Going to Saigon - Houndin' around the world
Hello everyone. I'm going to Saigon the first week of September - not sure where I am staying but probably at the Park Hyatt.
I'm looking for any recs you can provide - anything from street food to five star places. I'm F'ing excited about Vietnam. Sasha - thanks for your post it was great.
A little feedback on Vietnam so far - I still have quite a bit of time left here.
I've taken the Hounds' advice and went to Quan An Ngon - recommended many, many times. It is extremely popular with locals and foreigners alike so pretty much everyone knows where it is so ask your concierge.
It has one of the most extensive menus I have ever seen in a restaurant. They have a full selection of everything you would want - appetizers, grilled foods, noodles, seafood, etc. Something for everyone.
I shot from the hip - I'm not too familiar with Vietnamese food outside of the classics I eat in Chicago (Pho, Bun, Sandwiches, Spring Rolls, etc.). I wanted to try something different so I shot from the hip. I had grilled beef, steamed bread with garlic and beef, and crab soup. All tasty - personally, the soup was a little too thick for my taste (aka snotty), but still good. Also, for those who have not been to Asia before, make sure you take advantage of all of the fresh and cheap juice options available. This place has a TON of different juices.
Admittedly I've been lazy and unadventurous and I haven't eaten on the street yet. However, Square One at the Park Hyatt has a really good Vietnamese seafood menu, and they also have a really nice selection of appetizers.
Although a king's ransom by Vietnamese standards, and probably one of the most, if not the most expensive restaurants in the city (appetizers range from $2 to $8 and entrées range from $8 to $20), I've eaten there twice so far. Really good food and it will work if you totally want to veg out. Beer is $4 with is about three times as much as you'd pay at a comparable high-end bar in Saigon.
I had the fried spring rolls, the soft shell crab, the special river prawns, the minced shrimp with sugar cane, and the lotus root salad. They also have a western steak menu but I didn't mess with that at all. All tasty, very high-quality and I have no complaints. The river prawns (available either grilled or wok-style with rice, I had the latter) were quite exceptional and the dish is big enough to share.
The other restaurant at the Park Hyatt is called Opera and it's an Italian joint. I was a little apprehensive about eating there but after 24 hours of airport bullsh*t I really just wanted to eat a bunch of sand and get it all over with. I had a pizza and I was surprised about how good it was. It had a really nice crust (crispy and right in-between thin and thick) - generally speaking all of the bread and pastry I've had in Vietnam has been surprisingly good.
Also in the Park Hyatt neighborhood - Highlands Coffee is right outside the hotel entrance, on the terrace of the Opera House. It's an open-air Starbucks-esque cafe. They have a food menu but I didn't try anything. The Vietnamese Coffee there is THE BOMB! I get it sweet with fresh milk. Vietnamese brew is truly something special and one of the richest and most flavorful strong coffees I have ever had. My friend gets the lime water and it is also very good.
Also in the Opera House is Q Bar. Very cool spot - probably the choice of the expats but has a really good and friendly mix of foreigners and locals. Apparently they started in Saigon but the Bangkok bar is what made them famous and they now have a location in Singapore. They have about three bars in the place and it is loungy and a very interesting space - it's like a maze. Playing house music when I went in and I'm not sure if the music changes night-by-night.
The addictive and new discovery (for me at least) on the trip so far has been the lotus root salad. Totally awesome. You can get it absolutely everywhere - I have not tried it in the states. It's made with lotus root (which is very light, crunchy, and delicious) and mixed with onion, carrot, prawn, shrimp, pork (sometimes fatty), peanut, mint, and garlic chips. It's tossed in the standard fish-lime-chili sauce. It is served with shrimp crackers and a sweet and sour sauce.
Another observation about Vietnam from a first-timer: the standard mixture of 'side herbs' I get at Vietnamese places in the states are boring and flavorless compared to the ones here. I don't think they use actual 'holy basil' in the states, and the mint used in Vietnam is actually more like Shiso than the Wrigley's-style. Also, the side lettuce is usually Bibb lettuce, or similar.
I fell in love with Shiso at a Japanese restaurant in NYC that grew their own on the terrace of the restaurant. Probably my favorite new herb.
The people I met there in Saigon kept taking me to this place called quon ngon (don't know if I'm spelling it right) but it translates to "good restaurant." the set up is really interesting and I thought the food was really good. The other places I ate at was Cafe An nam which was owned by someone I was working with- very modern place. These two places I've been to are very modern and have a tropical atmosphere. But the food is good.....
Quan Ngon is well known, kitty corner from the Liberation Palace. The owner essentially hired all his favorite street vendors to come and cook at his restaurant. It's a good place to try sanitized versions of various street foods. Some are more successful than others. There's no denying that the street versions are way better (Quan An Ngon's chao vit, for example, is a a rather tasteless pale version of the real deal, above), but if you're squeamish about eating on the street in Saigon it's a good place to do some sampling. Noodlepie has several reviews of the place.
There's also a less street-foody Ngon around the corner, just up the block from the Metropolitan Bldg. I like the food here - especially the clams, the bbq eggplant topped with ground pork, all the salads (eg lotus root, banana stem, etc) served with rice crackers, the steamed fish served with rice paper wrappers and greens for rolling. Ask if they have squash blossoms (v. common at Vietnamese markets) and have them stir-fried with garlic - heavenly!
http://noodlepie.typepad.com is an indispensable reference for Saigon streetfood.
I posted about an exemplary spot for chao vit/duck porridge (the porridge is exemplary, not necessarily the spot) in, I think, 2003 (it's still there). Few hounds venture there (it's a only a 15 min cab ride from Park Hyatt but well off the beaten track); one adventurous soul did and reported back enthusiastically. Do a search of this board for 'chao vit' (it's also described at length by hkdave on a certain other food board).
My picks for banh cuon and bun thit nuong, crab noodle, and Japanese can be accessed by hitting Vietnam on the sidebar at