The Expat’s Guide To Eating In Saigon
If you’re headed to Saigon as a tourist or an expat, I’m sure you’re wondering what the city’s food scene is like. Let me assure you: it’s amazing! But it can be tough to navigate, especially for newcomers. As someone who lived and worked there for most of 2019, I want to share some of my favorite dishes and restaurants I discovered in Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC).
This post is an expat’s food guide, which means it will feature a mix of authentic Vietnamese options as well as western restaurants. Vietnamese food is delicious, but let’s be real: if you’re living in HCMC long-term, you’re eventually going to crave pizza or burgers, and I’ve got you covered! After that, I mention some of my favorite bars and cafes. To skip to any of the sections below, click or tap the corresponding link!
- Vietnamese Classics
- Foreign Treats
- My Favorite Bars
- Where to Caffeinate
Let’s start off with some quintessential Vietnamese dishes. While this is by no means a complete list, these quick and cheap eats were some of my favorites that I would have a couple times a week.
The world famous noodle soup known as phở was indeed a staple of my diet in Saigon. It’s slightly different from the variety you’ll find abroad, but taste it for yourself and see what you think.
While I made an effort to try as many phở restaurants as I could, I found myself going to one over and over again called Phở Lệ (website and Facebook page). At 70,000 VND (approx. 3 USD) per bowl, this place wasn’t the cheapest, but it was consistently delicious. They have two different locations: one in District 3 and one in District 5. The latter happened to be a short walk from my apartment, and they were always open late. An English menu is available for those who need it. If you’re nearby, give it a try!
Bún thịt nướng
This noodle-based dish is a meal I could never tire of. It’s a colorful mix of rice noodles, grilled sliced meat, a fried egg roll cut into pieces, shredded veggies, mint, a sweet and sour sauce, and chili paste. Bún thịt nướng exemplifies everything amazing about Vietnamese food, with each bite encompassing a full range of flavors and textures.
My favorite place to get bún thịt nướng was a street vendor near the War Remnants Museum. She always set up her booth right around this location and would be there during lunchtime on weekdays. She may not stay there forever, but as far as I know, she never moved spots the entire time I lived in Saigon.
I was surprised to learn that Saigonese cuisine was less rice-based than, say, Japanese or Chinese food. I actually found myself craving it at times. That’s when I would go out and get a plate of cơm tấm. “Cơm tấm” literally means ‘broken rice,’ referring to the fact that it’s a bit more dry than other types of rice, so the individual grains don’t really stick together.
Cơm tấm is usually served with egg, a simple vegetable, some type of meat, and a sauce that can be used for dipping or pouring over the plate. When you order it, you’ll usually get to choose which toppings you want.
Hủ tiếu mì
What Vietnamese food lacks in rice dishes, it more than makes up for with its large variety of noodles. Hủ tiếu mì is a perfect example of that: the name of the dish refers to two different types mixed together. Hủ tiếu are long, flat, and stretchy noodles that absorb any sauce they come in contact with. Mì are much thinner and curly, looking sort of like instant ramen. Put both into a wok with some marinated beef, green leafy veggies, an egg, soy sauce, and tương ớt (spicy sauce), and you’ve got one delicious lunch or dinner!
This dish is a delicacy from Northern Vietnam, so if Hanoi is on your Vietnam itinerary, you might as well get it from the source. If not, you should definitely get it in Saigon! It’s one of my favorite dishes, basically made up of rice noodles and herbs that are dipped into a bowl of broth with meat. It’s a lot lighter than phở and the soup has a different flavor, so don’t pass up one even if you didn’t love the other!
My go-to place to get bún chả is Quán bún chả Hồ Gươm, located here (although I believe they have a few other locations). It’s a popular meal though, so you should never be too far from a shop serving it.
Gỏi cuốn (spring rolls)
Fresh spring rolls are one of my favorite snacks in Vietnam, partly because they’re so cheap! A single roll can be as low as 6,000 or 7,000 VND (approx. 0.30 USD) and generally comes with a brown peanut dipping sauce.
Final Thoughts on Local Food in Saigon
Street food is an integral part of life in HCMC, and you might as well embrace it. Locals and expats alike find the best vendors around their homes and workplaces, becoming valued regular customers. It was always nice to wave hello to the local noodle lady or coffee shop owner (even if you just happened to be passing by without ordering anything). I really enjoyed that aspect of eating locally in HCMC.
