Hong Kong Vietnamese chef shares his favourite dishes and 10 places to enjoy them in Ho Chi Minh City
Le Garcon Saigon’s Australian-born chef Bao La takes us on a tour of his go-to food shops and restaurants in the city of his parents’ birth
Bao La, chef of happening Hong Kong restaurant Le Garcon Saigon, was born in Australia, but Vietnamese cuisine is in his blood. His parents emigrated from Ho Chi Minh City to Brisbane, and ran a Vietnamese restaurant there for more than 25 years, occasionally taking the family back to Vietnam to visit relatives.
“Vietnamese food is just everything to me,” La says. Having opened Le Garcon Saigon in Wan Chai, he goes back frequently to delve deeper into the world of Saigon food, and visit his suppliers. He takes us on a tour of his favourite Ho Chi Minh City restaurants.
Breakfast banh mi
A tiny shop with stools on the street, Hoa Ma opens at 5am and only serves breakfast. Its speciality is basically a Vietnamese version of an English fry-up – two sunny side-up eggs, served in the pan, a loaf of crunchy, fluffy banh mi (Vietnamese baguette), cha lua (Vietnamese pork sausage) and paté, “and maybe chilli, soy sauce and Maggi sauce,” says La.
“One thing I also like is to add canned sardines in tomato sauce.”As with most of his favourite places, this is a quan – a shop, rather than a restaurant. He says these places “do one thing, and concentrate on doing it really well. By 10am they’re done for the day.”
Banh Mi Hoa Ma,
53 Cao Thang, Phuong 3, District 3, tel: +84 918 308 798.
“I like places like this. They were open before the [Vietnam] war, and stayed open after the war. Post-war, Vietnam was a struggle, it was super hard, so if a place can survive [you know it’s good].” Best known for their cha gio (spring rolls), La says the key is the rice paper they use. “You can’t beat it. They use fresh rice paper. There’s a science in the difference between frying something like that and [a dry product].” The staff fry the spring rolls and grill barbecued meats across the road on the footpath, which La says is very common. “There’s a lot of frying and grilling – extraction isn’t something you can easily build inside a house, so they just do it outside.”
Bun Thit Nuong Chi Tuyen, 195 Co Giang, Phuong Co Giang, District 1, tel: +84 908 538 079
Banh Cuon – steamed rice paper rolls
“It’s [my dad’s] all-time favourite. When we land, we come here, before leaving, we come here. It’s very close to where he used to live.” La says this started out as a stall in nearby Tan Binh market. It’s now in the hands of the third generation, and has expanded to two shops in the area.
“The grandkids say, ‘This is how mum did it, this is how grandpa did it, [and follow their traditions], but now it’s a new age, so let’s get on the internet, let’s have English menus’, says La. The steamed rice paper rolls are made fresh in the front of the shop. “They pour the batter out, let it steam and then take it off, put the meat in, and roll it up. That’s it,” La says.
Banh Cuon Tay Ho 127 Dinh Tien Hoang, Phuong Da Kao, District 1, tel: +84 8 3820 0584, banhcuontayho.vn
Rice paper rolls with foraged herbs
“They call them jungle herbs, and most of them are from outside the city. The whole notion of Nordic [foraging] – it’s in Vietnamese food too,” La says. Huge platters of herbs arrive with rice paper and fillings such as pork shoulder that’s been poached then sliced. Rarer herbs like fish herb, whose name describes its incredibly pungent sardine-like flavour, betel leaves, culantro and Vietnamese balm are served with Vietnamese coriander, shiso, spring onion, spearmint, coriander and Thai basil.
“The climate is hot and these herbs balance things. You’re sweating and then you add this freshness, it just feels nice,” La says. They also serve a range of sauces, such as pineapple and fermented anchovy, and liver and bean paste, as well as the more common nuoc mam cham (fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and salt).
Hoang Ty 70-72 Vo Van Tan, Phuong 6, District 3, tel: +84 8 3930 5210, nhahanghoangty.com
The full name of the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich is banh mi thit (bread and meat) because banh mi refers only to the bread. Here, it’s made with a variety of cha lua, and gio thu (head cheese), combined with fried shallots, pickles and margarine.
The Vietnamese baguette has a different texture to its French cousin: the crust is thin and brittle, and the crumb tender and fluffy. La says industrial ingredients including bread improvers are used to achieve the texture.
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa 26 Le Thi Rieng, Phuong Ben Thanh, District 1, tel: +84 8 3925 0885
Bun bo Hue
La decided not to serve noodle soups, at Le Garcon Saigon. “I want to show other people that there’s so much more to Vietnamese food,” he says. He does, however, enjoy eating them, especially bun bo Hue. Here, round rice noodles are served in a flavourful, satisfying clear broth of pork, beef and lemon grass, with pig’s trotter, bean sprouts and an abundance of herbs and dried chilli. As the name suggests, the dish comes from Hue, in central Vietnam. “Bun bo Hue is popular down south. The food in Hue is a whole world in itself,” La says.
Bun Bo Hue Chu Ha
300 Vo Van Tan, Phuong 5, District 3, tel: +84 8 3834 0645
Founded by Australian-Vietnamese Jimmy Pham, Koto, which stands for “Know One Teach One”, is a hospitality training centre for disadvantaged youth. Its social enterprise arm runs restaurants and activities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, including a training restaurant that serves a range of Vietnamese and international fare. You can book a cooking class and market tour with the trainees.
La has run fundraisers at Le Garcon Saigon for Koto.
“In a lot of Asian countries, the Western world is always the greener pasture, so a lot of [young people] head off to work in hotels, but for someone to say, ‘Vietnamese food is better than that type of food and this is something I want to do’ [is so encouraging]. The more young Vietnamese who think like that, the better Vietnamese food is going to get.”
39 Le Duan, Ben Nghe, District 1, tel: +84 8 3822 9357
One of the most popular dishes at Le Garcon Saigon is the banh xeo – a large, thin, rice flour, coconut milk and tumeric pancake filled with seafood. This restaurant has expanded into the houses nearby. “The banh xeo here is smaller, the skin is thicker, there’s lots of pork fat, and basically that’s what a banh xeo is: it means ‘sizzling cake,’” La says. These pancakes are shallow-fried in lard, making them incredibly crunchy.
Banh Xeo 46A
46 Dinh Cong Trang, Tan Dinh, District 1, tel:+84 8 3824 1110
Barbecued suckling pig
“The name translates to ‘Grill Village Southern Style’, says La. A gigantic restaurant spread over 5,000 square metres, it really is the size of a village. “They’ve got a barbecue pit out front. They’re famous for their suckling pig. The pigs tend to be smaller than in Hong Kong, they call them ‘milk-fed’ pigs, so they are true suckling pigs.” In addition to barbecue, they offer a huge menu of southern Vietnamese dishes, such as prawns cooked in beer, and goi, which La describes as “like a salad with a base of root vegetables, like jicama, kohlrabi or lotus root.”
Lang Nuong Nam Bo
302A To Hien Thanh, Phuong 15, District 10, tel:+84 918 226 789
Late night seafood barbecue
This rowdy outdoor seafood joint is heaving until midnight.At the front of the stall is a barbecue pit, with octopus, tiger prawns, chicken’s feet and fish all grilling away. Next to it, a pot of hard-boiled hot vit lon (fertilised duck eggs, like balut in the Philippines), and conches cooking in coconut milk. “Vietnam has so much fish, shellfish and coconut,” says La. “Saigon is very close to the ocean, and it’s where the Mekong river ends.”
Oc Oanh 534 Duong Vinh Khanh, Phuong 8, District 4, tel: +84 903 791 61 59