Devouring Street Food and Dodging Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City

Our journey from Seattle to Ho Chi Minh City took all of 24 hours. We live in a pretty damn amazing world, don’t we? I watched three Best Picture nominees, ate a couple in-flight meals, jogged across Seoul Incheon Airport to make our tight connection, and woke up as we landed in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest metro area and the country’s commercial and financial capital. Until 1976, it was known as Saigon, a name that’s still used colloquially in reference to the central districts of the city. Saigon isn’t at the top of every traveler’s must-see list for Southeast Asia, but it did happen to have the cheapest round-trip flights when we booked our travel a few months ago. Knowing we’d be spending the spring working our way all around the region, it wasn’t important to us where we started. Vietnam it was!

Devouring Street Food and Dodging Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City - The Resume Gap

With the exception of one week east of the Bosphorus in Turkey, this was our first time setting foot on the Asian continent. As usual, we were eager for new adventures. Asia is always the region I read about as delivering true “culture shock” to western newbies. We didn’t find it to be quite that jarring, but it was definitely a week full of new experiences.

Arriving after dark at Bui Vien, HCMC’s active-at-all-hours backpacker street

I can’t write a word more about HCMC without mentioning its most distinctive feature, the traffic. I can say this quite confidently: I’ve never seen anything like it.

Ninety years ago, Saigon had only 120,000 residents. Today, it’s 8.4 million. By 2025, it’s expected to be almost 14 million. This is what a giant city looks like with zero public transportation.

Oh my god, the traffic.

Practically everyone in HCMC travels by motorbike. All things considered, the flow of traffic is relatively orderly, but crossing the street is a true adventure. There’s no pedestrian right-of-way, per se. You just wade cautiously yet confidently into oncoming traffic, letting the river of scooters weave its way around you – then flip your attention to the other direction as soon as you reach that double-yellow line.

Bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic …or would you say fender-to-fender?

HCMC is not a city where one goes for a relaxing stroll. Sidewalks, where they exist at all, change height and width every few meters. Many are completely blocked by parked motorbikes or restaurant seating. When you happen upon a less crowded block, you’d better still keep your guard up, lest you get run over by a motorbike riding on the sidewalk. Much of the time, it’s easier to just walk in the street.

Then there’s the honking. My god, the honking. New York, Bangkok, Istanbul… they all feel like quiet little oases compared to the noisy streets of HCMC. I have to assume that the Vietnamese driving manual includes a page like this:

Exploring District 1, which sounds like something Katniss Everdeen might do

Looking up at Bitexco Financial Tower, HCMC’s tallest building

In spite of the traffic insanity, you can get a good feel for the city in just a few hours’ walk. Major attractions include the Museum of Vietnamese History, with its artifacts from centuries past; the War Remnants Museum, a photo gallery documenting the Vietnam War; and the Independence Palace, site of the famous tank photos from the fall of Saigon. Of course, it’s not called the “fall” here; it’s the “liberation.”

The man himself, in front of HCMC City Hall. There’s a McDonald’s just to his right.

Old and new

Stories upon stories of active coffee shops, even after dark

Vietnamese electrical wiring. Infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up with the population boom.

Wood Buddha from Bình Hòa, ca. 7th-8th century, at the Museum of Vietnamese History

Incense smoke filling the Taoist Jade Emperor Pagoda

Independence Palace

South Vietnamese leaders hosted American politicians and diplomats here until just weeks before the end of the war

It was fascinating to see Vietnam War history from a local perspective. I’ve always been intrigued by that period of American history. It was the world’s first televised war, concurrent with a great generation of music, protest, and counterculture. It was also the war of my parents’ generation. My dad had a draft number, though he was thankfully never called. Three of my aunt’s good friends were killed in action. When we spoke with my family about our trip, they both indicated hesitation about visiting, describing what a weird feeling it would be to set foot in a place with that personal history.

We enjoyed the War Relics Museum, which provides a compelling account of the horrors of the war and the atrocities perpetuated against Vietnamese civilians. The Vietnamese narrative focuses on the country’s liberation from centuries of colonialism and their victory over American imperialism. Another section captures the tragic outcomes of the liberal use of Agent Orange, which is still causing deformities and birth defects decades later.

We made two day trips from HCMC, both with a tour company called Kim Travel. The first took us about two hours north of the city to Củ Chi, home to the famous network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong throughout the war and as a base of operations during the Tet Offensive. Unfortunately, we found the site to be supremely disappointing. In spite of the interesting history, there’s just not that much to see. Only a small section of tunnel is open to tourists, not that you’d want to spend hours crawling through them anyway.

