Eating Out in Ho Chi Minh City

The food in Vietnam can be extremely different from province to province however in the south of the country you are more likely to find traditional Vietnamese food which is spicy and hot in nature than anywhere else. While the central provinces and cities such as Da Nang and the tourist town of Hoi An do try and incorporate a bit more spice into their dishes than the north where the food tends to be bland, it is in Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding area that you will find spicy Vietnamese food.

There are plenty of options when it comes to eating out in Ho Chi Minh City given that the city is known for offering the largest amount of restaurants that cater to Westerners and also offer traditional Vietnamese meals. However, due a combination of increased tourism, rising food prices, and the price of real estate in the city you will find that a great deal of the restaurants charge more for meals in Ho Chi Minh City compared to other neighbouring city establishments. However, the tradeoff is that you will be able to find some great dining experiences.

Food offerings in Ho Chi Minh City show their French colonial influence with bakeries offering a great deal of baguettes and cheeses along with ham, potted meat, and onions. Beef is also used in a large variety of foods although you can easily find chicken, pork, and other meat choices as well. Vegetarians will also find that there are plenty of meals on the menu to suit their needs as well as well as some upscale diners that are meant to suit their palate. There are many Indian restaurants around town with budget menus that are often the best locations to find a large variety of vegetarian dishes although there are of course usually a few options on every menu.

Essentially you can split up eating out in Ho Chi Minh City into three different sections: eating street food, eating in a Vietnamese styled restaurant and eating western food such is the range of options available in the metropolis formerly known as Saigon.

For budget meals there are many food stalls located throughout the entire Ho Chi Minh City that sell authentic Vietnamese dishes.
For budget meals there are many food stalls located throughout the entire Ho Chi Minh City that sell authentic Vietnamese dishes.

Street Food

Tourists in Asia have a curious relationship with street food. For every gorgeous kebab you can find on the street there is a vendor that will give someone horrendous food poisoning and put them out of action for week. Thankfully the street food in Ho Chi Minh City is actually a lot more hygienic than in other cities – Bangkok and Pattaya in Thailand being prime examples – so there is less chance of getting ill. That being said, having food prepared on the street on questionable pots and pans inches from all the dirt and grime that comes with a major city such as Ho Chi Minh City can be a recipe for disaster but on the whole it is much better. So what kinds of foods are available for street vendor enthusiasts in Ho Chi Minh City?

A very common street food trend in the whole of Vietnam is kebabs or rather more our definition of a Panini. This is basically a Panini like bread filled with meat, salad and your choice of sauce. They are extremely cheap at under $1 in most cases and actually quite filling; while they are not a full meal in themselves they provide a great snack or lunch option and the street vendor carts are found throughout the city.

Pho is a staple dish for the Vietnamese. This soup like meal comes with a broth, a choice of meat, vegetables and you add in your own chilies or other spices. You will see these little Pho outlets all over the city and they generally consist of a small cart to cook the Pho and a few of those miniature tables and chairs that are so common throughout Vietnam. One thing to mention is that, as a tourist, you will often be charged more for the same meal as a Vietnamese person and many of the Pho street food vendors don’t display prices. If they do then great but generally you can pay up to 50 000 VND ($2.50) for a Pho meal (it is quite filing) whereas a local will pay closer to $1. This is how things are in Vietnam and regulation on this kind of service is minimal at best however, even though it is not an ideal situation, given how cheap you are getting a meal for then there are worse ways to be ripped off in Ho Chi Minh City.

For budget meals there is food stalls located throughout the entire Ho Chi Minh City, but a goldmine of cheap but great food is located in the Ben Thanh Market place.

There is actually a street food tour – Saigon Street Eats - which takes tourists around some of the best street food places in the city. Here you can sample traditional Pho, seafood in Ho Chi Minh City and other local delicacies and the company also offers a vegetarian specific tour. The tour, at a cost of around $50, represents a good way to sample street food in Ho Chi Minh City in a comfortable setting with other likeminded individual and tourists.

Vietnamese Restaurants

The average restaurant in Vietnam that locals go to is somewhat of a cross between eating on the street and what we would define as a restaurant in the west. Generally they have tables and chairs but little else and are designed for a quick meal and out again. The difference between these establishments and other ones that are geared towards tourists is that there is little focus on customer service however the food is generally of good quality, cheap and the menus will be in English if they are near a tourist area.

The notorious backpacking road of Bui Vien is full of these kinds of restaurants where you can find simple meals such as fried rice with strips of beer to more local delicacies like Com Tam Bi Cha Thit Nuong Trung Opla which is broken rice and 3 kinds of meat and eggs. These kinds of restaurants are very relaxed and cheap and an average meal here is unlikely to stretch past $4 or $5 even when you have a beer or another drink as well. The further outside of District 1 and the Le Lai area you go then the more chance you will have of seeing the price come down. Rice is a staple part of most Vietnamese dishes so expect many of these restaurants to have either rice or noodle based dishes.

