BUBU Food Blogger Uyen Dang’s Guide To Saigon’s Dakao Ward

“Bánh tráng nướng cooked on a roadside grill. Modern Vietnamese pop-up restaurants. Japan town’s ramen. Fine dining spots with hints of Asian and other global flavors. A cup of morning cold brew, or a cocktail in a rocking bar,” food blogger Uyen Dang, mainly known as BUBU, begins about her passion for Saigon’s food and drink scene.

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

Naturally, BUBU knows a lot about the Dakao neighborhood of Saigon’s District 1. That’s also where you’ll find Wink #1, Wink Hotel Saigon Centre. So, we asked the fascinating foodie where to eat and drink in Saigon and Dakao (and a few other important questions while we had her full attention).

Vietnam’s food scene is an endless source of information and exploration. Check all the food focused Instagram accounts for evidence. Uyen Dang was one of the first to impact the scene with her BUBU Food Show. Two years on from launch, she’s attracted 59 thousand followers here and abroad who’ve fallen in love with her passion for food. Today, you’ll see her at openings and events almost daily. She’s so active, you might think this was her full-time profession. In fact, it’s just a side gig. Uyen Dang works in banking by day, and is out eating drinking and talking about it in the evenings and weekends.

“Maybe it’s all thanks to my mom,” she smiles innocently. “And the cooking lessons she gave me as a child…” She absorbed the idea of a pure, home-cooked kind of Vietnamese cuisine. But much more. “I think my mother taught me that the kitchen is a place that stokes the fire of love. Later when I was growing up, no matter how busy I was, I spent time rolling up my sleeves in the kitchen to cook for myself and my loved ones.”

And so, two years ago, her best friend visited from Sweden. Proud of the food scene, Uyen Dang developed a special itinerary for him, “everything from breakfast, lunch, dinner, to all the snacks and treats in-between.” She took lots of photos. And the friend, who was so impressed with her in-depth knowledge, encouraged her to start blogging. So she did.

From those impromptu beginnings, an obsession for blogging emerged. And it’s taken Uyen Dang and her BUBU Food Show across the country. She’s met famous Vietnamese and international chefs who have helped her contemplations about the diversity and richness of Vietnamese culture and cuisine. She might even start her own food tour soon. So stay tuned.

Uyen Dang, BUBU Food Show blogger, getting down to business in Saigon District 1’s last wet market.

A food tour for your Swedish friend inspired BUBU food show. Can you give us an updated version of that tour?

We’d start out early. That way we can watch the traffic build to its morning crescendo over a coffee. Probably near Notre Dame Cathedral. There’s a Katinat Kafe at 59B Nguyen Du. But lots of other options.

Then it has to be a fast, compact, light breakfast…one you can eat on the go. Bánh Mì Bảy Hổ is one of the oldest bánh mì stores in town. I think it’s over 80 years old! It’s my go-to breakfast spot. Their bánh mì is loaded with meat, pork and pate, butter and pickles. Oh, and it’s less than one dollar!

After breakfast, we go to visit Ben Thanh Market, which, despite its touristy vibe, contains lots of Vietnamese and Saigonese culture. Inside the market, there are colorful stalls, from regional food specialties to clothes and shoes, and items that go from popular to high-end. All that market exploration would have my stomach rumbling. So the next stop is one of market’s stalls, the famous Bánh Bèo Huế shop. With a small budget, maybe 50K, two people can try all kinds of rice cake. For a foreign guest, it’s a full and authentic immersion into this type of traditional cuisine.

To retain the spirit of exploring the traditional side of Vietnamese cuisine, for dinner we’d go to Cục Gạch Quán in Dakao. It’s legendary for a reason. And it’s just about everyone I know’s go-to when they want to take guests for dinner. It’s nothing fussy. The style is kind of rural and homely. And the menu has dishes from north to south. You should probably let me do the ordering…

And which are your most favorite street foods spots in Saigon?

It has to be bánh tráng nướng, sometimes called “Vietnamese pizza”. The ingredients are loaded onto a circle of rice paper instead of a circle of pizza dough. Depending on the vendor, the toppings might include sausage, shredded chicken, cheese, chicken or quail eggs, scallions…

It’s delicious and cheap. I recommend Cô Mập – Bánh Tráng Nướng a few metres of Nguyen Hue walking street, or any of the stalls around Turtle Lake (and within walking distance of Wink Hotel Saigon Centre). It’s always a good tip to look for the busiest stall as there’s lots.

Uyen enjoying some noodles in Ton That Dam’s chợ cũ  (wet market).

You mentioned modern Vietnamese cuisine. Where’s your favorite place to go for that?

Anan Saigon is a Vietnamese restaurant where the dishes are cleverly modified by chef Peter Cuong Franklin. He emphasizes foreign ingredients and cooking techniques. That makes the dishes creative and unique while retaining the essence and richness of Vietnamese cuisine. I suggest you order the Wagyu bánh mi, where the upgraded beef really adds to the rich, savory flavor, or the bánh xèo tacos, an unbelievable marriage of taco shell with pure Vietnamese filling. The creativity there is endless.

Hanging out with one of her favorite chefs Peter Cuong Franklin.

How about favorite places to drink?

When I do drink, it’s often with food. For an informal nhậu spot, I go with friends to Ca 3 – 290 Le Hong Phong Street, District 5 .

Where do you go for your fix of foreign food in Saigon?

You know I go out a lot! So, this is a tough question. Anyway, here goes. Anh Tuk, one of a number of restaurants in the Refinery Courtyard, serves rich and satisfying Thai food. There’s not too many places doing that in Saigon, despite Thailand being so close. Order the grilled squid with lemongrass, or the chicken curry made in the Southern-Thai style, and the mussels in satay sauce.

