For better or for worse, if you’ve ever visited south Vietnam’s mega city Ho Chi Minh City as a tourist, then you’ll have encountered the backpacker mecca of Pham Ngu Lao. Most will have sat on a plastic stool on the walking street (known locally as Bui Vien), had a few cold beers over ice and watched the tableau unfold. Whether you’re a causal observer or an active participant, all manner of vice and vagary plays out here.
What’s not guaranteed, however, is a good feed; Bui Vien’s kerb to kerb bars keep Saigon’s finest street food purveyors operating at arm’s length from the strip. All you’ve got to do, though, is veer a few minutes off the main drag, in any direction, and bingo; foodie heaven is found. To guide you just a little, here are the best restaurants close to Bui Vien backpacker street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
Stoker Woodfired Bar & Grill
Ideal for glasses of Merlot and big slabs of premium Australian beef…
We start, rather perversely for a round-up of great food in one of the world’s great food cities, at a steakhouse. Because, sometimes, after an afternoon of freshly brewed bia hois and streetside exhaust fumes, it can be something of a tonic to retire indoors. To AC units, dark wood and leather, glasses of Merlot and big slabs of premium Australian beef.
We promise we won’t stay here long, but allow us to indulge a little at Stokers, District 1’s premier temple to all things wood-grilled and grass-fed. Open all day, every day (well, from midday until late), the steaks here have the requisite crust from being grilled over high heat and that gentle funk from 21 days of dry ageing that you’re looking for in a place like this. The cutaway is wall to wall medium rare, just as it should be.
Pair with some smoky, rich mashed potato and a selection of sauces (mine’s a bernaise, em oi), and luxuriate in a little time away from the frenetic, kinetic energy of Saigon’s streets.
Ideal for contemporary, on-trend Vietnamese chocolate…
You heard it here first, the next big food trend could well be Vietnamese chocolate. Actually, everyone’s favourite discovery isn’t such a hidden gem anymore; a second Maison Marou, Vietnam’s premier chocolate producer, has now opened in the capital Hanoi.
The original, on Calmette street, District 1, is always rammed to the rafters. It’s no surprise, the chocolate (using cocoa grown in nearby Ba Ria and beans from Tien Giang) is exceptional. Coming to a high street near you, soon, we think.
Bun Thit Nuong Chi Tuyen
Ideal for one of the South’s finest dishes, Bun Thit Nuong…
Okay, enough of the chairs with back support and air conditioning units, it’s time to hit the streets and do what the Viets do best; perch on plastic stools and eat some of the freshest, lightest grub in the world.
Bun Thit Nuong is one of the South’s finest dishes; a barbecued pork salad over lightly fermented ‘bun’ noodles, crisp lettuce and loads of herbs. This is topped with roast peanuts, crispy shallots on occasion, pickled carrots and daikon, and a dipping sauce which defines southern Viet food; fish sauce, garlic, a little lime, sugar and chilli.
There are proud purveyors all over town slinging this classic to hungry punters, but Chi Tuyen’s version, on Co Giang street – a great strip for street food, by the way – is perhaps our favourite. Make sure your order includes Cha Gio, a crispy spring roll filled with glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms and usually, a little minced pork, and prawn or crab.
Bo La Lot Hoang Yen
Ideal for trying another signature southern dish, streetside…
If you want to sample some more delights of the street, you won’t have to walk far. Co Giang street is also home to a string of Bo La Lot restaurants, and this is one dish you want to try before leaving town. Minced beef is wrapped in betel leaf, grilled until smoky and served with a huge plate of herbs and lettuce, which you use to make your own wraps. So good, so moreish, and so cheap, too.
At Hoang Yen’s you’ll see the addition of a sweet, sour mayonnaise on the beef wraps. If that’s not your thing (weirdly, it works), then let them know; a simple ‘khong’ (meaning ‘no’) + ‘may/yon/naise’ (just split those syllables out) should do the trick.
The do-it-yourself assembly job routine makes for a more languid approach to dinner than some other street food joints where you feel a little rushed. Great for an evening with friends and beer, then.
Ideal for an offaly good bowl of Cambodian-inspired, Southern Vietnamese noodles…
A step up from our previous two entries in that Hong Phat is a small shophouse as opposed to being on street level, the vibe at this family run noodle joint is brisk and efficient, your bowl of the signature Hu Tieu (which came to Vietnam via Cambodia) hitting the table freshly prepared and steaming hot within a minute or two of ordering.
