Luke Nguyen's guide to the best eating and drinking in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Luke Nguyen loves getting around Ho Chi Minh City's street food stalls.
Luke Nguyen loves getting around Ho Chi Minh City's street food stalls. Photo: Alan Benson

You probably know Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen from his popular television series Luke Nguyen's Vietnam. Or perhaps from his many books, including his latest, Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia. Nguyen balances life between Sydney, where he owns Red Lantern, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he runs his GRAIN cooking school and brand new 180-seat restaurant, Vietnam House.

Favourite pho?

I like Pho Hung (243 Nguyen Trai, Nguyen Cu Trinh, District 1, 8 3838 5089). You can't really go wrong with pho in Vietnam, but this place has a lot less MSG than many others and a fantastic, deep broth. Pho in the north is lighter and clearer – this one has all the aromatics and a really great, rich beef flavour. 

Sizzling hot skewers.
Sizzling hot skewers. Photo: Alan Benson/Hardie Grant books

Best banh mi (pork roll)?

I go to Banh Mi Hoa Ma (53 Cao Thang, phuong 17, District 3, no phone). They do a deconstructed pork roll – a traditional Vietnamese breakfast influenced by the French – and people say they created the banh mi when they started back in 1954. You get a platter with hams, pates, butter, mayonnaise, and all the other ingredients but you make your own. It's great to sit here and meet elderly men and women who speak fluent French and have been coming here since they first opened. 

More typical banh mi?

A favourite is Banh Mi O Moi (a nickname for 'lesbian banh mi', named after the couple who run it), open from 4pm – but you'll have to queue. The official name is Huynh Hoa (26 Le Thị Rieng, Ben Thanh, 28 3925 0885) and all the bread is cooked in a charcoal oven. For something more off-the-beaten-track try Banh Mi 37 (Hem 39 Nguyen Trai Street, District 1, no phone). They do char-grilled pork baguettes, marinated in fish sauce and honey. The lady gets there around 2pm to start char-grilling (the aroma's amazing) and people start lining up from 4pm. 

Traditional Vietnamese restaurant?

If a guest comes from abroad and wants a good, traditional Vietnamese experience I take them to Hoa Tuc (74 Hai Ba Trung, Ben Nghe, District 1, 28 3825 1676). They do everything well: great service and it's in an old refinery where they used to refine opium. Order banh cot, mini pancakes made from rice flour, prawn floss, prawns, pork. Then you just wrap them up in lettuce leaves, perilla and mint and dip it in the sauce. 

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Best fresh produce market?

There's a little street market right in the centre of town, District 1, called Cho Cu, which translates as Old Market (Ton That Dam Street, between Ham Nghi and Huynh Thuc Khang). It's just one narrow street and you'll find the best live seafood and the best fresh Vietnamese herbs and vegetables around. 

For a fine food market I go to Nam An in District 2 (21 Durong Thao Dien, Thao Dien, 8 3519 1646). They do everything from chorizo sausages, smoked salmon, and organic fruit and veg, to nice extra virgin olive oil, Vegemite and nice French wines. 

Coffee?

For Sydney/Melbourne-style coffee I go to Mad House (6/1/2 Nguyen U Di, Thao Dien, District 2, 28 3519 4009). For Vietnamese coffee I like Trung Nguyen, which is the brand of the coffee but also the name of the chain (try 80 Dong Khoi, Ben Nghe, District 1, 28 3936 9146). You need to know how strong or robust you want it, so choose from grades one to five (five being the bee's knees). They drip it for you, and you can have it cold, on ice and then you don't sleep for a couple of days! 

Brunch?

Brunch in Vietnam is as much of a thing as it is in Hong Kong or Singapore. My top two are the Le Meridien (3C Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, 8 6263 6688) and a place called MGallery (Hotel Des Arts Saigon, MGallery Collection, 76-78 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3, 28 3989 8888). I like them because they're a more intimate dining experience. Expect whole lobsters, Alaskan king crab, fresh oysters from France, sushi, sashimi, truffle prawn dumplings and great champagne. 

Cool bars?

Your typical Saigon club is very noisy. More my style is just-opened Qui (22 Le Thanh Ton, Ben Nghe, District 1, 28 38288828) – you could be anywhere in the world, it's very cool. There's also the Social Club on the rooftop of MGallery and one that an Aussie couple opened recently called Layla, (Second Floor, 63 Dong Du, District 1, 28 3827 2279). Like Bangkok, Saigon is growing in rooftop bars and there's a pretty good skyline in Saigon. Another good one is SOHY (72-74 Nguyen Thị Minh Khai, phuong 6, District 3, 90 330 59 99).

Street-food safe-bet?

You can't beat Oc Dao (132 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Phạm Ngu Lao, District 1, 90 943 70 33). Everything's grilled or stir-fried. They have about 30 varieties of snails, beautiful fresh and live seafood and you can get beautiful gelatinous chicken feet there, too, which I love. 

And for something sweet?

If I was catering for a birthday I'd go to Sweet & Sour Bakery (9 Ngo Quang Huy, Thao Dien, District 2, 8 3519 1568) for great cupcakes. Also, people don't realise that Vietnam has fantastic chocolate and a couple of local French guys produce great Vietnamese chocolate, called Marou. Their little cafe, Maison Marou (167-169 Calmette, Nguyen Thai Binh, District 1, 28 7300 5010), is where I go to get my chocolate fix. For more European-style cakes and pastries try Saint Honore (17 Tran Ngoc Dien, Thao Dien, District 2, 8 3620 1816). 

Anything else?

Opposite the cathedral and the post office there's a big open park where all the students hang out. There's a little street stall there and they char-grill rice paper until it blisters (banh trang nuong). Then they coat it in butter, dried shrimp, a smashed quail egg, a bit of mayo, chilli and fresh herbs – it's like a Vietnamese pizza or a taco – really crispy and delicious.