Something that has been springing up all over the city in recent years is food chains. Generally these are kept at a minimum in Vietnam where local families will open up a small restaurant themselves however food chains are becoming much more common and often provide a higher quality of meal given that they will be more regulated and held up to a higher standard. Pho 24 is the local Vietnamese fast food chain for quick local cuisine on the go that will provide top quality Pho as is Com Tam Moc which mainly serves rice dishes. These chains are more in tune with what we would picture a restaurant to be however the emphasis is very much on getting as many customers in and out as possible and they are more suited to a quick eat than spending any significant time there. Indeed, while these chains will charge more for simple Vietnamese meals – such as Pho – than you would if you ate on the street the quality will be higher and there will be less chance of becoming ill from eating at these establishments.

Coffee and drinks

Coffee is another thing that has been left from the French rule and Vietnam produces some of the most delicious coffee in the world. Coffee shops provide a nice relaxed atmosphere and are quite popular throughout Vietnam given it’s the second largest coffee exporter in the world so be sure to grab a cup while touring the city. Coffee in Vietnam is generally strong and sweet regardless of whether you order traditional coffee or an iced coffee.

Highlands Coffee is a Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks and the menus is strikingly similar (although one Starbucks has now opened in Ho Chi Minh City) and Gloria Jeans is another international chain that is making headway in the country. In saying that the best way to experience coffee in the city is to look for small Vietnamese outlets selling drinks such as Café Sua Da (coffee with condenses milk and ice) to better appreciate the Vietnamese taste.

If you like iced coffee, iced tea, etc., the ice used in the international chains is normally of good quality. However keep in mind that ice is not always made with clean water in local coffee shops, so it is best to avoid ice at all costs to avoid getting sick.

Many of the café shops also serve the local beer drink so if you are with children or touring with a crowd of mixed interests a café is a great place for the entire group to stop.

Eating Western

The one advantage for many people that Ho Chi Minh City has over the likes of Hanoi is that it is seen as a much more international and multicultural city. Due to this there are more options in terms of eating ‘western’. KFC is present all over the city with many outlets and the quality of food here is more or less on par with back home. The only real difference in the menu is that you can order rice with your meals and the prices are around about the same if not a little cheaper with a large meal being $5 – $6. Lotteria is smaller fast food chain originated from South Korea and the menu is strikingly similar to McDonald’s. Meals from Lotteria are quite cheap however they are usually a bit smaller than the KFC meals in the city.

The Pham Ngu Lao street also offers many quick budget friendly Western menus with the best kept secrets hidden along the alleyways of the lane and not directly on the main restaurant line.

Aside from this there are many restaurants that cater specifically for tourists and expats with western meals. They are generally found around the District 1 area and most will be run by a foreigner so the meals will normally be of good quality. For example The Grill Duxton Restaurant is in District 1 and sells barbequed and grilled meals and My Place is District 3 has a wide selection of western styled foods.

These outlets are going to be more expensive than eating local foods not least because of the nice restaurant styled setting and the fact that the meals are not traditional to Vietnam however normally the prices will be less than back home. With these establishments you can spend some time in the restaurant with its nice surroundings and chilled out atmosphere and while one of the main reasons in coming to Vietnam is to savour the local food it can be a nice break from the ‘in-out’ and fast nature of the Vietnamese local eateries.

Other Things to Consider

Because of the multicultural make up of Ho Chi Minh City then there are many different restaurants and foods from all over the world. Indian food for example is making headways in Vietnam and African food is doing the same with the Bahdja Algerian Restaurant in District 1.

Bakeries are something that has been left over from the French rule and there are many throughout the country serving baked goods such as pastries, cakes, sandwiches and the like. The ABC Bakery on Pham Ngu Lao is perhaps the most well known in the city due to its location with the backpacking hostels and area in Ho Chi Minh City however there are smaller bakery outlets all over.

Some of the higher end restaurants will accept credit and debit cards (credit cards usually incur a 3% fee) however, like visiting any country such as Vietnam, has cash ready to pay.

There are some curious differences between eating out in Ho Chi Minh City and eating out in Hanoi for example. One of these is obviously the food in that the food in the south tends to be spicier. While in Hanoi you can spice up your meal with the chillies that are left in a bowl on the table, food in the south tends to be cooked spicier. Also, whether it is a way to conform to international visitors or just a fundamental different, you won’t see a lot of animals in cages in Ho Chi Minh City as you would in the north. Additionally it can be quite hard to find dog meat in Ho Chi Minh City as establishments try to become more family and tourist friendly whereas it is pretty readily available in the north.

There are so many options available to those who want to eat out in Ho Chi Minh City. Street food is all over the place and is a lot safer than in other cities in the region even if some vendors do practice questionable hygiene standards. The small Vietnamese style restaurants and chains offer traditional meals and a good price but, like we said, are designed to handle a lot of customers so it is get in, eat fast and get out again. For a more relaxed atmosphere then the western styled restaurants are recommended and here you can get a combination of both Vietnamese and western foods for a reasonable price without being hurried in and out the door. Eating out in Vietnam is an experience in itself and, luckily for the travellers to Ho Chi Minh City, the city has a wealth of culinary options.