wasn’t enough, some enterprising teenagers pull up on the curbside with giant amplifiers strapped to the backs of their motorbikes and proceed to blast out karaoke for the ‘entertainment’ of all street food customers. There are fire eaters and street dancers too. To say that the food scene here is vibrant is an understatement: it’s choatic, loud, busy, oppressive, unrelenting and a glorious celebration of food, fun and youth.
Vinh Khanh Street is an intoxicating celebration of youth, food and fun
Head to Ốc Oanh (534 Vĩnh Khánh Street) for seafood and shellfish. This is the most famous of all the seafood joints on the street. In Vietnam fame often leads to apathy and a decline in quality, but this is not the case at Ốc Oanh where the portions are big, the seafood fresh, and the service brisk and efficient. Try the ốc hương ràn muối ớt (fried sea snails with salt and chilli) and the sò điệp nướng mỡ hành (grilled scallops with spring onions and peanuts). Prices are a little higher here than elsewhere but it’s worth it. Be prepared to wait a few minutes for a table, and don’t be shy to shout over the din when it comes to ordering. Near the intersection with Hoàng Diệu Street is Quán BBQ Lúa (33 Vĩnh Khánh Street). The speciality here is grill-it-yourself barbecued meat. A small coal-fired stove is placed on your table onto which you lay chunks of marinated beef, pork, goat and fish. Thesườn heo ngũ vị (pork ribs in five spice marinade) is delicious.
Sometimes referred to as ‘Seafood Street’, Vinh Khanh is a great place to sample some shells
4. PHAN VAN HAN STREET:
Bình Thạnh District
A long, narrow street connecting two of Saigon’s biggest arteries, Phan Văn Hân Street is lined with cheap food stalls frequented by locals and students from nearby universities. Just across the Thị Nghè Channel from the glitz and glamour of Saigon’s central District 1, Phan Văn Hân Street has a very local, unpretentious atmosphere. The street is densely packed with food vendors, shops, homes, businesses and motorbikes, creating an intimate environment where space (which is in short supply) is often shared. Snail and shellfish eateries – lit by naked fluorescent light bulbs – set up on the pavement next to the peeling plaster of old homes; bánh xèo stalls occupy local people’s doorsteps; soup vendors serve customers at tiny tables on a slither of sidewalk not more than a few feet wide. The scented smoke from all these food vendors drifts into the street, where their aromas mingle with the exhaust fumes from passing traffic.
A snail and shellfish vendor on Phan Van Han Street
This is a very lively little neighbourhood where all the classic Vietnamese street food dishes are well-represented. Come between 6.00-8.30pm to experience it at its busiest. Bột chiên (fried rice flour cubes that I like to call ‘Vietnamese French fries’) is a street food staple: find it at the corner of Phan Văn Hân and Xô Viết Nghẹ Tĩnh streets. The vendor here has been serving bột chiện for 20 years and has gotten pretty darn good at it. One of the most famous noodle joints in the area Lương Ký Mì Gia (1 Huỳnh Mẫn Đạt Street) is right at the eastern extreme of Phan Văn Hân Street. They sell all sorts of noodles but the dish that made them famous is mì vịt tiềm (fresh yellow noodles with marintated aromatic duck) – get here early because they run out of this dish fast.
20 years in the business: a bột chiện vendor cooks up Vietnam’s answer to French fries
5. CO GIANG STREET:
Cô Giang is a long, straight street that unofficially marks the southern perimeter of Saigon’s burgeoning backpacker area in District 1. However, Cô Giang Street is a lot quieter than Phạm Ngũ Lão, Bùi Viện and Đề Thám streets whose bars, western restaurants and mini-marts make up the centre of the backpacker district. In general, travellers who choose to stay or spend time on Cô Giang Street are looking to get something more ‘authentic’, more ‘Vietnamese’ from their time in Saigon. While Cô Giang is not as densely packed with food stalls as other streets in this guide, it still offers plenty of local street-life and bustling open-air eateries, especially around the intersection of Cô Giang and Đề Thám streets. In the evenings bright fluorescent light bulbs illuminate streetside barbeques, whooshing woks, and bubbling cauldrons. Scented cooking smoke fills the air and hangs, like a Dickensian fog, over the diners sitting at tables on the sidewalk.
