Compelling and astonishingly beautiful, few places in the world offer the spectacular (and often overwhelming) splendor that Vietnam does, and this magic is especially apparent in its largest cities. In Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City), you’re met with staggering French architecture dating back to the 18th century, endless stalls selling the famed banh mi sandwich, and meticulously landscaped parks boasting temples and palaces. Hanoi’s streets are alive with the sounds of motorbikes zooming past, the clamor of pots and pans from street vendors slinging noodle soups and sizzling grilled pork, and the glistening sparkle of its picturesque pagodas. Whether you’re going for the first time or the 15th, this guide to Vietnam’s most bustling cities will take you deep into the heart of one of Asia’s most resplendent, resilient, and humbling countries.
Ho Chi Minh City
Formerly known as Saigon (most of the locals still refer to it this way), Ho Chi Minh City is the perfect representation of old meets new. You’ll find colonial French architecture juxtaposed with whizzing motorbikes and crowded markets. Gleaming skyscrapers are flanked by centuries-old temples and pagodas. It’s a city that demands a few days of exploration to truly understand the interesting contrasts.
Vietnam’s food differs from north to south, and with Ho Chi Minh City located in the south, the delicacies you’ll find here tend to be more flavorful and spicy than the ones in Hanoi. These are the dishes you have to try when wandering the busy streets.
Banh Cuon: A hearty rice dish that’s steamed to perfection, banh cuon is a thin rice sheet filled with a hearty serving of ground pork, mushrooms, and shallots. It’s served in bite-size pieces and is often enjoyed for breakfast with a drizzle of fish sauce (a necessity in most Vietnamese cuisine), bean sprouts, and cucumber. Tip: If you can, order it from a street vendor so you can watch the locals prepare it on their larger-than-life metal woks.
Where to try it: Banh Cuon Hai Nam, 11A Đường Cao Thắng, phường 2, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Banh Xeo: Another dish that’s as fun to watch as it is delicious to eat, banh xeo is basically a large and savory crepe. Named after the sizzle it makes when it’s cooking, this crepe-pancake hybrid is topped with equal parts pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. It’s served for breakfast or lunch with, you guessed it, fish sauce.
Where to try it: Banh Xeo 46A, 11A Đường Cao Thắng, phường 2, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Banh Trang Tron: This is one dish you won’t find outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Created by the street food purveyors who set up shop along Van Kiep Street or Su Van Hanh Street, this bite-size snack is a mix of rice paper that’s served like a salad with eggs (usually quail), sliced green mango, squid, beef jerky, basil, mint, sometimes shrimp balls, and peanut, as well as a hearty serving of chilis.
Where to try it: Street stalls on Van Kiep Street or Su Van Hanh Street
Banh Mi: Unless you live under a rock, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of, or tried, the famed banh mi sandwich. All cities in the country have their own version, but Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai, a hole-in-the-wall stand on Nguyen Tai, serves up one of the best. The bread is freshly baked and is filled to the brim with grilled sausage, thinly sliced pork, cucumber spears, cilantro, and chili.
Where to try it: Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai, 37 Nguyễn Trãi, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Pho: A staple that can’t be left out, pho varietals can be found all throughout the country. However, don’t confuse the ones you enjoy in Saigon with the ones in Hanoi or Halong Bay—or vice versa. The pho in Saigon is slightly sweeter and fishier.
Where to try it: Pho Le, 414 413, Nguyen Trai Street P.7,Q5, Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam’s capital is nothing short of a street food paradise. The labyrinth of bustling alleyways, motorbike-clogged avenues, and streets of the Old Quarter and the Truc Bach area are full of vendors selling bowls of pungent soups, crispy fried meats glazed with spicy sauces, and veggie-laden rice paper rolls. Like Saigon, street food culture reigns supreme here; however, an international influence can be found in some of its most revered bites.
Bun Oc: Snails are savored in Hanoi, which is why you’ll find bun oc, or snail vermicelli soup, on many local menus. The snails are roasted, dumped into a broth, then mixed with thin rice noodles, green bananas, fried tofu, prawns or fish cakes. Like most soups in town, it’s topped with a big serving of herbs, like mint or basil, and chili sauce.
Where to try it: Bun oc Co Them, 6 Hàng Chai, Hàng Mã, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Cha Ca: As distinctive to Hanoi as bang trang tron is in Saigon, this crispy fried white fish is typically served on a bed of fresh herbs, like dill. The filet itself is seasoned heavily with garlic, ginger, and turmeric, and the fish is served alongside a big bowl of rice noodles, peanuts, spring onions, red chili slices, and a mouthwatering sauce. It’s meant to be mixed together, which is how you’ll see the locals devouring it on Cha Ca Street in the Old Quarter.
Where to try it: Cha Ca Thang Long, 21 Đường Thành Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Bun Rieu: This is comfort food at its best. This creamy soup is much like pho, with big servings of rice vermicelli noodles, crab, and a fresh assortment of herbs, like mint, basil, and dill. The main difference is the broth: Here, it’s tomato-based. You’ll find many renditions of this soup all throughout the city, some with ground pork, minced dried shrimp, and tofu.
Where to try it: Bun Rieu Cua, 40 Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Banh Goi: The perfect street snack for when you’re on the go, banh goi is a fluffy deep fried pastry filled with mushrooms, minced pork, steamed quail eggs, and a spicy seasoning. It’s often served alongside sweet-sour dipping sauces made with garlic, chili, sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce. It also pairs well with a cold Hanoi Beer.
Where to try it: Street food carts in the Old Quarter; or for a vegan option, try Banh Goi Chay, 66B Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoan Kiem District
Nem Chua: A delicacy for locals, nem chua can be hard to stomach for foreign visitors. This raw fermented pork dish is made by mixing ground pork, chilies, sliced garlic, white peppercorns, Thai chilies, sugar, and a spicy seasoning. The garlic, chilies, and sugar are placed inside the pork and rolled up like a sausage, or they’re spread out in a large baking sheet and wrapped in plastic. The whole dish is then fermented for up to three days, sliced into small squares and served inside a banana leaf.
Where to try it: Street food carts in the Old Quarter