INTRODUCTION | REVIEW | MAP | RELATED POSTS
There are thousands of soup houses in Saigon: these are just two of them, but they are good ones, and they both offer three different kinds of soups. For me, one of the best things about living in Vietnam, and Saigon in particular, is the availability of excellent food in unpretentious surroundings at reasonable prices. Serendipitously stumbling upon a new place to eat while out on some errand in the city is an weekly occurrence in Saigon. Of the following two soup houses, one is a local favourite of mine, close to my home in Binh Thanh District; the other is a ‘random encounter’, where I had the good fortune to take lunch while my tennis rackets were being restrung in a sports shop across the street, in District 2.
REVIEW: TWO SAIGON SOUP HOUSES
These two Saigon soup houses are at once typical and exceptional: typical because they’re representative of the kind of informal dining and complex dishes intrinsic to Vietnamese culinary culture; exceptional because, well, because eating at either of these places makes me very happy. The soup houses are located on either side of the Saigon River and are connected via the Saigon Bridge. The first, Cô Ba Lài, is on D1 Street in Binh Thanh District; the second, Hưng Ký, is on Tran Nao Street in District 2. On this page I’ve written a brief introduction to each of the two soup houses, followed by an illustrated guide to their menus, and both soup houses are plotted on my map. (For more guides to soups in Saigon take a look at the Related Posts, and don’t forget to slurp those noodles.)
Click a name below to read more about it:
- CÔ BA LÀI SOUP HOUSE (Binh Thanh District)
- HƯNG KÝ SOUP HOUSE (District 2)
Two Saigon Soup Houses:
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SOUP HOUSE: CÔ BA LÀI
Address: A12 D1 Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]
Price: 30,000-40,000vnd ($1-$2) | Open: 5:30am-1:30pm daily
I’ve been eating at Cô Ba Lài soup house for the last 3 years, ever since I moved into a house around the corner. The family who own and run the soup house are originally from Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta. They used to run a noodle shop in the Delta before moving to Saigon 8 years ago. Altogether they’ve been serving noodle soup for nearly 20 years. This soup house is very presentable: real tables and chairs (not plastic), real crockery and cutlery (not plastic), and they even make their own chilli sauce. It’s also very clean: the family are proud of the cleanliness of their noodle shop and the quality of their food and ingredients. (Note: the house number, A12, is almost invisible, so look out for the red and white sign saying ‘Cô Ba Lài’: it’s directly opposite the B’s Mart convenience store.)
Click one of the soups below to read more about it:
- Bánh Mì Bò Kho (beef stew & baguette)
- Bún Bò Giò Heo (beef & pig trotter noodle soup)
- Phở Bò (beef noodle soup)
Bánh Mì Bò Kho (beef stew & baguette): A homey, comforting dish, bánh mì bò kho is an aromatic beef broth – a mild curry of sorts – with a crusty baguette for dunking. This is a dish that has to be good to be, well, good. And the one at Cô Ba Lài is good. It’s thicker, richer, heavier, and chunkier than the watery, insipid versions that you sometimes get in lesser soup houses. It looks good too: rustic, real, and raw, like a still life painting of a peasant’s breakfast in medieval Europe. The soothing notes of five-spice and herbs fill the humid air. Tear up some sweet basil leaves and sprigs of sawtooth coriander to add a menthol note to the broth. Squeeze in a wedge of lime or two and add a sliced chilli to the mix – for colour if not for spice. Break off a hunk of crusty bread and sponge up the bò kho. When the dunking’s over, employ a spoon to pick up the tender cubes of slow-cooked beef and chunks of crunchy carrot. (If you’re really hungry, you can order this dish with noodles too: hủ tiếu bò kho or mì gói bò kho – it’s incredibly filling and a great hangover cure.)
Bún Bò Giò Heo (beef & pig trotter noodle soup): A central Vietnamese soup that’s become a favourite all over the nation, bún bò is a zesty, spicy, tangy, citrusy concoction of lemongrass, chilli, sliced beef brisket, and rice noodles. At Cô Ba Lài the beef is supplemented with a large pig’s trotter, which takes centre stage in the middle of the bowl, on top of the noodles, and continues to impart its flavour to the broth as you eat your way through the dish. The broth has a real kick to it, but it’s not as spicy as some connoisseurs might expect of this dish. However, you can perk it up a bit, if needs be, with a handful of sliced fresh chillies. The side dish of blanched morning glory weed and bean sprouts gives the soup a good, healthy crunch, and the herbs (as always) introduce those all important, typically southern, menthol notes. A squeeze of lime really ties all the flavours together. What I particularly like about this dish here, is that the bún – the rice noodles – are thicker than usual. They’re somehow meatier, chunkier, and more fun to bite into. When it’s finally time to get your teeth into the pig’s trotter (I save mine until last) it should be all melting fat and tender, buttery meat around a big, marrow-filled bone. However, this is not always the case, because Vietnamese diners as a rule love ‘chewy’, so you may find your trotter a little tough.