If you need some more ideas for local meals, consider trying bún bò Huế (another soup dish from the region of Huế in Central Vietnam), bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich), mì Quảng (yet another noodle dish), or bánh xèo (a shrimp and egg omelette-crepe). I lived in District 5, which is the city’s Chinatown. That was a great area for hole-in-the-wall restaurants, although District 5 is a little further out from where most tourists stay. Have fun and I’m sure you’ll find some gems of your own!
Saigon has a vibrant international food scene, which is one of the many reasons it’s a comfortable place for expats. While the choices are numerous, individual restaurants can definitely be a hit-or-miss. Here are some of the western places I like most.
Burgers: Rogue Saigon
Rogue is actually a rooftop bar in District 1, but what I liked most about it was their delicious burgers! Really good ones are somewhat hard to come by in Ho Chi Minh City, so Rogue was a good find. They serve other American bar food as well.
Fried Chicken: Texas Chicken
Address: multiple locations
I feel a little odd including this one in here, because as far as I can tell Texas Chicken is just an international fast food chain with ties to Church’s Chicken (which I’ve never had the chance to try in the US). Nonetheless, it was honestly my favorite place to get fried chicken in Ho Chi Minh City. The food was always served hot and fresh with tons of flavor; it was just consistently satisfying. Do you have Texas Chicken in your home country?
Mexican: Gringo Tacos and The Taco Stand
Since I lived in Mexico before moving to Vietnam, I had fingers crossed hoping that I might find some good ‘comida mexicana’ in Saigon. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, choices are pretty limited. With that said, the following two places are worth mentioning.
Gringo Tacos was opened by an American who was unsatisfied with the lack of good Mexican restaurants in Saigon. I, for one, am glad he did! The food at Gringo Tacos is delicious, and they definitely make an effort to get authentic (i.e. probably imported) ingredients like tortillas. My favorite dish here is their chimichangas topped with a surprisingly legit mole sauce.
The Taco Stand
The other good Mexican place I found is called The Taco Stand. It’s somewhat hidden on the upper level in an alleyway near Bùi Viên, but they have a sign on the street to help you find it. The tacos are mouth-watering, especially with their unique grilled cheese.
There’s one other Mexican restaurant in Saigon you might come across called Rico Taco. I went twice and was not a fan either time. I found that it tasted more like Vietnamese-Mexican fusion (and not in a good way). I definitely recommend Gringo Tacos and The Taco Stand instead.
Dim Sum: Baoz Dimsum
I am a huge fan of dim sum, so it was nice to find a restaurant specializing in it in Ho Chi Minh City. Staples did taste slightly different from what I’ve had in Hong Kong (or even cities like New York or Seattle), but overall it was a fairly standard experience.
Indian: Shanti Indian Cuisine
Ho Chi Minh City has a surprising number of good Indian restaurants, especially on and around the famous Bùi Viên walking street. While I liked most of the ones I tried, my favorite place was definitely Shanti Indian Cuisine.
They make an excellent thali (multiple small dishes served on a large metal tray with rice) that has both vegetarian and meat-based options. The price is also pretty good for how much food you get. However, they also have other standard options on their menu such as curries and Indian rice dishes.
Pizza: Pizza 4P's and Italiani's Pizza
Saigon has no shortage of pizza restaurants, but most aren’t very noteworthy. In contrast, the two mentioned below are my favorites.
Address: multiple locations
Without a doubt, Pizza 4P’s is Saigon’s best pizzeria. The menu is extensive with lots of creative offerings, including different pastas and salads. It’s also a bit pricey, especially with appetizers and drinks. But if you’re going to splurge, this is the place to do it. You can add their signature burrata cheese to any pizza you want (shown in the center of the margherita pizza pictured below).
Delicious pizza, a casual atmosphere, friendly staff, and a great location are all reasons to try Italiani’s. Like Pizza 4P’s, Italiani’s makes a delicious thin-crust pizza. (A lot of other places in Saigon either serve pizza that’s way too thick and doughy or too thin, which just ends up tasting like a baked cracker with tomato sauce and cheese.) Italiani’s pizza goes well with a local craft beer.
The Deck Saigon
The Deck Saigon seamlessly combines French- and Vietnamese-inspired dishes to create an honestly unique and refreshing dining experience. They’re able to do what most fusion restaurants can’t, and I enjoyed trying everything we ordered.
