Ho Chi Minh Tours: Eating like a local

This week’s Food Thoughts is from Barbara, a travel writer offering Ho Chi Minh tours for food lovers.

The streets of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City are crowded and chaotic.  Motorbikes whiz every which way. The footpaths are crowded with parked bikes, food stalls, cobblers, guys playing chequers, ladies selling waffles - it can seem absolutely insane. In amongst the chaos is some of the world’s best food. Finding it, however, can be challenging because everything is so incredibly different to what most Westerners are used to.

There are fine dining options in Ho Chi Minh City and entire suburbs full of cafes and restaurants catering for travellers. But, after nearly five years of living in the city formerly known as Saigon, I believe the best food is on the streets. So, what is street food in Ho Chi Minh City?  The answer, like many things in life, is usually “it depends”.  Let’s have a look at the options.

Ho Chi MinhTours Street food photo courtesy Saigon Street Eats

A wandering vendor with quail eggs and rice crackers, photo/courtesy Saigon Street Eats

Street Food
The real authentic street food, in my opinion, is the food that you eat while sitting on the sidewalk.  The food is usually cooked on the sidewalk, right in front of you, so you know what you’re getting is super-fresh and cooked just for you.  These street food joints usually have child-size furniture. I love the teeny-tiny table settings, except my knees usually don’t fit under the table (and my grandmother taught me it’s rude for a lady to sit with her legs apart!)  Street food places often have “quán ăn” as part of their name, letting people know it’s an economical eating establishment as opposed to the Vietnamese word for restaurant “nhà hàng“, which implies something much fancier than sidewalk dining.

Ho Cho Minh Tours

A street cart selling corn and steamed embryo eggs, photo/courtesy Saigon Street Eats

One-Dish Restaurants
I LOVE one-dish restaurants. They sometimes serve two or three dishes, rather than one. But these guys are so good at making their particular specialty that that’s all they do.  In Vietnam a one-dish restaurant could serve a particular type of noodles, such a hủ tiếu (pork and prawn noodles, served dry or as soup), or cháo, the Vietnamese rice porridge that has become one of my favourite comfort foods.

You can recognise one-dish places by the signs they have out the front. If you are after hủ tiếu, just keep going until you see a sign advertising that particular dish and you’ll find yourself at a one-dish restaurant serving a great version of hủ tiếu.

Ho Chi Minh Tours Street food photo courtesy Saigon Street Eats

Hủ tiếu places offer a one-dish meal, photo/courtesy Saigon Street Eats

Cơm Tấm
Cơm tấm literally means “broken rice”. It’s the broken rice kernels that rice farmers used to keep for themselves, sending the good stuff off to market. Cơm tấm places usually have a range of dishes on display, making it easy for visitors to point and order. You usually select a meat dish from their display cabinet, which is served over a mound of broken rice, along with the vegetables of the day. Your meal is rounded out with a small bowl of soup, a glass of iced tea and sometimes a piece of fruit. All this for a touch over $1US.

Cơm Trưa Văn Phòng
This is a slightly classier, and more expensive, version of cơm tấm. Cơm trưa văn phòng, or “office lunch”, is a set menu for office workers. Usually you get a meat or fish dish, vegetables and rice on one plate and a bowl of soup. Cơm trưa văn phòng places can be insanely crowded at lunch time. And when the rush is over, the office lunch deal is off. (Cơm trưa văn phòng is not street food. But it is usually pretty good and a less daunting option than some street food places.)

Ho Chi Minh Tours

Enjoying street food photo/courtesy Saigon Street Eats

Wandering Vendors
Vietnam is full of entrepreneurial types who wander the streets selling everything from helium balloons to flashing devil horn headbands. Wandering vendors also sell food and it is quite amazing to see how various dishes can be prepared and carried in little baskets at the end of poles, on the back of bicycles and motorbikes and in little mobile food stalls that can be pushed along the street.

A little lady in a conical hat with a pole slung over her shoulder could be carrying noodle soup, kept hot in a tiny charcoal-powered cooker. A young man could be riding around with a selection of fried-things-on-sticks that can be cooked up on a little gas burner attached to the the back of his bicycle.

Ho Chi Minh Tours Dining al Fresco photo courtesy Saigon Street Eats

More street food fun, courtesy Saigon Street Eats

Food Tours
Life is very different in Vietnam and it really can be daunting trying to navigate these differences, especially when it comes to food. The street food experience should be fun as well as tasty. To get the most from your street food experience, a tour with experienced local foodies is a great option. Whether you explore the street food scene in Ho Chi Minh City alone or with a guide, you’ll discover lots of delicious and affordable things to eat.

Barbara and her husband Vu run Saigon Street Eats, offering tours of the best street food around Ho Chi Minh City. She is also writer, editor and travel blogger who dropped out of the rat race in 2007 to have adventures in Asia. The adventures included living in Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, finding love and having a baby. Some of the stories appear on The Dropout Diaries.  You can also follow Barbara on Facebook.

Share your Ho Chi Minh tours experiences with us.

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5 Responses to “Ho Chi Minh Tours: Eating like a local”

  1. Barbara
    November 15, 2019 at 10:05 am #

    Thanks so much for the opportunity to guest post, Billie and Steve.

    I love Vietnam’s street food so much. I hope some of your readers feel inspired to try some!
    Barbara recently posted..The Truth About Cats & Dogs In VietnamMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      November 15, 2019 at 12:12 pm #

      Thank you! Vietnam is on my bucket list and now Saigon Street Eats is!

  2. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family
    December 15, 2019 at 4:10 pm #

    Whenever I read about Barbara’s street food tours in Vietnam I get sooooo hungry! I’m a big fan of one dish restaurants too. Mostly because I’m paralyzed by choice when more than one thing on a menu takes my fancy.
    Bethaney - Flashpacker Family recently posted..Take a Family Holiday to The SeychellesMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      December 15, 2019 at 4:18 pm #

      I know- reading about the food tours makes me hungry, too. And I LOVE Vietnamese food.

  3. Talon
    April 6, 2019 at 8:06 pm #

    I’m really looking forward to joining Barbara on a food tour when we’re in Vietnam!

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