Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City are crammed with food vendors; as you walk down the street, you’ll find yourself surrounded by cars and customers seated in plastic chairs. Innovative street cooks boil soup over simple burners and grill meat over charcoal grills. But even these humble delicacies strive for the Vietnamese culinary ideal—a balance of sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and salty.
This beguiling cuisine is a fusion of some great culinary traditions, like French and Chinese, combined with tropical ingredients and fresh herbs. The country’s culinary culture is now opening up to more influences as Vietnam increases trade with foreign countries. The government has also made it easier for Viet kieu, or Vietnamese who have lived abroad, to return. They’re often coming back to start businesses like XU Restaurant and Lounge, run by Bien Nguyen, an Australian born to Vietnamese parents. As Vietnam’s largest and most dynamic city, the biggest impact is felt here.
What to Eat: Order pork and crab spring rolls and shrimp paste wrapped around sugarcane at Nhà Hàng Ngon while you dine inside a colonial mansion. Try báhn xèo, rice flour crepes filled with pork and shrimp, at Quan 94. Follow the line of motorbikes to Bánh Mì Huynh Hoa for classic Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. The bread is toasted over charcoal and filled with cold cuts, pâté, and pickled vegetables.
What to Drink: French colonizers originally brought coffee to Indochina during the 19th century. Today, creamy Vietnamese-style iced coffee is typically brewed with a metal filter placed over a glass holding spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk. One of the nation’s largest coffee chains, Trung Nguyen, has outposts all over Ho Chi Minh City.
Edible Souvenir: Cacao has been widely cultivated in Vietnam since the 1990s, but the industry didn’t receive serious attention until recently. Now French expats Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta, the owners of Marou Chocolate, are buying beans straight from the farmers in Vietnam and making single-origin chocolate bars at their facility in Ho Chi Minh City. Buy them at design-focused L’Usine—a combination store and café housed in a historic building.
Food Experience: The piles of mysterious mollusks stacked next to some food vendors are both alluring and intimidating. Vietnamese-Australian couple Barbara Adam and Vu Vo operate Saigon Street Eats and specialize in guiding tourists through these sidewalk treats, offering three different tours. Motorbikes shuttle participants to a meeting spot on famous Nguyen Thuong Hien Street. With the couple’s help, tourists order crab, oysters, mussels, and scallops from vendors. Occasionally, tour participants will get a chance to try fertilized duck egg topped with tamarind sauce.
Cultural Tip: Vietnamese meals aren’t paced as a succession of courses. Even at restaurants, dishes are usually brought to the table whenever they’re ready.
Fun fact: Fish sauce is so vital to the country’s cooking that there are at least four different ways to say it in the Vietnamese language.
By Meredith Bethune