Just as in Hanoi, I had little interest in experiencing the bustling city life of Saigon – except for the street food. Pho was my vice of choice in the North- and bahn mi was what I was intent on eating here. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Before the trip, I researched where to go: checking all the major critics, reports in the WSJ, Travel Channel, Anthony Bourdain, TripAdvisor, and a local blog, Eating Saigon, for the most recent info. Bahn mi is typically a breakfast food, but some places serve it in the afternoon. And since we arrived in the afternoon, having skipped lunch, we needed a place open later.
So we started with the bahn mi Joe from Eating Saigon suggested – Hyunh Hoa on 26 Le Thi Rieng (Dist. 1) – and no, it wasn’t because we were starving. It was just seriously good. At 30,000 VND ($1.50) – it rivals sandwiches I’ve had that cost 10 times as much. And they’re open from 3:30 pm till midnight!
We walked a few blocks to a nearby park where we shared a sandwich, scarfing it down too fast for a picture which wouldn’t have turned out well anyway because they serve it in paper.
We had shared the sandwich so we wouldn’t be too full to taste the next on our list – Banh Mi 37. A local favorite on TripAdvisor, it happened to be a couple blocks from Hyunh Hoa at 37 Nguyen Trai and also open in the late afternoon.
This was a real street cart.
It was mostly a sausage sandwich- tiny little grilled pork sausages topped with cucumber and spicy sauce, if you want it (and you do). Not a traditional version by any means, but a popular spot with locals who have a drive-up system as they wait on their motorbikes. The sandwiches are excellent and super cheap at 15,000 VND. But I would’ve gladly paid more for more pate.
Hungry one morning and with no time to go running around before our Mekong Delta tour (post to come), we walked around near our allegedly 4-star hotel in District 1 searching for a busy place. A block or so before the river we found a bakery and place to purchase deli meat for bahn mi – SCORE!
But since we didn’t have time to purchase individual ingredients or space to assemble our own, we purchased our bahn mi from a stall right in front of the bakery for 25,000 VND each (A little more than $1). (Yes, I was a little distraught but managed to get over it after a Vietnamese iced coffee pick-me-up.)
The bread and cucumber were fresh and crispy.
And the pate and sriracha were good enough, but the lackluster cold cuts made this a typical version – perfectly fine for the reasonable price and location. But this was nothing spectacular – and certainly did not rival what we had the day before – so not bothering to tell you where you can get an average banh mi. (Just find any busy place on a street corner. It’ll be perfectly acceptable.)
Of course on our last morning, when we had a little extra time, we had to try the morning spots recommended on the WSJ blog. First (and what we were hoping to be the only) was Thanh Mai Hoang at Truong Dinh between Ngo Thoi Nhiem and Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3.
But after a LONG and HOT walk (at least we passed a few sights on the way) – the place wasn’t open. As it turns out, she now opens in the afternoon. And not one person managed to figure this out or update the online info. Quite surprising and disappointing in this digital age. (Irritated throat clearing.)
So we went to the next spot on the list – Hoa Ma Quan, 53 Cao Thang, District 3, which also happens to be one of the oldest.
It was our last sandwich of the trip before we went to the airport to fly home. And after the madness, it was worth it – a truly great sandwich for 30,000 VND (although I feel like we got money back for ordering 2).
Although we asked for spice, we didn’t have much – and it was still good. The quality of the meat/pate on the one at Hyunh Hoa was better (and that was our favorite), but this wasn’t disappointing by any means – and it was very filling. I ate half and saved the rest for the wait at the airport. It still tasted good an hour later: the true measure of a great sandwich.
But the most important lesson I learned is that in Saigon these delicious sandwiches are NOT merely breakfast food anymore. The best places are open late in the afternoon and into the night. Proving that maybe there is a normal drinking crowd somewhere in Saigon. Maybe we can find it on our next trip …