Eating Out, Travel

Two Days in Saigon – A Food Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

We found ourselves with just two days in Saigon so we crammed the food in, starting with a motorbike food tour from XO Tours. In 4.5 hours, we zipped through 6+ districts in Saigon and ate at three restaurants. We also (separately) sought out the most famous pho and banh mi spots in Saigon, tried a fancier rooftop restaurant, and discovered the hidden gem Cafe Apartments. Read on for our picks!

XO Tours

XO Tours was one of my favorite experiences in Vietnam. I was hesitant at first about riding a motorbike in Vietnam – the traffic is crazy! – but the tour guides made us feel safe. We had the lovely Hong and Duong as our guides for the night, and they described the high standards at XO Tours. Drivers must pass strict driving tests, provide their own motorbikes, and be female. I love that the male founder chose to empower an all-female team!

The “Foodie” Tour was easy to book via the XO Tours website, and we paid in person after the tour. $75 USD was steep compared to other food tours, but we felt that it was worth it after seeing the preparation and professionalism. They even had a separate crew re-wash the produce with bottled water prior to your arrival at each restaurant.

After being picked up at our hotel in District 1, the first stop was a Bun Bo Hue (BBH) spot. BBH is like a spicier version of pho with thick noodles. I preferred the American-Vietnamese versions of BBH to the one we had. The broth here was lighter, not spicy, and didn’t have the usual blood cubes (which I don’t eat anyway), but I was surprised at how bland this was! No problem though, because we had much more exciting food to go.

XO Tours Stop 1: Bun Bo Hue at Dong Ba
XO Tours Stop 1: Bun Bo Hue at Dong Ba

After this, we headed to Chinatown in District 5 to see the large night market but we couldn’t stop to walk around. I wish we did because many of the restaurants in Saigon get their produce from this market at night.

Next was an open-air Vietnamese BBQ restaurant. We had a feast here and even played a chopstick game. The tour guides personally grilled for us at the table – frog legs, beef, prawn, goat, and okra! Unlimited drinks, including beer, were also inclued in the tour fee.

XO Tours Stop 2
XO Tours Stop 2: Our tour guides grill for you at this Vietnamese BBQ spot
XO Tours - With our amazing tour guides Hong and Duong!
XO Tours – With our amazing tour guides Hong and Duong!

Then we headed to District 7 for a change of scenery. This district favored by expats is noticeable more modern, with a lot of apartments and Western fast food joints. It will be interesting to see how this develops culture overtime.

After digesting a bit, we headed to our final stop – a seafood restaurant in District 4. This was my favorite meal of the tour! We feasted on scallops, crab, quail, clam soup, and even balut for those adventurous ones. I couldn’t eat the balut (a partially developed duck in egg), especially since these already had beaks and feathers. I was glad the tour let me see this dish though, as this is something I wouldn’t venture to find on my own.

XO Tours Stop 3: Scallops at Toan Phuong Qua
XO Tours Stop 3: Scallops at Toan Phuong Quan

Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa

I grew up eating banh mi every other week in the U.S. The bread would always scratch my mouth, but the bread in Vietnam is actually soft and pain-free! Banh Mi Hyunh Hoa is a Saigon staple. They have relatively pricier (35K VND ~ $1.50 USD) but very generously sized banh mi. The bread is soft and shatters nicely like a po boy! This spot is super popular so we went right after it opened at 2:30PM and got two banh mi’s to go in under 5 minutes. There’s no seating, so be prepared to eat elsewhere.

No one spoke english, so we just followed the line and indicated that we wanted two sandwiches with our fingers. It seemed like they gave everyone the same assortment of cold cuts. If you like the premium meats in the U.S., you might not like this very traditional style with pate. This was as authentic as it gets though, and I loved that fresh bread!

Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa
Banh Mi from Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa

Phở Lệ Nguyễn Trãi

I couldn’t leave Saigon without having some beef pho! Pho Le Nguyen Thai is a famous spot and popular among locals. We arrived mid-morning, and the restaurant was bustling for breakfast. Luckily they have a second floor with more seating and AC. The servers spoke limited english, but the menu had english.

I got the Thap Cam Pho, which was a combination of all the cuts – rare steak, flank steak, and beef meatballs. A large bowl is 75K VND (~$3.30 USD), which is expensive for Vietnam, but the locals seemed to think it was worth it given how busy it was. The meat was higher quality, and they were very generous with the vegetables.

I thought the beef broth was a little light for my taste, and I prefer the heartier beef broths I’ve had in the US. The noodles were also softer than I liked. With Southern style pho, the broth is sweeter, and they serve it with hoisin and chili sauce. The hoisin sauce here was so good – very fresh, with great caramel notes.

Secret Garden Restaurant

For a change of scenery from the street food, we tried a charming rooftop restaurant for lunch. Secret Garden is very tourist friendly, and a few servers spoke conversational English. The entrance is plain and unassuming, and you walk up five floors to reach the rooftop. It was a good workout to have, as the restaurant serves an extensive menu!

Service here is very leisurely, but once we ordered the food came out fast enough. The menu had quality photos and English descriptions. Prices were high, but the quality and presentation was excellent. We spent about 400K VND ($18 USD) for four dishes.

The server recommended the red snapper sour soup, and this was my favorite dish as I’m a big vinegar lover. The tonkin jasmine greens were new to me, and it was delicious as a simple stir-fry with crispy shallots. I loved the presentation of the lemongrass pork rolls – they put the meatballs in the the lemongrass stalks. The spicy BBQ back ribs weren’t very spicy, but had great flavor. We were stuffed and couldn’t finish everything!

Bánh Ống Lá Dứa

After our fantastic Secret Garden meal, we spotted a dessert vendor at a street corner. She was making banh ong la dua, which is a steamed pandan cake filled with shaved coconut. We hadn’t heard of this before but decided to try it on a whim. It was so good – the soft pandan cake complimented the warm and lightly sweet coconut inside. If you spot these on the street, don’t hesitate to give it a try!

Banh ong la dua vendor
Banh ong la dua vendor
Banh ong la dua
Banh ong la dua – steamed pandan cake with coconut filling.

The Cafe Apartments

Looking for a break from all that eating? In District 1, there’s a cute collection of cafes and clothing stores in a 9-floor building known as the Cafe Apartments. We spent a couple hours there and got a mani-pedi at a quality Japanese style nail salon, grabbed some iced coffees, and walked around and admired the charming design of each shop.

Don’t be deterred by the entrance, the inside is completely different! There is a 3000 VND elevator fee that retail spots will refund with purchase.

And just like that, our 48 hours was up! Until next time, Saigon.

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