Saigon’s largest food court is hidden in plain sight

Many stalls in Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market unobtrusively serve several must-try Vietnamese dishes.

The Ben Thanh Market is unfailingly on every visitor’s check list of must-go places when they get to Saigon.

Considered the heart of the city, most tourist maps will measure distances to an establishment or location by how far it is from the Ben Thanh Market.

But this iconic Saigon landmark is known primarily has a traditional market where all kinds of consumer goods – clothes, bags, shoes, handicraft items and so on – are sold.

It is actually a food court, too.

There are many food stalls in this market, and joining locals in trying out one or two or more traditional Vietnamese dishes is an activity that will make your Saigon visit even more special.

The Banh Beo Hue stall in Ben Thanh market is very popular among the locals

You can try starting out with something light, like banh beo, which is one of several steamed rice cakes made in Vietnam. Banh Beo Hue, a small stall near the western entrance, is a favorite of many locals.

Or you can try a combination dish, with banh beo, banh bot loc (steamed tapioca cake with shrimp) and banh it tran (sticky rice dumpling).

These dishes usually come with dry shrimp paste, small pieces of fried bread and a piece of Vietnamese pork sausage, eaten with fish sauce. The rice cakes are chewy and go well with the crunchy fried bread and pork sausage. The fish sauce with chopped chillies adds the right amount of spice and saltiness.

The banh beo here are small but thick. They are served with dry shrimp paste, small pieces of fried bread, some herbs and a pork sausage

The price for the authentic tasting combo dish is just VND20,000 (around $1). Since this is a popular stall, it gets really busy during lunch time. In any case, get to the stall by 3:00 p.m. before they run out.

If you’re in the mood for some soup that’s not pho, try bun mam, a noodles soup with a fermentation base. Bun mam is a southern Vietnamese dish that is packed with flavors - pungent, sweet and a bit sour. The pungency comes from the mam, a potent fermented fish/shrimp paste. It gives the broth a taste different from other similar dishes in Vietnam.

A bowl of bun mam gives you plenty of protein, with whole shrimp, fish fillets, squid, slices of pork belly, and eggplants. It is usually served with some greens, like purple stems of water lilies, yellow-white curls of banana blossoms, bean shoots and some other leaves.

A bowl of bun mam and its sides.

However, if this pungency is not your thing, the usual pho or rice dishes are equally delicious. Most of the food stalls display their wares in glass cabinets. Pick and choose what you like. Often, you can see your dish prepared right in front of your eyes.

Most of the traditional Vietnamese dishes are served in Ben Thanh Market.

Finally, when it’s time for desserts, you can stop at the Be Che stall for some sweets. Vietnamese, especially in the south, love their sweets and this stall has been running for more than 40 years.

The stall greets its customers with a colorful display of many different types of che (sweet soup). They are not only eye-catching but also taste great. Some are light and cool you down when the weather is hot, and others seem to focus on satisfying your sweet tooth. Each che has its own unique taste and texture.

You can reach this stall through the west side of Ben Thanh market. It remains open from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. It’s usually busy around 2:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m. Prices range from VND15,000-25,000 (around $0.64-1.07)

Vietnam has a myriad of desserts, and many of them are available at the Ben Thanh Market.

One last tip on how to find the best stall to patronize: follow the locals. Go to where they are going.

Linh Nguyen

By Linh Nguyen