I just returned to HK from a few weeks working in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). I go there several times a year, and here's where I usually eat. All are in or near District 1.
I don't look for the cheapest, most 'authentic' meals - I just look for food that tastes good, and I enjoy a good pizza as much as a good spring roll. Saigon is good value, so even a meal in a tablecloth restaurant is not going to break the bank. Vietnam Dong (VND)15,000 = US$1. Everywhere takes US$ small notes. I stay at the Caravelle Hotel, but the new Sheraton is nicer.
If you want street food, a good place to start is the Bin Tanh market. There's a food area indoors at the back and there are several stalls selling a variety of dishes, nothing more than about VND10000. This is also a good place to buy ingredients. If you saw or read Bourdain's 'A Cooks Tour', this is one of the places he was at.
My first stop on the way into town from the airport is always Pho Hoa Pasteur, 260 Pasteur. Just pho, nothing else. This place is a step up from street stalls, but still not air-con. Upstairs is a little nicer than downstairs. I really like their soup, and judging by how packed it gets at lunch, so do a lot of other people. No menu needed, just say 'beef' or 'chicken' - those are the only 2 variables. Open 6am - midnight.
I usually avoid the upscale Vietnamese restaurants on and around Dong Khoi. Expensive and touristy, and the food doesn't match the prices. I had an especially lousy meal at the well-known 'Lemongrass' this trip. But this place was good:
Kinh Bac, 30 Dong Khoi tel 829 1364. Air con (in places), English menu, and very good food.
Even better was:
Quan An Ngon, 138 Ky Khoi Nga, tel 825 7179, opposite the Reunification Palace. It's a semi-outdoor place, apps about VND 3000, mains VND 15,000 (yes, that's 30 cents to a buck!). The have food stalls set up so you can point at what looks good.
Saigon also has plenty of good options in other cuisines. All below are air-con.
Good Japanese in Saigon? Yup. Go to:
Ohan, 71 Pasteur (behind Rex Hotel), 824 4896. Avoid the confusingly similar place two doors right! Lunch sets around US$5-6. English menu w/photos. I like the Katsu Don set for lunch, but everything is good. Chef Tatsuhiko is a character.
For French, here are two bistro-type places I recommend:
Bibi, 8A Thai Van Lung, tel 829 5783
Augustin, 10 Nguyen Thiep, tel 829 2941
Bibi is the more authentic, menu in French only, rude French owner, mostly French expat customers. I like their goat cheese salad and confit duck. Usually has a cous cous special on Thursday. Don't order andouillette unless you know what it is....
Augustin has a much wider menu, and more mixed clientele. Good chicken dishes and soups. My friend likes the beef tongue. Apps around VND50,000, mains 60,000 (chicken) - 250,000 (if you go for imported beef).
If you want an upscale western meal, try Asian Reflections, the 'fusion' restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel. Hotel prices, but someone in the kitchen knows what they are doing.
For good value western food, the best bet by far is the Underground Bar, basement 69 Dong Khoi, 829 9079. If you've been on the road too long and it's time for a good burger or pizza or fajita, this place serves better food than the local 5 star hotels, at reasonable prices. They also do a good job on some fancier things like lamb shanks on cous cous, or steaks. For a bar, the food coming out of the kitchen here is pretty amazing. This is my favorite western restaurant in Saigon.
Other western places I've tried, and wasn't excited about:
Gartenstadt - OK German food, nothing special.
Amigo - OK steaks, same owner as above.
Number 5 - expat bar, stick to the beer.
Mogambo - I don't even know how to describe the place. Weird.
Santa Lucia - some locals say this is a good Italian restaurant. It's not. Underground Bar has better pizza.
Annie's Pizza - ditto.
Camargue - Famous and expensive. Nice atmosphere. The food is good, but basically boring. This is the usual place the take expense account clients, but if they really like to eat, I'd suggest Asian Reflections instead.
Qucina - new, upscale Italian underneath the Opera House, tel 824 6325 Same owners as the Q Bar next door. Nothing exciting coming from the kitchen yet, despite a real Italian chef. Lots of beautiful people. Better to eat elsewhere and just go to their excellent bar - one of the best selections of booze in Asia, although at prices much higher than anywhere else outside the hotels. Cocktails about VND7500.
Now for some severe culture shock - I'm off to Salt Lake City this week! I'll post a report on the Southwest board when I get back to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Dave