Yep, there’s a hole in the ground.

We enjoyed our second trip, to the Mekong Delta, a lot more. We were escorted by boat around the river, ate and drank some local specialties, and enjoyed a bike ride around one of the islands. It was a definite tourist experience devoid of any meaningful local connections, but it was still great to see a less urban region of Vietnam. We wished we could have spent a night or two in one of the smaller towns in the area.

First glimpse of the Mekong

Unexpected horse ride around Bến Tre province

Anyone care to translate?

“Elephant ear” fish, a supposed Mekong delicacy

Not for eating. I think.

The best street food in Ho Chi Minh City

That’s all great, but what about the food???

Perhaps the greatest joy of our week in HCMC was the opportunity to sample as many delicious dishes as possible. We’ve written about how much we love dining out, and it’s even more true when we get to eat authentic foreign food that we can’t find at home. The less familiar, the better!

Matt and Daniel in Ho Chi Minh City (visual approximation)

Street food and casual restaurants in Saigon are extremely affordable, with dishes rarely exceeding 50,000 Vietnamese Dong (~$2 US). It took us a few days to get used to eating hot soups in 38°C (100°F) weather, but that’s what the locals do!

We used Jodi Ettenberg’s fantastic guide to the city to figure out what to order and where to find it. Most everything we tried was delicious, even if we couldn’t always identify everything we were eating. Vietnam would be a challenging place to have a fish or shellfish allergy (there’s fish sauce and shrimp in everything) but a great place to be gluten-free. Most everything is rice-based rather than wheat-based.

One of our very favorites was bún mắm, a vermicelli soup made with fermented fish broth, shrimp, and pork belly. It’s thick, a little sweet, and insanely delicious. Other highlights included vermicelli bowls, sticky rice cakes, and the classic phở and bánh mì.

“Excuse me, could I please have a few more chili peppers?” (Bowl of bún mắm on the left)

Phởking phởnomenal!

Bánh mì

Buying freshly sliced mango from a street vendor

Bánh lọc, steamed rice dumplings with prawns and pork

Bánh bèo, sticky rice cakes with shrimp and pork

Now *this* is street food! Grab a plastic stool and take a seat.

Bún riêu cua, a crab and tomato noodle soup

Finally, something decent to eat!

Bún thịt nướng: cold vermicelli noodles, grilled pork, lettuce and herbs, and crispy spring rolls. This one was so good, we came back again the next night.

Street vendor selling chè chuối, a dessert with bananas, rice cakes, and coconut cream

Bánh tằm bì, made with tapioca noodles, thinly shredded pork skin, meatballs, and grilled sausage

Bánh khọt, savory rice pancakes. Wrap in a lettuce leaf and dip in fish sauce to eat.

Ok… how do we eat this thing? (Bánh xèo, a savory crepe with shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts)

Breakfast phở with sickeningly sweet (but tasty) Vietnamese iced coffee

Example expenses

We’ll share a full breakdown of our expenses in Southeast Asia once we’re home from our trip, but here’s a quick snapshot of typical expenses in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Modest hotel with good reviews in central location: 450k VND ($20 US)
  • Entree, street vendor: 20-50k VND ($1-2 US)
  • Entree, casual sit-down restaurant: 40-60k VND ($2-3 US)
  • 12 oz. beer, national brand lager: 40k VND ($2 US)
  • 30-minute Grab or Uber ride (affiliate links): 90k VND ($4 US) for a car; less if you ride on the back of a motorbike!

USD figures are based on the April 2017 exchange rate of $1 US to ~22,600 Vietnamese Dong.

Rooftop bar views. HCMC was a fun introduction to Southeast Asia!

Our first week in Vietnam was intense, exciting, and fun. We’ll be back to tour the rest of the country in June and July. Until then, we’re off to explore other parts of Southeast Asia. Next stop, Thailand.

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19 Comments

  1. As someone who plans to use geographic arbitrage to retire earlier, I really enjoyed this post. Vietnam looks like a cool place to visit for sure. And as usual your food pictures are great! I’m personally a fan of Pho!

    • It was a fun week, and we’re excited to see more of the country in a few more months. Thailand ended up being a more relaxing destination day-to-day than HCMC, so I see why it’s such a popular place for expats and the nomad crowd. But we still have a lot more exploring to do 🙂

  2. Oh boy, I am so homesick. Apparently HCMC has a metric ass tonne in common with the cities of India. Isn’t it a bit odd that all those annoying things – the incessant honking, the hanging crazy electric wires, the insane homicidal traffic, the lack of a sidewalk – can fill me with a fierce longing for home? The food looks fantastic, color me green.

