I am a big lover of noodle in any form, from pastas to mee suah (vermicelli) and every other types in between. Noodle will always be my number one comfort food.I had my first bowl of pho while studying in Australia, at a restaurant tucked in a suburb, run by Vietnamese. The minute the waiter placed the bowl of pho in front of me, it was love at first sniff – the steam that wafted from the broth was so fragrant, I smelled heaven. Since then, I can never say no to a meal of pho.
When I finally had the chance to visit the land of pho, I did my research upfront – including asking friends residing in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) for their recommendations – and prepared a list of restaurants to check out. I also learnt a lot more about pho, which I initially thought simply meant noodles but turns out, it is specifically, noodles that are served in a broth cooked from beef and spices.
HCMC is in the south of Vietnam, and their offering is called pho nam (southern pho). Compared to the northern style, the southern style has more varieties of noodles, meat, and broth, not to mention a lot more garnishes such as lime, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, and sauces.
Prices range between VND30,000-80,000 (about USD1.30-3.50). The cheapest pho are the ones served by traditional street vendors and at small local shops that do not have English menus. At the more popular pho restaurants, a bowl sells for between VND60,000-75,000. Malaysians may be taken aback at the prices, which are comparable to what we’re used to paying for a regular bowl of noodles in Kuala Lumpur. But the pho that you will find in HCMC come in generous portions and feature a lot of fresh ingredients. You will realise that you’re actually getting great value for your money!
After eating my way through the city’s numerous restaurants and stalls – for pho and other noodles – I’ve shortlisted the following 6 as my favourite.
Pho Hoa Pasteur
This is one of the city’s most famous pho places, almost everyone I met recommended this joint because of the consistent quality. There were some renovations at the entrance when I visited, but the restaurant was clean and brightly lit. The serving was pretty big, so I ordered one portion to share with my travel partner. The broth is a clear, sweetish soup with a good level of beefy aroma. We added lime and basil leaves and slurped everything up happily. Everything tasted really fresh, and you can tell that there is no MSG. It definitely lived up to the reviews.
Nearby attraction: Turtle Lake is a busy roundabout where the young working class like to gather after 5pm for street food. I tried the Vietnamese Egg Waffle (made using quail egg) there and it was delicious.
Address: 260C Pasteur, phường 8, Quận 3
*On Google Map, it says the restaurant closes at 12pm but I was there at 3PM and it was still open
Bun Bo Ganh
I visited this on the recommendation of a Vietnamese friend, who did warn me that the food may not be consistent. It must have been my lucky day as I really enjoyed the Bun Ho Hue, a thick beef broth noodle that is savoury and similar to a beef stew.
Nearby attractions: HCMC’s iconic landmarks such as Ho Chi Minh Square, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, and BITEXCO Financial Tower (the tallest building in Vietnam) are all within walking distance.
Address: 88 Hồ Tùng Mậu, Bến Nghé, Quận 1
This is my absolute favourite; the soup, which leans towards the sweet side, bursts with flavours and complemented my taste buds perfectly. Although the serving size was huge, I was left craving for more! This is the one place I would go back to again and again.
Nearby attraction: An Dong Handcraft Market is the city’s biggest wholesale market, and they also cater to retail shoppers. There’s an excellent range of apparel, accessories, and also food.
Address: 413-415 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường 7, Quận 5
Big Bowl Saigon
I had time to sneak in another bowl of pho before leaving HCMC, and Big Bowl Saigon proved to be a great choice. I wasn’t expecting much as it’s a fast food joint but to my surprise, the noodles were decent. I wouldn’t go out of my way for this but if you have time to kill or are hungry before catching your flight, go for it!
Address: Level 3, Tan Son Nhat Airport
Pho Hai Thien
This street-front shop is easy to find. Their signature is the 3-coloured pho and rice noodle rolls. The colours are derived from natural vegetable dyes that don’t lend any additional flavours to the noodles, but they do make the food look vibrant and appetising! The place itself was not all that comfortable as the air-conditioner wasn’t functioning well so it felt rather humid. But the food was satisfying and it’s a convenient place to refuel after trawling the nearby evening bazaar.
Nearby attraction: Bui Vien Street is a backpackers’ area with a lively night market. There are also tons of bars, pubs, massage and tattoo parlours that open till the wee hours of the morning.
Address: 14 Bùi Viện, Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1
Opens: 24 hours
Quan Bun Moc Thanh Mai
This place is popular not for pho but pork noodle soup, featuring rice vermicelli. If you want something truly authentic and local, this is it. I had my first breakfast here and was surprised at how filling it was, even though the portion wasn’t big. The vermicelli is topped with several types of pork balls, minced park, pork ribs, and offal. It’s a delicious and hearty way to kick-start a day of exploring.
Nearby attraction: One of HCMC’s best known landmarks and its oldest surviving markets, Ben Thanh Market is worth a visit whether you want to shop for souvenirs (fabrics among the best buys here) or admire its French colonial architecture and clock tower.
Address: 52 Nguyễn An Ninh, Bến Thành, Quận 1
Tip: If you have room in your stomach for another HCMC must-eat, take a 10-minute walk from Ben Thanh Market to reach Banh Mi Hyun Hoa (26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, Quận 1 Opens 2.30pm–dinner), famous for their version of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich with different types of cold cuts and pate, topped with coriander. This is a takeaway-only outlet, so there are no places to sit (and the owner shooed us away for sitting on his little chair!). I really enjoyed the banh mi and was glad I got there 15 minutes before opening time because as soon as they opened, there was a queue. Make sure you go early!