There is a uniquely unrelenting vibrancy to Vietnam, likely borne from its turbulent yet formative past. In Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a surplus of stimuli to fascinate all senses. With motorbikes zipping through the streets in all directions, the sound of food sizzling away at street stalls, and the profound smells of fresh, powerful ingredients flowing freely through the thick, humid air, the largest city in Vietnam has all the ingredients to make a traveling food-lover’s dream come true.
Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure; maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain has spoken of his personal attachment to Vietnam, time and time again: “From the very first time I came to this country, I knew my life had changed… my whole life was suddenly never gonna be enough,” he confessed. Whether it be due in ways to the country’s deeply French influence, or the fact that the faraway land took the eternal escapist, himself, over 8,000 miles away from the familiar, Tony loved Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City.
Anthony Bourdain visited Ho Chi Minh City twice, filming episode 3 of season 1 of A Cook’s Tour and episode 10 of season 5 of No Reservations. These are his only two visits to Vietnam’s largest city, giving us a look into the evolution of his relationship with the country – but he visited other parts of the country many times.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam and want to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain in Ho Chi Minh City, you’ve come to the right place. Below you’ll find a guide to all of the spots visited by Tony in the city, plus what he ate that you can seek out too.
Want to watch the episodes where Anthony Bourdain visits Ho Chi Minh City?
The episode from A Cook’s Tour is available on Amazon, and the No Reservations episode is available on Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV.
A Cook’s Tour (2002)
In what was just his third tv-aired episode of A Cook’s Tour, we find a younger Tony touting a black tank top, jeans, flip flops, messenger bag, and sunglasses. As he stands among the ceaselessly chaotic traffic of Ho Chi Minh’s city streets, all sorts of vehicles blurring past, Tony describes the underlying feeling seeping in – a feeling that only comes from a place so thoroughly combed through by occupation and war – in this case, a meeting of two intensely different worlds, with all the poise and mystique of the French, mixed in with the robust intensity of southeast Asia to enhance and amplify it.
Ben Thanh Market
In Ho Chi Minh’s largest and busiest central market, Ben Thanh Market, Tony finds himself entering through the live poultry section. Enchanting smells come from different food stalls in each direction, competing with one another for attention. Tony notes that while the lack of neat, plastic-wrapped animal meat may be rather off-putting to the average American, there is a significant sense of honesty and respect surrounding food, its purpose, and reality in Vietnam. The market vendors are proud of the foods they serve, and understand deeply the sacrifice taken to make said food.
Vietnamese food culture is known for its focus on consumption for the sake of gaining strength and other various sought-after traits. Certain foods in particular are thought to carry within them powers that can be transferred when ingested. Though Tony first sits down for a bowl of Phở (a Vietnamese noodle soup of various variations of meats, broths, and toppings), he soon finds what he came to the market for in the first place: hột vịt lộn – a fetal duck egg.
A popular Vietnamese snack believed to enhance male virility, the duck embryo is matured past half term and then soft-boiled. Eaten directly out of the cracked shell, Tony admits it won’t become a go-to snack of his any time soon, but nonetheless praises the vast variety of Vietnamese cuisine for its unrivaled freshness and world of flavors.
Cháo mực Thanh Sơn
Next, Tony takes a ride with a cyclo driver to grab a bowl of cháo mực (squid soup). Here Tony delves deeper into a discussion on Vietnamese cuisine’s attention to the perfect balance of regional flavors – hot, sour, salty, and sweet. As he spoons the soup, he lists off the ingredients he observes squid, bread – which he compares to cut-up baguette (bánh quẩy) –, cilantro, and pork blood cakes, similar to those that one might find in Portugal and other parts of Europe.
As he enjoys the dish while sitting on the curb outside, he comments on the cheerful stoicism and generosity in the faces of passersby, which he sees reflected into the food of the country.
Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn
In a “one of a kind” family-style restaurant, Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn, Tony meets with Madame Gao, the woman who opened the restaurant. Tony shares that it’s quite typical to find older women in command of restaurants and their teams all around Vietnam. He points out that, here, there exist details in every corner of the restaurant which only other lifer-cooks would ever notice, touching on the deep respect he has for such establishments.
The selling point of the restaurant is an arguably gimmicky but nevertheless entertaining specialty – Cơm Niêu, i.e. flying rice. This is a traditional way of baking rice in clay pots, which are then smashed in order to reveal a deliciously crisp rice pilaf, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. In the scene, Tony watches as waiters throw clay pots across the length of the room to one another, then tossing, cutting, and adding to each a freehanded serving of Nước Chấm (fish sauce) and scallions.
For Tony, this dish is followed up with canh chua (sour fish soup), thịt kho trứng (cuts of pork with dill and tea-marinated hard-cooked eggs), lobster in sweet paprika sauce, crab stir fry in sweet basil, steamed tiger prawns, and zucchini blossoms stuffed with ground pork, dipped in batter and deep-fried.
Throwing around words such as ‘fresh,’ ‘crisp,’ ‘powerful,’ and ‘seductive’ to describe the foods, Tony states that these are “the sort of food[s] that westerners who go to Vietnam time and time again come back raving about.” Recognizing these types of dishes as the best examples of Vietnamese cuisine, he finishes off the meal with a palette cleanser consisting of Mãng Cầu (custard apple) and chilled mango.
Thu Vien Bibliotheque Cafe (La Bibliothèque)
Referred to by Tony as a “piece of France in the heart of Saigon” and “a restaurant that embodies the past,” La Bibliothèque was opened by Madame Dai in 1975. Vietnamese by blood, Madame Dai was raised and educated mainly in France, speaks fluent French, and was the first female lawyer in Vietnam. When the communists took over South Vietnam, she turned her law offices into a cafe which quickly became a regular meeting place for dignitaries, ambassadors, and spies, alike.
