Experiencing Vietnam through food

Wonderful souffle at La Villa, which was included in Vietnam’s first Michelin Guide last year. — Photos: ABBI KANTHASAMY

Venturing deeper into the heart and soul of Saigon, one encounters a city that pulsates with the energy of a thousand stories, each one a thread in the rich tapestry of Vietnam’s history. This is a place where the echoes of the past are not mere whispers but vibrant, living presences that shape the city’s present and future.

The roots of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, stretch deep into the annals of history, back to a time when it was a mere collection of fishing villages, known collectively as Prey Nokor. Its transformation began in earnest in the 17th century when Vietnamese settlers, pushing southward in a movement known as “Nam Tien”, began to inhabit the area.

However, it was the arrival of the French in the 19th century that truly marked the beginning of a new era for Saigon, turning it into the pearl of their Indo-Chinese empire.

The French influence on Saigon is undeniable, woven into the fabric of the city’s architecture, language, and, most indelibly, its cuisine. The colonial period introduced a plethora of ingredients and culinary techniques that would forever alter the Vietnamese palate. Baguettes, paté, and coffee became staples, merging seamlessly with the local flavours to create dishes that are quintessentially Vietnamese yet bear the unmistakable touch of French sophistication.

Yet, Saigon’s culinary heritage is not just a tale of colonial influence. It is also a story of resilience and innovation, a testament to the city’s ability to absorb foreign elements and make them its own. This is evident in the evolution of its street food scene, a vibrant and dynamic expression of the city’s spirit.

From the humble beginnings of roadside stalls to the bustling night markets that now define the urban landscape, Saigon’s street food is a celebration of creativity and adaptation.

The Vietnam War, or the American War as it’s known locally, brought profound changes to Saigon, shaping not only its political landscape but also its cultural and culinary identity. The influx of American soldiers introduced new ingredients and dishes to the city, further diversifying its culinary repertoire.

However, it was the resilience of the Vietnamese people during and after the war that truly defined Saigon’s food scene, as they rebuilt their lives and their city, one dish at a time.

In the years that followed, Saigon continued to evolve, embracing globalisation while fiercely guarding its heritage. This delicate balance is reflected in its culinary scene, where traditional dishes like bun cha and ca phe sua da coexist with international cuisines and modern culinary innovations.

Pho Hoa Pasteur has a Michelin Bib Gourmand rating.Pho Hoa Pasteur has a Michelin Bib Gourmand rating.

As one navigates through the maze of Saigon’s streets, it becomes clear that the city is not just a place but a living history book, each chapter flavoured with its own unique spices. The story of Pho Hoa Pasteur is not merely about a bowl of pho, it’s about the generations of Vietnamese who have gathered around its tables, sharing stories and dreams over steaming broth.

The tale of the Satay House in Thuan An is not just about the fusion of flavours but about the courage to bridge worlds, to create a space where cultures can meet and meld.

Nhau Nhau’s inventive cocktails are more than just drinks – they’re a bold declaration of Saigon’s place in the modern world, a city that respects its traditions but is not afraid to experiment, to push boundaries. Anan and La Villa represent the pinnacle of this culinary evolution, blending the best of Vietnam’s past and present to create dining experiences that are as memorable as they are delicious.

A banh mi at Anan, a one Michelin-starred restaurant.A banh mi at Anan, a one Michelin-starred restaurant.

The Bánh Mì Kep Tht Kebab, a humble yet revolutionary offering, stands as a symbol of Saigon’s unyielding spirit, a reminder that even the simplest dishes can tell the most compelling stories when infused with creativity and passion.

Saigon’s journey from Prey Nokor to the bustling metropolis it is today is a saga of transformation and resilience, a city that has seen empires rise and fall, survived wars and upheavals, and yet has emerged stronger, more vibrant, and more diverse. It is a city that wears its history proudly, not as a burden but as a source of strength and inspiration.

Anan is owned by local chef Peter Cuong Franklin, who worked abroad extensively before returning to his home country.Anan is owned by local chef Peter Cuong Franklin, who worked abroad extensively before returning to his home country.

In the end, Saigon is not just a city, it’s an experience, a mosaic of human endeavour, and a celebration of the indomitable Vietnamese spirit. It’s a place where every street, every dish, and every face tells a story of survival, adaptation, and triumph.

And as one leaves Saigon, it becomes clear that what one has experienced is not just the flavours of its cuisine but the very essence of Vietnam itself – a land of beauty, complexity, and an enduring zest for life.The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. Abbi Kanthasamy blends his expertise as an entrepreneur with his passion for photography and travel.

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Saigon , Vietnam , Culinary , Food , Ho Chi Minh City , History


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