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Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) report

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I just returned to HK from a few weeks working in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). I go there several times a year, and here's where I usually eat. All are in or near District 1.

I don't look for the cheapest, most 'authentic' meals - I just look for food that tastes good, and I enjoy a good pizza as much as a good spring roll. Saigon is good value, so even a meal in a tablecloth restaurant is not going to break the bank. Vietnam Dong (VND)15,000 = US$1. Everywhere takes US$ small notes. I stay at the Caravelle Hotel, but the new Sheraton is nicer.

If you want street food, a good place to start is the Bin Tanh market. There's a food area indoors at the back and there are several stalls selling a variety of dishes, nothing more than about VND10000. This is also a good place to buy ingredients. If you saw or read Bourdain's 'A Cooks Tour', this is one of the places he was at.

My first stop on the way into town from the airport is always Pho Hoa Pasteur, 260 Pasteur. Just pho, nothing else. This place is a step up from street stalls, but still not air-con. Upstairs is a little nicer than downstairs. I really like their soup, and judging by how packed it gets at lunch, so do a lot of other people. No menu needed, just say 'beef' or 'chicken' - those are the only 2 variables. Open 6am - midnight.

I usually avoid the upscale Vietnamese restaurants on and around Dong Khoi. Expensive and touristy, and the food doesn't match the prices. I had an especially lousy meal at the well-known 'Lemongrass' this trip. But this place was good:
Kinh Bac, 30 Dong Khoi tel 829 1364. Air con (in places), English menu, and very good food.

Even better was:
Quan An Ngon, 138 Ky Khoi Nga, tel 825 7179, opposite the Reunification Palace. It's a semi-outdoor place, apps about VND 3000, mains VND 15,000 (yes, that's 30 cents to a buck!). The have food stalls set up so you can point at what looks good.

Saigon also has plenty of good options in other cuisines. All below are air-con.

Good Japanese in Saigon? Yup. Go to:
Ohan, 71 Pasteur (behind Rex Hotel), 824 4896. Avoid the confusingly similar place two doors right! Lunch sets around US$5-6. English menu w/photos. I like the Katsu Don set for lunch, but everything is good. Chef Tatsuhiko is a character.

For French, here are two bistro-type places I recommend:
Bibi, 8A Thai Van Lung, tel 829 5783
Augustin, 10 Nguyen Thiep, tel 829 2941
Bibi is the more authentic, menu in French only, rude French owner, mostly French expat customers. I like their goat cheese salad and confit duck. Usually has a cous cous special on Thursday. Don't order andouillette unless you know what it is....
Augustin has a much wider menu, and more mixed clientele. Good chicken dishes and soups. My friend likes the beef tongue. Apps around VND50,000, mains 60,000 (chicken) - 250,000 (if you go for imported beef).

If you want an upscale western meal, try Asian Reflections, the 'fusion' restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel. Hotel prices, but someone in the kitchen knows what they are doing.

For good value western food, the best bet by far is the Underground Bar, basement 69 Dong Khoi, 829 9079. If you've been on the road too long and it's time for a good burger or pizza or fajita, this place serves better food than the local 5 star hotels, at reasonable prices. They also do a good job on some fancier things like lamb shanks on cous cous, or steaks. For a bar, the food coming out of the kitchen here is pretty amazing. This is my favorite western restaurant in Saigon.

Other western places I've tried, and wasn't excited about:
Gartenstadt - OK German food, nothing special.
Amigo - OK steaks, same owner as above.
Number 5 - expat bar, stick to the beer.
Mogambo - I don't even know how to describe the place. Weird.
Santa Lucia - some locals say this is a good Italian restaurant. It's not. Underground Bar has better pizza.
Annie's Pizza - ditto.
Camargue - Famous and expensive. Nice atmosphere. The food is good, but basically boring. This is the usual place the take expense account clients, but if they really like to eat, I'd suggest Asian Reflections instead.
Qucina - new, upscale Italian underneath the Opera House, tel 824 6325 Same owners as the Q Bar next door. Nothing exciting coming from the kitchen yet, despite a real Italian chef. Lots of beautiful people. Better to eat elsewhere and just go to their excellent bar - one of the best selections of booze in Asia, although at prices much higher than anywhere else outside the hotels. Cocktails about VND7500.

Now for some severe culture shock - I'm off to Salt Lake City this week! I'll post a report on the Southwest board when I get back to Hong Kong.

Cheers,
Hong Kong Dave

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  1. Thanks for the report --- I agree completely about upscale places around Dong Khoi area. In addition to Lemongrass, Hoi An is another place to avoid if at all possible. Somehow these places seem to do a booming business on mediocre food and condescending service.

    An exception to the "avoid upscale Vietnamese" rule is Nam Phan, on Le Thanh Ton, opened by the head of the Khai Silk empire. Very expensive (entrees can go as high as $20-25, though average is about $10) but the food is very, very good (esp. rare beef grilled around lemongrass, crab dishes). Surroundings are sumptuous. We consider it an "expense account" restaurant.

    A nit-picky correction (sorry): it's Ben Thanh not Bin Thanh market. My favorites inside are my quang noodles (pronounced "mee wang" --- look for wide, bright yellow rice noodles) and banana cake sold out of a glass case next to one of the doorways leading to the outdoor meat/fish section. The cake has a custardy, clafouti-like texture, and is made with pink bananas that taste like strawberry. Yum.

    Entrees at Quan An Ngon can go well above 15,000 dong, if you move beyond the street foods into things like whole steamed fish to eat wrapped in rice paper and herbs --- but it's all fairly priced and mostly delicious nonetheless. Quan An has a "sister" restaurant, Nha Hang Com Ngon, 88 Nguyen Du across from the Thai Airways office. Unlike Quan An the emphasis here is not on street foods --- and it's air-conned. Salads, BBQ items, sour soups, stir-fried veggies like squash blossoms, fish ... most everything is good though I've found the kitchen to be more "on" at lunchtime than at dinner.

