Saigon classics: the stories behind Ho Chi Minh City's oldest eateries

Thanh Nien News

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Some of Ho Chi Minh City's best food shops are still open, and busy, after more than 70 years.
One shop on an alley on Cao Thang Street -- a three minute motorbike ride from Ben Thanh Market--redefined “banh mi” (baguette) thusly:

It is not a fast food, no.

And it is definitely not takeaway.

Instead, customers queue up happily to sit and wait on their plastic stools, for a sizzling skillet loaded with a fried egg and an assortment of meats.

The eggs are usually served runny (unless one orders otherwise) allowing customers to mop up the near-orange yolks with a piece of bread, or scallions (white parts only).

A mixed dish with extra fried pork pie, ham, and pâté is available, just take your time.
Pickles are also served and tea is on the house.
The cooking is done in the small house facing the street at No.53, but customers sit in a row along one side of the adjacent alley.
Their motorbikes get parked along the other.
The shop opened in 1958 at a nearby location and moved to the current one two years later.
Its signboard “Hoa Ma” has faded significantly and the lady who owns the place is now more than 80 years old.
She still begins every day by slicing up hunks of pork pie; though the current boss is a chubby woman in her 50s with a boyish haircut.
Most of her regulars have come to think of the way she barks orders and shoves waiters toward hungry customers as part of the fun of eating there.
The shop is open from 6 to 10 in the morning. Each serving costs around US$2.
Meanwhile, on the other side of District 1, a family at 17 Dinh Tien Hoang Street has been serving their special banh cuon (rice paper roll) recipe since 1961. 
“Banh cuon Tay Ho” was opened by Tran Thi Ca (1919-1996).
The dish basically consists of a steamed rice crepe rolled around a filling of minced pork, wood ear mushroom and onions.
It is traditionally served in the north with a meat soup; in the south, however, it's dunked or drowned in a sweet and spicy fish sauce blended by the diner.
Tay Ho takes its name from Hanoi’s famous West Lake and its loyal customers come back for the special blend of spices in the meat filling.
A bit southwest of Tay Ho, at the far end of Pasteur Street, sits one of the most famous Pho shops in town.
“Pho Hoa” was ranked 91 of the 1,276 Saigon restaurants listed on TripAdviser. Many consider it one of the best restaurants, worldwide, to serve the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, which just recently entered the pages of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Cao Thi Xiem said the shop bears the name of the old man who gave an old noodle cart (and his recipe) to her family after pushing it all through the war.
Xiem, now in her 60s, said her family kept the name as they admired the man, who pushed his cart nearly 20 kilometers from what's now Go Vap District to Pasteur street -- every day.
“Hoa had a special charm as his cart was always crowded despite dozens of competitors,” Xiem told Khoa Hoc Va Doi Song newspaper.
Pasteur was the city’s pho street during that time--more than ten carts lined it's handful of kilometers.
Her family has stayed true to Hoa’s recipe and has stayed busy since they opened.
She and her mother and stepfather pushed the cart out onto the street at around 4pm and closed near midnight, at the sound of the second police siren. 
The first was a warning that the curfew was about to go into effect.
“There were nights when the second siren came and we still had a lot of customers waiting, so we and the customers just ran together. It’s lucky they were all regulars so they understood. Otherwise, given the conditions, people would never come back.”
The now
 two-story shop, at number 260C, has come recommended for its tender meat, tasty soup and good service ever since.

They receive a lot of foreign customers, mostly Japanese and Korean.

Some have complained about a perceived decline in quality and tidiness, but few argue the iconic shop isn't worth a visit.
While pho was traditionally considered a rich man’s dish, sticky rice (xoi) was known as a peasant staple.
The notions seems to still hold true, as the most famous sticky rice destination in the city remains a push cart, branded Tam Cau.

The cart has occupied the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Cao Thang streets in District 3 for more than 60 years now, serving as a lifesaver for students and office workers in need of a quick breakfast.
The sticky rice is cooked with coconut water and served with boiled pork, in addition to other ingredients like quail eggs, pork pie, pâté, aromatic leaves, and soy sauce.
Ha Thi Luong, the daughter of Tam Cau inherited her dad's sticky rice cart after a lifetime of helping him with his business.
That's how she knows how to find good pork at the early morning market, how to soak it in salt and garlic and how to boil it to perfection. She also says that's how she knows just when to add the coconut milk into her sticky rice.
“When he died, many regular customers still came by looking for his sticky rice, so I thought I'd take the job.”
Luong sells 15-20 kilograms of sticky rice a day, charging less than a dollar a serving. She earns enough to feed her family and keep two kids in college.
Still sweet
Ly Thanh Ha by a sweet soup cart in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5 that was opened and passed down by a Chinese woman who adopted her grandmother. Photo credit: VnExpress

Chau Giang shop, has sold sweet, Chinese-style dessert cocktails (che) since a Chinese refugee and her adopted daughter moved to Cho Lon,dubbed as Chinatown, in the 1930s.

A Guangdong native who lost her entire family during the war adopted the little girl and decided to bring her up.

Ly Thanh Ha, the granddaughter of that adopted girl, now runs the sweet cart in Dong Khanh mall in District 5, the city’s Chinatown.
The shop opens at 4 pm and doesn't close until midnight.
Ha serves more than 20 types of che from chi ma phu (black sesame porridge) to che troi nuoc (sticky rice balls stuffed with mung bean or minced coconut flesh).
According to the family story, the Phung Hanh Phan (the Chinese refugee) and her adopted daughter (whom she named Ly Ai Quynh) spent several difficult years in the north before someone told them they'd have an easier time making a living in the south.
They went to Saigon but found it no better.
They lived on the sidewalks and worked for food.
After many days wandering by food shops, she suddenly determined to open one herself.
She put all her money into a pot of sweet mung bean porridge, using the formula passed down from her late mother and sold it at what is now the crossroads between Chau Van Liem and Nguyen Trai streets.
The porridge was an instant hit.
So she went on with the business until she saved up enough for a push cart and rented room.
When the colonial French government decided to clear out street vendors, she had to hide her cart during the day and continue selling at night with just a few seats.
She survived the harsh period and her push cart now has a registered location.
Ha said she took over the cart more than ten years ago.
Her mother has taught her to carefully choose her ingredients and prepare the desserts since she was a little girl.
She has expanded the original menu, which now includes unusual dessert porridges, such as her chicken egg and chestnut powder.
Ha said her recipes remain a family secret despite numerous generous offers.
The shop has become an important place for generations. Customers continue to arrive to tell Ha stories about the place that she never knew.
“And thanks to those emotions that have survived a long time, I have no intention of leaving this place, though I can afford to open a bigger shop in a better location.”

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