First published May 2022 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
As well as the city’s large markets, every Saigon neighbourhood has its own, small-scale, fresh produce, local market. Living, as I do, in Ward 25 of Bình Thạnh District, my local market is Văn Thánh. Sprawling along narrow lanes over several blocks beneath the shadow of Pearl Plaza, Văn Thánh is pleasantly bustling and intimate. It has a local feel, frequented by people from the surrounding neighbourhood, but also, at lunch times, by hundreds of office workers from nearby high-rises and labourers from large construction sites. I’ve lived near Văn Thánh Market for years: everyday I stroll through it – waving ‘hello’ and stopping for brief exchanges with familiar vendors – before picking a place to eat. On the sidewalks, there are dozens of good, honest, inexpensive noodle vendors, cafes and juice stalls. Simply to walk, sit, eat and drink at the market is a fulfilling (and filling) experience. This is Saigon’s greatest asset – it’s main attraction; the very essence of the city; what gives Saigon its ‘Saigon-ness’: local food, local life, street life, informal al fresco dining, in-person human interaction and the joy of seeing it, feeling it, tasting it, being part of it. This is something that will never be recreated in a supermarket or a mall.
EATING IN VĂN THÁNH MARKET SAIGON
Local Food at a Local Market
On this page, I’ve suggested a handful of places to eat at Văn Thánh Market. I’ve plotted them on my map, written a brief description and illustrated them with a couple of photos. My recommendations only scratch the surface: stroll through the market area during mealtimes and you’ll find many more. The best times to visit are 6.00-9.00am (breakfast) and 11.00am-1.00pm (lunch). The dishes sold and pervading aromas change with the time of day: star anise from breakfast phở transitions to lemongrass-marinated barbecued pork from cơm tấm at lunch. It’s much better to walk, not ride. On foot you’ll get a deeper connection to the local neighbourhood and you’ll spot things – places to eat, drink, interesting architectural features – that you wouldn’t on a bike. My advice is either to ride here and park your bike beneath Pearl Plaza, or take a ride-hailing service (such as Grab), then continue on foot through the market.
Bún Thịt Nướng (grilled pork noodles)
Bánh Đa Cua (flat noodles with crab)
Phở & Bún Mọc (beef & pork noodle soup)
Mì Hoành Thánh (wonton noodles)
The ‘Other’ Lunch Lady (assorted soups)
Quán Chay Phong Danh (vegetarian)
Văn Thánh Market Food Guide, Bình Thạnh District, Saigon
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Bún Thịt Nướng:
At a busy junction of alleyways toward the south zone of the market area, Út is primarily a fruit juice (nước ép) and smoothie (sinh tố) stall. However, in the mornings between about 8.00-10.00am, Út also serves a great bowl of bún thịt nướng (marinated grilled pork over cold rice noodles with fresh herbs, peanuts, crunchy chả rolls and a spicy-sweet dipping sauce.) The pork is grilled on the streetside, scenting the alley with lemongrass and chilli. Like many Vietnamese noodle dishes, bún thịt nướng is beautiful to look at and perfectly balanced in flavour and texture. As there’s no hot broth poured over the noodles, this cold breakfast is fresh, clean and light – ideal for a hot and humid Saigon morning. I like to come here with a take-out cup of coffee and an orange juice for breakfast. This is also a good place to people watch and observe the market in operation.
Bánh Đa Cua:
A northern dish from the port city of Hải Phòng, bánh đa cua is a fishy, meaty, chunky, filling soup characterized by its special flat, brown rice noodles. There are a couple of places to eat bánh đa cua at Văn Thánh Market, but this one is my favourite. The bowl is large and full of bits and pieces: crab meat, fish fillets, fish balls, shrimp, beef rolled in betel leaf and a mountain of noodles. The broth is light and fragrant with dill, a typically northern flavour. The vendor hails from Hải Phòng and can be a bit grumpy and hard with her customers, but hey, that’s (often, not always) the northern way.
Phở & Bún Mọc:
Down an agreeable alleyway, where things are a bit quieter (and narrower), Thiện Nga is a small noodle house serving a good, meaty bowl of phở and bún mọc. For the former, I’d recommend ordering a bowl with everything (đầy đủ or thập cẩm) which comes piled high with different cuts of good quality beef. Temper all this rich, heavy meatiness with a generous sprinkling of fresh herbs – water mint, sweet basil, rice paddy herb, sawtooth coriander – and a good squeeze of lime. Also on the menu is bún mọc, a very likeable but underappreciated pork and mushroom-based broth with rice noodles and loads of pork in various forms. Thiện Nga is a small, family-run business occupying the front patio of their house: there’s only room for four low plastic tables.
Mì Hoành Thánh:
This Chinese egg noodle soup with pork-filled dumplings is quite popular all over Saigon, but what makes mì hoành thánh at Phúc Hậu (on the edge of Văn Thánh Market) special is that they make their own noodles on the premises. The noodles are thick, chewy, dense and delicious. You can have your noodles dry (khô) or with broth (nước). Their signature dish is mì vịt tiềm, a rich duck noodle soup with a medicinal, herbal broth. Unfortunately, Phúc Hậu is right on busy Nguyễn Văn Thương street (formerly D1 street), rather than on a quiet alleyway. The ceiling is very low, so watch your head.
The ‘Other’ Lunch Lady:
At the southeastern corner of the market area, Ms. Nga has a small property from which she serves a different noodle dish each day of the week. I think of Ms. Nga as Saigon’s ‘other’ lunch lady, because most people are familiar with the name and concept from Ms. Thanh – the lunch lady of Anthony Bourdain fame. Ms. Nga does not enjoy the international reputation of Ms. Thanh, but nonetheless her noodle soups are good and the atmosphere is very local. Her rotating menu changes regularly, so you never really know what’s going to be served on the day you go there. I’ve written a guide to the ‘other’ lunch lady on this page.
Quán Chay Phong Danh:
Tucked away in the hẻms (alleys) of the market, Quán Chay Phong Danh is a quiet vegetarian eatery serving breakfast and lunch. The food is cheap (vegetarian street food always is) and there’s a variety of noodle soups and rice dishes to choose from. The quality is fine, although there’s a lot of ‘fake’ meat involved, rather than vegetables, which is a shame. I like the atmosphere here: quiet, slow, local, friendly.
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*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this market and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page