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Say yes to Saigon: A food guide

“Jino Filipino Tours at your service,” jokes our gracious host, Jino Ignacio, who has lived in Vietnam for almost two years. Photos by LANCE YUMUL

We ate our way through Ho Chi Minh (a city formerly called Saigon). Our stomachs leading the way and then our hearts just followed. Our guide was a friend, Jino Ignacio, a marketing executive for a pharmaceutical company, who has lived in Vietnam for almost two years. During his stay, he has gotten to know the city and discovered one of its best assets — the food.

In three days, we had fallen for Vietnam’s fresh, flavorful meals. It rained on us heavily during the weekend, but the food always brought a sense of comfort — hot soup for drenched nights, light and fresh spring rolls after long days.  

Jino taught us how to eat their food right: add the correct condiments, wrap around a leaf, and dip generously in their sauces, which are uniquely made for each dish. His street knowledge opened up doors to the real grub in the city (and a trustworthy place to get good North Face knock-offs).

I’m dispensing here the best eats of Ho Chi Minh that you can (and cannot) find in a brochure, with the help of our gracious host Jino (ladies, he’s single). If you’ve only got a few days in the city, make every meal count.

 

Best pho in town

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Where: Phò Hòa Pasteur (260C Pasteur Street, District 3)

What: A carinderia-type soup kitchen with big bowls of phò for less than P200.

Why: Initially, we had planned to look for the Lunch Lady, a lady who makes an amazing bowl of noodle soup somewhere on a street corner, according to Anthony Bourdain. But Jino said this kitchen has the “best phò in town.” How could we object? The place looks literally like a dirty kitchen. But mother of phò, was that a damn good bowl of noodle soup! Complete with stalks of fresh mint and basil, hoisin and sriracha sauce, and this thing they call Chinese Bread (which looks a lot like bicho bicho). Dunk the bicho bicho in your soup, so that when you eat it, “it’s like an explosion in your mouth,” instructed Jino. Okay, we’re naturally cautious about things exploding in our mouths, but this one was to die for. Phò real!

 

Tea and cupcakes

Where: L’usine (151/1 Dong Khoi Street, District 1)

What: Before leaving for Vietnam, my friend scoured online and found L’usine, a café slash specialty lifestyle store and gallery.

Why: This French style coffee shop’s ambience is cozy, with woodtop furniture and black iron chairs. They have a great selection of tea, coffee, and homemade sweets. Jino says he once hand-carried L’usine cupcakes back home. It’s a great place to escape the hustle of the streets, and the second floor has an adorable balcony overlooking the busy Dong Khoi Street… if you’re into observing.

 

Vietnamese coffee

Where: On the streets, on the bus stop, in a fancy coffee shop. Everywhere.

What: A delicious dark roasted, bold Robusta coffee with condensed milk, and lots of ice.

Why: I had this every day, twice a day.  It’s a bittersweet, rich, coffee mix that you cannot rid yourself of. Price ranges from P40-P100, depending where you are, but they all taste the same: Addicting.

 

Food bike tour

Where: Sign up with XO Bike Tours (http://xotours.vn/)

What: It’s $US68 (approximately P3,000) for a tour that starts at 5:30 p.m. Not really “budget,” but if you want to see all of Ho Chi Minh, this is the way to do it, on the back of a motorbike with a cute Vietnamese lady at the wheel. XO bike tours bring you to all parts of the city, from District 1 (the tourist center) to District 5 (China Town) to District 4 (one of the so-called poorest areas in town). Oh, and you’re eating along the way too.

Why: It’s as much about the experience as it is about the food. The first stop is an eskinita that serves Bun Bo Hue, a variation of their noodle soup. This street stall has made this soup, and only this soup, for years. Imagine the perfection.

The rest of the night is a flurry of fun. Barbecued goat breast and frog meat in District 8, and then a seafood bonanza in District 4: fried crab in garlic and chili flakes; scallops in butter, green onions and peanuts; and clams in a lemongrass-tamarind sauce. We’re eating amazing seafood in this gritty part of town on a street side, which is illegal. In fact on the night we were there, we avoided a police raid. People scrambled to get our tables off the streets, broken plates and glasses were thrown all over floor. Ah, the true Vietnamese experience.

 

Jino’s favorite Vietnamese dish

Where: Nhà hàng Ngon (160 Pasteur, P. Ben Nghe, District 1)

What: If you’re looking for a great selection of fresh Vietnamese food and a pleasurable dining experience, you might as well listen to Lonely Planet. Nhà hàng Ngon is a Vietnamese restaurant set in a gorgeous colonial courtyard building.

Why: For this meal, Jino took the stage. Ordering up a feast with his rookie Vietnamese skills. Fried spring rolls with cold noodles, fresh spring rolls, grilled pork and squid with “moi tieu chanh” dipping sauce (salt + pepper + lemon), and to end our meal, Jino’s favorite Vietnamese dish: Chà Cá Lã Vong. It’s a do-it-yourself combination of silky noodles, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and peanuts, with chunks of moist fish (cooked in turmeric and dill), grilled right in front of you. “It’s an acquired taste,” says Jino, but the dish is listed in the book 1,001 Dishes You Have to Eat Before You Die.

“I hope this type of dish will soon make its way to the Philippines,” says Jino, “if not, I will make it happen.”

 

Best Pizza in Ho Chi Minh (and maybe your life)

Where: Pizza 4P’s- 8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1

What: An Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant tucked away at the end of an alley in a backstreet. You would never know that it existed unless you were looking for it. And you better be looking for this place.

Why: Pizza 4P’s bakes their pizzas in a hand-built wood fire oven, and they make their own cheese in a Dalat farm. The artful brick oven is in the middle of the restaurant too, so the scent of fresh pizza fills the room and you can feel the heat from the fire in the air. The food is so skillfully crafted that the ingenuity tells in their creations. We had the Burrata Prosciutto Pizza — homemade burrata cheese (which is mozzarella and cream), prosciutto ham, tomato, parmesan and olive oil. 

Oh. My. God.

Jino says, “best pizza in the world,” and we’d really have to agree. To this day, the soft and chewy burrata cheese spread over the prosciutto ham and arugula is still haunting me in my dreams.

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