Our first order of business in HCMC was to eat pho and lots of it. So for our first Vietnamese meal we headed to Nha Hang Ngon which offers classic street food flavors in a refurbished French villa. Reminiscent of Singapore’s famed hawker centers, Nha Hang Ngon features dozens of food stalls, each specializing in a particular dish. The stalls surround a covered patio where diners relax in the tropical setting. (Additional seating is available throughout the villa.)
After perusing the stalls and the extensive menu, we both went with pho bo as our main dish. The hearty beef noodle soup is a Vietnamese staple, often eaten for breakfast, and Nha Hang Ngon’s version is among the best we had during our trip. The beef was tender and not too fatty, and swimming in a rich, herbaceous broth. We ordered shrimp spring rolls and a green papaya salad to accompany the noodles. The salad was delicious, full of herbs, peanuts and dried beef, and topped with a tantalizing swirl of sriracha hot sauce. I was less enamored with the spring rolls.
We loved our first meal so much that we ended up dining at Nha Hang Ngon three times during our stay in HCMC. It was an easy walk from our hotel and we loved the relaxed setting. But mostly we loved the food. My favorite dish ended up being the beef noodle soup with tomatoes. It was incredibly savory and deeply satisfying. We tried several versions of the spring rolls and salads, and were never disappointed. Just save the traditional Vietnamese coffee for the end of the meal – that is some potent stuff!
When visiting a new place, I like to seek out locales and experiences that are unique to that place. So when I read about an old opium refinery in HCMC that had been turned into a dining and nightlife complex, I knew we had to go. Hoa Tuc, meaning “opium poppy” in Vietnamese, serves up food that is vibrant and representative of dishes we would continue to eat throughout our trip. We sat in the open-air courtyard and every table was full by the end of our meal. We chatted with the couple sitting next to us who proclaimed Hoa Tuc one of their favorite restaurants in HCMC. Now it’s one of ours as well.
We started with steamed clams in a ginger and lemongrass broth, served in a clay pot. This dish was so flavorful and tantalizing that I seriously considered ordering a second helping. We also tried two different kinds of prawns: coconut prawn fritters and barbecue prawn skewers. Both were excellent, but the fritters were decidedly less messy. The skewered prawns were still in their shell, which meant that most of the delicious marinade came off on our fingers when we ungracefully peeled them at the table. But they were cooked to perfection and tasted just-caught fresh so the mess was a worthwhile endeavor.
The beef salad with kumquat came recommended and did not disappoint. It had a refreshing citrus tang while still being savory enough to enjoy with our shrimp. For dessert, we tried the banana fritters with chocolate sauce – one of the specials – and the sesame sticky rice balls stuffed with bean paste. We preferred the former, though the black sesame rice ball was also rather tasty.
We wanted to squeeze in one last meal before leaving Ho Chi Minh City, so we headed to the Temple Club for a late lunch. Set on the second floor of a refurbished 1880s guest house, Temple Club’s atmosphere combines elements of sophisticated old world glamour and Southeast Asian spirituality. The beautiful tile floors, dark wood panels, saloon-style bar and bathrooms look like they could have been original to the space. Our table was on the sunny terrace and it made a perfect spot for lunch. In the evening I bet it’s quite romantic.
Temple Club specializes in fusing the varied cuisines that once made up Indochina – Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Indian, and French. We started with the steamed clams with lemongrass and garlic, a classic Vietnamese dish I hope to recreate at home. Next I had the crispy pork rolls stuffed with spring onions and topped with juicy bits of fresh pineapple, cilantro and candied orange peel. A vibrant orange sauce tied it all together. My dining companion, meanwhile, ordered the Temple Club noodles. The signature dish came loaded with prawns and fried chicken, whose breading crumbled off into the delicious broth in a most appealing way. The flavors in this meal were a revelation, each mouthful a step towards enlightenment. If we’d had another day in HCMC, we would have gone back to try more of the creative fare.
For a full-on French feast, head to Augustin restaurant, conveniently located near the HCMC Opera House. We started with wine, bread and salad, and then shared the decadent crab gratin. My date ordered the fabulous stewed rabbit with bacon and carrots in a red wine sauce for his entree. While at first I was a little envious, my sauteed duck breast with creamy mushroom sauce got better with every bite.
If there is anything warm and chocolaty on the dessert menu, it must be mine. (And if there isn’t any such thing on the menu, it should be added immediately.) Augustin’s interpretation came floating on a sea of creme anglaise and was gooey in all the right places. I did not share. My date went with the impressively towering Grand Marnier souffle, which I didn’t taste as I was too busy with the aforementioned piece of chocolate heaven. And because no French meal would be complete without an after-dinner drink, we rounded out the experience with port and brandy. C’est magnifique!
The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine did not stop at souffle and crepes. Baguettes, introduced to the region by French colonists, are omnipresent in Vietnam and sold everywhere from cafes to bicycle peddlers to stands on the side of the highway. But instead of ham and cheese, the Vietnamese banh mi feature slices of pork pâté, sausage or meatballs, cucumber and cilantro, assorted pickled vegetables, mayonnaise and chilies. They are great for breakfast or lunch – or after a late night at the bar.
Nha Hang Ngon Address: 138 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Nghé, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Pricing: dishes average 35,000-90,000 VND (about 3-5 USD)
Hua Tuc Address: 74/7 Hai Bà Trưng, Bến Nghé, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Pricing: entrees 65,000-310,000 VND (3-15 USD)
Temple Club Address: 29 Tôn Thất Thiệp, Bến Nghé, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Pricing: entrees 59,000-98,000 VND (about 3-5 USD)
Augustin Address: 10 Nguyễn Thiệp, Bến Nghé, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Pricing: appetizers 60,000-300,000 VND (3-15 USD); entrees 160,000-330,000 VND (8-16 USD)