    • Ha, I guess it does! There’s something fun and charming about the combination, and I’ll admit that it does make our manicured cities and suburbs at home seem a little dull. I don’t know how I’m going to go back to eating at home. The quality and value here are something else.

  3. Oh no, it’s still called The Fall. We just don’t do it in public and it doesn’t get into the propaganda. History IS told by the winners, but the countryfolk have long memories, and it was only just our parents’ generation that was decimated by that war.

    I haven’t been back in almost ten years but that traffic is no joke.

    I appreciate you getting the food names right, with the accents and correct alphabet and everything 🙂 I used to make a mean bánh bèo and bánh khọt!

    Now my stomach’s rumbling. Have a wonderful time in Thailand, we miss it too.

    • It’s very interesting to see the way the history is told there, and you’re right — even though the average person there (in terms of median age) wasn’t alive during the war, it’s still recent enough to have affected immediate families. Thanks for sharing your perspective on it.

      You can thank Google for helping me get those characters in there! They just don’t look quite right without them.

  4. Great fun in HCMC. The traffic looks insane. In my hometown, they do everything to ban cars from the city centre. Would be a great culture shock!

    • Our city at home is moving that way as well (frustrating slowly, of course — it’s America, not Europe), so definitely quite a shock to see the total opposite. They are currently building HCMC’s first subway line, but it’s not open yet. Seems like they will have to do a lot of development just to keep up with the population growth, let alone being able to reduce the amount of traffic.

      • well, Europe is not that fast either. It started years ago, we still have cars and buses that cross the city centre… There is progress, that is good, and they connect walking areas and put parcs on former parking lots…

  5. Oh man that food looks fantastic and it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. No real reason why, but I just feel drawn to it. Eating hot soups in hot weather reminded me of when iw as interning in New Orleans over the summer. A block from the office was a great food court sort of area with an amazing pho place. I’d get that about once a week and then we’d sit outside and invariably i’d think, “Why am i eating hot soup when it’s 95 and muggy outside?” I’d still eat it about once a week though because it was so delicious.

    Man that food has me thinking, “Hmmm, where to go for some bahn mhi or maybe even pho for lunch today…”

    Sounds like an awesome trip so far!

    • People say there’s something cooling about it, but I’m not sure I agree. I’m always drenched in sweat as it is in this weather, so it’s not like it’s going to accelerate that process! But we’ve gotten used to it here. Much more fun to do as the locals do than sit in an air-conditioned Pizza Hut or something.

  6. Great post! I’m guessing it would be a challenge to be a vegetarian in this country!

    • Thank you, Tabitha! There are a handful of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, so you wouldn’t starve, but the street food would be challenging. Even where you can get a dish without pork, there’s shrimp paste and fish sauce in everything. I kept thinking about my dad, who is allergic to shellfish, and how he would have to either eat at the vegan spots or buy food to cook at the markets.

  7. I’ve never been to Southeast Asia. One of my friends is there right now on a multi-month trip, and he’s posting pictures of him surfing in the Philippines. I’m definitely jealous right now.

  8. I want to visit every country (lofty goal?), so Vietnam is def on the list. And quite affordable!

    We’re following you to the best restaurants in Dallas. 😉

  9. Thanks for sharing! The food looks awesome, and the costs are unbelievable. As for traffic, I don’t even think living in Manhattan has prepared me for crossing those streets. Yikes!

  10. Doan N Duong

    May 7, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    I am Vietnamese American so I been back to Vietnam a few times. The food there are definitely worth the money and the flavor are as fresh as it can get (refrigeration cost money!) As for the translation of the picture you took : “dai ly, dua sap, dua dua, ruou dua” I believe Dai Ly mean they’re selling it in bulk, different type of coconut (young, mature, and coconut wine)

  11. Looks so good! We stopped by and hung out there at the airport for a couple hours before heading home last year. I didn’t realize we needed a visa so we passed. But can you get a visa upon arrival at the airport instantly? We did Cambodia, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan instead.

    Sam

    • Unfortunately you still cannot get a visa on arrival unless you’ve coordinated a letter of invitation from a tour company in advance. There is now an e-visa system that lets you print your visa at home for $25 and go straight through the immigration checkpoint, but you still have to do that at least a couple days ahead of time. Frustrating!

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