Because of its culturally diverse population, countless versions of a single dish are a common theme in the local food scene. Few dishes are as representative of this city as hủ tiếu. It has multiple origins (Chinese, Cambodian, and Vietnamese), and has seen many changes and adaptations, yet it's embraced by Vietnamese everywhere. Best of all, it’s simply delicious!
You can easily find a hearty bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang (Phnom Penh rice noodles) with thin strings of rice noodles submerged in boiling hot bone broth, topped with shrimp, pork, quail eggs, and fried garlic on small carts all over the city.
An alternative you don’t want to miss is hủ tiếu Sa Đéc, originated from the former Sa Đéc province in the Mekong Delta. This flavourful noodle dish comes with a special sweet sauce, a taste signature to the Delta region. As you bite into the rice noodle strings, you will notice the difference in their chewy texture. A plate of mung bean sprout and lettuce adds a cheerful crunch to every bite.
Ask anyone in Ho Chi Minh City and they will tell you the go-to breakfast here is cơm tấm (broken rice). Rice for breakfast? Travellers may raise their eyebrows at the thought. However, cơm tấm has all the right stuff to kickstart your day: honey-glazed barbecued pork chops, sunny-side-up eggs, spring onions, and pickled papaya on a bed of rice. Of course, these days you can have cơm tấm for any meal. Like most things and people here, the dish comes with no fancy etiquette, no set rules, and no judgment.
Cơm tấm is one of the few dishes that originated in Ho Chi Minh City. In the old days, these special broken rice grains were not fit for sale, so farmers would save and eat them. In fact, the tấm rice grains are so symbolic of humble beauty and grace that in the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, she was named Tấm whereas the evil stepsister was called Cám, after a different kind of rice byproduct.
Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City has his/her favourite cơm tấm spots, but don’t be afraid to try out the one closest to you. It will likely be just as good. Pour a generous amount of sweet fish sauce on top of everything on your plate, and dig in.
The area of District 4 is known for its many sidewalk BBQ seafood and snail joints. The small street of Vĩnh Khánh (District 4, Ho Chi Minh City) comes to life just after dark. Around 6pm, it transforms into a bustling neighbourhood, filled with diners gathering for a beer over some snails and seafood skewers, weekdays and weekends alike. For foodies who want to immerse in the lively atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City, this is the place to be.
While snails may sound foreign to some, they are one of the city’s most famous specialties. Snail restaurants lay out fresh catches of the day in baskets or trays for you to choose from. They can go up to twenty different kinds. From stir-fried with butter and garlic, grilled with sea salt and chilli, to stewed in coconut milk, each way of cooking snails pairs perfectly with each type of snail. Sweet snails, cockles, and razor clams are some local favourites. Overwhelmed by these selections? Simply ask what the other diners are eating and they will be happy to help you.
For tasty skewers and cold beers with a view, head to the restaurants along Nhiêu Lộc – Thị Nghè Canal (bờ kè area), a branch of the Saigon River that runs through the city. Don’t forget to learn the Vietnamese cheers before you go: một, hai, ba, dô!