Young locals hunker down for a night of shellfish on Co Giang Street
Right on the corner of Cô Giang and Đề Thám streets there’s a cluster of hugely popular outdoor restaurants, specializing in thick Chinese-style fried noodles called hủ tiếu xào. Quán 79 is particularly good for this dish and there are plenty of other items on the menu here – most of which have been translated into inadvertently hilarious English, thanks, I suspect, to Google Translate: ‘vegetable of transcendent garlic’ was one of my favourites. Don’t miss the stalls selling bò lá lốt(grilled beef rolled in aromtic betel leaf); they’re easy to find because of the smoking barbecues out front and the enticing smell. The bò lá lốt at Hoàng Yến (121 Cô Giang Street) is superb and very cheap too.
Beef rolled in aromatic betel leaf grilling on the sidewalk, Co Giang Street
6. TRAN KHAC CHAN STREET:
A chaotic jumble of motorbikes, cars, pedestrians, food vendors, and diners on the sidewalks devouring their dinners, Tran Khac Chan Street is a throbbing street food mecca. In the space of a couple hundred metres there are close to 50 food outlets, all vying for space and attention on this busy little street. Hemmed in at one end by the Thi Nghe Channel and at the other by the tree-lined Tran Quang Khai Street, this is a place to really let your ‘foodie instincts’ guide you: follow the smells, the smoke, the neon signage and, most importantly, local people, towards anything edible that takes your fancy. I think of this street as an open ‘wardrobe’ of food in which I’m free to try anything on.
A bowl of ‘slippery’ bánh canh cua on Tran Khac Chan Street
Most of the action is at the Thi Nghe Channel end of the street. A good place to start is at the popularBanh Canh Cua 87 which, predictably, serves bánh canh cua at number 87 Tran Khac Chan. This gooey, slimy, crab-based concoction, uses thick and doughy noodles which are famously slippery: getting them to stay on your chopsticks from bowl to mouth is a challenge. There are a couple of enticing ‘grilled meat trolleys’ plying this street: the smell of barbecued chicken is difficult to pass up. Saigon nights can be hot and humid; cool off with a glass of freshly squeezed pomelo juice (nước ép bưởi) at 114 Tran Khac Chan. At the corner of Tran Khac Chan and Tran Khanh Du is Banh Xeo 79 where the cook, who claims to be shy, strikes eccentric poses in front of the camera.
The ‘shy’ lady at Banh Xeo 79 strikes a pose for the camera
7. NGUYEN THUONG HIEN STREET:
Lined with enormous concrete electricity pylons, Nguyen Thuong Hien is a straight and narrow street leading northeast from District 1. Yellow street lamps poke up above the squat, boxy houses, and tangled electricity cables hang in front of neon signage like jungle vines. At night, there’s a sense of Dionysian abandon on this street: hundreds of diners take their seats at sidewalk restaurants, munching on shellfish, throwing empty beer cans under their tables, talking loudly, and singing along to acoustic guitars. There’s a lot to eat and drink on Nguyen Thuong Hien, and a lot of fun to be had.
Nguyen Thuong Hien is a narrow, busy, dimly lit street that’s full of food
The liveliest section of Nguyen Thuong Hien is between the cross streets of Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Vo Van Tan. Settle down to some snails and shellfish – a classic Saigon night out – at A Soi (237-239 Nguyen Thuong Hien). Oysters, clams, crab claws, sea snails and local beer are all on the menu here. Although Nguyen Thuong Hien is famous for its seafood, it’s also become the unofficial fruit juice street of Saigon. Near the intersection with Nguyen Dinh Chieu and with Nguyen Thi Minh Khai there are several large ‘juiceries’ where all number of tropical fruits are freshly squeezed into plastic bottles to take away (try Phat Dat at 125 Nguyen Thuong Hien). In the past, you could have headed to Nhân Quán for a bowl of its famous hủ tiếu Nam Vang noodles (slices of pork, whole shrimp and quail eggs in a clear sweet broth seasoned with shallots, spring onions and kale). However, they have recently moved location to 488 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, which is a 5-10 walk west of Nguyen Thuong Hien – but it’s worth the walk.
Shellfish and beer is a classic Saigon night out: you’ll find plenty on Nguyen Thuong Hien Street