1) Coffee: French colonists introduced coffee to Vietnam in the late 1800s; sweetened condensed milk was used due to the limited availability of fresh milk. The highlands of central Vietnam proved to be ideal for growing coffee, so it became a major export.
With that, you must start your day with a traditional Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sua đá); I would travel to Vietnam from Boston for one day only just to have another one of
these. If you’re unfamiliar, Vietnamese iced coffee is prepared with medium-to-coarse ground local dark roast, individually brewed with a small, metal drip filter. The coffee is poured over condensed milk and ice, producing a perfectly sweetened pick-me-up.
You can find coffee anywhere in Ho Chi Minh, but our favorite shop was Phuc Long Coffee & Tea Café (how’s that for a name?!). If this is out of reach, you can’t go wrong with Highlands Coffee, which has locations throughout the entire city.
If atmosphere trumps coffee for you, check out one of the more ‘chic’ European coffee shops, like L’Usine. The first floor is a Urban Outfitters-like shop, and the second floor is an adorably charming café with some outdoor seating for prime people watching. I forced my husband there for a quick iced coffee (followed by a glass of wine) before heading to the airport on day two.
2) Banh Mi: Second stop on our (nonstop) day of consumption was for banh mi. And yes, it was around 9 a.m. at this point – don’t judge.
Banh mi translates to bread, although it certainly is the perfect representation of France and Vietnam in sandwich form. Inside the sliced baguette, you’ll typically find different meats, Vietnamese pickles, cucumbers, cilantro, chili sauce and spicy peppers.
As a staple item in Vietnam, you can find banh mi just about everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City. We visited My Banh Mi in District 1, and split a classic (slow oven roasted pork with the traditional fixings) and a breakfast version (two over easy eggs with traditional fixings). So much yes.
The most praised, well-known storefront for banh mi is Banh Mi Huynh Hoa in District 1, boasting unusually large stacks of meat, and layers of pate and mayonnaise, plus the vegetable additions. Onto the next meal.
3) Market: Ben Thanh Market in District 1 is an important symbol of Ho Chi Minh City. The market developed in the early 1600s and was formally established by the French colonial powers in 1859. It was destroyed by a fire in 1870; rebuilt in 1870; and moved to a new building in 1912.
In addition to the limitless souvenirs for purchase, the ‘food court’ features local items and street food fare. The market is open 6 a.m. – 6 p.m., but food stalls are open outside the market till midnight.
I’ll be honest, though. We explored the stalls, but we’ve heard the food is touristy and overpriced. With that, we grabbed a 35-cent fresh beer (bia hoi) but opted to hold out eating for our next course.
4) Pho: If you’ve ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant, you’re likely familiar with pho. It’s synonymous with the country, like is Pad Thai to Thailand. Pho combines soft rice noodles in soup broth, made with either beef (bo) or chicken (ga), and topped with meat, chopped green onions, mint, coriander, lime and chili sauce.
Pho 2000 is the “famous” joint, as former President Bill Clinton had his first bowl of pho here in 2000. Apparently, it was so good he ordered a second bowl. The restaurant is very close to the Ben Thanh Market, so this was a convenient fourth stop on our unofficial food tour. It was fine, but we’d like go somewhere less hyped next time.
We heard Pho Hoa Restaurant, a family-run restaurant for decades with a secret recipe, is un-pho-gettable. Every bowl of pho is served with a plate of deep fried bread called qouy, although this is originally of Chinese origin. It’s on our bucket list next time around, pho sho (had to).
5) Hidden Restaurant: The Secret Garden Restaurant came highly recommended to us by several people, so we could not miss out. And, you shouldn’t either. Tucked away in an apartment building, Secret Garden is a chic, cozy rooftop restaurant, serving home style dishes with city views on the side (literally). It’s adorned with colorful lanterns, hanging plants and fairytale lights, and it has its own spice garden! Totally charming.
By the time we made it up five floors of stairs (just keep going), our appetites returned – for the better, as we wanted to order everything. We ended up with papaya salad (goi du du tom thit); grilled catfish with julienned papaya with a mango sauce; and classic spring rolls (goi cuon). The food was very fresh, and we welcomed the opportunity to escape the street-level hustle and bustle, albeit temporarily.
In case you’re wondering, we napped big time before our next aggressive move.
6-9) XO Foodie Tour: If food is important to you, we highly recommend partaking in the XO “Foodie Tour.” The 4.5-hour adventure takes you to several popular street stalls and hidden alleyways in the city, providing the unique opportunity to eat like a local – at places you typically wouldn’t uncover on your own. And, you also travel like a local, as XO Tours is the first all-female motorbike tour company in Vietnam! My husband, a former motorcycle rider, was initially a bit concerned about being a passenger; however, we felt very safe at the onset, and the evening quickly became one of our favorite travel memories.
The first stop was in District 1, where we were introduced to Bun Bo Hue – a perfectly balanced sour, spicy, salty and sweet lemongrass-flavored soup, with rice vermicelli and beef. Of course, we added all of the toppings: shredded banana flowers, morning glory, bean sprouts and extra chili for spice. Let it be known that there’s no pretty way to eat this. You’ll be splashing broth on your face, sweating from the spice and picking up your bowl to slurp down every last sip.
As we digested, we rode through the active, congested Chinatown (known as Cholon, Districts 5 and 6), which has roots back to 1778. At the center of Chinatown is the Binh Tay wholesale market, the largest market in Ho Chi Minh, where you’ll find anything and everything. Fun fact: During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers set up a prosperous black market, trading in American and U.S. Army-issued items. We’d recommend it more for the people watching and authentic atmosphere, but if you must shop, be sure to bargain.
Our next stop was in District 8, a newly developed area well-known for its hotpots and BBQ grilled meats. Our personal female motorbike drivers treated us like royalty, grilling prawns, beef, okra (spicy!), goat and…frogs (skin on and off) at our table! Naturally, my husband and I tried both versions of the reptile – many of our group members were a bit too squeamish to do so. The beef, frog and shrimp are traditionally dipped in a chili rock salt with kumquat, and the goat with a creamy tofu sauce. For all, you wrap each bite in mint or basil leaf, dip it in the respective sauce, and savor!
Our following digestion break was a quick stop in District 7, a wealthy district populated mostly by expats who invest in property. It was much quieter, more serene, greener and cleaner than the previous districts we visited. Our guide even joked that it resembled Singapore, with pristine, wide streets and high-rise buildings.
The grand finale was in District 4, an impoverished area, although rich in delicious seafood. I’m talking fresh scallops with spring onion, peanuts and chili oil (so diep mo hanh); crab claw dipped in pepper, chili, cumquat juice and salt; razor clams with morning glory; quail with tamarind sauce; and at last, balut (the fertilized duck egg I referred to earlier). Yes, you can actually see the embryo intact within, and I’m completely fine never trying this ‘delicacy’ again solely to avoid the visual.
As if we had room left, we were served a refreshing coconut jelly dessert (rau cau dua), adorably packed within a coconut. Food coma ensued, and the ladies drove us back to our hotel – where we continued to go out. With stretchy pants, that is.
10) A Cocktail in the Sky: Like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City comes alive at night with bright colors, vibrant energy and a wild nightlife. Escape the noise and take in the views by visiting a rooftop bar in the city. Two highly recommended spots are Glow Skybar (elegant, colorful and lively) and OMG Bar (cozy, calm and relatively quiet).
Could we have planned better? Always. We’d love to have tried several other dishes and restaurants, but we had to prioritize and maximize our time. Did we do well for ONE day of eating? Yes, we are sickening. No regrets.