Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) residents are rightly proud of their local food. Southern Vietnamese food (which covers Vietnam’s former southern capital) is distinctly different from its more northerly counterparts, including a tendency to more sweetness and spice—and woe to anyone who says they’re doing it wrong!
You’ll find this difference in individual dishes from the south. Saigon pho is more heavily spiced and garnished with herbs, local banh xeo are much larger than those you’d find in Hanoi, and a local affinity for thin rice paper dresses up dishes like goi cuon and banh trang tron.
We’ve put together a top list of must-try dishes in Saigon below—try them all when you visit, and as the locals say, “chúc ngon miệng!” (Bon appetit!)
Vietnam’s southern regions were historically more fertile compared to the north. This disparity is reflected in the local food. Pho, for example, has the same basic ingredients in north and south: rice noodles and thin broth served as pho bo (beef pho) or pho ga (chicken pho).
The southern version, though, is sweetened with sugar and dressed up with hoisin sauce and sriracha to produce a murkier broth. Southerners also like to go wild with herbal sides, including Thai basil, sawtooth herb, green onions, basil, mint, Vietnamese coriander, and bean sprouts.
Bun Thit Nuong
It’s everything good about Southern Vietnamese cuisine rolled into one: noodles, pork, and the crispy spring rolls known as cha gio in one bowl.
Bun thit nuong’s goodness comes from its layered ingredients: starting with greens and herbs as a base, the bun thit nuong maker adds rice vermicelli noodles, then roast pork and cha gio, concluding with a dash of fish sauce and a garnish of green onions and chives.
What you get is a medley of textures and flavors: peanuts and cha gio’s crunch vs. the vermicelli noodles’ yielding softness and the roast pork’s heft; sour and herbal and meaty in every bite. What’s not to love?
Once perceived as a luxury food in colonial times, the French baguette has since become a breakfast staple for Saigon citizens, who snap banh mi up from street vendors at all times of the day.
Trust the Vietnamese to throw everything at the banh mi but the kitchen sink. A simple version, banh mi op la, gets you a plain baguette with a little beef, sunny-side-up egg, and caramelized onion. Other more elaborate versions pour on local ingredients like luncheon meat, ham, cured pork skin, mayonnaise, sausage, Vietnamese coriander, chili, and pate.
Rice paper (banh trang) was invented in the South, then adopted all across Vietnam. Visit a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City to try banh trang in the freshest form possible: as a wrap for a series of herbs and gently-grilled meats, for you to wrap yourself!
To make goi cuon, banh trang is lightly dipped in water to soften, then laden with the ingredients you want: standard selections include Chinese chives, mint, coriander, shrimp, pork, beef, and rice vermicelli noodles. Once wrapped, dip one end into a saucer of fish sauce or hoisin sauce, then bite into the dipped end. Try it at Wrap and Roll Restaurant.
Hu Tieu Nam Vang
This noodle dish combines a variety of surprising regional influences, among them Cambodia and southern China. "Nam Vang" is the local translation for the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh, so this dish translates literally to "Phnom Penh-style flat-rice noodle."
Beyond the noodles, the other essential ingredient is a murky pork-bone soup stock. You can have the dish "dry" with the broth served on the side, or "wet" with the noodles and garnishes swimming in the broth. Common garnishes for hu tieu nam vang include quail eggs, shrimp, and congealed pork blood.
And as the Southern Vietnamese like it, the Saigon take on hu tieu is served alongside heaping plates of greens, which may include Chinese celery, garlic chives, chopped green onions, lettuce, and bean sprouts.
Com Tam Suon Nuong
This dish translates to “broken rice, a name derived from the cheap broken-up rice that Mekong Delta rice farmers sold at bargain prices to street vendors looking to reduce production overhead.
Saigon’s inventive street food entrepreneurs have transformed this humble rejected rice into a beloved lunchtime favorite. Com tam suon, for instance, puts together the rice, a caramelized grilled pork chop, and a fried egg, then adds a garnish of sweetened fish sauce, chili, and green onion oil.
Want an upgrade? Saigon’s vendors may happily oblige you with extras like Vietnamese sausage, an extra slab of pork, or garnishes of crushed pork rind.
Banh Trang Tron
A more contemporary take on rice paper (banh trang) involves shredding it and mixing with salty fish, squid, and quail eggs, along with the usual herby suspects (Vietnamese coriander, basil, green mango, mint) and a special sweet/sour/spicy dressing.
It’s a salad with a distinct zing and served in plastic bags from street food venues all across Ho Chi Minh City. Visitors outside the Notre Dame Cathedral will find many banh trang tron sellers hawking their wares there—this dish is particularly loved by the city’s teens and twenty-somethings who hang around the place.
Banh Tam Bi
Coconut milk is a favorite ingredient in Southern Vietnam; you don’t need more proof than its presence in the beloved noodle dish called banh tam bi.
Creamy and savory-sweet, banh tam bi uses thick rice/tapioca noodles with a healthy helping of Vietnamese coriander and sweet basil, dressed with pork crackling and pork meat, then ladled with a coconut-cream sauce.