Hanoi may be Vietnam’s administrative capital, but Ho Chi Minh City is without doubt its culinary capital. Besides Vietnamese cuisine, which these days enjoys global popularity, just about every other type of food you could imagine is served here, including Indian, Italian, Brazilian, Japanese, Mexican, Lebanese and German, though perhaps predictably French restaurants comprise the most formidable foreign contingent in town. The French legacy is also evident in the city’s abundance of cafés, which are scattered throughout the city. Though you’ll probably be tempted by a pizza or burrito at some time during your stay, it would be a crime to ignore the fabulous variety of indigenous food on offer, both in sophisticated restaurants and at streetside stalls. Owing to the transitory nature of foodstalls, it’s impossible to make specific recommendations, but there are plenty to choose from. One area well worth checking out in the evening is around Ben Thanh market, where a cluster of foodstalls offer a bewildering variety of dishes, many specializing in seafood.
Also keep your eyes open for simple eating houses, where good, filling rice and noodle dishes are served for a pittance from buffet-style tin trays and vast soup urns; these are especially popular at lunchtime. Cheap restaurants, concentrated around De Tham, Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien, which cater exclusively for travellers, are fine if you want an inexpensive steak and chips or some fried noodles, but hardly in the league of the city’s heavyweights, its specialist restaurants. Of course, by Vietnamese standards, these restaurants are incredibly expensive – eat at one and you’ll probably spend enough to feed a Vietnamese family for a month – but by Western standards many of them are low-priced, and the quality of cooking is consistently high. What’s more, ingredients are fresh, with vegetables transported from Da Lat, and meat often flown in from Australia.
Some of the swankier restaurants lay on reasonably priced set menus and also live traditional music in order to lure diners. Though there are many delectable dishes to discover in Ho Chi Minh City, keep an eye open for chao bo, slithers of beef grilled on sticks of lemon grass, which can be superb when the beef is well marinated. You’ll find it on the menu of a few of the places listed below, such as Vietnam House and Blue Ginger.
Café culture, introduced by the French, is still very much alive in Ho Chi Minh City, and there are numerous places at which to round dinner off with an ice cream, crêpe or sundae. Earlier in the day, the same venues offer the chance to linger over a coffee and watch the world go by.