Food Scene: Saigon

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Cooking lessons at the former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam's home.

Taste of Saigon

Street food, cooking lessons, and where to eat and stay in Vietnam’s largest city.

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Bot chien, rice flour cakes with egg and green papaya.
Saigon's skyline from the AB Tower.

Story by Carol Pucci
Photography by Lauryn Ishak
 
“If you want food and culture, Vietnam is a great place to go. It’s safe, it’s welcoming, and it’s a very comfortable place in Asia for the first-timer.” – Kasra Esteghamat, Virtuoso travel advisor, Long Beach, California
 
French, Chinese, and Vietnamese cultures come together in South Vietnam’s former capital, renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the North Vietnamese in 1976, but still called Saigon by many. Once part of French Indochina and now the country’s buzzing business hub, this city of 8 million caters to a demand for creative cuisine with everything from European bakeries to streetside snack stalls and rooftop restaurants.
 
Saigon is divided into 24 urban districts, but most of what there is to see and do lies in compact and walkable District 1, home to modern skyscrapers, street vendors, designer boutiques, and colonial monuments. The center of the action is the upscale Dong Khoi shopping street, leading in one direction to the French-style Notre Dame Cathedral and in the other to a breezy waterfront promenade along the Saigon River. 
 
1. Cooking Lessons
Chef Bui Van Dam’s private cooking class, arranged by Virtuoso’s on-site tour operator starts at the city’s biggest public market, then moves to a French Quarter villa – the former residence of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in the 1960s. Gardens and shade trees surround an outdoor kitchen on the patio. Inside, open, airy rooms are decorated with many of Lodge’s Vietnam War-era photos, furniture, and mementos.
 
For our lesson, my husband and I put on aprons and begin blending a fragrant filling of seafood, veggies, and spices for deep-fried spring rolls. “Fold left. Fold right, then roll,” Dam instructs as we wrap the mixture in delicate sheets of rice paper. Next we make a batter with rice flour, turmeric, and coconut milk for banh xeo, savory Vietnamese crepes filled with tiny shrimp and shreds of white radishes, carrots, and pork. A stock for a sweet-and-sour prawn soup simmers on the stove next to fish, which has been caramelized with sugar and spices.
 
When it’s time to eat, chef Dam joins us for lunch at a long table in the formal dining room, where the former ambassador entertained official guests. We wrap bits of the pancakes in torn lettuce leaves and add fresh cilantro and basil and a squeeze of lime. The spring rolls, crispy and hot, are served with a fish sauce sweetened with sugar and spiced with chilies and garlic. 
 
2. Street Food Tour – by Scooter
We’re back down to earth the next evening as we zip around town on the backs of motor scooters. Our guides take us to a residential neighborhood, where laundry and Vietnamese flags hang from crumbling apartment buildings, for a tour of street food stalls. A taxi tour is an option, but given the traffic and lack of crosswalks, we put our trust in the guides, who deftly steer the scooters away from the main drags and into narrow streets lined with family-run snack stalls.
 
One stand specializes in fresh spring rolls filled with thin rice noodles, veggies, and herbs. Another offers grilled fish with pickled vegetables and French green beans. We sample bite-size rectangles of crispy rice topped with fried egg, green onion, and fresh papaya; and “Vietnamese pizza,’’ a sheet of rice paper sprinkled with black sesame seeds and a sweet tamarind sauce.
 
3. Cafés and Bars
Saigon’s street food is fun and usually safe to eat. More often, though, the hot weather calls for cooling off in cafés and restaurants away from the noise and crowds. Stylish young locals chatting on cell phones and tapping on laptops gather for coffee and eggs Benedict at L’Usine, a boutique, gallery, and café inside an arcade overlooking the opera house.
 
On busy Dong Khoi Street, shoppers take a break at Khanhcasa, a French-inflected teahouse decorated with elegant sofas, lamps, and ceiling fans.
 
Tucked into a courtyard in a former opium refinery near the Park Hyatt Saigon is Hoa Tuc, with a user-friendly menu of contemporary Vietnamese dishes. Try the homemade pan-fried tofu with fresh mint and lime, and the barbecued sea bass with avocado-mango salsa and steamed sweet potatoes.
Stylish bars overlook the city and Saigon River.
 
In-the-know travelers make the most of afternoon happy hours on the rooftops of colonial-era hotels and the upper stories of high-rise office buildings. Chill Skybar, on the top two floors of the AB Tower near Ben Thanh market, is still the place for a drink at sunset. Arrive early to snag a terrace table near the illuminated-from-within bar, with a view of the city lights and flashing ribbons of rush-hour traffic.
 
4. Where to Stay
Overlooking the opera house in District 1, the Park Hyatt Saigon has 245 rooms and suites, some with direct pool access. Don’t miss the continental-meets-Vietnamese breakfast buffet and a martini or a dish of palm-sugar ice cream in the piano lounge.
 
The top floors of District 1’s Times Square Building, the 286-room, Italian-themed Reverie Saigon fronts pedestrianized Nguyen Hue Boulevard near the Saigon River. Italian mosaics, crystal chandeliers, and marble staircases evoke an exclusive private club.

Originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Virtuoso Life.