While The Deck Saigon does offer waterfront tables, they don’t feature the city skyline. The restaurant is located in District 2, so I recommend booking a reservation and giving yourself ample time to get there from District 1 or 3 if that’s where you’re coming from.
Bến Thành Street Food Market
I mentioned this food court in my comprehensive guide to Saigon because of its proximity to the massive gift and clothing market of the same name. Bến Thành Street Food Market has dozens of stalls that together offer a complete range of international cuisine (including Vietnamese dishes). It’s definitely meant for tourists, but I always enjoyed coming here every once in a while.
My Favorite Bars
Ho Chi Minh City has no shortage of bars and breweries for any budget and occasion. In fact, no other city I’ve been to or lived in has cheaper drinks! The following are some of my most highly recommended.
Layla - Eatery & Bar
Layla is quite simply my favorite bar in the city. Located on the upper floor of a building across from the Sheraton Hotel in District 1, this bar is the perfect mix of classy and casual. Their cocktail recipes are unique and legitimately delicious. Case in point: I’ve never been a fan of gin and tonics until I had one at Layla that actually tasted good. I’ve liked every cocktail I tried at Layla.
Layla can get quite busy during peak hours, so I recommend going during the late afternoon. Happy hour is another good idea; prices here are definitely on the higher side.
Hen House Craft Beer Bar
Although Hen House is one street over from the crazy bars and booming clubs on Bùi Viên, it’s way more casual and relaxed. They sell Rooster Beers with a nice variety of brews from light to dark. Their prices are also quite good for craft beer on tap. If you’re feeling hungry, they also have some Vietnamese-inspired fast food.
East West Brewing Co.
This brewery with a huge dining room is another good option for beer fans. I particularly liked their Saigon Rosé, which is sold at many restaurants around town. Get a flight to try four of beers on tap.
Lac Brewing Co.
I’m sad to say that this brewery closed right after I left Saigon! Nonetheless, I want to include it here even though they have no physical store right now because you can still pick up some of their delicious craft beers elsewhere around the city. I reached out to them on Facebook and was told that “you can still get our products at Urban Basement nearby or other outlets such as Malt, B3 Steakhouse, BiaCraft, [etc.]”
The View Rooftop Bar
This is my second favorite rooftop bar in Saigon (after AIR Saigon, discussed below). Although you can’t see the skyline as well from here, I like their interior design, which features a ton of lanterns and festive hanging lights. The drinks are fine but not outstanding. If you want to feel like you’re in the middle of everything on Bùi Viên without having to deal with all the commotion on street level, The View is a great place.
AIR Saigon (formerly 'Air 360 Sky Lounge')
This rooftop bar was mentioned in my complete guide to Saigon because it’s my favorite place to see the city skyline. In addition to that, they also offer some tasty (i.e. fruity) mixed drinks at reasonable prices. Go check it out!
Mentioned above for their delicious burgers, Rogue is also worth mentioning as a nice rooftop bar. The drinks are good, and while the view may not be as grand as what you’ll see from The View or AIR Saigon, it’s in a quiet little corner of District 1 with its own unique charm.
If you’re a coffee addict like I am, Ho Chi Minh City will be your happy place! Learn about two major coffee chains in the city, plus other options below.
The Coffee House
This cafe with locations all over the city was my favorite place to settle in for a while and be online. Many of my blog posts were drafted while I was sipping on cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) in The Coffee House! They also make a really good hot latte, pictured below.
This is the other major coffee chain in Saigon, and their prices are basically identical to those of The Coffee House. Cà phê sữa đá here tends to be a little more rich and sweet, and they also have delicious pastries.
Coffee fanatics should try some other cafes beyond the two listed above. Sometimes, the best coffee can be found in the most unassuming places, including hole-in-the-wall operations. The sheer density of coffee shops in Saigon is unlike any other city I’ve been to (and I’m from Seattle). Coffee is a defining feature of life in Vietnam, so be sure to branch out and try some new places!
Feeling Hungry Yet?
Whether you’re visiting Saigon for a few days or planning to move there long-term, get ready for a culinary adventure! If you’ve just started researching the area and need more info on things to do, check out my comprehensive guide to Saigon! I share all the city’s best attractions in that separate post so that you can plan the perfect trip.
Have you tried any of the foods or restaurants mentioned above? Got any favorites that I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments below! I hope this guide has helped jumpstart some ideas and inspired you to try some new dishes in Ho Chi Minh City!