What’s for lunch? The telling portraits of Saigon meals

The residents of Ho Chi Minh City let VnExpress take pictures of their plates, bowls or lunchboxes. And here are the results.

As the old saying goes, you are what you eat.

To better understand Saigon and its stories, we hit the streets and tried to take a peek at the midday meals of the city’s residents – from all walks of life and income brackets.

In a way, unpacking these meals is dissecting the layers of the onion that is Ho Chi Minh City. We think we know it, but we really don’t.

But first, some quick facts about lunch in Saigon.

Usually lunchtime starts at around 11 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. Early birds are mostly those who want to avoid the crowds or try not to miss their siesta.

Lunch is important, but for many Saigon residents, not the most important meal. They would argue that the title either belongs to breakfast, which often means a full meal with a big bowl of pho or a full plate of broken rice, or to dinner, the family gathering that traditionally has three or even four courses.

Lunch is that quick meal that you need. It has to be convenient, tasty, protein-heavy and, above all, affordable.

Dining on a dime

“My granddaughter and I came to this 2,000-dong-a-plate charity restaurant for lunch. It tastes great and the place is clean. We are a family of seven from Ca Mau, living in the city for almost 10 years on my construction worker’s salary.”

Tran An, worker

Nu Cuoi Restaurant in District 7 opens on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A meal, supported by donations, costs just 9 U.S. cents.

Dining on a dollar

Duy Tam, junior college student in District 1, paid VND20,000 for this fried rice box from a street-side food stall.

Dining on a budget

Phan Ngoc Duong, a reporter from a print newspaper said he is too busy with his work to go home for lunch. “My budget for the meal is around VND35,000 per day.”

Home meal

Duong Quoc Huan, an engineer in District 1, prepares his own lunch box.

“I can make whatever I want to eat. I’m from the north and have not yet adapted to the southern tastes. These are all my favorites,” Huan said, pointing at his braised chicken with ginger and water spinach boiled with sau, a sour fruit that is popular in Hanoi.


 “My colleagues and I chip in to cook our meals at home. They are cheap and delicious.”

Nguyen Thi Bich, a construction worker who is building the city’s first metro line

Some wine please!

“We drink with each other once or twice every week. We can talk for hours about our jobs and lives. I take him as my own brother. Sometimes friends you meet on the street can be closer to you than your family.”

Hieu, a xe om motorbike driver and Tan, a bus ticket seller, with their VND100,000 lunch with rice wine stored in a 7UP bottle in Thu Thiem Park, District 2

Sidewalk break

Long, a delivery man sits on the sidewalk between shifts to enjoy his lunch box taken from home.

In a café

Tran Van Linh, a young engineer has just discovered this alley café that also serves lunch sets. “I only eat out for lunch, and always have breakfast and dinner with my wife at home.”

More like no lunch

Nguyen Van Tai, a lottery ticket seller has his lunch, a loaf of plain baguette in his wheelchair.

A lunch skipper

“I am too busy for lunch,” said a vegetables seller in Hoang Hoa Tham Market, Tan Binh District. “If my stomach really growls, I’ll have a snack or a bowl of instant noodle.”

A feast

A businessman invites his client for a meal in an upscale restaurant in District 2.

Going home for lunch

Thao, a college student in Tan Binh District goes home and cooks lunch herself. “This helps me save money.”

Family first

“Some women here including myself work with their husband or relatives. Each group sitting here is actually a family,” said Huynh Thi Tim, a construction worker in District 1.

Two-minute meal

“It’s the end of the month and it’s not payday yet. So this instant noodle bowl is my lunch,” said Hung, a security guard for a café in District 3.

Thanh Nguyen, Quynh Tran, Nhung Nguyen

By Thanh Nguyen, Quynh Tran