Phở Bò (beef noodle soup): The global superstar of Vietnamese cuisine, this famous beef noodle soup can be found all over the country. We can all argue endlessly about where serves the best phở in the Saigon (as I have done here), but that’s not really the point. There’s no gold standard for phở, no criteria that all phở must meet; it’s far too big and complex a dish for that. The phở at Cô Ba Lài is good and I like it: that’s all that really needs to be said. Served in a deeper, thicker bowl than the other soups (presumably to keep the heat and flavour in), the wholesome, meaty, spicy, herby aromas never fail to excite my senses. The noodles are silky and smooth, and the broth is a nice balance of star anise and beef bones. The meat is plentiful and good – I particularly like the beef balls (bò viên) here. Adding the herbs, lime, bean sprouts, and a slice of fresh chilli really lifts the dish – these are the high notes in an otherwise deep and meaty taste experience. It’s intensely satisfying, and that’s all you ask from a good bowl of phở.
SOUP HOUSE: HƯNG KÝ
Address: 138 Tran Nao Street, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]
Price: 30,000-35,000vnd ($1.50) | Open: 6am-2pm & 4pm-9pm daily
Hưng Ký has only been open for 10 months. I’m a relative newbie at this soup house, but I liked it immediately. The owner is Chinese-Vietnamese: she lives near Chợ Lớn, in Saigon’s Chinatown, where she used to sell ginseng tea before starting her noodle soup business. Some of the dishes at Hưng Ký reflect the owner’s Chinese roots. Seating is inside on metallic stools at metallic tables on a tiled floor. It’s a cool, calm, quiet, and clean dining area. (Note: once again, the house number, 138, is almost invisible because the signage is obscured by electrical cables. But look for the yellow and red sign on the sidewalk saying ‘Hưng Ký’ – it’s between a cafe and a beef hotpot restaurant.)
Click one of the soups below to read more about it:
- Mì Hoành Thánh (wonton noodle soup)
- Bánh Mì Bò Kho (beef stew & baguette)
- Hủ Tiếu Mì Xương (pork noodle soup)
Mì Hoành Thánh (wonton noodle soup): In keeping with the owner’s ethnic roots, this is a Chinese dish, which most people will be familiar with from Chinese restaurants back in their home countries. Mì hoành thánh is deliciously fresh, chewy, al dente egg noodles in a light and salty broth with a generous supply of large dumplings and slices of marinated pork. Little extras, such as crunchy roast pork fat croutons and bits of minced pork, make all the difference. What I particularly like about this dish here, is that you get a combination of two types of mì noodles in your bowl: flat ones, and round ones – just ask for hai vắt. Although the tray of herbs isn’t really meant for this dish, a few lettuce leaves in the broth works nicely. As with many Chinese (and northern Vietnamese) dishes, it’s all about the interplay of salty, sour, and spicy: add a squeeze of lime, a slice of chilli, and a dash of vinegar and soy sauce to the mix to enhance this taste spectrum. It’s a very clean-tasting noodle soup.
Bánh Mì Bò Kho (beef stew & baguette): Interesting to compare this with the same dish at Cô Ba Lài, the bánh mì bò kho at Hưng Ký is slightly sweeter and tangier (thanks to large quantities of lemongrass in the stew), and the bread is crustier and crumblier. The beef is good and tender, although perhaps the cuts are not the choicest. Overall, it’s zestier, heavier, and stronger than at Cô Ba Lài. But I certainly wouldn’t want to choose between them – they’re both excellent versions of bò kho. And, as always, this dish is easy on the eyes.
Hủ Tiếu Mì Xương (pork noodle soup): There’s a lot going on in this bowl: two types of noodles – mì egg noodles and hủ tiếu rice vermicelli noodles – in a clear pork broth with bean sprouts, chives, crispy roast pork fat, minced pork meat, and a large hunk of pork on the bone. Add a healthy handful of fresh herbs and leaves, a slice of chilli and a good squeeze of lime, stir it all together and you’ve got a fresh, crisp, clean and meaty concoction of flavours and textures. Don’t be scared of the big lump of bone in the middle of the bowl: pick it up and gnaw away, because the meat is soft and tasty. It’s a very generous portion, so this is the soup to order if you’re feeling particularly hungry.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: all my content is free and all my reviews are independent. I’ve written this review because I want to: I like these soup houses and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here