Ask anyone in Ho Chi Minh City and they will tell you the go-to breakfast here is cơm tấm (broken rice). 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.
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. Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City has his or her favourite cơm tấm spot, 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, head to the restaurants along Nhiêu Lộc – Thị Nghè Canal (bờ kè area), a branch of the Saigon River that runs through the city.
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.
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. 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.
You can find bánh mì anywhere in Vietnam, but each region puts its own twist on the classic sandwich. In Ho Chi Minh City, a typical bánh mì comes with char siu pork, homemade paté, soft butter, pickled papaya, and hot chili peppers. Some cooks make their own special sauce that magically ties everything together.
Bánh mì Huỳnh Hoa is a firm favourite among locals. Known for their generous fillings and spectacular flavours, the small shop always has a line of dedicated diners waiting in front, no matter what time of day. Each one sets you back 42,000 VNĐ, and is almost twice as big as your average bánh mì. But size is not the only thing that sets Huỳnh Hoa apart. Every wonderful bite contains equal measures of all the fantastic tastes and textures. In the words of the Huỳnh Hoa's owner: “This is no ordinary bánh mì!”
For Vietnamese who grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls) are the food of childhood. Many of us would have these spring rolls on the sidewalks as an after-school snack. You can easily get a taste of this wrap at street food vendors around the city. Pull up a plastic stool, order a plate of gỏi cuốn, and see for yourself what makes this simple dish so special.
Freshness is at the heart of gỏi cuốn. Green lettuce and herbs are wrapped around rice noodles, steamed pork, and a single prawn. The simplicity highlights each ingredient's pure flavours. However, the difference between a great gỏi cuốn and a mediocre one lies in its dipping sauce. The thick fermented sauce can be an acquired taste, but give it a try and you will see where gỏi cuốn gets its boldness. After hours of exploring the city, some gỏi cuốn and iced tea is perfect for a break. Not to mention, these beautiful rolls will definitely spice up your Instagram feed.
TRY IT: Gỏi cuốn Minh, 84/33 Bùi Viện Str., District 1, HCMC