    Next time you're in town you might try Huong Lai, 38 Ly Tu Trong. It's a lowkey, pleasant place, employs former street kids. Menu is small but dishes like pork in coconut juice, squid with lemongrass, BBQ eggplant topped with minced pork, are delicious. Very reasonable, especially low-priced set menus (with choices) at lunch and dinner.

    And for Hue food, Ngu Vien, 40 Ky Dong in Dist 3. The've got the full range of banh (rice flour "pancakes"), chao, noodles. Jackfruit salad, BBQ chicken with lime/salt/pepper dipping sauce and deep-fried, hollow "squares" made of ground sticky rice were a few recent highlights. A friend from Hue reckons that this is the best version of the city's cuisine in HCMC.

    Malaysian: Satay House, Mac Dinh Chi. Not fancy, but the chef is Malaysian, the food is fantastic, and the service is so pleasant. Specials are Hainan chicken (Mon), laksa (Sat noon-3p), and fish head curry, whenever you're lucky enough to find that they have it. Other items of note are beef rendang, oxtail soup, ffish curry, anything with sambal.

    Korean: Seoul House on Ngo Duc Ke, packed full of Koreans after golf on Saturdays and Sundays, a good sign. An ever-changing and impressive array of panchan.

    Western/"French": Au Parc on Han Thuyen. Great selection of baguette sandwiches, salads, homemade soups, and a few entrees. Just reopened after a renovation. Doesn't offer the full array of bistro standards like Bibi, Augustin, etc., but I think overall the quality is better.

    7 Replies
    1. re: foodfirst

      i want to thank both of you for all this great info. am sitting in saigon as we speak and was regretting i didn't have time to research the food here before i came. now i got some places to check out. thanks again! :)

      1. re: foodfirst
        p
        phillip h.dixon

        Dear HK Dave,

        Just writing to say Cam On for your data. I am search-ing for a restaurant in HCMC for a Dam Hoi(30-50 people),an Engagement party for me(Aussie&Viet Girlfriend). I am stressed out trying to find a romantic & affordable place(not Western prices!). If you can help(I was thinking of Lemon Grass,but now..?)I would greatly appreciate any suggestions. I am in OZ so it is difficult for me to see what is nice there(date is 29 December 2003).

        Yours Sincerely
        Phil

        1. re: foodfirst

          This old thread led me to some good meals.

          Ngu Vien. My favorite meal in Vietnam. This restaurant gets high marks on many foodie websites and blogs. The food was delicious, but more importantly it was completely new to me. The Hue menu items -- like baby clam rice with sesame rice flatbreads -- were very different from the foods I've eaten at a multitude of Vietnamese restaurants in the United States. The restaurant is nice; indeed, it looks like a French bistro. The ingredients were high quality and the cooking was skillful. Thus, I found it a shame that the restaurant was empty, while a place next door was rocking. My interpretation is that most Saigon residents find authentic Hue food too foreign for their tastes, but I could be wrong. Regardless, with a color photo menu, good English translations, and plenty of simple, non-spicy dishes, Ngu Vien is a safe bet for most Chowhounders.

          Ngon. Much the same as Ngon in Hanoi. Good food across the board, though not terribly dissimilar to what you can get in major U.S. metropolitan areas, and good service. A sure bet -- I've yet to see a bad review or have a bad dish. Every hotelier and taxi driver seems to know it.

          Ben Thanh. There is a daytime indoor food court and nighttime outdoor food streets surrounding it. I had good experiences with both. I would just choose a place where the food looks good and fresh and there's heavy business. There are obviously hygiene issues by Western standards, but forget them -- you're never going to enjoy Vietnam if you don't abandon your Western sensibilities.

          1. re: foodfirst

            Must have missed your comment on Hoi Ann when i was researching food places in HCM. Made the mistake of eating there as it was on the list of rec restaurants by the Park Hyatt concierge. Service was extremely condescending, probably the only place in Vietnam where we encountered such bad treatment. Food was so so contrary to the steep prices. Didn't think the decor was particularly special either.

            1. re: KLfoodie

              Has anyone found a good location for chicken rice? I'm here for a few weeks and so far the street stalls I've chosen just haven't had the good stuff (although I've found excellent congee near The Manor in Bin Thanh district).

              Thanks!

              1. re: mojomarc

                'cơm gà hải nam'
                379 nguyễn tri phương street. District 10.

                Try the sambal shrimp as well. Good luck.

            2. re: foodfirst

              I heard that Quan An Ngon used to be very good, but since moving to their new location, it just hasn't been the same. I can't attest to this, seeing as to how I never got to try the old place. Either way, Quan An Ngon is a really neat concept, but to be totally honest their food is nothing spectacular. I've tried many a dish, but most of them were either underseasoned, or lacking in consistency. The Banh Xeo was really soggy, and the vegetables were not cleaned very well. The che selection is pretty amazing, but it wasn't amazing in taste. I had che bap the first time, and I could've sworn I've had creamed corn that's tasted better than that, and the next time round I had che ba ba, which was okay at best.

              Quan an ngon should be tried at least once. Maybe you'll have a better experience than the two times that I went.

            3. thanks aventinus for your recent notes; planning a trip to HCMC this winter and will be examining all these threads hardcore. are hkdave's recs still relevant, anyone know? also, planning to make this a major eating excursion so if anyone has tips (this may be the wrong site) on nice, decent lodging near some good central areas for eats, I'd love to hear recs. planning on a 2-3 week stay in VN, so if there are other nearby food-worthy cities/destinations, that would be great to. Hoi An? Nha Trang?