As we put together our list of the top restaurants in this country’s two major cities — Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — we decided to keep it simple.
With over 60 judges replying to our questions, we asked them what places in their opinion they thought were the ‘best’. By soliciting a response to such a broad question, it meant that their answers would be based on the whole package — service, décor, cuisine, ambience — rather than judging these facets of restaurants as separate components. This was what we were looking for.
As the votes came in, with a few notable exceptions it became clear that our judges went for international restaurants as opposed to Vietnamese, and restaurants serving up a la carte fare as opposed to those known for their buffets. Except for Square One in Ho Chi Minh City and JW Marriot in Hanoi’s two restaurants — Crystal Jade and French Grill — the hotel restaurants, often known for their buffets, struggled to get votes.
Likewise, except for El Gaucho, which managed to finish in the Top 10 for both cities, the chain restaurants found it difficult to get attention. Yet restaurant collaboratives such as the Au Parc / Refinery / Blanchy’s Street group in Ho Chi Minh City, focusing on one-of-a-kind eateries, got the judges’ blessing.
So here’s the lowdown on the best places to eat in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
In the past few years, Ho Chi Minh City’s Pizza 4Ps has achieved something of a cult status. Set down an alleyway off Le Thanh Ton on the other side of the Expat Ghetto, this Japanese-run, homemade-mozzarella joint has long tickled the fancy of its customers. From our judges’ votes, it was very much the number one restaurant in Saigon. In fact, it was the runaway number one, getting 40 percent more votes than the nearest contenders, El Gaucho and The Deck. A bit of an anomaly, really. Who ever heard of a pizza restaurant being the best restaurant in a city of over 10 million?
That El Gaucho ran in equal second with The Deck tells you how well this Argentinean-themed restaurant with its taste-like-home steaks, themed décor and international ambience has managed to set itself up in Saigon. With three restaurants already opening their doors to grill-loving customers, so popular is its Bangkok outlet that you have to book in advance to get a table.
The Deck, too, has managed to carve itself out a niche, one that is not just due to its riverside, District 2 location. Elegant and romantic, and serving up great cocktails to go with its contemporary pan-Asian fusion menu, together with two other Top 10 restaurants in the same area of Saigon — Lubu and Trois Gourmands — it provides quality cuisine outside the city centre.
Of the newcomers, Racha Room’s entry into the Top 10 is perhaps the most surprising. Serving up ‘Thai-accented, Pan-Asian cuisine’, this restobar set within the confines of a colonial-era building on Mac Thi Buoi is finding success in a location where past restaurants have failed.
When Dani Himi, the brains behind El Gaucho, was opening his first restaurant in Hanoi, he researched the dining scene in the capital. His opinion was that Da Paolo was the best restaurant in Hanoi. It’s an opinion that was shared by our judges, with the Italian eatery getting the most votes.
That El Gaucho came in at a close number two was perhaps no surprise. And other well-known favourites such as Don’s Tay Ho, Foodshop 45, Jackson’s Steakhouse, Moose & Roo and Namaste making the Top 10 was expected. What was perhaps less expected was the entry of Cousins — a French-inspired eatery only opened in the summer. Likewise, the fact that Pots ‘n Pans was one of only two Vietnamese eateries making the Top 10 in either city suggests that the concept of mid to top-end Vietnamese fare in an international setting is still in its infancy.
Also interesting was the lack of classic French restaurants among your favourites, with only La Badiane hitting the spot. The contemporary yet traditional eatery came third in the rankings.
A number of other restaurants came close to the Top 10 including 1946, Angelina, Highway 4, Cau Go, Quan An Ngon and interestingly, both the restaurants in the JW Marriott — French Grill and Crystal Jade. Like Cousins, they are new to the dining scene in the capital. And despite location — the JW Marriott is in My Dinh in West Hanoi — they are already getting a reputation.