Next, Quince Saigon. The menu is always changing with the seasons. And the service is exceptional. It’s award-winning and first choice for casual fine dining for me and many others. They deserve all the credit they get. The grilled beef marrow, spicy salmon taco…

Then I’d return to Asian cuisine, with a Japanese restaurant. Torimitsu is on Thai Van Lung. Try their chicken soba noodles. For higher end Japanese, I love the BBQ restaurant and people can try grilled wagyu at Yazawa Saigon – Japanese BBQ or for chic izakaya-style, Nomu.

But these days there’s no shortage of luxurious and sophisticated restaurants.
ROS Yacht Club – Dining & River Lounge has a prime location right on the river bank in downtown Saigon. That gives it a romantic vibe. The dishes are a culinary fusion of water, from the ingredients to the presentation are excellent. There I’d order scallop with truffle mushroom sauce, grilled tiger prawn with saffron sauce served with mashed potatoes and grilled Japanese scallop with mashed Truffle mushroom and cod roe. Plus it comes with rich cocktails like nowhere else.

Uyen Dang works in banking by day, but becomes BUBU after dark and at weekends.

Where is the best place for a date? And how about for a hangout with family or friends?

There are many romantic places to dine. Vigor Dining Club Saigon is a good new addition to the scene. Then there’s The Ox Not Only Ox, Stoker, The Deck. All really romantic. But I usually leave it up to my date to surprise me.

For family and friends Hoa Tuc, Mangetsu, and Hum Vegetarian. The common feature of these places is their atmospheric space, suitable for groups of people and an extremely relaxed “vibe”.

Where should we go for a good coffee, and a good place to meet colleagues or clients?

Well, I’m a coffee-addict. I have to have coffee every morning. It powers me up for the day. And I think the speciality coffee scene has really exploded lately. From Lacàphe, to The Workshop, to Vietnam Coffee Republic, the options are starting to feel endless.

My personal favorites are L’Usine and Café Marcel. You’ll often find me in one of those at the weekend. The tranquil Akoma Cafe & Fusion is a good place too if I want to get some work done.

What’s the most memorable meal you’ve indulged in so far?

It has to be this off-menu “coconut pizza” I tried. Why? On the pizza were coconut worms…still wriggling around. We were all scared to take a bite. But I took the plunge, and immediately wanted more!

They served me it at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Hanoi, Cugini. I remember it distinctly, two years ago…on April Fool’s Day. Maybe if you visit on April 1st 2021, you can try too!

Which country would you most like to take a foodie tour of?

It has to be Japan. It’s a beautiful and diverse country…and the food obviously fascinates me. Saigon has a big Japanese community with lots of great ramen, curry, udon, sushi, but I’d love to visit the source.

“In the future, I think innovations will continue, and Vietnamese cuisine – old and new – will draw more and more people to this beautiful country.”

What do you think have been the key culinary trends here in the last couple of years?

Fusion is nothing new and in fact it might be deemed a dirty word by some chefs. So, I’ll express it another way: in recent years dishes have started to take on lots of different influences, including flavors and techniques from different countries.

It’s built upon a strong tradition. Of course, Vietnam is famous for its traditional dishes such as bánh mì, phở, bún chả, and nem or spring rolls. They’ve been recognized and reported on by world organizations, culinary magazines and international TV channels. Not only are they diverse, but the flavors are remarkably harmonious and delicate. They also contain artistry and ingenuity in way they’ve been made. My foreign friends constantly tell me a simple bánh mì is the best breakfast they’ve had in their life.

The new generation of chefs have added to this. So, they take phở, add Wagyu beef and make the broth thicker and more rich – perhaps as more like a ramen broth than a phở broth. Or they take ốc and our love of snails back to its French origins. Or maybe a bánh xèo imagined as a Mexican taco. And on and on. While I still revere the classics, these iterations constantly let my taste buds travel (while letting my heart stay here in Vietnam).

In the future, I think innovations will continue, and Vietnamese cuisine – old and new – will draw more and more people to this beautiful country.

Where would you take us for a wild Friday night?

I’d take you to Commas. I can personally recommend its wild vibe. Perfect for a party to celebrate a birthday or special occasion, hip hop, bottles of champs, all that. Actually, HypeAsia have created two great venues in the same building. Below Commas is Bam Bam, a Bali-inspired bar-lounge, with sweetly seductive cocktails.

Tell us about a secret place in Saigon?

Like a lot of Saigon’s secrets, this one is hidden in an old apartment building. That means you can’t stumble across this place. You climb some stairs, look for the door, and there it is, Snuffbox cocktail bar. Once you enter, you’ll be immediately mesmerized by the vibe that includes an amazing menu, jovial bartenders, and often some live music.

What should I buy as a gift from Saigon?

If I want to bring a piece of Saigon home, I would advise tourists to buy two attractive gifts that are easy to transport and easy to enjoy. One is Bánh Pía Sầu Riêng. I usually get mine at Tan Hue Vien, District 5. The other gift is tea, coffee or a gift set from Phuc Long stores. They’re all over Saigon.

Hanging out with one of the characterful stall holders in Ton That Dam’s chợ cũ. 

Finally, which are your favorite places to eat around Wink Hotel Saigon Centre in Saigon’s hip District 1 Dakao Ward?

Wink Hotel Saigon Centre is located close to the heart of District 1, so there are many choices of restaurants around to enjoy. If I were a guest at this chic hotel, I would drop by Phở Quỳnh, Ốc Khánh, Bún Đậu Cô Khàn, Mì Khô Xá Xíu Cô Giang, Opus Saigon‘s Hoi An Sense…the list is too long! I’m going to be stop there!

Photos by Nghia Ngo and thanks to Anan Restaurant’s Peter Cuong Franklin for the food tour, and @fitlananh for the styling.

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