While showing Tony around the dining room, Dai points out a photo of a previous pope who ate at the restaurant. Her kitchen team is composed of decades-loyal collaborators, including a woman who once worked as the nanny of Dai’s own child.
Here, Tony indulges in Bò nướng lá lốt (beef wrapped in lolot/betel leaf), pork, rice noodles, spring rolls, and – hinting to the French connections of the place and people – a classic creme caramel dessert. Finally, to top it off, Madame Dai presents a specially-made snake wine which is, again, claimed to make one stronger.
Nhà Hàng Hương Rừng
Staying on the beat of empowering foods, Tony makes a visit to Huong Rung, which translates to “flavors of the forest,” for a specialty: palpitating cobra heart. As Tony (and several servers) sit back and watch with awe, a group of men present, apprehend, and cut open zipper-style a live cobra snake. The heart is swiftly retrieved, still beating, and Tony swallows it whole, remarking on how it’s surprisingly warm and continuously pulsating as it goes down.
But, that’s not all – Tony assures us that the rest of the snake is certainly not going to go to waste. The Vietnamese are known to utilize every part of the snake’s body for various strength-granting dishes, including the blood (which Tony drinks from what looks like a digestif glass), bile (served in a wine glass), fried bones (“crunchy and delicious… like potato chips, only sharper”), meat (nothing special, tastes like chicken), skin (unpleasantly rubbery), and tripe (which Tony notes as the worst of the bunch, “like eating a condom still in its package”).
In addition, a curry-based cobra soup is served, which Tony finds exceptional, followed finally by a deep-fried tree grub – first presented live and squirming, of course – which he describes as crunchy on the outside, and creamy on the inside, “just like a twinkie.”
Other items on the menu here include roasted field mouse, lizard, chameleon, mint bat, and something called a “teal.” Though quite foreign and many times shocking to the western palate, Vietnamese cuisine is not so different from parts of our own, such as raw oysters, foie gras, and caviar, Tony reminds us viewers. While popular Vietnamese foods often come with an initial fright, the concepts behind them are many of the same as those we’ve grown familiar with, ourselves.
No Reservations (2009)
Kicking off with its own “the following program contains content that may be inappropriate for some viewers” warning, you just know Tony is about to delve into the nitty gritty of Vietnam’s cuisine, once again.
Embarking on a journey of makeshift one-man karaoke bars and boy fire-eaters, Tony proves from the outset that you’re in for a good one. The episode itself starts with a scene in which Vietnamese locals sit around a fire telling the legend of Tu Thuc, a man “born to travel.” Reflections on Tony’s work, life, and impact on the exposure of Vietnamese cuisine along with so many others around the world who would have otherwise remained foreign and unseen come to the surface.
Cut to the reality of Ho Chi Minh City’s unrelenting streets in daylight, Tony speaks to the all too familiar neverending traffic and smell of Vietnamese coffee wafting through the atmosphere of his home away from home.
Tony first indulges in Bahn Xeo (“Bahn” meaning “cake” and “Xeo” referring to the sizzling sound produced by the batter cooking on the pan).
These crepes are just one remnant the French left behind, however, and have evolved to feature instead common Vietnamese ingredients, including pork, seafood, saffron, bean sprouts, and coconut juice. The crepes are paired with fresh herbs and spices, providing the cuisine’s defining level of crispness, freshness, and vibrancy.
Tony points out the stunning colors of Vietnamese dishes laid on the table and explains that this food can and should only be eaten exactly how it is – al fresco – outside, by the busy street, glancing into moments of the daily lives of passersby.
Bien Chung Han
That night, Tony makes a visit to District 4’s Vinh Khanh Food Street (otherwise known as “ốc” or “snail” street), an avenue lined only at night with food carts, market stalls, and street performers, known specifically for its snail vendors. As open flames are technically illegal, all shut down in a flash at the sight of an oncoming police car. Then, just moments later, everyone gathers to set up shop, as if undisturbed, once more.
Here he enjoys Ốc Hương Rang Me (roasted butter snails with tamarind sauce) and a glass of beer over ice followed by chicken feet and freshwater crabs (the shell can and should be eaten!), each popping onto the counter at the ring of a bell. As Tony chows down, he jokes that only wet, colorful, splattering, shirt-endangering food can be eaten here, and it’s all so worth it.
The Lunch Lady (Nguyễn Thị Thành)
The next day, Tony meets up with his old boss, Les Halles owner, Philippe Lajuanie, and heads over to the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Channel via Soviet-era Ural Sidecar motorcycle to try a bowl of the highly sought-after soup made by someone called “the lunch lady.”
In a tucked away area of the city, seemingly silent and serene, only a lucky 100 or so people get a chance to dine with the lunch lady each day. With a regularly cycling menu of soups, Tony and Philippe are served the day’s special: Bún bò Huế (Hue-style beef with pork blood), “a broth that the gods were suckled on,” Tony comments after just one slurp. Costing a mere 75 cents American equivalent, the soup is met by all silent devourers, which Philippe notes is always a good sign.
People are put on earth for various purposes. I was put on earth to do this: Eat noodles right here.Anthony Bourdain
Ho Chi Minh Food Tours to Try
While you can certainly create your own plan to visit all of the spots visited by Anthony Bourdain in Ho Chi Minh City, a food tour is another great way to sample lots of flavors with a guide to help you make the most of it. While Tony wasn’t one for food tours, here are a few that seem to have the same adventurous spirit about helping you explore and try new flavors.
Have any other questions about where Anthony Bourdain ate in Ho Chi Minh City? Let me know in the comments!