That bowl is an assortment of glorious goodies wrapped around flat rice noodles – expect slices of pig’s liver, kidney, heart and intestines, alongside braised pork mince, peeled prawns, dried squid, and hard-boiled quail eggs, as well as cubes of congealed pork blood.
And that’s just for starters; additional slices of roast pork can be added on request. All of this is topped off with a clear, refreshing pork stock and accompanied by a generous plate of herbs and bean sprouts.
Simply season with the table’s accoutrements, including chilli-spiked vinegar and soy sauce, tumble your tangle, and dive in. These guys are open from breakfast, though do be warned that post the midday lunch rush, Hong Phat often sells out. Breakfast it is, then! And if you happen to find yourself in Canada with a craving for a bow of Hu Tieu, you’re in luck; Hong Phat has one overseas branch Vancouver.
Ideal for US president-approved Pho…
Pho 2000, close to Ho Chi Minh’s famous Ben Thanh Market, is found via the stairs of the now ubiquitous Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and its first floor position means it’s a cleaner, more comfortable meal than those eaten with eyes at Honda Wave level.
Bill Clinton is proudly pictured on the walls enjoying a bowl; so much so, he ordered two apparently. A more reliable judge of the Pho’s quality is the fact that it’s packed, every lunchtime, with plenty of locals, who come in their droves for the huge bowls of delicately flavoured, sweet and spicy broth. Take us back.
Ideal for arguably the city’s finest bowl of Pho…
An arguably even better bowl of the good stuff is found over at Pho Hung, a short walk along Duong Le Lai from Pho 2000.
Owing to its bold black and yellow signage, you’ll spot Pho Hung even sooner than you catch its enticing aroma, all sweet star anise and smoky aniseed notes from black cardamom wafting out from the gently ramshackle shophouse.
Follow your nose inside and pull up a stool at the restaurant’s stretch of shared tables. Though service is straightforward, you’ll find all the bells and whistles you need in that bowl that’s placed unceremoniously in front of you; this is truly sublime Pho, clean yet rich, close to Northern-style savoury and supremely well balanced.
Order the Dac Biet (house special) which has both raw slices of sirloin and long braised bits of brisket alongside meatballs and our favourite, chewy, resilient tendon. It’s very good indeed.
Ideal for a feast of sea snails and other fresh shellfish…
No self-respecting tour of the best eating spots close to Ho Chi Minh’s backpacker district would overlook one of Vietnam’s most beloved street food experiences – sea snails. At Oc Dao, just a five minute walk from Bui Vien and open from 10:30am to 10pm daily, you’ll find a huge variety of these cherished molluscs, done in both prosaic and inventive ways.
We’re particularly keen on the Oc Len here, which sees snails cooked in a yellow coconut curry sauce that’s popular in South Vietnam but rarely finds its way north of Nha Trang. Each slurp from the shell brings a mouthful of the sauce – magic.
Order, too, Oc Toi, which are palm-sized shells grilled until smokey and bubbling from their aperturals. Hoik the snail flesh out with a toothpick in one graceful motion and dredge through its adjacent, piquant chilli and garlic dipping sauce.
If snails aren’t your thing, there’s a whole host of other shellfish options here, from clams to scallops and beyond. This is nhậu culture at its very best. Shout for a few Big Saigons with plenty of ice, and settle in to one of the quintessential Saigon eating experiences.
Ideal for superlative vegetarian Vietnamese food…
We realise that our rundown of the best food in District 1’s Pham Ngu Lao has thus far been a rather meat and shellfish heavy affair. But Ho Chi Minh City does brilliant vegetarian food, too, and some of the very finest is found over at Chay (literally meaning ‘vegetarian’) Garden, a twenty minute walk north from Bui Vien.
Ending as we began in a restaurant boasting high tables and chairs with back support, Chay Garden is a lovely place to settle into, particularly on the verdant terrace, its ambience almost as nourishing as its plates. The signature spring rolls, bouncy and soft rather than deep-fried, come filled with local termite mushrooms and are served with a rose-scented dipping sauce. It’s as heady and intoxicating as it sounds.
Even better is the claypot braised aubergine, cooked long in its vessel alongside unripe bananas until both are fudgy and umami sweet. Pair it all with a speciality iced tea – the jasmine tea with kumquat jam and salted apricot is particularly special – and feel that all is right with the world.
Now, you’re ready to luxuriate in the thrill and the chaos of the city streets once more.